Rumaan Alam: ‘Our cultural response to a crisis was to go shopping’

Rumaan Alam was born in 1977 and raised in Washington DC. He is the author of three novels, the latest of which, Leave the World Behind, got rave reviews when it came out in hardback last year. The story of two families, one white, one black, thrust together in a Long Island holiday home amid apocalyptic events, it was described by the Observer as “simply breathtaking… as terrifying and prescient as Cormac McCarthy’s The Road”. Now out in paperback, it is being turned into a film by Sam Esmail (Mr Robot) starring Julia Roberts and Denzel Washington. Alam lives in Brooklyn with his husband, David Land, a photographer, and their two adopted sons.

A lot of reviewers called your book “prescient”, given that you wrote it before the pandemic. What’s your take on that?
I’d never even heard the word coronavirus prior to February 2020. On a very basic level, the book dramatises being trapped in at home and not having enough information – and it happened to be published into a reality in which many readers felt that they were trapped in their homes and didn’t have enough information. So it’s a strange resonance. I think it’s connected to other books that are talking about some of the same things – about the individual relationship to anxiety over the climate, the absurdity of the contemporary moment, our warped relationship to technology. People are thinking and talking about this stuff so it makes sense that there will be books about it.

Your characters are painfully aware of how ill-equipped they are to deal with societal collapse. How would you fare?
Not well at all. I can’t do anything. I can’t make a long drive without a GPS. I cook a lot but there are certain basic components of recipes that I constantly forget and have to look up. I’ve trained myself to become reliant on this ancillary brain that I carry around in my pocket, as we all have.

There’s a gulf between what your characters think and what they say out loud, particularly when it comes to racism – as we see in the scene where Amanda, who is white, reacts to the unexpected arrival at their holiday rental of its black owners, GH and Ruth. What was that like to write?
The register when the characters first meet is close to satire, and it allows you to go a little bigger and say these unpalatable things. At the same time, I hope there’s something recognisable there. A middle-class white person, in this country, has been trained her entire life, by every cultural product she has consumed, to be suspicious of blackness, particularly of black masculinity. Amanda’s fears, as she articulates them, aren’t actually totally unreasonable. Anyone who had a strange person come to their door late at night would probably think about their children sleeping down the hall. She’s wrong [about GH and Ruth], of course, but the reader is maybe unclear for two pages. My hope is that in those two pages, there’s a reader who has same response, and then is willing to think about that response. It takes work to undo this thinking. And the culture is significantly more powerful than any individual. So it’s hard to say how possible that change will be. I think we’re in a moment of reckoning with that.

You seem to really enjoy writing the material details of these people’s lives – the expensive organic food, the top-of-the-range interior decor. But as the situation goes downhill, these luxury goods become not just ridiculous but also kind of poignant. We buy these things imagining they’ll insulate us from the world, but when it comes to the crunch, they really don’t.
Yes, I think that’s absolutely right. Look, I’m a middle-class person living in New York City. The people I’m talking about are the person I am. The day lockdown began, what was the first thing we did? Aside from grocery shopping, everyone I know, myself included, went shopping for other things: a gym mat, a ring light for your Zoom, maybe a mixer because you’re going to experiment with making cakes, and on and on and on. It’s so telling that our cultural response to a moment of crisis was to go shopping, and make [Amazon boss] Jeff Bezos even richer than he already was.

What books are on your bedside table?
At the moment, I am reading Sabbath’s Theater by Philip Roth. It’s great – the language is so alive and wickedly funny. Last night, I finished Alexandra Kleeman’s Something New Under the Sun, which is coming out in August. It’s really funny and extremely unsettling.

What’s the last really great book you read?
Visitors by Anita Brookner. I’ve been resisting finishing her body of work, because I love it so much and don’t want to not have more ahead of me. I could not believe how good it was – consistent with her other novels, and yet different. She was an incredible writer. Hermione Lee is writing a biography of her and I am so excited about it.

Which fiction writers working today do you admire the most?
I think Lorrie Moore is one of our very great writers in this language. Louise Erdrich, who just won the Pulitzer prize, is an absolute genius. The writer who I would be most excited to get another novel from is Norman Rush, who is probably quite old at this point, and has a pretty slender body of work, but it’s my hope that his desk has six other novels inside of it that will come out some day.

What are you currently working on?
I’m writing a very long short story, and I’m working on a book. Soon it will be the summer holidays and I will no longer have to pretend to be an elementary school teacher, and I will be free to let my children run feral outside and devote some of my day to making progress on the book. That’s my plan.

Leave the World Behind by Rumaan Alam is out now in paperback (Bloomsbury, £8.99). To support the Guardian and Observer order your copy at guardianbookshop.com. Delivery charges may apply

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