Featuring an interview by S.H. Livernois, author of The Human Wilderness.
Would you categorize your novel, The Human Wilderness, as more character or plot driven, and was this a conscious choice on your part when you began writing the story?
I wanted it to be both plot and character driven. Before I started writing, I had a very specific goal in mind: I wanted to write a novel that was both a page-turner and connected emotionally with readers. I thought about all the books I’d read and TV series I’d watched that had haunted or moved me, and they all had the same thing in common: they didn’t just have fascinating plots, the characters were vivid and relatable.
In my opinion, stories that rely just on plot end up being dry and lifeless, and those that concentrate solely on character are indulgent and melodramatic. To educate myself, I read books on both plot and character arc, and one (the name of which I can’t remember) that taught writers how to combine both. I took the advice to heart.
Though to answer your question, since I consider character-driven novels to be in the literary genre — which I don’t enjoy — I’ll say my novel is more plot-driven. More than anything else, I wanted to write a good story.
What was the hardest part of writing this book?
Learning how to write a novel, because this is my first successful attempt. There were a couple very bad previous attempts (including an early, completely different version of The Human Wilderness that I wrote for NaNoWriMo in 2014). Since page one, I’ve considered this novel to be a lesson in novel-writing. I wrote each chapter well aware that I had no idea what I was doing and intending to take the advice of anyone I hired to help me along the way. This book has undergone two plot reviews (the poor author’s developmental edit) and two beta reads, and after each one I struggled to comprehend and incorporate some of the advice. Through this entire process, I’ve felt like a student and now that the novel is nearly complete, I feel like I’ve graduated. Which is cheesy, but it’s the truth.
Your protagonist, Eli, is a man driven by the agonizing memories of what he’s had to do in order to survive. I found his struggles to be incredibly moving. Would you say that the theme of this novel is redemption?
Yes, one of the themes is redemption, and by extension, the question of whether or not humanity should be saved at all. Maybe the apocalypse is humanity’s punishment for all of the horrible pain and cruelty we’ve inflicted on each other. Another character, Jane, states this feeling outright when asked by Eli if it bothers her that mankind seems to be going extinct: she asks, “What was ever so great about us?” It’s hard, after spending five minutes watching the news, not to feel this way.
Eli embodies the idea, however, that humanity is worth saving and that we should be forgiven for our collective sins. He is a good man, a truly good man, but he’s driven to commit evil acts by his own weakness, by people in his life, by difficult situations. He’s proof that everyone, under the right circumstances, has the capacity to do horrible things. But he’s also proof that even bad people have good inside them, and he believes that where there’s good, there’s hope.
Do you write by logic or intuition, or a combination of the two? Please summarize your writing process.
I’d say a combination of the two. I was a reporter for five years and after thousands of stories, it’s very hard for me not to be a logical writer. It’s just my nature — I’m a planner. I usually start intuitively, though.
I take an idea and start brainstorming where it could go by asking questions and letting my mind wander. The end result is a very basic structure for the story. Before I move on to serious plot development, I build my main character. I try to do this organically, without forcing any qualities that I need to fit the story. When she’s fully developed, I put her in the situation I’ve created. Then I try to develop the plot and the character arc together, since they’re so intimately tied. During this process, the intuitive side is doing the work; I let my imagination flow where it needs to, which is truly a miraculous process. I don’t know where ideas come from.
Once I’m satisfied, I move on to giving my mess of notes structure. I build an outline that’s detailed enough to guide me through the writing process, but not so detailed that there’s no room for change. It’s extensive enough that I consider the outline the novel’s first draft. Honestly, I don’t know how people write from the seat of their pants; they must have photographic memories. I have a very bad memory, so I need to know ahead of time where my story is going so that every chapter can build up to the end.
And then I write, filling in the details of my outline.
What inspires you?
Good stories, mostly movies and TV, and sometimes books (I’m very finicky). There’s nothing more inspiring for me than a truly satisfying and fascinating story. Right now, I’m obsessed with HBO’s Westworld, I love Game of Thrones (both the TV and book versions), and I just saw Fantastic Beasts and Where to Find Them (I’m a huge Harry Potter fan) and Arrival. I love being swept away by fiction and learning all of the many different ways to tell a story. And peeking into the imaginations of other people is fascinating and gets my own creative juices flowing. My list of favorite shows is as long as I am tall, and I’m always on the lookout for something new to watch and inspire me.
On the other side of the coin, I’m also inspired by truly crappy stories, because it helps me learn what not to do and think of ways to fix the problems. Walking Dead is a good example. I love the show, but it’s often a lesson on how not to write dialog, among other things. After an episode, I’ll often brainstorm with my husband how I could make a bad episode better.
How long have you been writing?
I think my first book was about a rooster and I wrote it in kindergarten. Writing has always been present in my life, mostly just as a skill. The only reason I passed my SATs was the English section of the test; I didn’t even fill out the Math part. But as a kid, I never thought about being a writer.
A month after I graduated college, I took a job as a reporter at the local paper (at my father’s encouragement) and worked there for five years. It didn’t pay well, so I moved on to a secretarial job in county government for three years, which sucked the life out of me. The lesson: I needed to be a writer. So at 30, I quit my comfortable job, and with the support of my husband and his family’s business, I started trying to make a living as a writer.
In the beginning, I thought a career writing fiction was an impossible pipe dream, something that shouldn’t even be attempted. So I delved instead into journalism again, writing articles and columns, and even considered copywriting. In my spare time, I dipped my toe in fiction and wrote a few short stories. Gradually, I realized I wanted to write a novel and tried it out by entering NaNoWriMo. In April 2015, I finally got a full-time writing job that let me work on my fiction more, and The Human Wilderness is the result. I no longer have that full-time writing job (since working alone at home didn’t really work out for me), but work at the family business as a manager, making pizzas and homemade pies. This allows me just as much time to write fiction, and I really couldn’t do what I do without it.
What writing projects are you currently working on?
I’m currently polishing The Human Wilderness and plan to publish in March 2017. It’s book one in a trilogy, so once the ink is dry, I’ll begin plotting book two. I’ll soon start brainstorming a short story called “Musclewood,” which will take place on a spooky island whose sandbar link to the mainland disappears with high tide, trapping a group of bickering female friends. After that, I want to finally write a novella that’s been stuck in my head for a couple years, called Miniature, whose main character is a mischievous and devilish little girl named Hyla and features witches and a haunted doll house.
As for bigger projects, I’ve had this idea for a series for at least a couple years that keeps rearing its head — which means I need to work on it. It’s a combination of Agatha Christie-style murder mystery with a dash of time travel and historical fiction, and a protagonist with origins in the 1800s.
Of course, I have so many more ideas. I wish I had Hermione Granger’s time turner so I could write them all!
S.H. Livernois lives in the sparsely populated stretch of New York between the Adirondack Mountains and Canadian border; the Livernois family has lived in this region since the Civil War. She makes her home in the tiny town of Moira, with her husband and beagle, Maggie.
With the exception of a three-year stint as a secretary, she’s spent most of her life writing. She worked as a reporter at the local paper for five years and has written professionally since 2013. When she’s not writing, she’s reading, hand-quilting, tearing her ATV through the woods, or watching far too much TV.