The new West and the nature of apocalypse

A conversation with Alan Heathcock about his latest novel ‘40.’


Alan Heathcock rose to recognition with a collection of stories called Volt, gritty prose set in a gothic landscape West of the Mississippi, which won a National Magazine Award and garnered Heathcock a National Endowment for the Arts fellowship. His eagerly awaited follow-up is a novel called 40, which has already received national recognition. The distinctive lens through which the writer sees the high-country West focuses on great environmental upheaval. Land and sky are harmed by pollutants and human greed, and disasters are caused not only by nature but by despots and kings of subterfuge. Water has been contested and conquered, measured out now by militaristic force. In 40, Heathcock envisions a post-apocalyptic America filled with obfuscation, terror, bloodlust and rage. Underneath all the personal and collective devastation lurks a dominant culture that does not have your best interests in mind. But Heathcock tempers his indictment of the nation with an indictment of himself, or rather of humanity in general. Are any of us free of the conditions of ego? Are we capable of understanding the mystery of existence, or the nature of grace? 40 confronts the human condition with discernment, openly facing intimate and global evil, while at the same time acknowledging the enduring reality of gratitude, hope and courage. I had the opportunity to communicate with Alan by email, discussing his novel and the journey he took to create the “great love-dream” in the sisterhood that illumines 40.

This conversation has been edited for length and clarity.

Shann Ray: How did you go about shaping a world in which the human and the divine co-exist in all their tension, absolutism, beauty, mercy and grace?

Alan Heathcock: Our world is made of contradictions, and those contradictions live inside all of us despite most people trying their hardest to suggest otherwise. We profess faith, but privately have doubts. We long for kindness but offer up anger. We present bravery while being unable to act in any meaningful way. We are hopeful but compelled by concern. We live in a world that’s filled with the mysteries of unanswerable questions, whether those questions implicate the Divine or are grounded in human nature. The thing I’m least interested in is certainty. Certainty is far too often a presentation of the world without its contradictions intact. Certainty is to ignore the mysteries and to suggest there aren’t unanswerable questions. We live in a time in which people so badly want certainty, if only to give relief over that tension you suggest in your question. Please tell me I’m right, we say. Please give me something that will validate my belief. Ignore the complexities of politics and faith and science and art. Calm the fervor of my existential terror. But there’s a price to everything, and to ignore our contradictions and complexities merely flattens us all into caricatures of humanity. The greatest tragedy of our time is that we’ve become caricatures to those who are not like us, and them to us. We feel misunderstood, because we are misunderstood. Those misunderstandings are the tensions that cause suffering and lead to violence. Let the world be the world. We are all filled with strength and frailty, wisdom and confusion, confidence and insecurity, benevolence and hatreds, heaven and mud. My role as author is to recognize and capture the world in all its shades of human darkness and divine light.

Alan Heathcock reading in Boise, Idaho.

SR: “The wings swooped upward then thrust sharply down and my entire body lifted.” (page 4). The prose, the plot engine and the nature of human relations all come together in 40, producing a flight effect. Your main character, Mazzy, is a flying warrior angel, entranced by her relationship to wilderness and entangled in it, challenged to find identity, community and family when all seems lost. How does Mazzy’s fierce spirit work on the reader?

AH: The fundamental question in 40 is about belief — what people believe and why they believe it. Mazzy waking with wings makes her have to confront what she believes, and face how those beliefs will inform how she moves through the world, and how she’s seen and used, under the guise of an angel. What’s her identity? What’s her community? Does her identity and her community match her beliefs? In order to survive and protect those she loves, she must embrace an identity and a community that’s largely in conflict with her beliefs. As the novel progresses, she’s forced to accept or reject various identities and communities, and through this is ultimately delivered into revelation and authenticity. The most serious question someone can ask themselves, and the hardest question to parse, is to confront why they believe what they believe and how those beliefs affect the world around them.

The greatest tragedy of our time is that we’ve become caricatures to those who are not like us, and them to us.

SR: You do such a great job of capturing how the myriad of worlds within us collide. Can you talk about that collision in 40?

AH: What you’re so eloquently describing is the truth of being alive. Life is both beautiful and brutal, filled with grief and challenges and hardships that also deliver us into wisdom and a deep appreciation for moments of peace. We are constantly being pulled apart by life, but then put back together again (resurrected), if not stronger, then certainly wiser and more filled with gratitude for simple pleasures, like the caress of a loved one. When I was growing up in Chicago, life was often tough. My mom had a bedtime ritual, which I put into the novel, and which involved her asking three questions: Are you hungry? Are you warm? Do you know that I love you? As a kid, I always thought the ritual was kind of corny, and it meant very little to me. But as an adult, after being pulled apart and put back together so many times, with fission and fusion doing their tempering work to my mind and soul, the questions ring inside me like scripture to a monk. So simple but so profound, the questions act as proofs toward everything one needs to be fine in a world that consistently tells us we are not fine.

SR: How has being a father changed you as a writer? Even in the echo of natural loss in 40, I hear echoes of great love throughout the novel, in the manner of Mazzy and Ava Lynn from beginning to end. What does “We’re still here” mean in light of the immortal love not only envisioned in 40, but held dear by many through the years, such as Alcott, Browning and Tolstoy?

AH: Being a father is my greatest joy and responsibility. Not only does it mean that I’m living for something beyond myself, but I’m living for a time beyond my time. I’m not talking about my literary legacy. I’m talking about the world in which my daughter and maybe grandchildren (that’s down the road a bit) will have to live after I’m gone. Have I done everything I can to both prepare my daughter for the life ahead of her? Have I done everything I can to leave the world in place that’s worthy of my daughter and any others to follow? “We’re still here” means exactly that. We’re here now, in this world that we’ve made and are constantly remaking. The love that I hold for my daughter makes me bold in how I commit myself, and my words, toward the today that will become tomorrow. If all the world cared for each other in that “great love,” we’d truly have a world without suffering. Without my daughter, as with Mazzy without her sister, I’m not sure I’d dare to even dream that great-love dream, let alone allow it to set inspired purpose to my days. I’m grateful and blessed to be a father, and that love echoes throughout the novel because it is the very core of what I hope to say with Mazzy’s story.

Poet and prose writer Shann Ray teaches leadership and forgiveness studies at Gonzaga University and poetry at Stanford University. National Endowment for the Arts Fellow and winner of an American Book Award, through his research in forgiveness and genocide he has served as a visiting scholar in Africa, Asia, Europe and the Americas. We welcome reader letters. Email High Country News at [email protected] or submit a letter to the editor. See our letters to the editor policy.

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