In addition to The Survivalists, which be published on January 10, 2023 by Soft Skull Press, Cauley is also a writer for The Great North, former staff writer for The Daily Show with Trevor Noah, and former contributing opinion writer for the New York Times. She has also written for Pod Save America on HBO, The Atlantic, Esquire, The New Yorker, Pitchfork, and Rolling Stone, among other publications. But you’re probably here because of her Twitter feed.
Laura Kendall of Second Flight Books in Lafayette, Indiana, served on the panel that selected Cauley’s book for Indies Introduce. Kendall said of the experience, “As I read The Survivalists, I felt like I was transported from a grounded reality into a world bordering on the absurd. On the surface, it’s a story about folks prepping for a doomsday and a skeptic who attempts to understand them; on a deeper level, it asks how well we really know ourselves. How many cracks would it take for our whole identity to crumble? I will be thinking about this strange but absorbing novel for a long time.”
Here, Cauley and Kendall discuss The Survivalists.
Laura Kendall: Your book really upends the stereotypes I had of survivalists being mostly white men. What brought about your interest in writing about survivalism? Was there a specific moment that led to your interest?
Kashana Cauley: I grew up in a gun and food-stockpiling household that swore we had extra supplies just in case something terrible happened, like a big weather event, since Wisconsin’s really into having the kind of weather that might wreck your week, or some other emergency that the cops weren’t interested in. Not that we could depend on the cops anyway, since we were Black. Right before I started writing the book, there were two news stories about gun stockpilers pretty close to where I lived in Brooklyn: one older guy who stored an enormous gun stash above a trendy ramen place, and a guy and girl in their twenties who were house sitting in the Village and filled the estate they were living in with guns. I got obsessed with those two news stories, because why the hell would people stockpile guns in the middle of Brooklyn, and then I started mentally diving into all the stated reasons my family had guns and food, because on some level the NYC stockpilers reminded me of my family and their fears, and started writing from there.
LK: You’ve been writing professionally for years in short-form, but this is your first novel. Did you have to make a lot of changes to your writing schedule, or how you thought about writing in switching to this longer form?
KC: I’ve written three other books that will never see the light of day, so I had a longform writing practice of just putting down a few hundred words per day on a larger project that interested me already. But I’d spent some time writing for television before starting this book, and my time in TV gave me a new respect for three act structure as an outlining tool. Yeah, it’s a basic template, but I find it easy to work with. So I outlined this book with that template and just kept going.
LK: Your main character Aretha is living in New York, but hails from Wisconsin, and she sometimes seems worried she’s an outsider because of it. You also grew up in Wisconsin before moving to bigger cities. Are there other parallels between you and Aretha we should know about?
KC: She’s a miserable lawyer, and I used to be a miserable lawyer, but I don’t know anyone who’s ever met a happy lawyer.
LK: In your book you have preppers, you have a coffee roaster, you have gun enthusiasts, and you have a lawyer as your main character. And I believed all of it, but those seem like things you’d need to research a lot to make believable. Did you do a lot of hands-on learning to help you write this book?
KC: So much of the gun stuff comes from a dead novel of mine about gun dealing that I researched for years, but it all worked better in this book.
For the prepper stuff I did do some research in addition to spotting those first two articles and sifting through family prepper memories.
The law stuff comes from my five years practicing antitrust law at a large law firm.
The coffee roasting stuff comes from the ten years I spent hunting down third wave coffee after accidentally coming across this sort of inside-baseball drink magazine called Imbibe in a coffee shop in the East Village. This was the late aughts, and I hated coffee until third wave showed up. I honestly thought it all tasted like a watered-down campfire. We were coming out of the hazelnut syrup Starbucks latte era, and I had some equally coffee fanatic friends, and we hung out and talked to coffee shop owners about blends, roasts, and sourcing for years.
A lot of my happy 2010ish memories involve going to this place Called Gimme Coffee, which only had a stand-up espresso bar, and looking deep into the eyes of the farmer in the framed picture on the side of the bar who was providing that months’ beans on top of his or her story of how they got into coffee before shooting the shit about notes in the cup with whoever was working behind the bar before downing a shot and taking the train to work.
A gang of us even went down to North Carolina to find the Counter Culture headquarters and asked so many questions that we were mistaken for coffee professionals instead of weirdo hardcore obsessives who visited coffee roasters on vacation. She gave us some burlap coffee sacks as a memento, and I kept them in my bedroom for two years, positive that I’d get around to framing them.
I love research for research’s sake, since I love finding out things I don’t know about subjects I know nothing about, but I also like writing from existing obsessions that I think I know my way around enough to produce something on, and the coffee stuff is more of an existing obsession that I’d accidentally researched over ten years of annoying dozens of people who worked in coffee, long, long before deciding to write this book.
LK: In reading The Survivalists, I felt like I was spiraling farther away from reality the further into the book I got. Was it difficult to write from Aretha’s perspective as she slowly changes throughout the book?
KC: No. In fact, it was a lot of fun following her down her rabbithole of paranoia and fear. I got to the point where I felt like I was living inside her head, and while I did try to logically figure out how to structure her arc, I also spent a lot of time channeling her like some sort of medium and letting her tell me what to do next. I would put on her music and open up the manuscript and picture all the neighborhoods she spends time in and just see what happened.
The Survivalists by Kashana Cauley (Soft Skull Press, 9781593767273, Hardcover Fiction, $27)
On Sale Date: 1/10/2023.
Find out more about the author at kashanacauley.com.
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