An Indies Introduce Q&A with Scott Alexander Howard

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Scott Alexander Howard is the author of The Other Valley, a Winter/Spring 2024 Indies Introduce adult fiction selection and March 2024 Indie Next List pick. 

Howard lives in Vancouver, British Columbia. He has a PhD in philosophy from the University of Toronto and was a postdoctoral fellow at Harvard, where his work focused on the relationship between memory, emotion, and literature. 

Melissa Sagendorph of Harvard Book Store in Cambridge, Massachusetts served on the panel that selected Howard's title for Indies Introduce.

“There are few wounds that cut as deeply as regret, and Scott Alexander Howard captures that pain and yearning beautifully," said Sagendorph. "Odile is poised to embrace a bright, promising future when she stumbles upon a grave secret, one that portends consequences she knows will be cataclysmic. Unable to act, Odile is then driven by grief to a series of bad decisions that reset the course of her life irrevocably. A delicate dance between fate, choice, and free will, The Other Valley presses us to reexamine our own lives, and push the boundaries of how much change can truly be possible in a world so unforgiving of mistakes.”

Here, Howard and Sagendorph discuss The Other Valley.

Melissa Sagendorph: The exploration of grief in The Other Valley is both moving and powerful. In previous statements, you’ve talked about how your own experiences with loss have influenced your writing. Can you talk a little bit about your inspiration for this book, and how those ideas evolved into this particular story?

Scott Alexander Howard: Thank you so much, Melissa — I’d be glad to. The premise of this book came to me in the days leading up to the death of a friend. We’d grown up in the same town and later moved to Toronto together. She was diagnosed with ovarian cancer and after years of treatment she had to move into hospice. I remember being on my laptop, trying to do what I could to help her sister organize final visits, when an image popped into my head: the same town repeating itself across the landscape, with each iteration separated from the others in time. In this world, the past and future were physical places and time travel was just geographical travel. If you were grieving, you could ask permission to hike to the past. You could stand at a distance and look at the person you’d lost, healthy and going about their day.

Looking back now, I think the idea was also primed by a dream my wife had after the sudden death of another friend the year before. It’s the sort of dream you have when you’re mourning: the dead person is alive again, but you’re simultaneously aware that they’ve died. Those dreams can be upsetting, but my wife woke up feeling immensely grateful to have seen our friend again. That reaction stuck with me. Now that the novel is coming out, I really wish I could share it with these friends. I imagine that one would be really enthusiastic, because she always was, and one would find something to tease me for, because she always did.

MS: Fate, choice, and regret are interwoven in many characters’ journeys in this book. After reading the novel, what lessons or questions should we consider about these forces in our own lives?

SAH: I’ve been amazed and humbled, pre-publication, by how many readers have written to say that they’re still thinking about the book after finishing it. Often the reflections they mention are about their own pivotal life choices — imagining who they might’ve been if they’d taken a different path. I identify with that, and so do many people I know. There are certainly major decisions in my life that I’m tempted to regret, and I transposed some of that unsettledness into various characters’ lives. But I also think those kinds of regrets are thorny, simply because the bigger a choice was, the greater the role it had in shaping the person now presuming to regret it. So is regret actually a sustainable stance to take?

That’s just one example, of course. The meaning of a novel is individual to each reader — it’s how a text interacts with your specific thoughts and feelings and memories — so I’d never want to be too prescriptive about the takeaways. I’ve been learning a lot from the readers about what the book means.

MS: Your background is in philosophy, memory, and emotion. How did your academic interests contribute to the story that you wanted to tell? Did your research play a large role in shaping the novel?

SAH: What drew me to study memory as a philosopher is one of the things that also drew me to this novel’s subject matter: a fascination with the passage of time that I’ve had since I was young. When it came time to choose my PhD dissertation topic, I carved out a niche where I could study fiction and poetry that dwells on transience, from Virginia Woolf to Charles Wright to Bashō. In the world of analytic philosophy it was considered eccentric.

Although the novel is less a continuation of my academic research and more a continuation of that pre-existing fascination, there are definitely a few specifically philosophical influences in The Other Valley. Thought experiments about personal identity come to mind. But more than anything else, I’d say my philosophical background has shaped some of the ideals I aspire to as a writer: to always be precise, and to always follow implications to the end.

MS: Stylistically, the deliberate, elevated prose in your writing pairs well with the scholarly setting and subject matter. How did you develop your literary voice for this project? Did it evolve naturally, or was it more deliberate?

SAH: All of the above! I remember rereading my first draft and feeling impatient whenever the writing struck me as flashy or digressive. Whenever the writing was straightforward, my attention would snap back. So one of my conscious decisions was to make the narrative style reportorial and essentially linear. I liked the effect of combining an old-fashioned storytelling idiom with a strange, speculative world.

A lot of the voice also sprang organically from the protagonist. Odile narrates the book, and there’s a slight formality to her tone. To some extent this reflects the traditionalism of her surroundings, but Odile is also uncommonly smart and shy, so it makes sense that her interior language would be bookish. That said, she’s also lyrical and occasionally blunt. Her tonal range was in place from the beginning, but it took time to strike the right balance.

MS: Finally, the rules governing this kind of speculative universe are complex, with limitless potential for paradoxes and contradictions. What was the worldbuilding process like for creating The Other Valley?

SAH: My aim was to keep the story sharp and simple. The basic premise has a clarity that I wanted the novel to retain, both in terms of plot and atmosphere. So I was constantly chiseling and streamlining information: What does the reader absolutely need to know about the metaphysics of the valleys? How much can I suggest or imply, instead of explicate? And how much do the characters themselves need to know — even if some of their beliefs turn out to be untrue?

Behind the scenes, though, a lot of sweat went into avoiding blatant time travel paradoxes. I’ll confess that I do have a chart mapping the valleys’ timelines, and even that wasn’t enough to prevent me from wasting weeks of work by overlooking a contradictory consequence. I think the threat of paradoxicality is almost inevitable in the genre, because so much of the appeal is the notion of altering a past that would affect the present of the person altering it. A time travel story that doesn’t confront a paradox is probably a boring time travel story. But that creates an interesting tension, because our minds also rebel when we sense a paradox brewing. So a writer’s challenge is to figure out narratively satisfying strategies to navigate their proximity to paradox — and that requires respecting the reader’s intelligence, not just distracting them from the issue. The morning I junked those chapters I felt discouraged, but by that afternoon I was back at the desk, doing it better.

The Other Valley by Scott Alexander Howard (Atria Books, 9781668015476, Hardcover Fiction, $27.99) On Sale: 2/27/2024

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