We are thrilled to publish this interview with Adeline Lovell, author of the winning “Burning”, alongside her prize-winning story today! Read “Burning” first, and then sit down with assistant editor Melissa Hinshaw and Lovell as they talk about the story.
Burning question (pun intended): how was writing this story connected to the stress of 2020, if at all?
I actually started this story last February, not fully understanding the semi-apocalyptic world we were about to be entering. When I got sent home from college, I had written about half of it; I wasn’t trying to reflect the—to use my new least favorite word—unprecedented-ness of what was happening, but by last March, it was hard to avoid. The scene where Henry and Leo are walking around Target was inspired by a stop my dad and I made on my way home from college in a Walmart; I remember there being an air of panic, a sense of everyone moving around, not quite sure how scared they needed to be, certainly not knowing how drastically everyone’s lives would change, and I thought about what it would be like to know exactly how much devastation there would be, and how fast we would all give up working or paying or filling our carts only with what we needed. It was definitely cathartic to write this last spring; it wasn’t quite schadenfreude, but I definitely had this sense of, okay, everything is very unstable and I am very scared, and I’m going to channel that into creating a world where things are even more unstable and scary.
I love how real this piece was in terms of young relationships—the chatter between Leo and Henry really grounds this piece in the more fantastical (albeit super plausible) apocalyptic plot. How did you manage to strike that note between lighthearted and charming against this very serious looming threat?
I think there is a tendency of people my age (and Leo and Henry’s age) to trivialize enormous events, and sometimes the scarier, the better the potential for shocking and appalling memes. I imagine if we were to face something like this for real, you’d see teenagers and college students coping with jokes about how they don’t have to study for exams or worry about job interviews. Henry and Leo are kind of engaging with that, and also, this sense of disbelief and almost invincibility; the knowledge that “this is happening but you know, it’s not really gonna happen, right?” that can sometimes come over people during tragedies, especially young and healthy people. There’s also the feeling that acknowledging their own fear will make it real, and the terror and vulnerability in the moments when they do discuss it—Leo talking about the animals, Henry asking if it will hurt—is them looking at one another and begging each other, if you can’t stop this, then just please just don’t let me sit alone with this fear and grief.
How did you come up with Leo and Henry? Did one come first and then the other, or their relationship at once?
The first image I had for this story was two people, with the knowledge of an impending apocalypse, bracing for it together despite the fact that they might not be the closest people in each other’s lives. Originally, the apocalypse premise was the same, but the two main characters were a divorced couple with a toddler, tucking her in and opening some wine they’d been saving for something important and just being together, all of the bitterness between them gone. But I was bored with them and decided it would be more interesting to write two people beginning a relationship as the world ends, rather than reflecting on one that has already ended, and then Henry and Leo came to me, without any of the specifics, but two young gay—not for any particular reason, I just very rarely write about straight relationships—college students falling in love in the worst circumstances imaginable. Once I had them in my head, I never considered anyone else.
This story falls right on the line between literary and YA fiction. Tell us about your experience working in and/or between these genres.
This question actually made me consider my other pieces of writing, and whether I consider what I write to fall into any of those categories more often. I actually think in some ways, this is one of the lighter things I’ve written, certainly in terms of the interpersonal dynamics; this is one of the first stories I’ve written where the friction comes almost entirely from outside forces, rather than resentment and hate and selfishness and miscommunication between two people, or a group of people. I’m twenty, and I think it’s obvious in my writing that I am still working the coming-of-age out of my system, in some stories a lot more blatantly than others, and I think that naturally, those stories do tend to fall on the line between those genres.
I appreciate the immediate cameo of Cormac McCarthy’s The Road that is both ironic/funny and helps ground us in the situation. How do you view writing end-of-the-world stories in your own work? Is this a one-off for you, or a topic you write to regularly?
This is the first apocalypse story I’ve ever written; generally, I don’t really have the patience for the world building required in good end-of-the-world stories, even though I do have a love for reading apocalypse stories (The Road, of course, but some of my other favorites: Station Eleven, The Maddaddam trilogy, The Handmaid’s Tale, “There Will Come Soft Rains”, “Speech Sounds”). The stories I write tend to be very grounded in reality and usually against the backdrop of grimly unremarkable locations and events, and I had a lot of fun with the inherent drama of the end of the world.
“Burning” also starts with the concept of betrayal and withholding information, specifically by the country to its people. How is that theme connected to and/or redeemed by Leo and Henry’s relationship?
To be very honest, I had not considered that parallel very seriously until I read this question, but you’re totally right. Henry and Leo, Henry in particular, have to reckon with what is owed to their families, who are terrified and waiting for them. I think the main conflict in the story lies there, in some ways; it is devastating for them to leave one another, but the anguish their families would face if they knew they were delaying their arrival home for the last few days of their lives is hard to swallow. I think both the unnamed government and Henry lying to his mom feel a sort of mercy in what they’re doing, but there’s also a cruelty there, and for Henry, he’s even hurting himself, too. The same way a heads up for humanity would have given people time to plan and say goodbye and get home, Henry saying ‘I need to say goodbye to someone important to me’ would probably have given him some alleviation of the guilt of lying, and of feeling drawn to Leo at this moment that he feels like he should just be getting home.
I also like that this story is a road trip story. Way to intersect so many tropes (apocalypse, romance, journey) at once to make them all unique! Did your idea for this story initially include that element, or was the road trip a vehicle (sorry, another pun) for building this relationship between Leo and Henry?
The road trip came to me when I decided to write about two people who didn’t really know each other rather than two people who come together to say goodbye. I wanted Henry and Leo to have the thrill of this new attraction followed immediately by the realization that they cannot pursue this without betraying people who have been close to them and love them and have expectations for them, but the only circumstance that would put two almost-strangers together would be absolute necessity, and a road trip seemed like a good way to force this relationship that otherwise couldn’t have been considered. They have to reckon with the ultimate romantic freedom—a car, an empty road that they can follow anywhere—but no real way to take advantage of that without hurting people who they owe their time and presence to.
This piece is able to focus on the main characters and action without getting hung up on or distracted by the details of the oncoming apocalypse. Tell us about how you managed to accomplish that through the writing.
Honestly, I was just so much more interested in the dynamics between two people who have been given this unimaginable piece of information, much more than I was in exploring the science of solar flares or writing the classic apocalypse scenes of people smashing windows and trying to flee cities. I wrote this piece first for a creative writing class in college, and one of the notes that I got from my professor was that I should write a bit more about what was happening in the world around Henry and Leo, so I added some details about plane ticket prices and people who believe that it’s all a lie (Shoutout to Courtney! Thank you for all your incredibly helpful advice on this story and others!).
Also, though, when I did consider writing more details of the apocalypse, I kept coming back to really grim images of anarchy and tanks rolling through cities and arson, and I just wasn’t interested in writing a story about the inherent violence and failure of humankind. Obviously, there is cynicism everywhere, much of it earned. But I really do believe that even in the absolute darkest scenarios, most of us just want to receive and offer tenderness, and I wanted this to be a story about that.
Part of this story’s magic hinges on the question of whether or not Leo and Henry ever see each other again—do you think they do? What do you want for them, versus how does it all actually play out after the story you’ve created ends?
The less nuanced, very-attached-to-this-story part of me sometimes says it was all a false alarm and after breathing a sigh of relief, they get to finish college and date and graduate and get an apartment and argue about bringing meat into their home, the same way I watch Titanic but turn it off before the ship sinks or read A Little Life and pretend it ends at The Happy Years, but, since I love a good tragedy, that’s not really what happens. I think that yeah, they do see each other, and it is not what either of them wanted: a meetup in an empty parking lot halfway between their houses, both pretending that they’re going to see old friends because explaining to their families that they’re spending precious time with a new boyfriend wouldn’t go over well. It’s probably just under an hour, and without quite enough privacy, but it’s better than nothing. I think they’re both an age that endings seem impossible, even something as unambiguously final as this, so they made plans for a week later, and it’s a little sardonic, but there’s some real hope and desperation in it, too, the same mixture of carelessness and vulnerability that their relationship began on.
And last but not least: what songs would you put on a playlist to accompany “Burning”? Hopefully we’ll at least see Bruce Springsteen on there—what else?
I love this question. Yes, I’m on Fire—I briefly considered titling this story after that, but it didn’t quite work. Some other songs that I like a lot for this story: I Know The End by Phoebe Bridgers,
interviewed by Melissa Hinshaw