I believe that each of us is given one sentence at birth, and we spend the rest of our life trying to read that sentence and make sense of it.
Li Young Lee
On growing up in Alabama, boys as muses, finding queer community, snake handling, and more.
I met Genevieve Hudson when I moved from Los Angeles to Portland, Oregon, in the winter of 2018, when her publisher asked if I’d write a blurb for her story collection Pretend We Live Here (Future Tense Books). I fell in love with her work immediately. It is messy, gothic, sexy, and scary. Her new book, Boys of Alabama (Liveright), is all of that and more. In this bewitching debut novel, Max, a sensitive German teen, newly arrived in Alabama, falls in love, questions his faith, and navigates a strange power.
My first exposure to Boys of Alabama was last fall at a reading Hudson did at an old warehouse that houses the Independent Publishing Resource Center. It was dark in the room, and she was only illuminated by the lectern’s light. To hear her read these boys’ voices—adolescent, cocky, southern—was intoxicating. When I got my advance copy of Boys of Alabama it was winter in Oregon. I read it mostly in the bath in an attempt to match its heat. We conducted this interview during quarantine on the phone across town from each other.
Leah Dieterich Thus far, you’ve published a collection of short stories and a book-length essay about Alison Bechdel’s Fun Home. Why a novel? Was it always your intention to write one, or did you feel there was something in this story or these characters that could only be explored through a book-length work of fiction?
Genevieve Hudson When it comes to reading, I’ve always loved novels above all else. They cast a spell on me. There’s nothing like being subsumed into a completely new and imagined world and staying there for the length of the book. So, I think when I started writing with a level of seriousness and intention, I knew one day I would try to write a novel. I wanted to build a world out of my imagination and consciousness and see where it led. I tried my hand at a few before Boys of Alabama, but they never came to life the way I hoped they would.
LD Tell me more about the spark of the story and when you decided it would become a book.
GH The first scenes were written long before I was writing this novel in its current form, before it was even set in Alabama. You know that quote, “all writing is rewriting”? That was definitely the case here. In the early drafts, I was exploring the relationship between these two boys [Max and Pan]. I’d started writing another project that took me away from this one, because I had gotten stuck and didn’t know how to move it forward. I was living in Amsterdam and thinking about Alabama and the American South a lot. When I would travel back to my hometown in Alabama, I saw it differently than I had when I was living there. I think the richness of the place I was from called me to work through and think about it. When I started writing into Alabama as a place, it seemed obvious to me that its landscape and culture were a big part of [Max and Pan’s] story. That was the key I needed to unlock the novel. It was the central part I was missing, and it just unfolded from there.
LD The way you write boys, to me, feels so real. I’m not a boy, so I don’t know how it resonates with people who are or were boys, but I’m curious about your interest in writing from that perspective.
GH When I was growing up in Alabama, I was very tomboyish. I dressed like a boy and was often mistaken for one. I was queer then, but I didn’t know how to name it as such. Most of my friends were boys. We did a lot of typical “boy things,” and I think that growing up around that kind of young masculinity informed how I moved through life. It was something that I began to inhabit, but it also felt out of reach. The boys from my youth were my blueprint for what it meant to be growing up as a man in the South. To be growing up into a seat of power. That was something I needed to understand and work through. I guess in some ways the boys I grew up with became kind of muselike to me. They moved me into the story.
LD Do you still have relationships with any of those childhood friends?
GH I’m actually working on an essay about that right now. Two of the boys I was closest with, whose friendship meant the most to me, have died. Because they died so young, I will always think of them as those little boys. They never grew into whatever men they would become. That’s how I’ll alway remember them––young, still becoming free.
LD You begin the book with a quote from Clarice Lispector: “She believed in angels, and, because she believed, they existed.” When did that quote come to you, and how does it fit into the timeline of writing this book?
GH Clarice Lispector is a writer guide for me. I was flipping through The Hour of the Star and came upon that quote. I was already really deep in writing the book and almost done with it. You know that place when you’re writing something, and everything you encounter, you see through the lens of the book you’re immersed in? That’s the space I was in, and so I saw this quote and it resonated as something I had been working towards, but not saying so explicitly. In the religious culture of Alabama, the line between what’s real and what isn’t can blur.
There’s a moment in the book when Pan says something like “magic only exists if you believe in it.” That’s a tenet in magic––if you don’t believe something’s going to happen, it won’t happen. If you don’t believe in a spell’s power, or if you don’t believe in the influence of the supernatural, it’s not going to take root, because your belief is part of what gives it power to manifest in your life. The Lispector quote brought that feeling to life and felt like a meaningful way to set the tone. It speaks to the idea that what someone believes to be true can be as powerful as what is scientifically true.
LD The main character, Max, has a secret power: he can bring animals back to life by touching them. Did this superpower, if you want to call it that, come to you first, or did you want Max to have a superpower and then have to figure out what it was?
GH That’s a great question. I didn’t know Max would have a supernatural power until I saw it happen on the page, though I do often write stories with magical realism in them. It wasn’t totally unexpected that something like this could evolve in the story. While I was writing, this image came to me of Max as a young boy touching something dead and bringing it back to life. It was very visual. I saw how the transformation registered in Max’s body and how the animal magically stitched itself together. Then I had to come up with the rules and the boundaries. What were the limitations of this power? How did it work? How did he feel about having this unexplained ability? All those things were then subjects I needed to reckon with and build out into the world.
LD How do you think this particular power relates to his queerness? I’ve often heard people talk about the literature of comic books and superheroes and their relation to queerness, and I was curious if that was something you’d considered here.
GH There has of course been a lot of academic work done on the relationship between queerness and monstrosity. Monsters or magic beings have been seen in art and literature as vile, outsiders, misfits, and weirdos, but also sometimes as objects of desire. Werewolves, shapeshifters, vampires, Frankensteins: all of these “monsters” can be read as having queer undertones. They are intriguing, eroticized, and yet maligned. Their difference is what makes them so dangerous and threatening.
As for the comic book heroes, many of them need to contort themselves into something more acceptable in order to exist in society. Usually their powers must be kept secret (at least under most circumstances). It’s a matter of safety. They hide in plain sight, mistaken for “normal” people. Sometimes they are too sensitive, too freaky, too fey to be loved as they are. This is ripe for queer interpretations. How Max reckons with his power can be a stand-in for how he reckons with his queerness. He views his power as a curse. Even though it has the [capacity] to heal and be a beautiful thing in the world, he’s afraid to let himself understand it more fully. He’s afraid to show people, and I think that’s a metaphor or a mirror into the way that he’s thinking about his sexuality. If he were to explore his power more, look at it in a different way, reframe how it shows up in his life, there could be a lot of beauty and power and healing, but is he going to do that?
LD Did you read comics as a kid?
GH Comic books were actually a big part of my youth. My parents were divorced, and every Wednesday night was the night I had with my dad. We would always go to this one local comic book store. We would get footlong chilli dogs from Sonic and then hang out reading comics for hours. I loved being able to disappear into another world and into magic, and I loved the lives of these protagonists, the plots. All of it was mesmerizing to me, and a method of escapism. I loved Spider-Man, and I loved Superboy. I liked X-Men and Batman, too. Pretty classic stuff.
LD What about magical realism?
GH As a young kid, I was drawn to books that suspended my disbelief and presented fully magical worlds. Books like Chronicles of Narnia, Chronicles of Pydrian, and A Wrinkle in Time. So that probably set the foundation. As an adult, I find a lot of inspiration in writers like Italo Calvino, Jorge Luis Borges, Isabel Allende, and Octavia Butler. I am also interested in the repurposing of older fairy tales into new, more contemporary settings, like the stuff Angela Carter, Kate Bernheimer, Karen Russell, Carmen Maria Machado, Julia Elliott and Aimee Bender does. I have also been hugely influenced by Kazuo Ishiguro, Haruki Murakami, Toni Morrison, and Gabriel Garcia Marquez. I find writing plot to be a little bit challenging. I’m more interested in the emotional landscape of characters, the texture of the felt experience. I think that creating an element of magic realism was a way of making things happen that created an exciting movement in my work that I was able to respond to. It felt like plotting, in a way.
LD Max falls under the spell of a character called The Judge who is the leader of a church that engages in the practice of snake handling. Those parts fascinated me. I feel a little silly, but I had to look it up to see if it was a real thing. It is, but I thought you might have invented it, and I loved that I wasn’t sure. What kind of research did you do for these parts? Did you know anyone who did snake handling?
GH(Laughs) I didn’t know anyone who was open about their snake practice, but I did spend a lot of time in Christian communities that believed in gifts of the spirit, which is the school of faith that blurs into snake handling. I was in churches and communities of people who spoke in tongues and believed that God had granted them spiritual gifts of faith. They lived in a more mystical version of Christianity, which, to me, actually made a lot more sense than the Puritanical or dogmatic parts of the religion, even though there’s some overlap there. There was something that was incredibly alluring and powerful to me about what it meant to collapse the spiritual and material worlds and believe in communing with God in a way that puts spiritual and holy gifts in your body. I read Salvation on Sand Mountain when I was in college, and it completely captured my imagination.
The book outlines how the author went into this small community in Alabama as a journalist covering a story associated with snake-handling practices at a local church and got pulled in and kind of started questioning his beliefs and getting drawn into theirs. Sand Mountain, where it all took place, was about an hour drive from where I grew up. In Boys of Alabama, it felt important for me to build my own world and not try to mimic or reconstruct a church that already existed. I wanted to take the practice of snake handling, which is the belief that if you have the power of God in you, you can take up snakes, you can drink poison, and not be harmed because of your connection to God. It’s a great test of faith, because you’re risking your life. That core tenet was where I began. Then I allowed myself to fictionalize and imagine what this church would do with that idea and belief.
LD Yeah, the poison is crazy. Once I realized the snake-handling was real, I was like, Wait, is the poison really a thing?
GH Yeah, it is.
LD And it’s rat poison?
GH I think that often it’s strychnine or other kinds of household poisons or rat poisons you have on hand. But I cared less about modeling these practices after real churches and more about using actual practices as starting places to build my own fictional world and rituals that this church and movement engaged in.
LD There is a moment in the book when Max tells Pan about a prior relationship with a boy in Germany who he was in love with, and then wishes he could untell it. He felt “the loss of secrets.” I wondered if there was a time when you experienced this feeling, either in your personal life or in writing.
GH In my experience, there are things that feel important to keep only for ourselves, and especially when we are young, I think there is some testing of the waters that goes on. I remember sharing things with my friends when I was a teenager and then sometimes feeling a loss of my own privacy. I guess that’s also how trust is built between people, how intimacy is forged, but I think as we are all navigating our own boundaries around what we share with the world, there is a learning process of where it feels good to be open and when we need to self-contain. As a writer, especially when I write non-fiction, I am often checking in with myself and assessing where the line of privacy is. It can be especially tricky to navigate in this Internet world, where we are constantly being asked to participate in an exchange of personal moments on social media.
LD Halfway through the book, Max’s mother asks about his relationship with Pan. She says, “I can tell you like him…I want you to know I like him, too…I wonder if you like him the way you liked Nils…that would be difficult here.” She is referring to the differences between Alabama and Germany. I wondered how you felt about the way she handles this discussion with him, and what kind of early support you had for your queerness?
GH Most of my early support came from the community of people I met in my early twenties, right after I came out. So I wasn’t living at home anymore and mostly turned to my newly forged queer friendships for support. They offered representation and solidarity and community. It was a transformative experience to be welcome into a group of people who were living into their authentic truths. I don’t know what I would have done without them, because before coming out I really didn’t know any gay people. I had grown up in really conservative places, and the lack of representation sometimes felt like a loss of possibility.
LD Tell me about your writing practice. I know you’re a morning writer, right? How do you balance your copywriting work with your literary work?
GH Morning is prime time when it comes to writing. When I’m in a writing phase, I try to write almost every day with one day completely off. Sometimes writing looks like 500 words a day, sometimes it looks like much more, but I just try to put something on the page and touch the work. I also think it’s important to have times in my life when I’m not writing at all, but resting and living life out in the world and kind of filling the cup back up.
I teach in an MFA program and work in advertising, so balance is important. After a work day, I’m spent, and it’s hard for me to write. As a morning person, I am sharpest in the early hours. I try to write before work begins, when it’s still dark out and I have a very strong cup of espresso by my side.
LD Last but not least, what is keeping you sane right now? What is inspiring you? Are you writing, and if so, what and how?
GH Portland spring is keeping me sane. There are so many beautiful things blooming right on my street. Just the other day the street and truck in front of my house were covered with pink petals. There were so many, it looked like confetti. Long walks are saving me. I love walking and listening to an audiobook or a podcast or just zoning out. It inspires me and helps me feel connected to myself. I’m also a big phone-talker, and staying in touch with friends and family has been a lifeline.
I am writing right now. Mostly in the mornings and just for as long as it feels good. If I don’t want to write, then I won’t force it. But it’s been feeling good to just get things on paper. I’m mostly working on a new story for an art book, and I have the beginnings of a new novel.
Boys of Alabama is available for purchase here.
Leah Dieterich is the author of the memoir Vanishing Twins: A Marriage (Softskull, 2018) which was short-listed for the Pacific Northwest Booksellers Award and thxthxthx: thank goodness for everything(Andrews McMeel, 2011). Her essays and short fiction have been featured in Lenny Letter, Lit Hub, Bomb Magazine, Buzzfeed Reader, and elsewhere. She lives in Portland, Oregon.
I believe that each of us is given one sentence at birth, and we spend the rest of our life trying to read that sentence and make sense of it.
Li Young Lee