By Gianna Macchia
Today we’re pleased to welcome Erik J. Brown to the WNDB blog to discuss YA novel All That’s Left in the World, out since March 8, 2022!
When Andrew stumbles upon Jamie’s house, he’s injured, starved, and has nothing left to lose. A deadly pathogen has killed off most of the world’s population, including everyone both boys have ever loved. And if this new world has taught them anything, it’s to be scared of what other desperate people will do . . . so why does it seem so easy for them to trust each other?
After danger breaches their shelter, they flee south in search of civilization. But something isn’t adding up about Andrew’s story, and it could cost them everything. And Jamie has a secret, too. He’s starting to feel something more than friendship for Andrew, adding another layer of fear and confusion to an already tumultuous journey.
The road ahead of them is long, and to survive, they’ll have to shed their secrets, face the consequences of their actions, and find the courage to fight for the future they desire, together. Only one thing feels certain: all that’s left in their world is the undeniable pull they have toward each other.
Content note: This interview discusses the COVID-19 pandemic, as well as the fictional pandemic within the book.
I thoroughly enjoyed this book. It took me through an emotional journey and always kept me hooked. I love the slow development and eventual love story for the two boys. My wife and I agree with your author’s note—queer representation in the many genres of YA is so needed. Thank you for adding your lovely voice to the growing mix.
First and foremost, for the publication of this interview, what are your pronouns?
All That’s Left in the World is your debut novel. Can you tell me a little bit about yourself and your inspiration for entering the YA space?
Absolutely, and thank you for having me! I went to school for film, specifically screenwriting, and graduated in 2009. For a while I was writing spec scripts for TV shows or movies, trying to get someone’s attention somewhere—I did some small unpaid work for a producer but nothing ever came of it. I had what I thought was a great idea for a movie, but then it became way too big. So eventually I started writing it as a book. I did query it and it got nowhere, but I was still proud that I had written this book and I liked how I didn’t feel held back. With screenplays you have to constantly think about audience and budget—who the best actors would be, how big you can make the movie, what sells—with fiction it wasn’t like that. It was freeing to do whatever I wanted.
I specifically started writing YA after I read The Knife of Never Letting Go by Patrick Ness. That book took so many risks with storytelling and managed to say a lot about human nature and the themes in the book felt very mature. I had realized the Young Adult category had grown up so much since I had read it, so I started reading more. I’ve always wanted to write genre fiction with queer characters and YA was the space I felt needed that most and the space that would accept it the most.
You wrote a post-apocalyptic novel that hits incredibly close to home for its social commentary and parallels to the COVID-19 pandemic. Can you talk a little bit about the timeline for this novel and the artistic choices you made? Are you a plotter or pantser?
I should get my dirty secret out of the way… I am a pantser. Chaotic Pantser leaning heavily toward “Neutral Plantser.” When I start writing a book I have the main character, the beginning, a vague idea of the plot, and the ending. For All That’s Left in the World I had Andrew and Jamie, the superflu, the idea that they would fall in love through the events of the book, and that was it. So when I wrote the first draft of the book in 2015 I wrote it very quickly—I think the entire manuscript took me just a week to write—and it was very messy. So messy I didn’t know what to do with it, so I left it on my computer and went on to write and query other projects. I would revisit All That’s Left every once in a while, and finally figured out what was wrong with it: the entire second half. So I changed almost everything in the last half of the book, only keeping a few names as easter eggs to that original draft that only I would know about.
I finally got it into what I thought was querying shape around spring of 2019. My agent and I did a little more work on the book—again, moving some events in the second half to help with pacing—and then went on submission in February of 2020. It sold on March 13, 2020, which was Friday the 13th and the first day of COVID lockdowns in New York—where my US publisher is based. Philly didn’t lock down until the following Monday. I have to give so much credit to HarperCollins and Hachette for giving me the time to edit this book. My editors and I established very early on how much we would have to change since we were now living through a pandemic. We wanted it to feel realistic, but we didn’t want to have this fictional pandemic parallel too much with the COVID pandemic. Unfortunately, that was easier said than done. When I went to make changes to the story so it felt different than our lived experiences, it would suddenly happen in real life. And there were a few chilling real-life parallels that were in the original messy draft and survived all the way to publication. Specifically a scene when a character talks about the US government’s inability to put aside money and politics to protect its citizens, and another where a group of survivors say they want to open America back up to “get back to normal.” THAT was unsettling to see on protest signs in the summer of 2020. At one point during the editing process I joked that we should just call the book Jumanji instead. I’ve also made it a rule to never write an apocalypse that could realistically happen again. Going forward all of my apocalypses are going to be miniature, flesh-eating, pink octopi that sing showtunes. That way at least we’ll die cute. Though with our luck… the real-life octopi will just be singing “Magic to Do” from Pippin over and over.
This story wrecked me in so many ways. When I wasn’t on an emotional rollercoaster, my heart was practically beating out of my chest in fear. In what ways did the setting influence the plot and vice versa? What is your process for building suspense?
I think more often than not the setting would influence the plot. A lot of the smaller suspense scenes are an homage to post-apocalyptic fiction that influenced me. For instance, there’s a scene when Andrew and Jamie have to travel through the Fort McHenry tunnel outside of Baltimore and they don’t realize it’s flooded until they’re already halfway through…just as their flashlight battery starts to die. That scene started out as an easter egg for anyone who has read The Stand by Stephen King. In The Stand two characters, Larry and Rita, walk through the Lincoln Tunnel to escape New York City, but it’s pitch black and packed bumper to bumper with cars full of dead flu victims. In All That’s Left the scene went from scary easter egg/homage to building onto Andrew’s story—specifically why he’s willing to do something so dumb like travel a dark, flooded tunnel to get to where they’re going—and also build upon their relationship a bit more.
The setting also influenced the plot as both a reflection of Andrew and Jamie’s relationship and their transition to surviving in a world they aren’t used to. The aesthetic of liminal spaces is basically bustling, modern architecture that is eerily quiet and empty. So a post-apocalyptic road would be a liminal space. But liminality also represents that middle stage between a major event and the person you become on the other side of that event. So while Andrew and Jamie are traversing these physical liminal spaces, they’re also experiencing liminality. Their world ended and they’re in that transitional space of uncertainty. Both uncertainty of the world they live in and the uncertainty of their feelings for one another.
As far as building suspense goes, I try to think of every scene in a suspenseful way. So even if it’s a quiet scene that has no scary moments and is just Andrew and Jamie talking, I think about what I’m hiding from the reader. Getting all of the information right up front isn’t fun for anyone. So while writing I think what would the reader want to know versus what do they need to know? Then you give the reader what they need to know… but only a little bit at a time. For instance there’s a moment toward the beginning of the book when they reach a small, seemingly empty town in Pennsylvania. The sign welcoming them to the town of Mailey, PA has been chopped down and there’s gouges taken out of the wood. Then they stumble upon a dead body that has similar cuts and the head is missing. So when a survivor arrives carrying an axe, the reader isn’t surprised, because they knew an axe was going to show up. They just aren’t sure what he’s going to do with the axe. But they do know what he has been doing with the axe.
Andrew and Jamison are incredibly dynamic, well written characters. This comes through in both their quiet moments and playful banter. What was your inspiration for crafting these characters and what universal truth do they represent?
I don’t think I’ve ever created two characters as easily as Andrew and Jamie were created (though my editor would argue that’s not true since she complimented the characters in my next book, but we’ll get to that later…). I knew I wanted Andrew to be an out and proud gay teen before the apocalypse, and I knew that I wanted Jamie to be discovering his sexuality in a post-apocalyptic world, but that was the only planning I really did for them before starting to write.
I think Jamie especially readers will connect to because he most clearly represents the universal truth of the book. His kindness, his openness to love; even when he has to stray outside of his moral compass, he’s doing it from a place of love. I’m trying very hard to avoid spoilers but I do think without Jamie, Andrew would struggle to remain along the same moral path.
The novel showcases both the best and ugliest parts of humanity. What is one thing you hope young adults take away from this story?
If there’s one thing I want young readers to ever take away from any of my books it’s about figuring out what it means to be a good person. Specifically how to feel empathy. Don’t get me wrong, I’m a very cynical person. But you can still be cynical and sarcastic and a good person. But I think, especially now, the idea of what makes us “good people” is skewed in a dangerous way. But I think what a lot of people who believe they’re “good people” are missing is empathy.
They feel sympathetic, but sympathy is empty. Sympathy centers you and not the person you’re sympathizing with. Empathy is about connection and understanding how someone else is feeling through that connection. And the way our systems are structured in this world don’t lend themselves to empathy. Andrew and Jamie are able to connect with each other because those systems are broken. They have their one-on-one time in the cabin. It creates that relationship between them that opens them up to feel empathy for each other through their shared experiences instead of just sympathy.
There’s a moment when Andrew has to tell Jamie a secret he’s been hiding, and I specifically wrote that scene from Jamie’s point of view—listening to Andrew speak—to show how Jamie can feel bad, but also understand the why. Both the secret itself and again why Andrew kept that secret from him. There’s no real judgement because Jamie has those moments of understanding and is able to empathize with him. That scene is reversed later when Jamie gets to tell Andrew a secret and for just an instant Andrew feels immense rage… but then just as quickly he’s able to stop himself and empathize with the person Jamie is talking about. Because he was able to figure out why that person did what they did.
All that to say I think figuring out how and when to feel empathy would take us a long way to being better people. (Damn, this interview is getting intense!)
Were there any novels that really resonated with you in high school? If you were going to thematically pair All That’s Left in The World with a “classic” high school text, which one would it be and why?
Only two books resonated with me in high school. The first is Beloved by Toni Morrison which I think is not only the greatest novel ever written, but the greatest horror novel ever written. It’s a horror novel and you cannot change my mind.
As far as influencing my writing, my senior year English teacher actually let us choose what books we wanted to read a few times. One I chose was Blindness by Jose Saramago and I think that absolutely influenced All That’s Left. It’s about a nameless city where a contagion is spreading that turns people blind. The city quarantines the victims in an old mental hospital, including a doctor’s wife who is immune but pretends she can’t see so she can accompany her blinded husband. There the quarantined are given few resources by the government and eventually forgotten. Then the systems and rules of society in this little microcosm start to break down. All post-apocalyptic fiction deals with societal breakdowns, but I think the swiftness and cruelty in Blindness—and the idea of the doctor’s wife being the only witness to it—really stuck with me.
In the epilogue you state:
“What if people can’t speak out against injustice—or what was considered injustice before all this—because they need help from a community? What if everything continues to spiral downward and history repeats itself because the people who are there to write it choose how it’s written? They know what to put in and what to leave out; what to teach and what to ignore”.
This is a powerful musing. In light of the nation-wide book bans we are seeing, why is this quote more important than ever?
This is so frustrating because book banning isn’t new and the strategy they’re using right now isn’t new either. This has all been done before and it’s always done under the guise of ‘protecting children.’ It has nothing to do with protecting children and everything to do with silencing BIPOC and queer people. There has never been so many voices being heard from people who were traditionally overlooked, ignored, or silenced. If people were really trying to protect children they wouldn’t be silencing people.
It’s important to stand up to authoritarianism in all of its forms, including book banning. Saying history repeats itself is a cliché, but it’s true. If we let people dictate whose stories can be told and in what way, it allows for traditionally marginalized people to be overlooked, which makes it easier to discriminate against them. It makes it easier to lie about history.
Visibility can be powerful for students struggling with the many intersections of identity. What is one thing you hope queer students discover about themselves and each other after reading this novel?
I think the most important thing I want readers to discover after reading All That’s Left in the World is no matter how dark things get, there’s always something to have hope for. There might be a lot of queer kids reading the book that can’t come out or it’s not safe for them to do so. Sometimes that can feel so hopeless. I hope more than anything that reading this book is a bit of respite for them; that it makes them feel hope and love and that they find other books that help them get through life until they’re safe to live how they want to live.
Is there any question I did not ask, but you’d love to answer?
I don’t think so! These were some pretty intense questions as is!
What’s next? The young adult world always needs more Erik J. Brown!
My deal with Balzer+Bray was for two books so we’re editing the second now and it should be out in 2023! It’s also completely different from All That’s Left in the World. Where All That’s Left in the World is a sprawling road trip story with two main characters, my next book takes place majorly in one location and has a sprawling cast of characters—it’s all from one character’s POV but there are about seven or eight major characters and a cast of over thirty supporting characters—hearing my editor say how unique all the characters are was a great vote of confidence! It’s a coming-of-age story based on my after-school job in high school. It’s quirky and fun but still has some emotional high stakes moments. I’m really excited to see how people respond to it, because it’s a little quieter than All That’s Left in the World.
Erik J. Brown (he/him) is a writer based in Philadelphia, PA. He graduated from Temple University with a degree in Film and Media Arts with an emphasis in Writing for Media. When not writing, he enjoys traveling (pre-pandemic), collecting disco compilations on vinyl, remodeling his haunted house with his husband, and embarking on the relentless quest of appeasing his Shiba Inu, Charlie. In 2021 he was selected as a Lambda Literary Emerging Writers Fellow. His debut Young Adult novel ALL THAT’S LEFT IN THE WORLD will be published in early 2022 by Harper Colllins/Balzer+Bray in the US and Hachette Children’s Group in the UK Commonwealth.
Gianna Macchia is a Milwaukee-based educator and high school literacy coach. She believes reading cultivates empathy, and the more educators can encourage students to read, write, think, and discuss outside of their own perspective, the more they can contribute to building a more accepting, socially aware world. She thinks we should never doubt the power of representation and visibility, especially for adolescent youth. When Gianna isn’t engrossed in YA books, she and her wife enjoy traveling, live music, hiking, cooking, and snuggling their pets Gatsby, Atticus, and Huckleberry, the literary brothers from different mothers.