Gay novelist’s new book is a queer dystopian tale of survival
GREGG SHAPIRO | Contributing Writer
It’s embarrassing to admit, but I’ve only read two of prolific gay writer Silas House’s novels. But what amazing books they are.
Southernmost, from 2018, is a devastating novel about a flood, family and forgiveness that is nothing short of unforgettable. Equally powerful, and prescient is House’s newest novel Lark Ascending (Algonquin Books of Chapel Hill, 2022), a dystopian — and queer — tale of survival against all odds.
Silas House was gracious enough to answer a few questions about the novel at the beginning of 2023.
Dallas Voice: In your 2018 novel Southernmost, you addressed the destructiveness of religious fanaticism, and you’ve returned to the subject in the dystopian Lark Ascending with The Fundies (fundamentalists) and The Nays (the UK version of Fundies), whose campaign of “misinformation and discrimination” led to the collapse of both nations. What can you tell me about the draw of that subject? Silas House: I was raised in a strict Christian fundamentalist sect wherein most of the teachings were about judgment instead of love. It was especially homophobic, sexist, xenophobic and racist. I got away from that as a teenager, but now I hear the same rhetoric being spouted by people in the highest seats of power, whether it’s members of Congress, recent presidents or popular comedians and musicians.
I find it pretty terrifying that so much of the country sits by quietly while this new wave of bigotry sweeps across the land. I think it’s getting worse, and so it’s a pressing issue for me. I’ve seen up close the damage this kind of thinking can do, and to see the narrowing separation of church and state in our country is something that I feel compelled to write about. It is one of the things I know best, and it makes sense to me to use what I know best when it serves the human story at the heart of a novel.
The tone of the book, including the lack of “mature language,” as well as the way the way you addressed sexual situations, made me wonder if you intended it for a young adult readership? No. It’s just that I knew my characters weren’t really people who talked in a particularly coarse way. Occasionally there is a coarse word here and there, but, overall, that’s just not in their way of thinking; it’s just who they are.
Lark is pretty young when he and Arlo are together — from the time he’s 18 until he’s 20 — and he’s an old man — in his 90s — telling the story back, so it just didn’t seem realistic for him to be describing their physicality together in stark, blatant details. To me, it was much sexier to have him allude to that. Personally, I think it lessens the erotic when a writer blatantly names body parts and goes into clinical detail about sex scenes in a book, and, particularly for this couple, I really wanted the tone to be tender and innocent.
As a gay writer, you don’t shy away from queerness in Lark Ascending, including references to Lark’s aunt and her wife, as well as his own aforementioned attraction to and relationship with, Arlo. I think too often queer main characters only show up in books that are queer books in big neon letters. I wanted to write a book wherein the novel itself is not necessarily all about being gay, but it features a gay main character, and it features LGBT issues. I don’t know of another adventure story — and that’s mainly what I consider this book to be, genre-wise — that features a gay main character, so I love the idea of that.
In the book, LGBT existence has been outlawed by this new regime. But the best way to show that was through human stories so it was important to have gay characters and people whose lives are endangered because of these new laws.
Trans people’s rights are increasingly endangered, especially, and gay people still don’t have full equality. Just last month the Department of Homeland Security announced the biggest domestic terror target was LGBT gatherings. More and more we’re being held up as the group to fear by fear-mongering politicians and preachers. So even though this book is set 20 years in the future, I feel like a lot of this anti-LGBT legislation is already in motion.
In the second part of the book, Lark refers to himself as an old man, and later, in the third part, mentions that he is 90. What was the significance of aging Lark in the way that you did? I think one question a novelist must ask is why this story is being told now and to whom. To me, it added to the overall theme of the book — survival, hope, and adapting to a new world — to have this old man telling his adventure story.
Even though the book is set in the future, in a way their future is much more like our past — technology has pretty much been wiped out. There’s no electricity, city utilities, etc. People are living in small, agrarian groups. So instead of being influenced by media about the future, I looked further back to adventure stories by writers like Jack London and Robert Louis Stevenson to create the overall feel of Lark Ascending. I loved thinking about this old man on his deathbed being haunted by his first great adventure, when he was twenty years old, and the way he has never let go of that beautiful love he had for Arlo, seventy years before. To me, it really helps to drive home the idea of this love that is so thick that it transcends time.
Have you started thinking about or working on your next book project? I have a couple of different things in mind. One is set in 1986 and is about a boy being raised by his aunt and mother over the course of one tumultuous year. The other is the story of my great-great-uncle, who was put into an asylum in the 1920s because he was gay. I found his admittance papers and the reason stated was “Unnatural Desire,” so I’ve already got my title for that one. n