In American Elsewhere, Robert Jackson Bennett’s fourth novel exploring the fantastical side of 20th-century America, aliens living in a small town struggle to perfect the appearance of human normalcy.
American Elsewhere has this very nostalgic feel, while also demonstrating that nostalgia is mostly artifice.
When I was in college I was really fascinated with Los Alamos and Richard Feynman, and it was tied up with the golden age of science fiction, which has always had this tinge of the west. That era had a feeling of “Yes, we can do it, we can change the world” that I don’t think we have now. I guess if the book is about anything it’s about yearning for a time when folks had those hopes, and trying to recreate that, and failing.
That failure creates this desperation among the nonhuman characters that plays out in some pretty horrible ways.
In a lot of ways, what they’re doing is something we do every day. We want the perfect house and marriage and to live a quiet happy life, but it’s not something you can just set up and step into. The idea of trying to explore it from this angle added a sense of desperation, and it felt quite poignant that they were always trying to be little people in little lives trying to have a little bit of happiness and not quite succeeding.
Why imbue these unpleasant creatures with almost painfully human characteristics that draw out a great deal of empathy in the reader?
I think most tragedies start from a wound or a hurt or a grievance; they don’t start just because someone feels mean. Monsters or people who have bad wiring in their heads probably won’t ever cause damage on as large a scale as those who have been hurt in some deep fashion. Also, one thing I’ve always tried to do in my writing is to make folks think about how they themselves are trying to be something that they’re not, or longing for something they can’t have.
Your books have invited comparisons to Ray Bradbury. What has his writing meant to you?
I grew up reading him, and when I started writing, I knew that if I kept reading him I would copy him closely. But I do feel like I’m still playing in his playground, and I’m perfectly fine with it because he’s one of those guys who basically set the rules. He had a vision of America that felt like anything could happen in it. His stories felt like it was always an October evening and it was just starting to get cold, and you could be on your way home from school and see something that could change your life forever.
Did becoming a father also inform the direction you are taking as a writer?
No, I had a lot of this book written in my head before we knew we were pregnant. In a lot of ways my life was changing gears around then. Before then I’d tried the Charles Bukowski school of writing, living in squalor and drinking and trying to feel romantic about that, which got pretty tough after a while. So you get married and calm down and try to grow a garden, and that kind of makes different writing come out of you.