Andrew Joseph White has been writing since before he could write. “It was a running joke with my family that I would scribble on pieces of paper, and then hand it to my parents and demand that they read it back to me,” he says. That passion blossomed into a goal to write a full-length book at an early age, finally leading to the release of his debut novel, Hell Followed with Us (Peachtree Teen), this month.
College and a master’s program in creative writing that played to White’s strengths in genre fiction gave him the opportunity to hone his craft, while turning to the writing community on Twitter offered an opportunity to carve out a niche in the publishing industry as he worked on the draft of his debut. Eventually White became one of the accounts spearheading the #LGBTWIP campaign for queer writers to share their works in progress. “That was a formative space for a lot of friends of mine. I ended up getting a lot of attention for that and meeting my agent at the time, Zabe Ellor, through it,” White recalls. “We lived in the same area at the time, and he was joking about bringing my book on. And I was like, ‘Do you want it or not?’ And eventually he was like, ‘Oh, I thought you’d never ask.’ ”
Hell Followed with Us tells the story of a young trans teen named Benji, who stumbles into a community of queer survivors and joins their fight to stay alive in a world ravaged by a fundamentalist cult’s genetically engineered plague. White began writing the book in 2018, during his senior year at college. “The turnaround was really quick. We did a few months of editing and put it out into the world. Fun fact: it went on submission in March 2020, during lockdown. A virus apocalypse book,” White quips. “I had one or two editors be like, ‘Just emotionally, I can’t do this, I’m sorry.’ And that’s totally fair! I completely get it.”
White eventually connected with editor Ashley Hearn, who was just joining her current home at Peachtree Publishing. “As soon as Ashley made it to Peachtree, she called and was like, ‘Hey, it hit acquisitions,’ and then it was, ‘Hey, we want an offer.’ ”
White adds, “I did get extremely lucky in that case, considering what the book was about. There are definitely a lot of alternate universes where it did not happen that quickly or that easily.”
While Hell Followed with Us is eerily timely, the book has always been a deeply personal story for White, who started it shortly after he came out as trans. That connection is particularly strong in Benji’s complex relationship with his body and the virus he carries, and the inevitable transformation it will result in.
“Benji at the end of the book is my ideal body. I often joke that my gender is a corpse that you found at the bottom of the lake. There’s a lot of talk about presenting trans bodies as almost sanitized, but,” White says with a laugh, “some of us have issues! I’m one of the ones with issues! Growing up, I had absolutely no sense of who I was until at least 15, but none of it clicked until my 20s. It’s this absolutely stunning, winning, horrible combination of unrecognized dysphoria and autism, which meant that in my head I was not a person compared to everyone else.”
White found refuge in the exploration of body horror in many of his early influences as a writer, including Alexander Gordon Smith’s Escape from Furnace, and the protagonist Alex’s transformation into one of the series’ monstrous blacksuits. “That really put me on the path,” White says. “That combined with all the horror video games I play, because that’s where a lot of my inspiration comes from. A lot of it also had to do with the fact that I hated most of the post-apocalyptic books I read growing up. They were too straight, too cis, too abled, all of this stuff—I don’t see any of myself in this. This is no fun. It’s just a straight guy power fantasy, I don’t care. So I ended up writing my own!”
Hell Followed with Us has generated significant buzz, including a starred review in PW and landing on the ABA’s Indie Bestseller list in its debut week. White has found himself slightly surprised by the reception for “a trans, autistic writer writing a book that is very clearly trans, autistic, and also just angry, and gross, and nasty, and not particularly easy to swallow or stomach. I didn’t know if it was going to be a very niche book. Okay, yeah, maybe I’ll get a few splatterpunk fans that are into the book.”
White recognizes, however, that the current climate has had an impact. “Considering what it’s like recently, the book is resonating with a lot more people. I feel like I should apologize,” White says wryly. “Nobody should have to connect to this book. If you connect to this book on a visceral level, I hope you’re doing okay.”
C.K. Stewart is a pop culture journalist living in Montgomery, Ala.