Author Silas House's 'Lark Ascending'

  • by Gregg Shapiro
  • Tuesday January 10, 2023
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author Silas House
author Silas House

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 his novel.

author Silas House (photo: C. Williams)  

Gregg Shapiro: 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?
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.

One of my favorite passages in the book is a really tender sex scene: "To taste and be tasted. Every part of us humming and alive. If you are very lucky it happens occasionally that your body fits with someone else's in such a way that you feel you are not two separate people but one being, that you've gone beyond the physical."

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. They're not people who grew up hearing a lot about sex or seeing it the way teenagers do today. Their whole lives they've been surviving war and hunger in a world with no electricity, so they're quite innocent. I had to factor all of that in when trying to capture Lark's voice accurately.

With that said, I have heard some teachers already say they're going to use "Lark" in their high school classes, so I do think it can crossover between YA and the adult markets.

some of Silas House's other books  

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.

Also, it's a story about losing everything: everyone you love, your country, your rights, so it made sense to me to encapsulate all of that loss through the POV of one main character. Trans people's rights are increasingly endangered, especially, and gay people still don't have full equality.

There are many states where it's still absolutely legal for someone to kick us out of a restaurant for being gay, and to cite that as the reason. 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 twenty years in the future I feel like a lot of this anti-LGBT legislation is already in motion. I'm also a gay man who wants to write about my own experience, so a lot of Lark's lens on that is close to home for me.

Seamus, the Beagle, is as prominent a character as his human counterparts. Do you have a dog or dogs in your life, and if so, what do they mean to you?
My Beagle is always lying right next to me when I'm writing. I usually write on the couch so he can be near and often his big velvety ear will creep right over onto the keyboard of my laptop while I'm typing. So, Seamus is very much based on him; this book couldn't have been written without my dog.

Silas House and his beagle (Instagram)  

My last book, "Southernmost," was all about empathy, and in that book, dogs were a motif for the presence of the divine. I think of "Lark Ascending" as being more about survival and the dog has a more active, prominent role. He really aids in Lark's survival, just by being such a good, comforting presence. He keeps Lark going.

I believe that few things can teach us more about empathy than being around animals. For some people that's a horse, a cat, or a rabbit. For me, it's always been a dog. During the pandemic especially, I think a whole lot of people realized what a source of comfort their animals were to them. Seamus is the one creature Lark can trust without fail in this book, and he loves him deeply because of that.

Seamus causes Lark to think about the late poet Seamus Heaney. Heaney and W.B. Yeats are quoted in the book. What role does poetry play in your daily and creative lives?
When I'm writing a novel, one of the first things I do is find the other forms of art that can feed the world I'm trying to build. I look to films, photographs, paintings, music, and poetry.

Since this novel is set in Ireland, it was a no-brainer to go straight to the great Irish poets, who have been such a huge part of the poetic tradition of the last 150 years especially. Besides Heaney and Yeats, I was also reading a lot of Eavan Boland; she's one of the greats for sure.

Every time I would sit down to write I would read a poem by one of these three, and it always helped to put me in Ireland, to set the tone for the book. Irish poets tend to use a lot of folklore and history in their work, as well, and that was particularly important to creating the world of "Lark Ascending."

In addition to being a novelist and playwright, you are a music journalist. Does that have anything to do with your inclusion of John Prine, REM, and other music references throughout the novel?
I just cannot imagine a world without populating it with music. I cannot create characters without thinking about what their theme songs might be. I was also thinking about living in a post-electricity world and what songs from now would people still be able to sit around and sing without having heard recorded versions of them in their lifetimes.

I knew that people would still be singing John Prine a couple decades from now, even if the songs could only be passed along from singer to singer. I knew that a song like "The One I Love" by REM would survive, and of course, the song is perfect for my main character because he is longing for the one he loves so keenly.

Every song is chosen to serve at least a couple of different purposes, and never just because I like a song. It has to speak to the scene at hand, it has to tell us something about the character, and it has to make sense in the context of the world-building. Readers can find the playlists to all the music mentioned in the book on my YouTube channel or my Spotify.

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.

If there was a movie version of "Lark Ascending," who would you want to play Lark? Arlo? Helen?
I didn't have any actors in mind at all while I was writing the novel but now that you've made me really think about it, Sharon Horgan would be my dream to play Helen; I adore her and especially her work on the TV show "Bad Sisters."

Lark and Arlo are both so young that I can't really think of any actors who would portray them easily right now; perhaps Lark would be a great way to introduce an unknown actor. I really love the idea of people going to a multiplex cinema to see a gay main character, pining for the love of his life, in an adventure-action film like "Lark Ascending" would be. I don't think it's ever been done before.

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.

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