Rory Power’s extraordinary new thriller Burn Our Bodies Down is our July ParnassusNext selection. The novel follows Margot Nielsen, a girl desperate to find the family her fiercely secretive mother refuses to talk about. When she runs away to her mother’s hometown to meet a grandmother she never knew, she finds the blighted fields of the Nielsen family farm in flames. As the story unfolds, Margot must unearth her family’s twisted past and face the secrets hidden in those burning fields before it’s too late.
Power is no stranger to stories with dark mysteries at their heart. Her debut novel (and July 2019 ParnassusNext selection) Wilder Girls captivated readers with its chilling story of a girls’ boarding school caught up in a mutagenic plague. I, like so many of our booksellers, fell in love with Power’s writing and could not wait for her next book. I’m very excited for the chance to interview her today, and hope you all love this book as much as I did. —Kay Witherow
Kay Witherow: Your debut novel Wilder Girls hit the New York Times bestseller list and our ParnassusNext subscribers loved it. Where did you find the inspiration for your follow up?
Rory Power: Burn Our Bodies Down came from a Hail Mary pitch during a phone call with my editor that was, verbatim, “Field of Dreams, but nightmares, and no Kevin Costner.” I was, at the time, looking at a photograph by Ellen Jantzen, which features a hand reaching out of tall grass, and I took huge inspiration from that. The book also centers around generational trauma and the damage that can pass between parents and children, which is something in my own life I’ve been wanting to write about for a long time, and it slotted in well with the original pitch once I began to develop the idea.
KW: Both Wilder Girls and Burn Our Bodies Down deal with very heavy emotions, which you manage to capture with remarkable clarity. What’s your approach to writing the darker aspects of your stories?
RP: I definitely struggle with this sometimes, and the key for me has been finding a balance between how any given aspect of a book hits the reader and how it hits the characters. Many of my characters, in Wilder Girls in particular, are used to what’s going on around them, and so while what’s happening is (hopefully) shocking to the reader, looking at it through a more matter of fact lens helps me make sure nothing is lost in translation, so to speak.
KW: I really respect the way you write your characters’ flaws. They make mistakes, they experience ugly emotions, their problems don’t have easy answers. Why do you think that’s something important for teen readers to see in their fiction?
RP: I remember how I felt as a teenager — like every decision I made locked something about my future irrevocably into place. I wanted to be reassured that the missteps I made at that age wouldn’t necessarily define me, and that I could make mistakes and encounter difficult things without being limited by them. I think reflecting that messiness in fiction and making it a normal part of a young person’s life can help to take the pressure off, in a way.
KW: Both of your books also deal with characters that are extremely isolated in their own ways. Is there something about isolation that particularly interests you?
RP: Logistically it’s much easier for me to work with a character all alone, because then I don’t have to deal with questions like: but wouldn’t somebody notice all these things happening? But on a more serious, thematic level, my experience of adolescence was very much one of being alone for those important, difficult moments, and of slowly learning to find help and community, so I tend to default to that in fiction.
KW: On a lighter note, is there a piece of media that’s brought you joy lately? Either something new, or something you go back to time and time again for a pick-me-up?
RP: Carly Rae Jepsen’s E-MO-TION album for listening, Veep and Succession for watching, and The Tenth Girl, by Sara Faring, for reading (it’s incredible on first read, and then rewards rereading very richly).
KW: We always ask this question last: what’s your favorite thing about indie bookstores?
RP: All the most important books in my life have been hand-sells from indie booksellers, filling requests as specific as, “I would like to read another surrealist novella in translation,” and as vague as, “What book feels kind of rainy to you?” That personalization, care, and generosity of time is something I value tremendously.