Rae DelBianco was a student on our London novel-writing course in 2015 – in fact she came over from the US for six months specifically to study on our course! Her much anticipated debut Rough Animals was published by Arcade in the US earlier this month, and is currently being translated into French and Italian. We caught up with Rae to discuss her time on the CBC course – and Rough Animals, a gripping tale about what happens to twins Wyatt and Lucy Smith after their father’s death, on the family’s isolated ranch in Box Elder County, Utah.
You grew up raising cattle in Bucks County, Pennsylvania and your debut novel Rough Animals has been described as a rural thriller. It has already been compared to the work of Cormac McCarthy. What were some of your influences – literary or otherwise?
Cormac McCarthy writes violence with stunning visual beauty. Without glorifying it or lessening its impact, he makes it impossible to look away from. A central goal of my novel was to confront the violence underlying everyday life, and so paying homage to McCarthy’s Blood Meridian was a must.
I admire Denis Johnson’s thematic aesthetic more than that of any other writer. He takes the grimy, the crude, and the forsaken, and uplifts it. Johnson seems to draw more redemptive spirit from the broken things than from the whole, easy-to-love things, and to me that seems to be the most surefire route to happiness in real life. In my work, there is no triumph in loving what you’ve always seen as good and pure. Humanity comes from seeing the broken things as they are, and deciding to love them anyway.
Rough Animals follows Wyatt Smith on a tumultuous journey of revenge and self-discovery, through a world of crime deep in the brutal Monument Valley, Utah. What was the toughest part of crafting a narrative with harsh internal and external landscapes?
The thing about internal and external struggle is that they’re interwoven. Mental strength often impacts survival more than physical strength does. For me, writing is a kind of method acting, and the desert scenes became a psychosomatic test. The toughest part of crafting the narrative was being constantly aware of the interplay between mental and physical struggle. It dictated what choices characters would make, when they would snap, and even when they would die, if they did. But in portraying struggle so closely, I also felt as if I’d had a firsthand look at the indomitable human spirit. For as much struggle as there is in a fight for survival, there are also acts of generosity, faith, and love—the things that make us distinctly human even as our world goes to the dogs.
You came to London from the US to join our 6-month London course back in 2015 – what motivated you to travel all that way to join our course?
I believe you become a writer the moment you can look at the risks of the career and say, “am I willing to become homeless for this? Yes.” When that’s where the bar is set, deciding to pack it up and move to a foreign country for a great opportunity was easy.
I’d never heard of a program with CBC’s level of industry-mindedness. Our intensive publishing education never impacted the art side of the course, but the seminar series with publishers, the workshops on query letters, introductions to literary agents—it’s the only program I know of that equips writers with all the tools to make a career of it, outside of the PEN Emerging Voices fellowship. It was my first real access to the industry because it was the first time that, as a young grad straight off a cattle farm, I was judged by the quality of my writing and not my lack of résumé or pedigree. After I returned home, my uncle joked that CBC launched me a decade ahead in my career. I don’t think he’s wrong.
And, how did the CBC course influence the shape of your novel?
I didn’t realize it until this year, but the CBC course’s biggest impact on my novel came from the diverse genres of my classmates. In literary fiction workshops, it’s tempting to focus on the creation of a beautiful sentence and to leave it at that while plot and character development suffer. In a class with psychological thrillers, police procedurals, commercial fiction, we were all held to the same rigorous standards: compelling characters, dynamic plot, muscular prose. I was only a writer before CBC. Now I’m a storyteller.
You are a believer in authors using social media to promote their books, and you are particularly active on Instagram. Do you think this is the way for authors to operate in the digital age?
Digital media and short-form content changed traditional media forever. Book review sections are disappearing because they don’t get enough clicks. While that’s not to say the old ways of promoting books should be abandoned—they shouldn’t and are in many ways still worthwhile—social media is a new chance to connect directly with readers in what is often a very fulfilling experience. As a debut author, I didn’t want to take any opportunity to have a voice for granted.
What advice would you give to an aspiring author?
I’d pass along the line from William Faulkner’s Nobel Prize acceptance speech that I have scrawled across all of my writing notebooks: “[a writer] must teach himself that the basest of all things is to be afraid.”
Rough Animals is published in the US by Arcade – get it here.
Read Rae’s blog post: Why authors should be using social media
If you are interested in taking a novel-writing course in London, like Rae, you can apply for our next 6-month London-based course taught by Simon Wroe here.
Or, you can check out the our other upcoming courses on our courses page.