Michael Nye’s debut novel is, in his own words, the completion of a massive apprenticeship that took twenty years to complete. All the Castles that Burned is woven with many semi-autobiographical threads, but Nye never thought those stories would become his first full-length book. The author worked through other ideas for novels, published a short story collection, Strategies Against Extinction, in 2012, and spent years as an editor for the Missouri Review and Boulevard, before finding the story he wanted to tell.
That story belongs to the character of Owen Webb, a charming outsider in a prestigious private school who forms a connection with the enigmatic Carson Bly. Narratives of adolescent male friendship are having something of moment in current literature, but unlike a lot of recent books, Nye’s story — like many a bored teenager — looks for the thrilling in the ordinary, the adventures in the everyday. Set in the mid-1990s, Owen and Carson bond over basketball, and begin a friendship that will last nearly two decades.
I spoke with the author about how All the Castles Burned Down evolved over the years of writing, and why he chose to write about a friendship between two young men.
Adam Vitcavage: This is your debut novel, but your short story collection,Strategies Against Extinction, published in 2012. Was this always the first novel you intended to write?
Michael Nye: It wasn’t. This is actually attempt number four for me. The previous version, novel number three, was finished back in 2010. I went through the whole process of looking for an agent, then I got an agent, he never sold the novel, he quit the business, and he dumped me as a client. I had this novel that nobody wanted or had interest in. I had a reckoning at that moment. I sat down to read it to see what I thought. As I was reading it I started x-ing out pages and deleting chapters. Eventually my 80,000 word novel became a 20,000 word novella.
I figured I had to start from scratch and started on the next book. I’ve always been a believer that once you finish a book — whether it gets published or not — that you move onto the next one. It took four attempts but I finally got one of these novel things to work for me.
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AV: Were those first attempts Owen’s story?
MN: They were vastly different. The novel that I didn’t sell was about a man with a brain condition who falls in love with a girl who is Asian-American. It was set in during one summer. There was a lot of writing about heat and nature. The one before that was about baseball. The one before that was chronologically backwards. I had been influenced by Charles Baxter’s First Light. I didn’t really understand how to write a mosaic novel and I just wrote it backward. That was about a son and his relationship with his father. It didn’t have anything to do with my real life or male friendship. There were similar thematic elements, but they definitely were not the same book.
AV: All the Castles Burned is semi-autobiographical. Was that always intended?
MN: It really wasn’t. Initially this was a book about the friendship between the two boys. Owen Webb, the protagonist, and Carson Bly who is his friend. It always had a similar structure where it started in the mid-1990s and leapt ahead fifteen years. Early drafts wanted to be like Nabokov but I’m really not a Nabokovian. It really didn’t work. The second half failed miserably.
When I was trying to figure out what was missing from this protagonist, I started thinking about Owen’s father. In the final version of this book, Owen’s father, Joseph Webb, is a stand-in for my own father. In 1990, my father, who had been working as a chemical technician, was arrested and eventually tried and convicted for crimes very similar to what happens to Joseph in this book. That strain of the novel definitely came from a place where all of these events are true to the best of my memory.
AV: And what about the mother? Was she similarly created as the father?
MN: She’s a fictional character. My mother and I dealt with my father in different ways. When I was a teenager, we really dealt with it as individuals rather than as mother and son. In this book, I knew that when Owen needed help near the end of the book, he would need to reach out to somebody. Through multiple drafts of the book, it became clear that it needed to be the mother.
AV: As I was reading the book, I was really drawn to that father-son relationship. When you were writing that part, did you find it hard to bring out those autobiographical elements?
MN: Not so much. The things about my father and my past have been churning out in my mind for almost thirty years now. There are so many elements of my relationship with my father that I have been trying to puzzle out and think through. Of course, the more you think about the past the more you begin shaping it to who you are now. You often stop trusting those memories. I relied on the facts about who my father was and who I wanted Joseph Webb to be in the book. From there, I let Joseph become his own character. It was really just a point of reference for me. Then to have both boys have fathers who are absent in very different ways was one of those nice things that gives an undercurrent to the story and why these two boys are drawn together.
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AV: These boys have a unique bond that was refreshing to read about. Male, teen friendship isn’t often as raw as this. Young women get stories about friendship, discovery, and so forth, but boys always have to go through something extraordinary. For instance, The Loser Club battles an extraterrestrial shapeshifter that presents as a clown, another Stephen King plot finds the boys in The Body bonding, but again it’s driven by finding a dead body. Your novel is highlights the mundanity of adolescence. Why did you want to tell Owen and Carson’s story?
MN: What struck me about these two characters and boys in general is that we don’t often see that subtler type of friendship. It’s rarely discussed unless there are these, like you said, extraordinary events. It’s funny that you bring up Stephen King because I was just re-reading my friend Aaron Burch’s book, which is about reading The Body and what friendship has meant to him as an adult. It felt like a thing I am always curious about. I’m in my late 30s now and I’ve moved around a bit. I’ve noticed how men rarely make friends outside of school or work and we rarely discuss friendship. I’m surprised it isn’t discussed more. There’s nothing taboo about it and I think writers take it for granted. I wanted to explore it on a more personal level.
I’ve noticed how men rarely make friends outside of school or work and we rarely discuss friendship. I wanted to explore it on a more personal level.
AV: As you were exploring their friendship, it stems from basketball. How did sports fall into the novel?
MN: I needed something that put them together. I love basketball; I’m a huge pick-up junkie. I was not a good basketball player in high school and none of the boys’ feats are based on anything factual. The great thing about basketball is that there are great team elements where you can have action in the book involving all of the characters, but then there are slower moments involving practice or shooting free throws. Stuff you can do alone so you can also get the individual.
I think for many boys, not just Owen and Carson, sports is the first foray into making friends with other boys. There are a lot of things that become unspoken in your relationship because everything is done through play, games, who wins, and who loses.
How you communicate and express grief, loneliness, sadness, anger are things that get developed over time. That’s what you see happening between Owen and Carson as the book goes on.
AV: Did you know where you wanted these boys to go from the moment they connected shooting hoops?
MN: I generally thought about what was happening between these boys as something that will last for a long period of time. One of the things I love about first person novels is where that person is speaking from the here and now, what it is he or she remembers or doesn’t remember, and how the protagonist shades memory. I knew I always wanted the story to pass a long period of time.
The challenge was those boys weren’t always going to be together during those fifteen or twenty years. How was I going to attack that? I had a basic idea of what I wanted to happen because I knew I wanted it to be about friendship and how that escalates into violence.
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AV: The book is broken into three parts. Was that always in the background when you were plotting this?
MN: That was edited in over various drafts. I think the original version of this book featured equal halves of 1994 and 2008. What I found when I was talking to friends who were reading early drafts was that the second half just didn’t work. One of my friends asked me what the book was about and I answered that it was about the friendship between Owen and Carson. She gave me the advice to spend more time in 1994. Ultimately, the bulk of the book became about their youth and only a short portion at the end of the book is set in what I consider Owen’s present.