There aren’t many books that I remember reading as clearly as I remember Rumaan Alam’s Leave the World Behind. It was 2020, and I was looking for escape. This book offers that—the writing propulsive, the pace breathless, so much so that I kept sneaking away from my remote job during the day to keep reading it. But it was a different kind of escape—an immersion in a new world, yes, but one with its own set of horrors. The apocalyptic images in this book continue to haunt me years later—hundreds of deer running from an unknown threat, an inexplicable flamingo in the swimming pool, bloody teeth suddenly falling from everyone’s mouths. In this book, Rumaan Alam somehow perfectly taps into the darkest collective anxieties of American society, but with a story that you can’t look away from.
Recently, the book was back in the spotlight when Netflix released the trailer for the long-awaited adaptation, coming in December 2023 and starring Julia Roberts, Mahershala Ali, Myha’la Herrold, Ethan Hawke, and other big names. In this wide-ranging conversation, I spoke with Alam about children’s books, his fear of animals, and microwave installation.
Rumaan Alam is the author of three novels: Rich and Pretty, That Kind of Mother, and Leave the World Behind. His writing has appeared in The New Yorker, The New York Review of Books, Bookforum, The New York Times, New York Magazine, and the New Republic. He studied writing at Oberlin College. Now, he lives in New York with his family.
Sarah Anderson (SA): To start, I saw that Leave the World Behind was back in the news recently because of the Netflix announcement. What was it like to see your work become a movie?
Rumaan Alam (RA): The [second time] I visited the set, I went to the studio, where they were shooting some of the interiors. And I saw the realized spaces that had only lived in my head, or I saw Sam and his team’s interpretation of that. And that was really strange. Because as you know, as a writer, you spend time with these made-up people, and these made-up places, and they have a kind of presence in your mind that you don’t always put all down on the page, right? Like it’s there in your head. But you don’t have to describe every component of the physiognomy or the layout of a place. And just to see someone’s take on it was strange. A very surreal experience.
SA: You mentioned that Leave the World Behind was not always narrated from multiple perspectives. Did you have a character that came to you first or was it in a different voice initially? And how did it arrive at its current form?
RA: I mean, even in its current form, which is divided among like six people, and then all of humanity, it’s more interested in the husband and wife at the center of the book. It begins with them. It tracks them more closely, I would say, than anyone else. But that was sort of the genesis of the book, following them in the way that any close third person would. The realization came from an editor who was the first editor on the book, Megan Lynch, a really smart reader, now the publisher at Flatiron books. And what she said to me is, “I understand that you want the reader to know what the characters don’t know. However, because the characters don’t know it, it’s extremely irritating to read this book.” And I think that’s a really good point.
So, I puzzled over that for a long time. And I realized that the solution was to simply have the book disclose directly to the reader everything that was happening, and that the book would be able to know everything inside everybody’s head and everything sort of the world over. That is how many novels of the 19th century work, they worked at the perspective of the Divine that could see the whole arc of a story. And it’s also the way a lot of children’s novels work. You know, there’s kind of a fairy tale quality. Fairy tale isn’t quite the right word, but it’s like an adult reading to a child where the adult is in control of the story and the child is simply listening to the story of Dorothy and the Tin Man and the Scarecrow. The voice of the adult is able to establish everything about the world the child is hearing about. And that was how I thought of the voice of this book.
SA: That’s an interesting comparison. You know, given the dark subject matter. It is like an adult fairy tale.
RA: Children’s books are so dark like that! I think it touches almost a primal comfort where, if you were lucky enough to have an adult read to you as a small child, you can remember that feeling of like, you’re not quite asleep, and you’re not quite thinking, and the story is kind of entering your brain through the voice of this person who cares about you. And it is an experience of reading in a way, but it’s also a different kind of experience. There’s something really powerful about that. I hoped that the book could emulate that. Comfort isn’t quite the word for this book, but [the feeling] that the book was in total control, and was telling you, “Here’s what’s happening. It doesn’t really make sense, much as The Wizard of Oz doesn’t make sense, really.” But the voice of the person reading to you when you’re seven is sort of in control of it. And I love that tension.
SA: On the note of fairy tales, or fables or that sort of thing… I feel like there are two types of readers in terms of apocalypse fiction– people who want to read to escape and not think about any of that. And then people who seek it out. I’m one of those people, because I’m like, “Tell me how bad it can get.” I imagine, having written this book that you might be in the latter camp. But I’m curious about your thoughts on apocalypse and the dystopian.
RA: It’s funny, I didn’t think of the book in genre terms quite in that way as I was writing it. And in fact, what I thought of it…I mean, I was told never to say this when we published the book, but I feel like I can say it now with the distance of a few years. I thought of it as a horror novel. And my publisher was like, “Don’t say that.” Horror as a genre, as an endeavor, has a specific audience who cares deeply about it, and my book doesn’t really obey the conventions of that.
I would argue that apocalypse, which people think of as a genre, is not really far from horror, strictly speaking, and it’s maybe one of the more existential forms of horror, because it’s about the extinguishing of all of human life, right? There is a lot of work in the culture walking toward that particular idea in this moment. I don’t know if that’s specific to a sense of larger collapse or if it’s a blip in a bigger cycle of civilization. It’s really hard to know the answer to that.
SA: Okay, I have one wildcard question. What do you think your niche would be in a post-apocalyptic society?
RA: Oh, I would hopefully die immediately.
SA: That’s my feeling. I call myself a First Wave girl.
RA: I can’t really do anything, you know. I have really bad eyesight. I’m not like a tough person. And I don’t have a skill like I wish I had. If I were a contractor, or if I were a homeopath, and I could make medicine or something… but no, I can’t.
SA: I like that you just said contractor given that character in Leave the World Behind: Danny the contractor, who serves as this last great hope of Clay and G.H. at the end of the world. They’re sure that somehow Danny is the one who will have answers.
RA: I’m really amazed by people who know how to take a pile of wood and make it into something. That’s an extraordinary talent. We have a microwave installed over our stove, and it broke recently. And my husband was like, “Oh, we have to buy a new microwave.” And then we bought a new microwave. And I was like, “Well, you know, we’re two educated people, physically healthy. Surely, we can figure out how to take that thing out and put this one in its place.” I was like, “Let’s watch YouTube. Surely it will tell us how to do that.” And I looked at it for 30 seconds and I was like, “There’s no way I could do this. There’s no way.” So, in a post-apocalyptic scenario where I wouldn’t even have access to YouTube to even tell me that I’m not able to do something–yeah, I would really be one of the first to go.
SA: That calls back maybe the scariest scene in the book for me, when Clay is lost without the GPS… Yesterday you spoke really eloquently about your experience watching the crane migration in Bangladesh, and how that inspired another scary image in the book, the flamingo scene. But then you mentioned that you hate animals. Can you expand on that?
RA: I have a response to animals of revulsion. I sort of recoil from them. There are many components to that. First, there’s some uncanny intelligence in an animal’s eyes that is unsettling, because you can never commune with an animal in language. And so, I can’t comprehend what their motives are, what is happening on the inside. And there clearly is something happening inside of there, right? There is, and we will never know it. And that is so freaky to me.
SA: Another idea I wanted to follow up on from last night’s talk is writers following their obsessions. You talked a little bit about people who write the same book over and over. I don’t think of you as that writer. It seems like your books, to me, cover a lot of range. What would you say your obsessions are?
RA: Well, there’s what I think my obsessions are. And then there’s what the person who’s reading the work from a different perspective would identify as my obsessions. And I don’t know what the gulf is between those two perspectives… I think the impulse to make art is to ask questions that don’t really have answers. So, a lot of times the artist is asking that question repeatedly because there’s no single or proper answer to the question. And the drive to ask the question is so powerful that they keep coming back.
SA: Do you have something that you feel yourself being repeatedly pulled back to?
RA: I’m very interested in money, in class. I’m interested in how class mitigates people’s experience of reality–people who accept objective reality, but don’t actually live it, because they don’t realize how it’s actually functioning in their life, with respect to class, with respect to sex, with respect to race. There are people who don’t understand that their experience of reality is mitigated by their race. They tend to be white, but maybe they’re not exclusively white. And that’s kind of an extraordinary thing to me.
I’m interested in intimate relationships. I’m interested in how conversation cannot progress or how conversation can hold something that isn’t really being said. I’m interested in familial bonds, in parenthood, in food. Food is a big one for me, to capture the texture of what is exciting about life on the page. I’m interested in sensual pleasure actually. That’s something that’s become much more interesting to me.
SA: You’ve called your next project “insane.” I love insane things. Is there anything else you’re willing to say about it?
RA: It’s mostly insane as far as I feel deranged from having been inside of it for so long. It is a book about money. And it’s a book about a relationship between people who are very different ages. I’m very interested, I don’t know if I realized this until I said it last night, but I’m pretty interested in older people. There seems to be, to me, a bias in contemporary fiction toward youth and adolescence, which is not that interesting to me. But being near the end of your life is interesting to me.
And so that’s what the book is about. It’s about someone who’s 83 and his relationship with a woman who’s 33. It’s not a sexual relationship, but it’s a relationship with its own charge. There are multiple ways to have a very intimate relationship. And sex is not the way I would look at this particular relationship. There is this thing between them that I do think exists in reality that I don’t see rendered a lot on the page. I think we’re interested in the big universal relationships of like lovers or parents, but there’s this other kind of thing that interests me.
That makes it sound less insane I suppose, than I made it sound on stage. But again, I think the insanity is simply being inside of a relationship between made-up people in a made-up place for a long part of your real life. [It’s] a kind of state of waking delusion.
SA: Before we finish, do you have any quick advice for writers at the start of their careers?
RA: Yes, the only advice that you should ever accept is that you have to read widely. I would be skeptical of any other advice. You have to, have to, have to read widely. You should read things you don’t like, you should read things that other people love, you should read things you don’t understand. And you should maintain that curiosity about reading for your entire life.
SA: Thank you so much.
RA: Thank you. This was so fun.
Sarah Anderson is a second-year MFA student in the Helen Zell Writers’ Program at the University of Michigan. She is currently working on her first novel and on a short story collection that explores questions such as whether or not kangaroos are hot. She can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.