“He said it looked like we were wearing our birthday suits. But, there weren’t any birthdays that summer. Birdie was born in May. I was born in November.”
So begins chapter two of Annie DeWitt’s debut novel White Nights in Split Town City, the heartbreaking tale of the summer of 1991 narrated by 12-year-old Jean. Jean’s mother skips town to chase after a man, leaving Jean with her younger sister Birdie. Jean falls for local delinquent Fender Steelhead — “the boy who smoked cigarettes on the playground still sleeping between spaceships and stars” — only to lose him to her sometime babysitter. And in one of the novel’s most harrowing scenes, Jean loses her virginity to her father’s riding buddy, the 60-something Otto while the news blares from a television behind them: Dr. Kevorkian is administering a fatal dose in an RV park.
It’s DeWitt’s rhythmic sentences and sly nods to Jean’s naivety that make the book uncomfortable in the best way.
White Nights in Split Town City is the story of what it means to feel desired and plugged in to what surrounds us, and how this informs our identities from a very, young age.
Stephanie LaCava: I want to ask you about the last line in the dedication: “To my sister who witnessed it all with me.”
Is this an admission of a kind of autofiction? Also the word choice: “witnessed.” So much of the book seems to be about what it means to be present and watching the world either at home in a small town or farther afield at war—in this case, the Gulf War.
Annie DeWitt: That sense of presence and witness was really important to me. I hope the book is defined by a strong sense of place. It’s set in New England in a small unnamed town next to Fay Mountain—the name of a young woman, specifically. I wanted to anchor the book there in a single summer – to make it feel as though that summer time slows and expands and becomes almost hyper-real. As a child in the pre-internet age, when the school bus dropped us off for the last time in late June, we changed into permanent bathing suits and spent every day outside running through the hose. A lot of times small Southern towns get described in this way. I think there is this false sense that this kind of dialect is localized to the South, writers like Hannah or O’Connor. I sometimes get the criticism, “You write like a man. You have this muscular prose. Who speaks like this?”
I grew up like this. I grew up until 7th grade, Jean’s age, in a small rural town on an unpaved road. Everyone was elderly, except for this brood of boys that lived up the mountain. So, in terms of autofiction, the sense of place stems very much from my early reality. That place was so full of possibility. It was the nexus for all the possibilities of what can happen to people when they live in an isolated place.
I balk a bit at the word autofiction. It somehow feels like saying – I’m just replicating my own life on the page, which is not at all the case here. To me all fiction comes from life. Even the invented worlds of sci-fi writers, like Samuel Delaney in his amazing book Dahlgren, are new worlds built out of the writer’s experience of our known world. They are just expanding the horizon. I think writers have rich inner worlds where the known and the unknown become intertwined. The known gives the work authority. The unknown renders that authority magical.
I dwelled on that dedication for a while as I didn’t want readers to wrongly assume that this was memoir. However, I felt it was important because I didn’t want my sister to feel like I somehow was the only one that had the right to tell this story. There are elements that are her story too. I wanted her to know: I know you saw some of these things too, even if we never talked about it.
SLC: As the mother of boys, I was struck by the opening of the book. The fierceness and realness of the Steelhead boys playing risky games. It also reminded me of my brother (he used to build ramps and jump off them with his bike in our front yard). It was striking to begin with such a charged male scene when so much of the book is about sex and the sexes, and, of course, the relationship between Jean and her mother.
AD: On a basic level The Steelhead brothers’ function is to be the foil— they’re the supposed impending danger. Yet, in reality, they end up being the most benign thing. Fender is not the one hit by Margaret later in the book, even though you expect it to be him. He needs to remain innocent. He’s in that same place Jean is, but he and she are going to go different directions. Him: burning down the pheasant farm, stealing the library books, spending time in a boys’ penitentiary, getting together with K. She: feeling outside the world of her own home looking in, which for her is as painful as anything that happens that summer.
Jean’s Dad goes up to the Steelhead brothers’ dwelling and tells the boys not to keep prank calling his house. Afterwards, Jean and Birdie can’t play in the front yard. The irony of this being that the father is protecting them from the wrong kind of lurking. His riding buddy has sex with his 12-year-old daughter while Wilson, Otto’s older, mentally disabled son, looks on. It was important to me that Wilson be emotionally at the same age as Jeanie. Wilson is also witnessing something terrible at that moment when Jean is having sex with his dad. Wilson feels the terrible jealousy of watching his father focus his attention on someone other than him. Even if Wilson doesn’t understand what it means to “rake a girl,” he can sense intimacy. He pees himself.
SLC: That’s a perfect segue to what I became obsessed with about the book. So much of the media now is watching others—cheap voyeurism that’s imperfect because the person watched wants to be seen. Social media and reality programming facilitate schadenfreude and sensationalism, what attracts viewers to a story. One of the special places where we go to look at a story because its unremarkable, but is remarkable in its universal nature, is and always has been the novel.
AD: To me, so much happens in this book. It is about how the smallest decisions in your life alter the course of existence. One critique by an editor who read an early draft was that “nothing happens.” I thought this odd. Within this novel, a war breaks out, a man dies, a predator is offed in the bushes, a farm burns down, a mother leaves her family, and we realize that a prominent doctor and farmer are not who we think they are all along (never mind our cognizance of all the national news taking place in the background on the television – Operation Desert Storm, the fall of the Berlin Wall, Mandela etc. which frames the novel and bleeds into life). I wondered if the editor’s comment was because this all transpires in a small town. Does she understand the gravitas of what it is for millions of Americans to leave or lead this very circumscribed middle class American 90’s life? “Small” was a word thrown around in a way I didn’t understand. Small, so it doesn’t matter?
But that’s exactly what does matter in this book. So much happens.
SLC: I felt this and in particular what I loved was a kind of unconventional pacing. I don’t know if it was deliberate, but it seemed to me that the “major” events, deaths and accidents, always crept up and in a moment were over. There was no dramatic build up or weighting of the moment. That is so much more real. These things happen in our own lives without warning.
AD: It makes me think about watching the actual eruption of the Iraq War, “Shock and Awe,” that thing that descended in bold red headlines on the news. The Early Gulf War was the lead up to this. However, I remember thinking that even though a war was breaking out in the Middle East, no one really cared. No one really realized what it would mean for the massive shift in our geo-political future.
That relates to the way the novel is structured, everything is about to explode: the Internet is about to be born, America will now forever be inextricably linked to Middle East, and Jean’s mother is about to leave her family.
For Jean to survive, she needs to somehow feel that the things that are happening to her are not monumental, like falling in love with the local neighborhood boy. This subsumes the major action within settings. I’ve always admired the way Marilynn Robinson accomplishes this in Housekeeping. Major plot points happen on the page and you barely recognize them. Someone’s car goes off the cliff and they die in a paragraph where all you remember is the setting of the lake. It’s not lead up to in the way you feel one would in classic plotting.
Here, weather and atmosphere feel most oppressive in this way. In rural landscapes, weather and landscape take over the discussion. In cities, its academia and world events. For me, I wanted every page to feel like something terrible or wonderful could happen in this world. Who’s to say what’s most detrimental in a child’s reality is actually most affecting? The kind of typical pacing we see used in novels to me often seems artificial. Small things touch children.
SLC: That’s so valid. This morning my son came in to me crying and said, “Mommy, I followed this girl on the playground and she turned to me and said, ‘You should play by yourself’.” He had been thinking about it for days, I think.
In regards to the question of being seen. I’m also interested in how this “small town” scene is so essential to telling about this very human, female desire without a sensationalist plot point. The women, particularly Jean’s Mother, are still obsessed with the kind of far away icons that pop up in all kinds of narratives. Jean’s mother is obsessed with being telegenic and using her looks and sexuality as a way out.
AD: The mother is the one that suffers the most from being unseen. She becomes obsessed with the news. Jean walks into the scene of her mother pretending to commentate the news with her hairbrush in the bathroom. (The mother wants to witness trauma and maintain control by reporting it.)
The Gulf War was the thing that made CNN as a network. I went back and ordered back issues of Time magazine to see what people were talking about. The beginning of America’s dream of being able to see War. There was a full color spread with lazy boys and TV dinner trays, everyone staring ahead at the news. The feature article wasn’t even about the war, but about people watching the war.
For that final scene in the book, I did a literal transcription of what Jennings said in an episode of the nightly news.
SLC: Have you seen artist Fiona Banner’s book The Nam? I have one I was just lent and will show you. It’s like 1,000 pages reporting out all the big Vietnam films.
AD: I haven’t! I’d love that. To return to your earlier question, the emotional bluntness of Jean comes from the general cultural sense of people from isolated areas feeling blunted, like nothing is happening in my world, but that’s about to change with internet and war. That generation that came out of living through Nam, felt like they couldn’t see it. So much of what transpired during that time period politically was covered up. COINTELPRO etc. was redacted. If Jean’s mother’s generation was hearing about the atrocities of the war, it was somehow removed or delayed. There is now such an interest in documentary films, and, of course, all the fictionalized remakes of that time period.
SLC: In addition to wanting to be a newscaster, Jean’s Mother is obsessed with Hollywood beauty clichés: smoking, Catherine Deneuve. She sees sex as a conduit to being saved, a ticket out of town.
AD: For the mother smoking is a cultural appropriation of what it meant to be beautiful, sexy, and upwardly mobile. It’s her way of feeling other or foreign. That’s why the Englishwoman above the Agway, Margaret, is her friend, a purebred European with a photographer husband. Jean’s mother thinks this is exciting. She wants to be attractive to everybody.
This character’s always trying to light up the world in this one way, through being seen. She feels she’s not able to light up the family or the world in a way that has more gravitas.
Sex is the tool to feel chosen, to be the most important person to someone. Jean’s mother embodies this, as does Callie. Jean wants to know, “Why isn’t this tool available to me?” It’s partly that the world naturally sexualizes her sister Birdie, even at a young age.
SLC: Is Jean meant to be reliable narrator?
AD: Yes. She’s meant to be so plainly truthful, but her version has everything emotionally weighted backwards.
SLC: I love that her youth is played up with these incredible sly malapropisms or misunderstood references throughout the text.
AD: On some level, I wanted to say to readers I trust you to make your own moral judgments of these characters. I want to put you in that space of both knowing and not knowing. And to say that maybe Jean is actually smarter than we make out. Maybe all of these people who are made to seem small and culturally unimportant are a lot more beguiling than we give them credit for.