On These Violent Delights: An Interview with Micah Nemerever

One of my favorite recent novels was These Violent Delights by Micah Nemerever. The book tells the story about the dependent relationship between Paul and Julian, two college students in Pittsburgh, and how they end up committing a shocking act of violence. These Violent Delights is a page turning thriller, which held this reader captivated for every one of its 450 pages. More than that, though, the book is striking for how Nemerever manages to bring us almost claustrophobically close to these two protagonists and their particular sometimes all consuming love for each other. Late in the book, Nemerever writes that “all they were—all they had ever been—was a pair of sunflowers who each believed the other was the sun.” It’s a remarkably assured and powerful first novel. I was happy to have the chance to talk with Nemerever about the book.

GC: In an early scene in the book, Paul says to Julian that “beautiful things are supposed to hurt,” a line that echoed for me through my reading of the rest of the novel. I wondered if you could talk a bit about the connection between beauty, pain and violence within These Violent Delights?

MN: There are a few of dramatic, sweeping aphorisms in the book that I actually agree with, and this line of Paul’s is one of them. My own taste in art and literature skews Romantic. I love art that is emotional and chaotic, encapsulating the pain of being unable to gain control no matter how much rationality you try to exert. I think art should be challenging, and I want the challenge to go to the heart as much as the brain. I love art that is visceral and disturbing, rooted in the frailty of the body and the smallness of human being—that alludes to the unspeakable things we do to each other in the name of an impossible control.

It’s an old-fashioned outlook, I think, and I decided to embrace it with These Violent Delights, because I wanted the book itself to be an old-fashioned story about moral grappling and the limits of rationality. I wanted the book to hurt to read, just as the story itself is about trauma and violence. The protagonists want to believe they are rational and unfettered in a way that makes them superior to other people, but they’re consumed by their fury and pain and insecurity—it leads them into a moral spiral that is fueled by their inescapable human irrationality. Their pursuit of beautiful, perfect reason leads them to violence. They believe beautiful things are supposed to hurt; they just don’t realize that this beauty they are trying to create is going to hurt them.

Another element I love in the book is the directness with which you portray Paul and Julian’s relationship, where in other earlier similar thrillers, it might have been relegated to subtext or implication. What gaps in queer fiction or representation were you aiming to speak to? What other books were you most in dialogue with?

I definitely feel like queer men’s relationships in particular are left to subtext, if they appear at all—or else they’re elided and kept vague, as in The Secret History. (I’ll always love the gay sex scene rendered in a single sentence: “Matters progressed.”)

Patricia Highsmith was this book’s most significant predecessor in terms of depicting obsessive male homoeroticism, but because she was writing in the middle of the century, the queerness in her crime fiction is implicit. And I’ve found that most contemporary novels about destructive folies-à-deux are about the bonds between young women, and those are very rarely explicitly queer either—many of these books are fantastic, and I’m so happy to be in dialogue with them, but they’re ultimately exploring different themes than I sought to examine myself.

I wanted to tell a story about how this kind of unhealthy romantic friendship interacts with male queerness and the expectations of masculinity. Teenage boys’ pain wears its violence closer to the surface, and both Paul and Julian expend incredible emotional energy sublimating their vulnerability into rage. How does this interact with the unavoidable vulnerability of being so obsessively in love—of simultaneously wanting and wanting to be in a way that feels as if you’re missing a layer of skin? How do young men push each other, egg each other on, try to impress one another? I’ve realized over the years just how inextricable this story is from toxic masculinity, which was especially interesting to me because neither of these characters is conventionally masculine, and both chafe against heteronormativity in different ways. But they’ve still absorbed that sense that anger is the only way to protect themselves—even and especially from each other.

As well as being a queer novel, These Violent Delights is a profoundly Jewish book (in my reading at least). Paul and Julian are both very different Jewish characters: Paul from an observant family and Julian from a family which aims to hide their Jewish origins. Paul’s particular struggles with morality and ethics, which lead to the questionable action he and Julian take, comes partly from the still active memory of the Holocaust which haunts the book. I wondered if you could speak a bit to this side of the book and the historical moment it is set which I haven’t seen as discussed?

Thank you so much for asking this question—Jewish identity is a key theme of the book for me, and the choice of time and place was absolutely deliberate. The 1970s setting presented some interesting complexity to the Jewish-American experience that I was really keen to explore.

As you said, the Holocaust casts a long shadow over the book, and Paul in particular is just one generation removed from his father’s trauma as a refugee. And there was an interesting tension within Paul’s family that I always had at the back of my mind, though it never makes it explicitly onto the page—a dissonance between Paul’s father’s experiences as a refugee and immigrant, and the fact that the rest of Paul’s family was fully established in America before the war and experienced the trauma of the Holocaust at a narrow half-step of remove. Paul’s maternal family believes in America, even trusts it to some degree, in a way that Paul himself doesn’t and can’t. He’s in a position to see American atrocities (the Tuskegee experiment, the My Lai massacre) not just as a moral outrage, but as a reflection of the parts of human nature that destroyed his father’s family. It feels like a locus of Paul’s alienation from his family—they have an idealism that he cannot access, and wouldn’t want to if he could.

And the 1970s were an interesting time to be a Jew in America for other reasons. I’ve always been fascinated by the way whiteness functions for Ashkenazi Jews—there is a sort of provisional, context-dependent whiteness that white gentiles will afford you at some times, but there are other times that you are clearly not viewed as white. This ambiguity was just beginning to arise in the middle of the century, because before the war there was no question in America that Jews weren’t white. The fact that Julian’s family can even try to assimilate into elite WASP culture is specific to that historical moment, but so is the fact that they have to. They access whiteness by appropriating it, performing it, rather than because it was given to them by default. And then Paul comes into their milieu as an unassimilated, unapologetically working class Jew, and he gets a birds’-eye view of how the white elite would see Julian’s family if they let their guard down for a second.

Paul doesn’t think of himself as white in general, I think, which is obviously an incomplete view. Even away from that jaunt into Chesapeake preppie hell, he spends a lot of time making vigilant mental notes on white gentiles’ appearances and attitudes, assessing them as potential threats the way an outsider does. He sees that aspect of his relationship to the white majority. What he doesn’t see, and can’t see, is the moments that he is afforded whiteness. There’s a scene about midway through the book in which he’s pulled over by a white police officer and manages to talk his way out of it, and Paul thinks of this moment as an unusual display of social adeptness on his part—it never occurs to him that, Jewish or not, in the glow of a police officer’s flashlight he gets to be white. He gets to be harmless. And he has no idea that’s what’s happening.

These Violent Delights, as well as being incredibly specific, also felt very universal in its evocation of deep feelings of shame and anxiety in the character of Paul. I was wondering how it was to write within that character and intensity of emotion?

Paul was both cathartic to write and deeply exhausting. I had to take a lot of breaks to recharge emotionally, because his feelings are in overdrive every second of his life and almost all of them are agonizing. I went through brief stretches of resenting him a little bit, as if he were a clingy friend who called me at all hours of the night to use me as free therapy—I never stopped loving him, in the way one must love one’s protagonist, but sometimes writing him felt like excising some vital organ inside me. And the book is so embedded in his ideas and fears and self-deceptions that it feels like a crucible, even to me.

There are just two passages in the book that aren’t from Paul’s perspective, and even those I sometimes interpret as actually being from his point of view—his imagining what might be going on in this other character’s head. It can be read either way, but that idea is something that was always at the back of my mind. How deeply Paul feels other people’s emotions, and yet how little that does to push him toward compassion. Even if you take the point of view at face value, these passages are anchored in Paul’s emotional intensity. It’s relentless.

I was interested how you went from writing an MA in Art History to such an immersive work of fiction? What was similar in academic writing and fiction writing? What was different?

I’m always joking that writing my MA thesis was my training as a writer, because I was too contrary to get an MFA like a normal person. They are indeed very different kinds of writing, and before I went to grad school I never would have seen a commonality between them. Fiction writing has always been an affective process for me, mostly instinct-driven, and for a long time I didn’t really analyze my artistic choices at all. I was working on a (very bad) early draft of These Violent Delights when I began grad school, and I believed they were completely separate skill sets.

But I learned quickly that with longform writing in particular, my bad habits were the same between academic and fiction writing. I tended to frontload information, or wander away from the point for several pages to provide unnecessary context just because I thought was interesting, or tie my sentences into knots trying to fit as much meaning into them as possible. My thesis advisor trained me out of these bad habits. I learned how to parcel out information gradually over a long piece while keeping the focus tight, and to trust the reader to make inferences rather than feeling I needed to make everything explicit upfront. My fiction writing got better quite naturally alongside my academic writing, and I learned how important it was to consciously evaluate what I was doing rather than put all my trust in the muses.

The fact that I learned to write in academia probably accounts for why I’m hyper-analytical and exacting in a way that other writers apparently aren’t (and frankly shouldn’t be, if my blood pressure is anything to go by)—but it works for me, and I don’t regret it for a second. And I’m pretty sure I’ll get at least two good romans-à-clef out of that stint in the hallowed halls, so it was a good time investment, I think.

What would be a piece of artwork you would connect to the book?

Early on in writing the book, I visited the Harvard Art Museum and saw a print of Leonard Baskin’s Hydrogen Man. It absolutely gutted me—I remember standing there for twenty minutes just taking it in, this raw primal scream of an image. It’s a large piece, the figure not much smaller than life size, so there’s no retreating from it. It feels like all the trauma of the twentieth century rendered on a single, shattered human body.

My main reaction to this piece was intensely personal, but it also influenced TVD in interesting ways. It resonated so deeply with the book’s pervasive rage and despair about what the twentieth century became. (It is also the kind of art Paul would love, though not the kind he would make.) It’s a work born of the same world that the characters can’t bear and can’t escape.

Is there a baked good you would recommend for while reading your book?

Oh god, something comforting, probably—and Jewish, just to do the thing properly. Let’s go with knishes by the truckload, so that you can eat your feelings.