Genevieve Hudson’s Boys in Alabama explores what it means to be queer in the Deep South

Genevieve Hudson’s debut novel Boys of Alabama comes with a lot of buzz. After he debut story collection Pretend We Live Here mad a big splash in 2018 with their electric prose and fascinating characters, this book builds on those skills they so carefully displayed across the stories.

Boys of Alabama is about Max, a boy who may or may not bring dead animals back to life. When his father is transferred from his German company to Alabama, Max becomes entwined with Pan, a confident boy who wears dresses and believes in and is fascinated with witchcraft. The book expertly dissects queer coming-of-age and refreshingly leans into teenage love, lust, drama, and growing pains.

I chatted with Hudson about Southern Gothic literature, Alabama, and coming-of-age queer in the Deep South.

Was writing a path you always saw yourself on as a kid?

In some ways it was. I was always a big reader and reading was an important part of my life. I was always immersed in novels and comics when I was younger. Even when I was young, reading made me feel like I wanted to be involved. I would want to write or draw the characters that I just read about. There was a lot of very young fan fiction. Writing was always something I was playing with an experimenting with from a young age.

I was reading an interview you did with the Rumpus after your short story collection came out and you talked a lot about what you were reading at the time. During this time when you’re publishing a book plus being in quarantine, are you finding it easy to read still?

I think the first couple weeks of the quarantine, I had a difficult time focusing on everything. My mind would be pulled going in different directions and I felt like the only thing that could keep me feeling present would be to be in my body. I was going on a lot of walks and I was trying to cook more.

Recently, I have been trying to read more. Maybe it’s the books I have picked up recently. I have just read Song of Achilles by Madeleine Miller and that book just grabbed me and it pulled me back into reading. 

Is there something in particular you’re seeking when you’re looking for books to read?

Books can come to me in a variety of different ways. I’m close with a lot of writers who read often. Certain books will be recommended and if a few people close to me recommend the same book, I have a feeling I will like it and will try it out. There are authors who I know that if they are publishing something new, I will check that work out because I like their style or their attention to sentences. 

Other than that, I do love stories about queerness and identity. I’m always interested in coming of age stories.

Do you remember the first book you came across that represented queerness?

I was in college when I started really engaging in queer literature in a significant way. I think some of that has to do with the fact that I grew up in the Deep South in communities where I was reading widely to what I was exposed to. When I was young I gravitated toward stories about young boys. I probably read them because I hung out with a lot of boys and I identified as very boyish. That culture was very interesting to me. There was maybe some inherent queerness in reading stories of these boys and identifying on a deep level.

When I was in college, I read these two books back to back that aren’t very traditional lesbian, queer books. They were She Came To Stay by Simone de Beauvoir and The Diaries of Anais Nin and those were really the first books that I read about the desire between two women that was acted on. It really turned something in me and after that I went searching for anything I could find. 

Were you writing around your time in college?

Really trying to write started when I was in college. I would read literary magazines and it really felt like one day I could submit to them. That happened when I was an English major and I took a creative writing class. That was the beginning of the intentional pursuit of writing for me.

Were you writing about queer exploration before you read those two books?

No, that happened later. In those early college years, I didn’t know I could write about that. I was writing quieter stories that still had similar themes. I was interested in people who were grappling with a part of themselves that they hadn’t before or growing into themselves or having a secret.

Boys of Alabama is a queer coming-of-age that does deal with some of those themes. Did you start writing this prior to your story collection coming out?

I had written very early scenes that would come into Boys of Alabama years before that I knew I was intentionally writing a book. Some of the stories in the collection were also written further back. Some were written after I knew the collection was going to be published. 

A simple answer is some stories and this book were written in tandem.

I know you’re friends with Chelsea Bieker. When I had her on the site’s podcast, she mentioned how her novel Godshot and her forthcoming story collection isn’t a sequel but the two works are sisters in a way because they cover similar topics and themes with some familiar characters. Would you consider your books to be like that?

Not in the same way Chelsea’s are. Chelsea’s really have some overlap of characters and it really seems some of these stories can be happening in the same town. With mine, there is definitely an overlap of themes like identity exploration and queerness, but most of the stories in my collection have to do with female bodied people. Boys of Alabama is about two young boys. Something about that does feel different and there is a different tone in the novel than the collection.

You grew up in Alabama and you kind of touched on how queerness is discussed and approached in the Deep South, did you always want to write a book about queerness in the Deep South?

No. I think if you asked me this as I was leaving undergrad and leaving the Deep South, I would have said I would never write about it. I was trying to leave that behind in a lot of ways. I think we all have these central stories and the more I wrote, I realized I would have to grapple with this before I could move on. I had to reckon with the culture I grew up in before I could move on to other stories I wanted to tell.

This book is obviously not about your life, but as you were writing, how did you grapple with your personal upbringing?

A little bit about my background would be that I live in Portland now, but when I left Alabama I lived in Amsterdam for about six years. During that time away from the Deep South and America, I thought a lot about the ways that American culture in the Deep South played in the imagination of people outside of America and especially how people thought about it in Western Europe. My partner at the time was Dutch and we would travel to Alabama to visit my family. I think visiting with someone who was so far removed from that experience really had me see the place I grew up in a different way. It was like defamiliarizing myself with it. I was able to approach some of the experiences that felt really complicated to be about growing up there. For instance, feeling very close and connected to people whose moral and political ideologies are very different than mine. We connected on a lot of different ways and through a lot of different avenues. I was trying to reckon with that feeling about that pull of who I wanted to be and trying to develop and identity.

Being an adult and oing back to Alabama after being so far away, it felt that story was building in me. This story is definitely not a fictionalized version of my own life. I think those themes I am dealing with were things I had taken with me from childhood to adulthood.

A lot of the blurbs and reviews about the book talk about reinventing the Southern Gothic novel. I’m always curious what writers think of their own work versus what others label it. What is a Southern Gothic novel to you and is that what Boys of Alabama was meant to be apart of?

That’s something that I thought about a lot, too, because I think there’s something about the Southern Gothic that feels like it has a big influence on writers who are living or coming out of the South. When I think of Southern Gothic writing, I think of it as a ghost story mixed with freak literature. You’re trying to describe the South in a way that pulls out this dark, paranoid, or god-obsessed culture. Flannery O’Connor has this quote about Southern Gothic literature that’s something like: in these works, the writer has to bring alive some customs that we’re not used to observing in every day life. Or it’s a way the ordinary person doesn’t live their ordinary life.

If we’re thinking of Southern Gothic literature in that way, then I think it’s an interesting legacy to write in to. I like this idea of merging darkness, oddity, and sometimes religious hyperbole while letting it exist in an ordinary world.

After all of these years of writing and editing Boys of Alabama, how do you view identity different in Alabama than you did when you started this journey?

I think that when I was a teenager leaving Alabama, I was a lot more critical of it that I am now. I wanted so badly to be able to live a life that felt out of reach for me when I was there. I was limited in my own naivety of my youth. Now, the more I go back the older I get, I really see how everywhere and everybody is complicated. There’s a lot of beauty and tenderness in Alabama.

You have a story collection and now a novel out. What more do you want to explore with your writing? How do you want to push yourself?

One thing I realized with putting this out, was I wrote Boys of Alabama years ago. It was something that was so apart of my life and I was so immersed in it, but I am writing new things and feel so removed from the themes of this novel. I’m immersed in this book because I’m sharing it to the world, but it does feel like I have moved on from what I was dealing with when I was writing the novel.

What I am working on now feels more familiar to me. My newest project is not about teenagers and it is dealing with less about coming out narratives, but still grappling with other themes that feel familiar with my work. I am ready to move in a different direction in my work with who I am writing about. Maybe older characters grappling with questions that come up later in life.

Please subscribe to Debutiful’s podcast, which releases once a month with an in-depth interview with one debut author.

Adam Vitcavage is the founder of Debutiful. His interviews and criticism have also appeared in Electric Literature, The Millions, Paste Magazine, and more.

Visit Genevieve Hudson at their  website and follow them on Twitter and Instagram.

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