Falling in love with survivalism: an interview with Kashana Cauley

Kashana Cauley practiced law before cutting her teeth in the comedy world with The Today Show with Trevor Noah. She’s currently a writer for The Great North and has one of the funniest and most informative Twitter accounts in the game.

Her debut novel, The Survivalists, is a dark comedy about doomsday-preppers and falling in love. Debutiful asked Cauley a few questions via email so readers can get to know the hilarious writer and what her debut is all about.

Using ten words or less, what is The Survivalists about?

A single female lawyer falls in love with survivalism. 

After the pandemic, I have a different view on doomsday preppers. I’d love to hear about the genesis of this book! Did the pandemic have any influence on the roommates or were they always the way they were?

The book comes partly from my own experiences growing up in a gun and food stockpiling household in Wisconsin, but also from reading about two different groups of gun stockpilers that lived near where I did in NYC. One of them lived a couple blocks from by apartment, over a restaurant filled with fancy people eating even fancier ramen, and right above them, apparently, there was this guy who filled his apartment with so many guns that he must have been planning to fight World War III singlehandedly. I got obsessed with the news stories, because NYC, for a big city, has no crime, so there’s no need to own dozens of guns to protect yourself from a threat that isn’t there. But in wondering why New Yorkers would be afraid enough to stock up on guns, I kept going back to my own upbringing, where I was told we had the guns “just in case,” and decided to write a book about another group of people trying to figure out what their just in case might be. 

The pandemic didn’t change the roommates. They generally believe in preparedness, and a pandemic wouldn’t affect that. I critically re-read the book a great deal after the pandemic arrived, but decided a novel where they squarely addressed it would be a different book and their idea that you should have a plan for everything squarely includes things like pandemics. 

You, like the main character in the book, have experience in law. How did your career in that field shape your writing in general? 

The law taught me that everyone thinks they’re right. If, for example, someone runs over their own leg with a defective lawnmower and sues, the person with the damaged leg will think they’re right and should win. But the company that made the lawnmower will usually try to find some way to think they’re right. Maybe the person mowing the lawn also rolled over a patch of flowers planted in dirt, and rolling over dirt is outside the scope of what the lawnmower was designed to do, so the fact that the person with the hurt leg wasn’t using the lawnmower as intended means the company is right when they argue they shouldn’t have to pay leg damages. 

When people think they’re right, they’re operating out of a sense of passion and conviction I find fascinating. You get a sense of what really matters to people by figuring out when they think they’re right, and what they think they’re right about. Basically, what people think they’re right about provides them with stakes. So I try to write characters who think they’re right, and let that sense of internal rightness frame what it is that they want and get them into trouble.

How do you balance your different modes of writing? Are you able to write comedy for your staff writing job on The Great North, pieces for places like The New York Times or The Atlantic, and fiction on the same day or do you need space between those projects?

I write it all when I have time, or can squeeze time in. I have a kid, so I don’t have time to space projects out. 

I’m always fascinated by written humor. It seems like the hardest thing in the world to me since so much comedy we witness is attached to something physical or inflection in voice. How did you approach the humor in this novel?

All comedy has a rhythm, whether it’s spoken, physical, or written down. Setup, twist, landing. I don’t think a joke is done until you’ve read it out loud a few or more than a few times and adjusted the wording for rhythm. But the standups I’ve worked with do this too. Yeah, they perform their jokes, but first they write them down, say them out loud, adjust the rhythm, cadence, wording so they can hit the joke’s sweet spot. I’ve read the entire novel out loud to myself repeatedly, looking for tweaks to make in the rhythm, tone, and meaning of the funny and non funny sections.

Your profile on your website says “You’re probably here because of her Twitter.” What’s the secret sauce that makes a Twitter account worth following?

People with big ideas and big obsessions. People who make me feel like there’s something I can do to stop fascism. Funny people. 

What have you read recently that you could recommend to Debutiful readers?

Last Resort, by Andrew Lipstein, where the protagonist is a dick who has to work out an unholy compromise to get published after he takes elements of a friend’s story for his novel. I love a good literary asshole, and the main character in that book is the perfect mix of ambitious and slimy. 

Velvet Was The Night by Silvia Moreno-Garcia, a dreamy, exciting novel set in Mexico City about a lonely woman who accidentally falls in with a group of gangsters trying to infiltrate a group of student activists. 

Stay True by Hua Hsu, a gorgeous memoir which hooked me with its story of friendship between Hua and his best friend Ken, but also for its portrait of that point in college where you’re almost viciously trying to figure out who you are through pop culture and your friends. 

The Final Revival of Opal and Nev, by Dawnie Walton, which I’ve read a couple of times, for its portrayal of 70’s afropunk, but also its great love of the broad scope of black music and performance.  

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