25 Years of Spectra: TOTAL OBLIVION, MORE OR LESS (2009) by Alan DeNiro




I find it rather fitting that Alan DeNiro’s Total Oblivion, More or Less is the last book being featured in the 25 Years of Spectra Time Machine, because it’s all about “what’s next?”

Granted, it’s about a post-apocolyptic “what’s next?” that’s both absurdist (but not absurd) and dark, but a “what’s next?” nevertheless.

Looking into a near future in which the world is radically transformed by invading hordes of oddness, Total Oblivion is a quirky ride down the Mississippi in the mind of a rather precocious teenager, Macy. It was one of my favorite books last year.

And what fits in with the “what’s next?” theme is that Total Oblivion also straddles–as Alan discusses below–age groups. While definitely an adult novel, having a young teen protagonist in Macy opens up the readership to a much broader audience (especially as Alan does such a good job getting into the mind of a 16-year-old). While perhaps not necessarily a goal of Spectra moving forward, the idea of expanding exactly where our books “fit” is certainly something we’ve been striving to do for the past 25 years.
Finally–along with HavemercyTotal Oblivion has my favorite cover of any book on this list. I like Havemercy because it’s such a visually stunning illustration; I like Total Oblivion because it’s such a striking, graphically interesting design. Not only does it rather perfectly encapsulate the surreality and wonder inherent in the writing, but it also just makes you think “Wow–that’s a book I need to know more about.” Coupled with the title, it creates an amazing cover, and one that I think Lynn Buckley did an amazing job on.

Alan’s thoughts on Total Oblivion, More or less after the jump.

The Accidental YA

When I first started my novel Total Oblivion, More or Less, which was published by Spectra in November, I had no real conception of the story being for “young adults”, even in part. My narrator was a 16-year-old girl named Macy, who witnesses the dissolution of her quiet normal life in very peculiar fashion–an onslaught of Scythian horsemen, a mysterious plague, and the complete breakdown of technology. It was “just” a novel–in other words, I wasn’t thinking in terms of audience. I wanted to tell Macy’s story, and the story of her world, in the best way I knew how. She and her family had to make a dangerous voyage on the Mississippi to escape a refugee camp, and the river itself provides the “flow” for the entire book.

I figured that if I start at the beginning of the river and go all the way down to the end, it would at least provide a path for me to take, both a structure and a current.

At some point in the later drafts (this is still years ago), however, I began to think of those issues of audience a little more. Whose story was Macy’s anyway? Once it was released into the world (that, at least, was my hope once I finished the novel, needless to say!), it wouldn’t really be mine anymore. And though I usually try not to fit neatly into one category or another genre-wise, that’s a different proposition than pretending the categories don’t exist and willfully ignoring them. So was this a book for adults or teens? I made a conscious decision, “more or less”, to go for the former. I’m not sure exactly how that affected my revisions in a tactile way, but at the same time, if I had decided to consciously finish the book as a YA, it would have been different. Subtly different, I suspect. But still a different story.

And yet…we don’t live in a black and white world, not even in publishing. I still thought in the back of my mind that the book could still be a kind of crypto-YA, even if it was published as an adult book. (Sure I could say a “crossover book, but crypto-YA sounds a little more fun). Macy’s own story is hard to pin down in exact terms–she experiences things that are both allusive and elusive on the river, and throughout it all she’s trying to discover who she is in this terrifying, and at times exhilarating, new world. When the novel was published, I knew that some would be reading it as a YA, and I hope the story itself is nimble enough in its positioning that it could work in that fashion. Is YA an issue of subject matter or a strategy of reading? I imagine it’s both, along with many other concerns, not all involving “shelving issues.” I know that as a teen I read pretty voraciously, no matter what I could find, no matter where I could find it. I didn’t really feel those boundaries closing in on me–and in fact it would take many years before my ability to discern good from bad fiction–at least my perspective–became developed at all. But the books that spoke to me most were ones in which the protagonists had to truly struggle to uncover the good in them, where they really had to work to let it shine. No matter where the book was shelved, these struggles usually took the form of adventures, unfurling in strange worlds that left me in thrall, whether it was the terrifying summer dolor of William Sleator’s Interstellar Pig or George Turner’s dystopian family struggles in The Drowning Towers.

Those types of books in my formative years greatly influenced me. And now, with my own first novel out from Spectra, nothing gives me a greater thrill than having someone–including an adventurous teenager–pick up the book at random and get hooked, and have the book mean something to him or her for a good long while. That’s the hope. That’s why I do this.

–Alan DeNiro, July 2010

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