John Fram’s amazing debut, The Bright Lands, came to my attention when Kelly J. Ford pitched it to me as “Friday Night Lights meets Stephen King, but queer.” I made grabby hands at her, and she allowed me to read the advanced copy.
The Bright Lands which Library Journal named a Best Winter/Spring Debut 2020 has been earning high praise.
Josh Malerman, New York Times bestselling author of Bird Box calls The Bright Lands, “A mystery to get the skin crawling even as you unbury the secrets of those trying to solve it.”
P. J. Vernon, author of When You Find Me, says, “Fram has delivered a powerhouse of a debut that is certain to be one of the year’s most bracing thrillers. Unapologetic in its queerness, cruelty and heart, The Bright Lands will sink its teeth into you.”
I was delighted to speak with John Fram about his enthralling supernatural mystery, The Bright Lands.
Titles are notoriously difficult. I love yours. How did you come up with it?
I’m lucky: the title came before just about anything else. When I started thinking about this story, I was struck by an image of something bright and terrible resting far, far away in an empty Texas wasteland. The second I saw that image, it was like my title came with it. What’s out there? The Bright Lands.
How did you start this book? Did a character come to mind first, or was it the plot that revealed itself? Or are you a monster who fully outlines a story before you begin writing?
All of the above, ha ha. I knew for a long time that I wanted to write a novel about a queer hero returning to his hometown to solve a mystery, but it took until I had the idea of a missing quarterback—and a football team full of secrets—to really galvanize that concept. I wanted to sit down and write the whole thing straight through like the geniuses apparently do, but it was too much for me. I ultimately outlined it really extensively just to make sure all of the story’s hundred spinning plates stayed where they needed to be.
Did you ever play football? Did you attend games?
I did not play football, but I did attend a few games. Honestly, I was a kid so afraid of physical pain I avoided playground equipment, so the sight of grown men beating the tar out of each other was genuinely distressing to me. But not, you know, unexciting.
What is your dead darling, the plotline/character you cut from the story that you still mourn?
There are literally two hundred pages of outlined material that got sliced before I even started drafting this book, but the saddest loss is the chatter of the Bentley Bison’s cheerleading squad. There were several scenes of these girls throwing shade and painting posters and it was physically painful to silence them.
Did you ever have nightmares while writing this book, and were they at all influenced by the book?
Honestly, I only have dreams when I’m not working on a project—I think it’s because dreams bubble up out of the same subterranean river we fish fiction from, and when I’m fishing daily, so to speak, the river is empty by the time I go to bed. Thank God.
There are many characters whom I wouldn’t befriend in this cast. Who among the villains do you like best and why?
Oh, Lord, that’s a hard one. I wouldn’t go anywhere near most of them, but the younger villains are the people I feel most sorry for. Texas is a dangerous place to be if you’re athletic, good-looking and naïve.
You did a great job of showcasing how the town’s obsession with its football team drives it economically, in both positive and negative ways. Is this something you observed in real life?
Absolutely. There’s a town not far from where I grew up that created a job for the father of a promising middle-school football player so that the boy’s family would move to the town’s school district and play for them. I’ll always wonder what happened to that kid.
The past influences the present a lot in this novel, and yet you avoided flashbacks. Was that a deliberate choice?
Originally, there were far, far more flashbacks—I very much wanted to create the murder mystery Alice Munro never wrote—but in the interest of momentum, I scaled them back. I found that a few powerful scenes could echo through the text, defining everything in the present in a way its characters might not understand but still feel, intuitively. Just like life.
Your ending is a real firecracker of shifting points of view, non-stop action, and gut-wrenching twists. How did you write it? Did you always plan to rotate POV so often in the climax? Or did that evolve as you explored the story?
A hundred percent, yes. Partially I needed a big ending because I had so many characters and subplots to tie up, but I also knew I wanted to write something with the sweep and madness of, say, Mad Max: Fury Road. And while it was the most technically demanding thing I’ve ever written, it was easily the most fun.
The body count at book’s end is not inconsequential and I admit, some of the characters I wanted to survive didn’t make it. Without spoilers, did you receive feedback from beta readers on the level of “How could you kill XXX? How dare you, sir?”
Yes, and I still get those comments from readers with ARCs on social media. I’d be lying if I said it didn’t make me smile every time.
It’s impossible to know what a book release in early July will look like during a global pandemic. Have you altered your publicity plans?
Somewhat, but I’m holding out hope that some venues will be reopened, even at partial capacity. Otherwise, I’ve been so grateful to find a passionate reading community on Instagram and I suspect I’ll be doing a lot of fun stuff with them come July, whether we have a physical release or not.
What’s one underappreciated book you’d recommend to readers?
The psychological thrillers that British crime maven Ruth Rendell wrote under the open pen name “Barbara Vine” are fast being forgotten and I need the New York Review Classics people to start snatching up the rights up so they don’t fall out of circulation. The Brimstone Wedding, specifically, is a masterpiece of tensions: young and old, past and present, rich and poor, sane and…not sane. It’s brilliant and moving and brutally smart and everyone should read it.
What is one thing that terrifies you?
The reading habits of wealthy gay men.
What’s the hardest thing you found in writing a novel?
What’s been one unexpected thing you’ve discovered on your journey to publication?
That people are not just ready to read new authors: they’re hungry for new, diverse voices. Thank God publishers are listening.