A Note from Jayne Allen, Author of Black Girls Must Die Exhausted
I happened to read The Survivalists immediately following an unprecedented two weeks of torrential apocalypse-like rainstorms in Los Angeles where, as I was once promised in some of my favorite music, it was never supposed to rain at all. It was the perfect setup to enter protagonist Aretha’s world, in which the contemplation of catastrophe, both certain and imagined, sends her into a spiraling (and hilarious) descent that is more relatable than I’d probably like to admit. What I never imagined was the incredible exploration, conjured by Kashana Cauley, of a glorious cascade of bad decisions that made me believe that in this contemporary world of high-stakes and extreme opinions, maybe we’re all just a small shift of circumstances away from our own version of sex, soy, guns, batteries, and doom bunkers.
The following questions were written from Jayne to Kashana.
1. What came first as your inspiration for The Survivalists? What was the first element or idea for the story that you wanted to tell?
Thinking about the forms of survivalism I grew up with and the forms that appear in the news were where the overall book idea came from. But the first element of the book was thinking of a woman who was so frustrated with dating that she might fall in love with a survivalist. I thought about how to depict that for a while, and then one day I saw online that you can get live bees delivered to you. Immediately a woman sprang up in my head and was like, “If you can get live bees delivered to Brooklyn, how about a man?” That was Aretha. She just needed a name and some more misadventures.
2. Aretha’s perspective as a Black woman lends dimensionality to the topics in the book, like relationship to gun ownership, the police, and what it means to survive. What made you select Aretha as the protagonist for this particular story?
I haven’t seen a ton of contemporary literary novels that discussed survival, or the relationship to gun ownership, or the police from a Black woman’s perspective where both the love interest and the best friend are also Black (although if I’ve missed one, I’d love tips on what to read next). I wanted to craft as Black of a world as possible so Aretha and the other characters in the book could talk about these topics on as much of their own terms as possible. Aretha felt like the right protagonist, because as a Black former lawyer who spent years in Central Brooklyn, I felt like I could build her world well enough where the topical discussions didn’t feel fake.
3. How would you explain the meaning of the book title, The Survivalists?
Most of the characters in the book are preparing to survive a series of man-made and natural disasters, but they are also trying to survive the tidal waves of modern day life in our capitalist system: unaffordable rents, racial and gender discrimination, and uncertain employment. The title The Survivalists references both types of survival the characters are aiming for.
4. What takeaways have you gleaned from your own career journey that you hope readers might uncover from reading? Or what questions do you hope to leave readers with on the topic of work and career?
I’ve learned, and Aretha does too, that a step out of a career sometimes means a step into the unknown. I’ve tried my hardest to make peace with that unknowableness and not let it lead me places I don’t want to go, which is part of why it was so much fun to write a main character who lets go of those limits. But also, it’s okay to start over and try to chart your way to a career you like, no matter why you may want to start over or what circumstances led you to that new start.
5. What scene in The Survivalists was your favorite to write? What scene was the biggest stretch?
My favorite scene to write was probably the scene towards the end where Aretha takes a long walk through the city after receiving some bad news and ends up drunk at her favorite axe bar, working with questionable aim. I loved leaning into her anger and frustration, and tipping her, a person who knows and respects her alcohol limits, over into drunkenness, and just seeing what happened to her both emotionally and plot-wise. The biggest stretch was the scene where she physically escapes the stalled B train, but I wanted her to have this trippy, out of the hospital experience, where it feels like she’s started to listen to the survivalist voice in her head, even if it’s leading her to bad ideas.
6. The relationship between Aretha and her best friend Nia had a type of “real talk” consistency that was refreshing and grounding. What kind of role does friendship play in your life, and are your friends as hilarious as Nia and Aretha?
My friends make me feel good and accepted. They remind me that the highs and lows of life are both valid and we can talk about them. They are unafraid to call me out on my shit and vice versa. I’m always fascinated by how they think, see the world, and solve their problems. I don’t know if my friends are as hilarious as Nia and Aretha, but they’re pretty damn funny.
7. Your dedication for The Survivalists is to anyone who has ever fired you, which I think is brilliant. I’ve been fired a few times and, in the end, each time caused a pivotal shift in my life that turned out for the positive. Can you unpack your Dedication a bit and speak to how being fired or even just the missteps along the way brought you to this point and gave us this story? What do you want to leave readers with as a takeaway?
The biggest thing being fired has taught me is to not let work become the main way I see myself as a person. I have learned to double down on loving and appreciating myself, instead of waiting for a job to do that for me. We live in a culture when your employer can decide you are disposable at any time, so it feels dangerous to decide work is who you are. I’m part of a generation that, unlike some of our parents, are not going to work 40 years and get a pension, so it’s natural for us to have a different relationship to work than they did. This is also a lesson Aretha learns the hard way. She is her job until her job decides she’s optional, and then she has to find out who she is after that. With this dedication I would like to stand with everyone who has been found disposable after giving their whole self to a job, and who is somewhere along that journey of realizing we are only indispensable to ourselves.
A Final Note from Jayne:
I really enjoyed this unique read full of witty insight and expert comedic timing, and loved the ability to switch between the text and the audiobook, which quickly became one of my favorite recent listens. Check out The Survivalists at your local indie bookstore!