My boyfriend often finds me sound asleep in our big bedroom in New Jersey with the T.V. flickering over my prone body, my mouth hanging open with a slight string of drool flowing down onto the pillow. This very domestic scene is one that occurs millions of times the world over as lovers crawl quietly into bed trying not to wake each other. What is on my television though is almost always true crime. Like many in my generation I am lulled to sleep by the cadence of soft male voices explaining in excruciating detail the heinous acts that humans can inflict on each other. Its a particularly millennial obsession, I think, to be this deeply obsessed with this particular brand of the macabre. There’s an entire section of Tik-Tok dedicated to serial killers. We’ll probably never understand what truly fascinates us about these people, but the author I interviewed today, Micah Nemerever, does his best to delve into the psyches of two boys who kill. It couldn’t have been an easy tale to spend so much time with. The result is These Violent Delights, one of this falls most talked about books. I met Micah like all queerdos stuck in quarantine meet these days, on the internet, and I hope our conversation below is arriving just in time for spooky season. With the world as chaotic as it is right now, it can help to have some of its best minds seeking answers to questions we may never truly understand.
1) Do you relate to Paul or Julian more? I know it’s a complex question because I know from your internet presence you’re a gentle soul, but I’m curious if there’s aspects of either character you feel are coming more directly from you.
It’s interesting, because over the years I’ve discovered how much common ground I have with each of them. I was aware from the start how much Paul is drawn from my teenage self. I was so lonely and awkward and traumatized, so angry at the world. And I had a few toxic romantic friendships with charismatic people I idolized. Paul was sort of an exorcism for me—a postmortem of my past self.
But over time I’ve also recognized more and more of myself in Julian. I was a staggeringly pretentious teenager, for one thing. It’s scaffolded by genuine intellectual curiosity for both of us, but at seventeen I was determined to perform how smart and edgy I was. (I used to ostentatiously read Sartre in my school courtyard, hoping some kindred spirit would notice how deep I was.) And in his own way Julian is also profoundly lonely, partly because he hides his emotions and distances himself from others as a defense mechanism. In retrospect, I did a lot of that when I was his age. I was kind of a pill, in a lot of the same ways Julian is.
2) It seems you based this, at least somewhat, on the famous Leopold and Loeb case, or at least I sense this is a queer retelling of that true story. Can you talk a little about if that was the case, if not what other cases you researched, and what fascinated you about this topic?
The plot did come from that case, which I was briefly enthralled by when I was thirteen or fourteen. I thought I recognized something of myself in them, not because I had any serious urge toward violence but because they seemed like the worst-case scenario for my own anger and arrogance. Then I remember researching the case in a bit more detail and deciding it wasn’t that interesting to me after all, because as I recall at least one of them was a straight-up sociopath, and I find sociopaths boring.
So what ended up sticking with me wasn’t the case itself, but the story I imagined when I first heard about the case. I’d envisioned two flawed and lonely kids who genuinely loved each other even as they pushed each other into insanity—and I remained fascinated by that story, because it was the one I’d been able to see myself in. TVD ended up taking the skeleton of the plot from Leopold and Loeb, but the emotional dynamic between Paul and Julian more closely resembles the love between the two girls in the Parker-Hulme murder case. I learned about that case from the film “Heavenly Creatures,” which I adored. (And I very foolishly named Paul and Julian after those characters. One makes questionable decisions when one is twenty-three.)
Ultimately, I wanted TVD to be its own story, driven by its own fully fictional characters, so I deliberately didn’t deeply research either of the cases that inspired the plot. If there’s any overlap in fine detail with the real cases, it’s genuinely a coincidence. (I’m not just saying this to placate the HarperCollins legal team, it’s absolutely true.)
3) What was it like to inhabit two such deeply dark characters for years on end as you wrote this book? At times, it’s so upsetting I imagine it was hard to sit with them for long periods of time.
Paul in particular was a crucible, because the story is vacuum-sealed inside his head and he’s in virtually relentless agony. He was cathartic to write, because his pain and rage came from such a real and visceral place for me, but for that same reason he was absolutely exhausting. Julian’s story was rough for different reasons—he just wears it well, and Paul himself doesn’t notice as much as the reader might.
I wrote the book in long sprints, almost continuously except during periods of extreme real-life stress, but it did catch up to me sometimes. I’d have to step back periodically to recuperate. I honestly don’t know how I held it in my head for so long while taking relatively few breaks. Having a sense of humor about it helped, I think—I know a lot of benign anecdotes and facts about the characters that never made it to the page, but that helped me keep finding them lovable. And I didn’t shy away from letting the book itself have a sense of humor, despite how dark it is. I’m not sure what percentage of readers will find the jokes funny, but I do, so it worked as a coping mechanism.
4) As far as representation goes, and I’m asking this as a queer person who NEVER wants the rule to be “all queer people have to be depicted as angels,” I’m curious if you had any concerns about falling into the gay/queer murderer tropes of times past.
I have indeed spent the last couple years wondering if one day soon I will be cancelled by the youth. But I feel comfortable with the book in terms of representation. For me, the old queer villain tropes are problematic not because they are negative, but because the audience’s presumed subject position is sort of gawking at those characters. They aren’t full human beings, just an objectified freak show.
Norman Bates in Psycho is an interesting case study in this, because the audience does spend a fair bit of the movie looking at him from a position of unsympathetic remove—but there’s one scene midway through in which he abruptly becomes the only point-of-view character, and we suddenly have no protagonist to root for except for him. There’s an exquisite sequence where he’s at a swamp, trying to sink a car with a dead body in the trunk, and for a moment the car seems to have stopped sinking. For a second, watching him panic about this, you want the car to sink. You’re pulling for him, despite everything, and you’re as relieved as he is when the car finally goes under the surface. This scene prevents him from being a flat queer villain, and invites the viewer to empathize with him.
So I think it’s very different to approach deeply flawed queer characters from a place of empathy, and much easier to achieve that if you situate them as the protagonists. TVD’s audience is embedded in the boys’ point of view, and experiences their downward spiral alongside them. Something I feel strongly is that queer characters should be allowed to have the same moral struggles as straight characters. There’s such rich potential for drama in stories about characters grappling with their flaws, and they can strike a deep chord with the reader’s fears about their own darker impulses. It’s all right for queer characters to fail morally, just as straight ones do. What’s important is that the reader (hopefully) sometimes catches themself wanting the proverbial car to sink.
5) Do you think Julian and Paul would’ve turned violent had they never met each other?
Definitely not, at least not in this way. Julian has no particular drive toward violence on his own—he’s fully capable of venting his resentment in more passive-aggressive ways. Paul is a bit different because he’s got a terrible temper and a history of getting into fights, but I don’t think he’d ever have gotten into serious trouble if he’d never met Julian. At worst, another dust-up or two before he grows out of it.
Honestly, I don’t think they’d even have become violent if they met a few years later. So much of the toxicity between them is rooted in a kind of anger and insecurity that often ebbs when you leave your teens, and I think that can be true even for issues as profound as theirs. (I think wistfully about the alternate universe where they meet at about twenty instead—a less terrible universe, where there’s no story at all. But I’m a softie, as you noted earlier, so I do occasionally dream.)
6) How does Judaism factor into your novel? I’m interested in you speaking a little about Julian’s “passing” as a WASP.
Jewishness was one of the most important themes for me as I was writing, postwar Jewish-American identity in particular. The boys’ families exemplify two of the paths Jews took in America in the wake of World War II. Paul’s maternal family is fully settled in America, but they’re also largely unassimilated, and are very proud of being Jewish—they’d never dream of trying to pass. Paul’s sense of himself as “other” is crucial to his feelings of alienation from mainstream American culture, and of course his father’s experiences as a refugee from the Holocaust have a lot to do with Paul’s suspiciousness of authority and pessimism about human nature.
Julian’s family went in the exact opposite direction. His father is trying to access a kind of unadulterated white privilege that isn’t available to Paul, because Ashkenazi whiteness comes with an asterisk in some circumstances, and Julian’s family sees this as a liability. A lot of the Frommes’ trying to pass is about wanting to access elite social networks, to legitimize their affluence and political connections so that no “real” WASPs will ever try to undermine them. But I think his parents are also trying to preserve the stability of this life they’ve built together, which they both know is much more precarious than they like to pretend. That insecurity is at the core of a lot of their attempts to control their sons. The Frommes are not kind to Julian, but through their background as well as their actions, I wanted to show that they’re not simply cruel—they are trying to preserve the life they’ve built, and even to protect Julian, in a twisted way. They are the only characters in the book I don’t love, and I think that their desire to access white privilege is pretty ugly. But I also know there’s fear underlying this decision as much as ambition, and I have a little compassion for that fear, even though I don’t respect what they do about it.
Julian’s experience with passing has given him a different kind of cynicism from Paul’s—he’s been immersed in elite WASP culture in a way Paul hasn’t, and he’s had a clear view of what rich straight white boy privilege can lead his peers to do. He’s ashamed both of his family’s attempts to pass and for the wealthy elite status they’ve co-opted. But he’s also internalized a lot of that passing privilege without realizing it, and it shapes his actions as much as Paul’s background does.
7) Do you believe in the “fatal flaw” of literary fame? Were Julian and Paul destined to become what they became, or do you see them as two children whose trauma led them here?
I think it’s a little of both. They are both traumatized in different ways, which was something my editor, Erin Wicks, highlighted as crucial to the book. Paul and Julian hit each other’s raw nerves in a way that exacerbates the pain they’re already in, and it brings out the worst traits in both of them. Trauma pushes them in this toxic direction, but so does that booksmart arrogance they both have—their shared fatal flaw, if you like, which stems partly from their age and partly from their privilege. I don’t think their flaws are immutable to their personalities (at least not to this degree), or that their trauma would lead them to violence at another time in their lives. It is—pardon the cliché!—a perfect storm.
8) Your book feels at least somewhat inspired by The Secret History—I’m obsessed! If I’m right could you talk a little about how that book inspired you and perhaps any other books that you held close during writing this.
The Secret History was definitely important, though luckily I read it when I was already midway through an early draft—I say “luckily” because if I’d read it any sooner in the process, or when I was any younger, I’d have spent years trying to write my own version of it. The most important thing I took from The Secret History was that I shouldn’t be afraid of letting the book be sincere or compassionate or intermittently funny, even with the story being as dark as it was. It helped me firm up the tone I wanted to aim for. It also gave me really useful insight into how to maintain the pacing of a long book, because it was clear from the start that These Violent Delights was going to be a bit of (as my agent says) a “chonker.” The Secret History has a good hundred pages on my book, I think, and it was incredibly helpful to see how Tartt was able to maintain its momentum.
An earlier, equally vital influence was Patricia Highsmith, particularly The Talented Mr. Ripley and Strangers on a Train—her use of suspense is virtually flawless, and of course I’m always here for anything homoerotic and upsetting. Highsmith is (I don’t mean this disparagingly) a meaner writer than I am, and I’ve never gotten the impression that she loved or even liked her characters—but I have a lot of similar thematic preoccupations and goals for pacing, even if I approach them from a more affective angle.
And there are several classics that I had in the back of my mind while I was writing, because they shaped a lot of my literary interests in my youth. The Picture of Dorian Gray, Brideshead Revisited, Wuthering Heights, even a bit of Macbeth. Overall a good mix of queer moral struggles, obsessive love, and murder.
Micah Nemerever was trained as an art historian. His work appears or is forthcoming in SLICE and Claw & Blossom. These Violent Delights is his first novel. He lives in the Pacific Northwest.