<i>Young God</i> recalls the early short stories of Joy Williams, or the drug haze of Denis Johnson. I can’t resist calling the book “contusional” for this very reason—like a bruise, it lingers long after the initial blow.
All photos by Don Morris
Katherine Faw Morris, a 30-year-old North Carolinian turned New Yorker, wrote what might be the most provocative literary debut of the year. That being said, it’s hard to explain exactly what her work, Young God, is. Certainly it’s not an autobiography, despite the rawness of tone, and it isn’t even quite a novel, at only 22,000 words. Young God’s sharp style recalls the early short stories of Joy Williams, or the drug haze of Denis Johnson, and it takes its title from the Swans song of the same name (the one with “All I can do is kill / All I can do is kill”). However, Morris’s gut-punch delivery and cinematic structure leave an ache under the skin long after you’ve retired the novel from your nightstand. I can’t resist calling Young God “contusional” for this very reason; like a bruise, it lingers long after the initial blow. It might also, ironically, be called addictive—try to resist reading it in a single sitting.
The novel’s 13-year-old protagonist, Nikki, watches her mother kill herself, and then goes home to fuck her mother’s boyfriend, all before page 11. By the time Young God reaches its breathtaking close, 182 pages later, that won’t even be the half of it. In an effort to avoid spoilers, let’s just put it like this: Axes have more uses than just cutting up trees.
In the hands of a less talented author, Young God would be a dime-a-dozen genre thriller. Instead, it’s a feat of structure and control. The novel is so tightly edited that there is not a single spare word, nor any that are missing. Like a campfire story, or a legend, it begins with Nikki’s name called three times and ends the same way. Termed a “Southern gothic” or “country noir” by reviewers, it’s easy to want to push Young God into familiar territory—because it’s entirely unfamiliar.
I met with Morris at Supercollider in Brooklyn, only a few stops from her apartment in Sunset Park.
VICE: I wanted to start out by asking you how the past month has gone with the release of your book. Do you have any upcoming events in the city?
Katherine Faw Morris: It’s been going great. I didn’t really expect anyone to read Young God, but I got Amazon’s Best Book of May, which is amazing. I think a lot of the customers are mad about it still, like, “What is this?” I’ve been doing a lot of press; I haven’t really done any readings. I just had the book launch last night with this rapper, Deniro Farrar, who’s from Charlotte. So that was great, 'cause there are very few rappers from North Carolina.
You knew him beforehand?
No, I went to one of his shows. My husband’s the creative director of The Source, a big hip-hop magazine, so I reached out to him. It was great to have those two worlds come together, because they never really overlap. I think it was good for everyone. He did a little performance and some a cappella rapping.
Is writing your full-time job right now?
Yeah, I just write. I do some proofreading on the side, but luckily my husband has a full-time job. I’m really lucky. And I live in the cheap apartment I’ve lived in forever. This city is crazy, crazy expensive and getting more so every year.
Would you ever leave?
No, I never want to leave. I will try to figure out how to stay here, always. There’s nowhere else I’d—well, I like New Orleans a lot, but the whole hurricane thing is an issue. Otherwise, I can’t think of anywhere else I’d live. Because I hate driving.
Driving is what I miss most when I’m living in the city.
When I have to do it, which is whenever I go home, it’s a nightmare. People should stay away from me when I’m on the road. I drive like once a year, and it’s really bad.
I’ve just been thinking a lot about how Young God is the perfect title for the novel. There’s the word “young,” with all the vulnerability and innocence involved in that, followed by “God,” which obviously has the connotation of power and control. It feels important that Nikki is a young character. Why did you end up settling on the age of 13?
I think 13, at least for me, is the age when everything changes. It’s puberty. It’s when you first become a teenager. It’s interesting because you’re in that in-between world where you’re still kind of a child but now you’re a sexual being who’s able to… I mean, you could have babies—not that you should—but you’ve entered the world of womanhood, basically. You’re this feral creature. I think all 13-year-olds are feral creatures. They’re just trying to figure things out. So I thought that was really fertile territory to write from. I wanted to write a book where the girl is not a victim, and I thought it would hammer that home if she were also incredibly young. Then it’s like, What is happening here? Nikki is such an animal.
How much of the novel is based on you or on characters from your own life?
It’s not autobiographical. I was not a 13-year-old drug dealer. I never murdered anyone or pimped out any of my friends. It is psychologically very honest and true to me. I think anytime you write anything it’s almost impossible to take yourself out of it. No character is one-to-one, based on anyone I knew. But a lot of them are based on combinations of people I knew. I never knew a Nikki, though.
Kind of a bummer, though.
I know, right? I hope she exists somewhere. She’s mainly me, but she’s also not me. It’s a hard thing to get across. I mean, I grew up in this town where a lot of this was happening, and I hung out with drug addicts and drug dealers, and I was doing a lot of drugs myself when I was a teenager, so I was always around that world. But I was sort of one-foot-in, one-foot-out because I came from a pretty middle-class family and I knew I wanted to come to New York. So I never got caught up in it the way other people did, but it was seductive.
I heard you were at NYU studying film at one point. When I learned that, I wasn’t surprised, because Young God feels so cinematic. How much was film, or thinking about film, an influence on your writing process?
Yeah, I did one full year at Tisch, the film school, and I realized pretty quickly that I hated collaborating with anyone. I love movies, though. I watch a ridiculous amount of them. One movie that really inspired Nikki, whose physical imagery I always had in the back of my mind, was Christiane F., which is this weird, cult German movie.
I don’t know it.
Well, you should totally try to see it. It’s not on Netflix or anything, I don’t know how you’d see it, but you totally should. It’s a true story about a 13-year-old prostitute junky in the 70s, in the Berlin subway system. It was made into this movie; it was very realistic. David Bowie did the soundtrack. It’s pretty awesome. And she has pink hair throughout the movie, so Nikki’s hair was an homage to that.
Everyone always makes the Winter’s Bone comparison when talking about Young God, but I know you list Joy Williams as an influence. I started reading her and found that she made much more sense as a comparison for me. You two write about women in the same way—where they’re both vulnerable and also very not at the same time.
I love Joy Williams, especially her early ones. She has this story called “The Train” that I’m obsessed with. It’s about these two 11-year-old girls on this Amtrak train, just being really cruel to each other. I’m really interested in the friendship between girls, and how crazy and complicated that is, especially when you’re a teenager. And the way Joy Williams writes, her sharpness, I see myself more influenced by her than the genre of…
Or whatever you’re getting referred to as.
“Country noir” is what I’ve heard recently.
I was also intrigued by the character of Levi, who exists as this pair of eyes always watching Nikki but never present with her until that final, terrible scene. I’m curious what you wanted his role to be in the novel, and his own status as a “young god” in the sense that he’s always observing Nikki from afar.
I wanted him to be an innocent character that was unsullied by what was going on. And he’s someone Nikki is incredibly jealous of, whose life to us doesn’t seem that great, but to her it’s a stable home; there’s food in the kitchen.
There’s a part where you describe Levi’s home and Nikki’s home as being identical, but they’re actually entirely different.
Yeah, I wanted him to be the glimpse of the life she could have had. But she can’t deal with that; she has to corrupt him because it’s overwhelmingly not OK with her. So in the end she has to pull him into her life. That to me is the most heartbreaking part of it. He willingly goes; he looks up to her. Nikki is glamorous, like her father was. That’s a psychological part of the book where you look back, you didn’t even see it when you were writing it, all the parallels to your own life, and you’re like, Fuck. I had a lot of empathy for Levi as a character. And Angel, actually.
I think Renee’s section is one of the hardest parts in the book to read. She makes the accusation that Coy Hawkins raped her, and then… Well, I mean, it’s a full stop in the book because you’re reading it, and then this happens, and then suddenly everything changes. There’s an ongoing strain of violence against women throughout the novel. Was that something you went into the book wanting to talk about?
Not super consciously, but I think that was part of the victimization. Nikki sees all the women around her are pretty victimized, and she wants a different path, so she does something that’s very male, because that’s all she sees. She sees girls pimped out or being treated poorly. It’s obviously a very exaggerated look at what can happen to you as a teenage girl. You’re so vulnerable in a way that boys just aren’t. I read somewhere that the biggest threat to a teenage boy is people who don’t like him, people who want to get in a fight with him. But the biggest threat to a teenage girl is the people who love her.
I think being a young woman is also a very powerful position if you know how to use it properly. You’ve said yourself that one of the best parts of being a teenage girl is that people will give you free drugs. Nikki understands how to use her sex to get what she wants.
Yeah, totally. The problem is, you think you know what you’re doing and you don’t. And you’re overpowered physically. I think sex is a very powerful thing, and I think women do and should use it to their advantage. But especially when you’re an older girl hanging out with older men—you think you have this figured out, but at any moment it could flip over and really fuck you up. It’s a very precarious situation where like, yes, you’re getting free drugs but this guy is 35, you know what I mean?
You’ve said that you’ve used every drug Nikki takes in the novel. Is that still something you’re doing?
You know, I had a wild period when I was a teenager, and I went to rehab. I worked to try to be a different person. I’ve been a good girl for a long time now. I still do party a little bit, but not like I used to. It’s hard when I go home too, because they’re all still doing it. It’s like, “Welcome home!” It’s hard.
Here’s a short excerpt from Young God by Katherine Faw Morris, reprinted courtesy of Farrar, Straus and Giroux.
She looks at him. She is startled by the bandanna around his face. A second ago he wasn’t wearing it. He pulls up his hood. He nods at her.
She knocks on an apartment door, the welfare apartments in town that are gray and wooden and drop down to the riverbank.
When the peephole darkens she takes one step back. The door catches on its chain.
“Hey,” Nikki says.
A man stares at her.
“Who are you?”
“Nikki,” she says.
“Can I use your phone?”
“What?” he says.
Nikki holds up Coy Hawkins’s cell.
The man’s eyes flick up and down. Nikki smiles at him. She’s wearing a dress with see-through parts. Her cat’s eyes are slightly crooked but her lips are very red. When Angel left she left everything.
Nikki jams her knee inside and touches his. He’s older than Coy Hawkins. His cheeks are cut by two deep lines.
“Hold up,” he says.
As soon as he slams the door Nikki takes two steps back, and when he opens it again, wide, unchained, Coy Hawkins pivots off the outside wall and slugs a baseball bat into the man’s gut.
“What the fuck,” the man grunts.
She crawls underneath him while Coy Hawkins smashes him over the back.
No one’s in the living room. She turns a right for the kitchen like Coy Hawkins said. The other man, the important one, is sitting at a table. His name is Lee Church. He is nothing like she pictured him. She raises the gun and surges at him.
“Drugs and cash,” Nikki says.
He looks surprised.
“Drugs and cash.”
He just sits there. She starts to panic. She hears Coy Hawkins’s bat behind her. She stomps her high heel on the linoleum and lets out a little shriek.
“Are you stupid? This is a motherfucking stickup.”
Lee Church puts his cigarette in an ashtray and then he puts his hands up.
They're pulled off in the woods, out in the county. Coy Hawkins has a Ziploc bag of cocaine in his lap. Nikki has rubber-banded bills between her feet. That went well, Nikki thinks.
“Don’t use your real name next time,” Coy Hawkins says.
“Why not?” Nikki says.
He dips the pickup key in the Ziploc. He looks at her. In the overhead light his face is like wax.
“Bump?” he says.
Coke smells cold and chemical like the inside of a refrigerator. It’s what back then smells like, now when she thinks of it. Nikki takes a drag off Coy Hawkins’s Kool and its blast of menthol is the best thing that’s ever been in her mouth.
The interstate reels out. The sign says thirty miles to Charlotte. Coy Hawkins has called somebody on his phone. It’s not really dead. This time he’s going to sell, Nikki thinks. She is giddy and she can’t feel her teeth.
They have already passed over the service road. They have already passed over the gorilla pimp. They could be going anywhere.
She looks around alertly. She sniffs drip up her nose.
“Where are we?” Nikki says.
“Kannapolis,” Coy Hawkins says.
On both sides of a wide street every house is the same. They glow up in the headlights of the pickup, white and sagging. Aftera while Coy Hawkins stops in front of one.
A Mexican man opens the door.
“Where the fuck you been?” he says.
Coy Hawkins shrugs.
“Trying to stay out of trouble, man.”
Nikki follows him in. Th e house’s living room is strewn with little girls’ toys. There’s a blow-up castle in the middle of it. Coy Hawkins and the man go into what must be the kitchen. They close a bed sheet behind them.
“You can’t go in there.”
Nikki looks at her. The little girl is curled on the couch, holding a baby doll and wearing a tutu. She is five or six. Nikki puts her hands on her hips.
“You’re not supposed to,” the little girl says.
“Why?” Nikki says.
“Because you’re a girl.”
Nikki thinks she sees the little girl smirk.
“My mom can’t even go in there,” the little girl says.
Her tutu is much pinker than Nikki’s hair used to be. Nikki kicks a Barbie Corvette out of the way of her feet.
“Hey,” the little girl says.
Nikki sits beside her.
“My mama’s dead,” Nikki says.
The little girl makes a face.
“She killed herself,” Nikki says.
The little girl drops her mouth on the doll’s head.
It’s probably four in the morning. They watch TV. It’s a flat screen with all the channels. Nikki doesn’t understand because
it’s in Spanish.
“She left me when I was a baby,” Nikki says.
She doesn’t know why she just said that. She smells something like burning ketchup.
“You smell that?”
The little girl says nothing. Nikki looks at the bed sheet.
“What is it?”
“Papi,” the little girl says.
Nikki stands up and the girl cuts her eyes from the TV. For a second they stare at each other. The little girl is not going to be as pretty as her. If she touched the little girl she would be gooey, Nikki thinks. Nikki sits down again.
When the bed sheet opens Coy Hawkins is carrying a different grocery bag than the one he came in with. He snaps his fingers at Nikki.
“My daughter,” Coy Hawkins says.
The man looks at her briefly.
“How much did you get for it?”
“Half a ki of heroin,” Coy Hawkins says.
Nikki’s eyes dart to the bag between her feet.
On the way home they stop and buy party balloons.