Q&A with Watt Key, author of ALABAMA MOON
(Farrar, Straus and Giroux / September 2006)
Q: ALABAMA MOON is your first novel. It is a gripping, moving story of a 10-year-old boy’s survival—both physical and emotional. What inspired you to tell Moon’s story?
A: I’ve always been interested in subsistence living. I’m fascinated by people that live in remote places like Alaska and the ways that they go about living off the land. If you combine that with a good coming-of-age story, you have my favorite type of book.
I think I was always trying to think of an original way that I could tell my own version of this story. One day I was reading something about Ruby Ridge and the idea hit me. What if people of that mentality died and left their children behind knowing only of the prejudices that they were raised with? What would it be like for those children getting back to society? And how would the outside world see and treat these children? From there came a short story that later evolved into ALABAMA MOON.
Q: You grew up in Alabama. Did this experience influence or inspire the storyline of ALABAMA MOON?
A: It certainly did in the sense that I know the forests of Alabama well enough to get most of my material for a book like ALABAMA MOON. I hunted and fished and camped these forests since I was a child. And what I don’t know is more easily researched than a place further away. I originally wanted to use Alaska. Even though I’ve been there a couple of times, I quickly realized that I didn’t know it well enough to get to the kind of details I use in the novel. And researching a place so far away from my home was not going to be practical.
Q: Have you attempted to survive in the wilderness without basic resources, as Moon and his Pap do?
A: I once spent 14 days in the woods of south Alabama with not much more than the clothes I wore in and a bow and arrows. It was a special course that I designed and got approved by Birmingham-Southern College for credit in return for keeping a journal of my experiences for the Psychology Department. To prepare for this trip, I read books on edible plants and survival techniques. To give the event a more scholarly edge, I included some works from Thoreau.
When I returned, I gave them a journal called The Bare Essentials. If I had been completely honest, I would have called it Starving and Sleeping on a Dirt Road. Living on such things as snakes, armadillos, acorns, and pine needle tea, I lost 15 pounds and couldn’t keep food down for a month afterwards. Some genuine friend of mine spread the rumor around campus that I had a tapeworm. This did wonders for my social life. I went to the doctor and had him testify on my behalf. He said my stomach had shrunken and would return to normal in time. I did not have worms.
Even with such weight loss, there were some that thought I’d earned college credit for an extended stay at a hunting lodge. I gave a slide show presentation to the college and there were no doubters left.
Q: Loneliness is a theme that plays out throughout the novel. How is Moon’s loneliness different from his Pap’s self-imposed isolation? How is it the same?
A: I’m not sure that Moon knew about loneliness until his father died. He would have never experienced it in the way that we do. And his loneliness gets more defined as he enters the outside world and discovers just how alone he really is.
Moon’s pap seems to have suppressed many things mentally, including his need for other people. He is so angry and bent on his mission of total independence that loneliness is just another emotion that he doesn’t let get in his way. The only person he expresses brief sorrow over is his wife. And you wonder if this is because he misses her or because he knows on some level that he was probably responsible for her death.
Q: Moon experiences a process of realization in the novel—having once idealized his Pap, he comes to realize that his father was complex and not always correct. How is his realization process unique?
A: Moon has never honestly carried his father’s hatred for the outside world. He was taught it, but it never made sense to him. Although cautious, Moon is curious about the world outside the forest and this eventually leads to his acceptance of many things his father taught him to fear. Ironically, Moon comes to reject his father’s views in order to survive and escape a life of hardship and loneliness.
Q: Issues of right and wrong and questioning authority play out in ALABAMA MOON. What do Moon’s interactions with Constable Sanders say about individuality and integrity?
A: Moon is naturally a good person. Even with the extreme prejudices his father has drilled into him since birth, something that makes him a complete outsider, he instinctively knows good from evil and right from wrong. This is a reflection on my belief than man had a natural tendency to lean towards goodness.
Moon often studies the faces of people to judge their motives and character. He is not sure what to do about the evil except run from it or attack it. He has no idea of the rules in the outside world and what his options are to protect himself from such evil. In fact, although Sanders is truly a bad person, Moon sees him as more of a nuisance and does not grasp the harm that can come to him.
Q: What can Moon’s relationship with nature and the wilderness teach today’s readers?
A: I’ve always struggled with a way to describe how nature can be so enticing, yet so hard-boiled when you get too close to it. And it is usually much more difficult than one thinks to live off it without years of preparation. As Moon is absorbed more and more into society, the forest stops working with him. He begins to lose his edge. The idea I try to get across in the novel is that one must be totally immersed in the forest like an animal to truly live off it. And nature has little sympathy for those tainted with civilization.
Q: There is a lot of action in ALABAMA MOON—what was your favorite scene to write?
A: All of the truck scenes. I have a friend that has a camp in the river swamp. You can only reach it by boat and they barge supplies out to it. They used to have a little white Toyota Corolla that they barged out there and we would ride it around the swamp. They called it the “White Car.” They had little roads that were like golf cart trails and the trees and moss grew over them so that much of it was like driving though tunnels. We could squeeze six people in the car and two more (usually the youngest) would spread a sleeping bag on the roof and lay up there. There was no windshield so the people on top could grip the front of the roof where the windshield would have been. When we’d turn corners, you’d see their feet flying out beyond the car. The car was wrecked so much that you didn’t worry at all about your obstacles. Once we ran into a woodpile and plowed right through it and I could feet the logs buckling the underside of the floor beneath my feet. In ALABAMA MOON they wreck the truck and the battery goes flying out the front grill of the truck. This actually happened with the White Car.