Discover more from Political Currents by Ross Barkan
The Night Burns Bright is here
I consider myself very fortunate to be publishing books less than a year apart. Last June, my book about Andrew Cuomo and his failures during the coronavirus pandemic, The Prince, appeared, and I was lucky to get some kind reviews, including in the Nation. Within my journalistic and political circles, the book was an exciting event, since so many seemed to be tiring of Cuomo. The book was published a couple of months before the governor’s shock resignation. It was, to say the least, a memorable time. The book launch event, held when coronavirus cases were quite low, was incredibly thrilling, and it is an evening I’ll never forget. The space was packed and I quickly ran out of books to sign.
Generally, people care more about nonfiction than fiction, and there’s the distinct possibility readers of this Substack will be more inclined to read about Cuomo than a fictional cult in upstate New York. Due to the declining, but still present, omicron wave, there will be no in-person launch event for The Night Burns Bright. At least not now. This book is very special to me and I’d like to do it justice at some point. In the interim, I’ll have to content myself with those who buy it and read it, hoping it meets or exceeds their expectations.
Those who’ve read me in the past know fiction is deeply important to me. I am publicly known as a journalist and a columnist, but my greatest ambition remains to be a novelist of some import. It’s an old-fashioned goal, but one I nevertheless state proudly, after years of keeping it in the shadows. The Night Burns Bright is my second novel, of no relation to my book published in 2018, Demolition Night. (With the writer’s occasional input, publishers decide titles.) I am happy to say this is the first book of mine that has an audiobook component.
Without giving too much away, The Night Burns Bright is a novel about a boy named Lucien who grows up in a cult-like society called House of Earth in the aftermath of 9/11. It’s a blend of literary fiction, suspense, and thriller, though I didn’t write it with the intention of great shock or surprise. If you pay attention, you know what’s coming. House of Earth teaches that humans must live in harmony with nature to avert climate catastrophe. Well-intentioned, House of Earth eventually turns deadly under the leadership of the megalomaniacal O.C. Leroux. Kirkus supplies a decent plot summary here.
One gratifying reality is that The Night Burns Bright is, already, by far the most read of any of the books I’ve published. Those given early access to pre-orders have given out more than one thousand ratings on Goodreads and Amazon. It’s hit some internal best-seller lists. On one hand, these metrics don’t mean much. On the other, I am not a writer who finds virtue in writing for an audience of one. To be frank, I wrote this novel with a larger readership in mind, hoping that I could draw in more casual readers while not sacrificing my own literary ambitions and quasi-pretentions. Whether I succeed or not is up to you. I’ve grown to dislike the insularity of a literary world increasingly concerned with appealing merely to affluent, highly-educated readers in select neighborhoods and cities. At one time, you could buy a Joan Didion paperback at a drug store. Those days are long gone, gone before I was alive, and I chase the ghosts of that time in my own way. I want to write to be read.
One question I’ve been asked often is how long this all takes. I wrote The Night Burns Bright, originally called House of Earth, over a couple months in the summer of 2019. The heat, for reasons I can’t quite explain, focused and heightened me. My agent took up the manuscript in 2020, right as the pandemic was hitting, and sold it, after a long process, in 2021. I’ve been writing fiction, almost daily, since I was eighteen, and this has meant hundreds of thousands of words stashed away in hard drives that will never see the light of day. It is what I do. I do not wait for the muse. I go at it, attacking and attacking, hacking away until I produce fiction I believe is worthy. It is more ritualistic than a romantic communing with the greater elements, my antennae aimed at the ether. I do get inspired; on certain days, the spirit animates me, and on others I plod, a few sentences trickling here or there. On some days, yes, I don’t write at all. My fuel is reading. You can’t write well without reading widely. It is one of the few rules I do live by.
Why cults? In the dark beating heart of America, they are always there. For a long time, I’ve been haunted by how they come to be, why people join, why they stay—what is the tipping point? And what is the difference between cult and religion? What makes us, as humans, want to belong to projects greater than ourselves? How do the charismatic and cunning prey on the vulnerable? How do (sometimes) reasonable or even admirable intentions curdle so quickly? What is at the root of belief?
These questions swirled through me as I wrote. One challenge I relished was writing from the close third person view of a child. For some readers, this choice was alienating, and a few publishers passed on the book for that reason. Children, though, are often more observant than adults, and it is in their perspectives where reality can be paradoxically most muddled and clear, the memories of those years possessing a certain sharpened edge, never leaving you. You remember, still, what it was like to be twelve, maybe as much as when you were twenty-five or thirty-five. The loneliness of that time lingers, the way days could wrap around you and not let go.
The Night Burns Bright is about what it’s like to be a child under horrific circumstances. I did not live that kind of childhood; my upbringing was pleasant, the way all upbringings should be. But a writer is allowed to imagine.
If you end up reading the novel, feel free to let me know what you think.