Kashana Cauley, THE SURVIVALISTS: A Novel

Kashana Cauley, THE SURVIVALISTS: A Novel

Zibby interviews former antitrust lawyer, New York Times opinion writer, and debut author Kashana Cauley about The Survivalists, a darkly funny and thrilling new doomsday novel about a successful Black lawyer who moves in with her coffee entrepreneur boyfriend and his Hurricane Sandy-traumatized, illegal-gun-stockpiling, bunker-building roommates. Kashana talks about the real-life survivalists who inspired this story (like her parents!), her obsession with coffee, and her publishing journey (it involves bad high school poetry, several rejected books, brilliant joke-writing for The Daily Show, and never giving up). Finally, she speaks on the power of writing communities and reveals the books she’s reading and loving.


Zibby Owens: Welcome, Kashana. Thank you so much for coming on “Moms Don’t Have Time to Read Books” to discuss The Survivalists: A Novel.

Kashana Cauley: Thanks for having me. I’m really excited to talk about this with you.

Zibby: You too. Can you please tell listeners what your book is about?

Kashana: Sometimes I joke that it’s where the intersection of bad roommates and bad boyfriends go to screw up your life. It’s about a lawyer who’s becoming increasingly depressed with her career. She’s single. She always wanted to find the perfect guy. She does, but there’s a big catch. He’s a survivalist. So are his roommates. It doesn’t go that well.

Zibby: There’s always something. I loved how you described her one day as wearing an orange dress to work so that she could at least pretend it was the weekend and not be so depressed at work. That was a great detail. I love that. Where did this concept come from? Did you ever keep similar spreadsheets with a required amount of googling per person?

Kashana: I do religiously believe in Google. I have never googled my way through a boyfriend because I met my husband a little bit before the “Google your way through a boyfriend” era. I will google anything else within an inch of its life and trust the results. Thank you, internet. The book came about because I read about two sets of survivalists who were living right in the middle of crime-free neighborhoods in New York City. One was a Bonnie and Clyde-like pair living in the very crime-free Village between 5th and 6th, for folks who are familiar with New York. The other one was on the end of my block in Prospect Heights above a trendy ramen shop stockpiling guns like it was going out of style in another neighborhood that wouldn’t know what crime was if it hit it in the face. I was like, why, guys? I grew up in a house with guns. My parents stockpiled food. They were very much “just in case” people. I sort of understood how these folks could end up there, but also sort of not. That’s when I started writing the book.

Zibby: Tell me about the decision to make both of their parents both deceased and how that became a common element for Aretha and Aaron.

Kashana: I’m not as close to my parents as I could be because of their survivalism. I took a very hard look at that sort of relationship and what it’s meant in my life. I also wanted Aretha to have a reason why she was really, really going after this guy who looked super questionable. At various points in the book, it feels like they are trying harder than most couples do to create a family sense around them even though they are not engaged. They have not necessarily committed to each other in a sense that would really make that make sense. If their parents are dead and they’re hanging with these roommates in this lifestyle, maybe that opened up the chance for them to be more committed to each other. Otherwise, she could just leave.

Zibby: Interesting. When you find that common element in whatever it is, you could convince yourself of anything. I loved all the imagery and the details about the coffee bags, the coffee grinds, everything related to the business of the coffee, the coffee-backed story, if you will. Tell me about that.

Kashana: It was the late aughts. Me and my husband and our friends, we were all just hardcore into coffee. It had just moved over from being “You put hazelnut syrup in your Starbucks” in the part of New York we were living in to “Wait, there are notes. There are blueberries in this. There are citrus notes.” We hunted down all these third-wave coffee shops. I started talking to baristas. I read all the details about the farmers that they posted on their wall, how the crops were grown, how they harvested them. I got obsessed. I started reading some magazine called Imbibe. I drove down to North Carolina and visited Counter Culture Coffee and talked to their roasters. They thought I was a professional. I was like, oh, no, I’m just obsessed. When it came time to decide what anybody was going to do in this book — I am a big believer in, people have professions in literature. I went, I want to write about something I’m obsessed with. I want to see if coffee works, and it did.

Zibby: That’s awesome. Then what is your go-to coffee? What do you get? What do you drink in real life?

Kashana: Right now, I’m on the subscription program from this coffee roaster in my neighborhood called Go Get Em Tiger in Los Angeles. Everywhere I go on a trip, I bring back home a bag. I ordered coffee from Austin, Texas, from Brooklyn. I was very excited to meet some Salvadorians in Paris. I wasn’t a huge fan of general Paris café coffee. We started talking about coffee for half an hour and how South American beans were better. I’ll meet a coffee person everywhere I go. I’ll try a bag everywhere. In general, I like heavy notes like butterscotch, chocolate, that kind of thing.

Zibby: How do you make it? You talked about different ways of making the coffee in the book, too, and the different machines or whatever. Do you do a drip? I know this is ridiculous, but I’m curious.

Kashana: I have a Chemex. I’m a big believer in it. I used to be a French press person, but it turns out the oils in French press are not great for your cholesterol. I said, okay, I’m going to be more healthy about this. Chemex filters out those oils. Then you pour over hot coffee on top of ground beans on a filter. It’s very open to the air. It’s very elegant.

Zibby: Tell me about how you started writing. I know you’ve done TV work as well. Why write a novel? Just writing in general, where did that come from? Is it something you’ve always loved?

Kashana: I was a really early lover of books. I was the eight-year-old who made friends with my librarian and read Little Women and stuff. That turned into high school poetry that was bad and then high school poetry that was better and then fiction that was bad. I just kept going because I loved it so much. I wrote a book on the side when I was in law school that didn’t work out but was a good exercise in terms of structuring and laying out a novel. I wrote two other ones that didn’t sell. This was, believe it or not, the last one. I was like, if this doesn’t sell, I’m just going to find something else to do with my life. In between all the books, I ended up writing nonfiction. I was briefly an opinion writer at The Times. I ended up writing for TV because somebody DM’d me one night and said, “I really like your jokes. Is there any chance you’d consider writing for television?” I always wanted to write a novel the whole time. All of these other were complete surprises. It’s been so much fun to have all this experience as a writer. I’ve met hundreds of people. I’ve met so many other writers and editors. I love it.

Zibby: Wow, I love that. I think it’s so important, too, for people to hear about all of the past many attempts. I feel like you have to write at least two practice novels before the third one sells. It’s so rare to meet somebody who sells the first thing they’ve ever written fully as a novel. It’s not a failure. It’s just, you have to do that. That’s what you have to do, just like you can’t play a tennis match if you haven’t practiced.

Kashana: Honestly, the journey is fun. I think I’ve become a better writer because of all of that. I don’t know a single person without a drawer book, like you were saying. Honestly, everybody I’ve talked to feels like they’re better writers for having one under their belt that didn’t work out either. It’s part of the journey. The journey is fine.

Zibby: I love how you said that, though, that you start as a bad poet, bad fiction. It’s the hierarchy to getting where you go. If you are in high school and you’re writing a bad poem right now, stay tuned because you are on your way. It’s funny.

Kashana: The bad poetry led to other friends who were writing bad poetry too. That was my first writer community. The idea of writer community, I’ve carried that with me for a long time too. That was some of why I love this, though. All those steps had a purpose. I made friends at all those levels. I read people whose work was better than me and who I learned from at all those levels. I got better at all those levels. It was a long journey for me, but it was worth it.

Zibby: Was there a piece of the TV writing that particularly helped in the novel writing? Did it help with dialogue or pacing or the beats of everything? Is it just everything combined?

Kashana: In general, at The Daily Show, I became a less-afraid writer and a less-afraid pitcher. You have to pitch to sixty people every morning at nine AM. You have to be the funniest person in the room who’s on point with what news they want to cover that day. After getting up in front of a room and pitching to sixty people every morning, I’m not afraid to present ideas. I’m not afraid to do public speaking. I’m not afraid to just write something down and see if it works and junk it if it doesn’t. I’m happy that that job taught me to fear a lot of things a lot less.

Zibby: It’s a real trial-by-fire situation. When you think of your own author community, what are some of the best avenues for growing that? Where do you find yourself making the most relationships related to writing? Then how do you foster them? Is it one-off? Do you join actual communities? Is it bookish events? How do you keep all that going? Is it just a personal thing like any other friendships?

Kashana: I started out on Twitter. The editor of this book was my eighth follower on Twitter back in 2010. He and I giggle about that a lot. Now he’s the editor-in-chief of a publishing house. I have this book coming. We’ve gone through a lot together. He edited a column I wrote in 2015 also. That’s been one of the longest, most fulfilling professional relationships in my life. That started out when I followed somebody back and we started chatting every day, five years before we ended up working together professionally. He and I fell in with other groups of people who were at about our level at the time. He was running a lit mag that had a smaller audience. I was writing weird little short stories that had a smaller audience. So were so many of the people we hung out with. We were just at the same level. We talked every day about what we thought about books and what we thought about other writers and we thought about gossip. That ended up spilling over after I’d written for five years into real-life events in New York. I started going to parties with people who had read a piece of mine and could recognize me by sight, which was insane. I met a ton, a ton of people that way who were obsessed with things that I wasn’t. I learned a lot from their obsessions. I love obsessed people. They’re the best. Then from there, I’m still on Twitter. I still do stuff in real life. I still think just reaching out to people who seem interested in your work or people whose work you’re interested in has been something that has really helped me make friends in the writer community and also get better as a writer and look out for more people to read as well.

Zibby: Did you ever do any classes or anything?

Kashana: No, not since high school. I don’t have an MFA or anything. I came from scratch and lots of effort.

Zibby: I was rejected for an MFA, I must say. It’s okay. I’ve lived. I’ve made it through that debacle. When you read, what are the types of things you gravitate towards? What do you love to read?

Kashana: These days, I’m really into crime fiction. I feel like societally, there’s a lot of parts of our society that aren’t working out right now. A lot of folks in crime fiction are turning to very extreme ends to pursue their goals and to pursue justice. There’s a lot of truth and realism in those novels, even though they don’t necessarily involve things that people would do in real life. I love contemporary fiction with a sense of humor. I love Percival Everett. I love Gary Shteyngart. I love nonfiction with real verve and style. I love Patrick Radden Keefe. Isabel Wilkerson wrote this great book called Caste and this other book called The Warmth of Other Suns. I am descended from Great Migration people and just loved reading about that part of Black history. I love Black history. I love Black present. In general, I love random authors who I never would’ve heard of who are just doing interesting-sounding things that people tweet about. I know people are afraid to self-promote online. I swear to god, people promoting their own books is how I find your book and how a lot of people find your book. I will just click on random links all day long and be introduced to people who I then become fans of for years.

Zibby: I agree. I love seeing what they promote, but also what other people that I really respect promote, what books they’re reading and all of that. I feel like that’s my main — well, aside from publicists — my main pipeline of things. What are you working on now?

Kashana: It’s really too much of an unformed baby to talk about in any great detail, but I am working on a second novel that explores some of the stuff that I would say that’s in the first novel that I’m obsessed with. Let’s just leave it at that.

Zibby: The friends that you met are the two couples who were survivalists also. They whet your appetite for this whole topic, but then did you do more of a deep dive and get obsessed about survivalism in general? How much did you have to learn about guns? What specifics and all of that?

Kashana: I did absolute tons of gun research. It’s amazing how you can grow up in a household where people have guns and not know anything about makes, model, how they’re fired, etc., what they’re used for. Wisconsin is a hunting culture. I’m originally from there. I had to learn about personal gun ownership, which has nothing to do with hunting rifles or that sort of gun usage as well, and concealed carry and things like that. Concealed carry was not a thing when I was growing up in Wisconsin. It was not allowed until after I left the state. I had to learn about, basically, the personal reasons why people owned guns outside of hunting deer, which was what was very trendy when I was growing up. I looked into the Bundys an awful lots because I was amazed at how people could occupy federal land for that long and not get into more serious trouble than they did. I also had the great luck of ending up with a friend who had a boyfriend who filled their attic with guns and brought a tank into a major city and didn’t mind being lightly quizzed about what his deal was, which was just insane. After I’d already developed an interest in this stuff, she just started dating this guy. I was like, wow, let me just ask you questions and try to be subtle about the fact that I’m absolutely fascinated with what you’re doing. Then on top of that, I read about Black survivalists too, which is a bit of a different tradition than a lot of stuff I just mentioned, a little bit more internal, a little less carrying guns at Target. I did a lot of research. It was fun.

Zibby: Did you ever think about being a historian? What was your path if the writing thing hadn’t panned out for you?

Kashana: Man, I don’t know. I’ve kind of wanted to be a writer since I was ten. I was a very unhappy lawyer. Towards the end, I was like, what if I really tried going after writing? I thought I might be a musician once. I am not particularly talented at anything. I did play the violin for ten years, but nah. I’m one of those “always wanted to be a writer” types. Living the dream.

Zibby: Amazing. This book is definitely not an advertisement for joining a law firm. I’ll say that.

Kashana: There are no advertisements in .

Zibby: I know, but this definitely isn’t one. run the other way. What advice do you have for aspiring authors?

Kashana: Keep going, honestly. Myself and most of the people I know, the reason why we got published is because we kept going. We took the negative feedback. We took the rejections. We took the bad drafts. I think at the beginning, you’re kind of unsure of your own work. You just have to fight through that and go, you know what? I believe in what I’m doing, and I’m going to keep going. If you’re there at the beginning, congratulations. Power to you. I wasn’t. It was something I had to fight through. I think it’s good to have friends that are writers. If you find folks that are fun and that you feel like you’re learning from and really enjoying hanging out with, it’s cool to read work. People who do work that you don’t. I have a lot of journalist buddies. I know a lot of nonfictionists generally. It was fun to hang out with them and learn how a different side of writing worked and to do a little bit of that and develop my writer brain in different ways. Basically, whatever you think will help your writing, you should go ahead and do that, and to keep finding some sort of writing practice. Keep going. Keep producing drafts. Keep sending work out. Keep taking the rejections in stride.

Zibby: When did the whole ear piercing at the mall thing happen?

Kashana: I was sixteen. My very first job was at a Claire’s in the mall. This was the late nineties. They handed me a cassette tape. They were just like, “You’ll have this cassette tape. Then you’ll have this mannequin that’s made of Styrofoam with earlobes. You’re going to take the ear gun.” They called it an ear-piercing gun. “You’re just going to shoot the mannequin. Then you’ll be fine. You’ll be able to do real people.” I was like, you know what? No. I ran away. I quit. I ended up going to another store in the mall and selling coats, which was so much less violent.

Zibby: Wow, that’s so funny. I had a daughter who got her ears pierced at Claire’s, I must say. I won’t even comment. Thank you for coming on “Moms Don’t Have Time to Read Books.” I’m sorry again for recording this in my car, but this is what I do when I have to do something for my kids. Trying to fit it all in. Congratulations. This book is already getting so much buzz and press and all the rest. I look forward to watching it as it all unfolds.

Kashana: Thanks for having me. It’s really been a pleasure to talk to you about this book.

Zibby: You too. Buh-bye.

Kashana: Buh-bye.

Kashana Cauley, THE SURVIVALISTS: A Novel

THE SURVIVALISTS: A Novel by Kashana Cauley

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