Cole Lavalais’s debut novel, Summer of the Cicadas, tells the story of Viola Moon—otherwise known as Vi—as she embarks on her first year at college, a small HBCU in Florida. Vi has also embarked on a new life outside of the mental health facility where she was admitted following a delusional episode that prompted her to hurt herself. For her, these aren’t two separate journeys but one and the same. As she weighs whether or not to take her prescription medicine, Vi also worries about how to succeed in class, whether to trust the handsome young man pledging at a fraternity generations of his family have belonged to, how to make—and keep—friends, what to make of her enigmatic work-study boss. The result is novel that’s as dreamy as it is disorienting, successfully placing readers in Vi’s uncertain but unforgettable shoes. I spoke to Lavalais over the phone about mental health, intersectionality, and her own path as a writer.
How did this book come about? People ask me—how long did it take you to write it? And like most writers with day jobs, it’s a process. It’s not as if I can sit in a room and write all day. I wasn’t born rich, I was born beautiful. It was a process over 10 or 12 years. When I first began to write this story, it was completely different. I would put the manuscript down and do something else for an entire year and then come back to it. By the time I had the time and said “This has to get done, I have to finish this book,” what I was interested in had changed. I was almost finished with my graduate school program, and I was in the midst of all this literary theory. I was trying to make sense of that. I was trying to figure out, how does all of this work on the body? What does this mean? How does this look on a regular girl trying to go to school? How would this look on her?
How did you find Vi as a character? I had a family member who was suffering from mental illness and I was trying to make sense of it. That’s the wonderful thing about writing, you know, you can rewrite it. You can get in the head of the character and realize their motivations. It started out as kind of a magical realist piece. As I went forward, I didn’t feel right about the magic part of it. It’s not magic. It’s not magical. It’s also not something you can easily fix. Even though there’s treatment, there’s not a cure.
There’s a dearth of sympathetic, complex mentally ill protagonists in literature both old and new. The number gets even smaller if you look for characters who are women, and especially women of color. Did this absence affect how you wrote Vi? In a lot of what I’ve read, mentally ill characters are either romanticized or demonized. They shouldn’t be either. I taught a class called “Women Gone Wild,” looking at women in literature who went mad. They are always characterized as scary, wicked, demonic. I did think about it, but not in terms of trying to correct it. For me, Summer of the Cicadas is an opportunity for us to see a protagonist we haven’t, that I haven’t, read before. We have so many diverse and different stories to tell. This is just one of them.
One of the most successful, and disorienting, aspects of the novel was how successfully you place readers in Vi’s point of view. I remember in particular a scene in the classroom where Vi suddenly loses the ability to process spoken language, and so readers also lose access to the dialogue spoken around Vi. How did you approach this in writing the novel? It’s difficult when you have an unreliable narrative, right? You have to figure out, how do you ground your readers in something? I’m not trying to trick them—I want them to follow the story—but I have to be true to my character’s consciousness. The idea of language was really important [to creating this effect]. It’s a very basic thing. There are always misunderstandings: what you say is not what I hear. It’s a very equalizing way for readers to feel like, “I get this, I understand what she’s going through.” Misunderstandings happen ten or twelve times a time. What if that’s just your experience with everything, when you can’t trust anything you hear?
In some ways Summer of the Cicadas is the ultimate intersectional novel. It asks questions about sanity, about rural versus urban upbringings, about legacy and family history and its absence, about gender, about class, about sexuality, about what it’s like to go to an HBCU. How did these many story lines and themes come together? It actually happened organically, but it reflects this idea that we’re intersectional. It would be wonderful if we could just go out in the world and there’ll be one thing that affects us all the time, and it’s that only thing. But that’s just not how I’ve experienced the world. There are all these different -isms that are working on us. It feels less authentic to me that, because she’s mentally ill, Vi doesn’t have to worry about being a woman, or being from a certain class. Everybody comes to the table with one thing or another, actually three or four different things.
What’s your origin story as a writer? How did you make your way through the publishing world and the literary community? I have a masters and a PhD in creative writing. For some reason I thought that if I went into a PhD program that that would give me time to write. Little did I know that that’s not how PhD programs work! So it was another five years of me saying, “My god why did I do this, I wanted to write creatively.” Four or five years ago I did a two-week writers workshop in Texas, the Callalloo Writer’s Workshop, that was really helpful. But it wasn’t until 2014 that I was able to take six weeks to work on the book. I did two writers retreats in a row. I was finally able to revise the novel from beginning to end. It took me that long to realize, that, okay, I need blocks of time. I can’t work on a creative project piecemeal. Some folks can. I’m not the kind of person who’s gonna get up at four in the morning and work till seven. The big blocks of time helped me to refocus and just live with the characters and the work—so that at lunch and at dinner you’re still thinking about it, even if you aren’t writing it. You don’t have the world nipping at your heels the entire time.
How have you changed as a writer over the course of this book? Every time I sat down, every time I had a minute or a couple of weeks—I was a different writer. I had to start at the beginning again. Initially my first draft, when I was working on my MFA, was all these cross sections of different genres. It’s because I was writing from intuition, I was writing from being a reader. I didn’t have control over what I was doing. As I gained control, over the years, I got better at what I was doing. As I read more, I got clearer on what I wanted to show and how to structure the piece. I did a quick reading a week ago, and I was like, I would change something now. I don’t think I’ve ever met a writer who isn’t like that, though. That didn’t continually change.