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Born out of loss, 2 parents build their own underground society in 'The New Naturals'

AYESHA RASCOE, HOST:

The new novel by Gabriel Bump, "The New Naturals," starts with a devastating loss. A pair of young Black academics are left bereft following the death of their infant daughter. The story charts their descent into grief and, ultimately, their journey underground, where they hope to create a utopia carved out of a hillside in western Massachusetts. But it's a project that doesn't go according to plan. Gabriel Bump teaches literature at the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill, and his debut novel, "Everywhere You Don't Belong," was named a New York Times Notable Book of 2020. He joins us now from New York. Welcome to the show.

GABRIEL BUMP: Hey, thanks. Thanks for the introduction, Ayesha. I'm really excited.

RASCOE: Well, I'm glad for you to be on talking with us. So the opening of the book is very jarring. You have this couple - the mother, Rio, and the father, Gibraltar. They're dealing with the loss of their daughter. Can you talk to me about those two characters?

BUMP: Yeah. I guess, like, when I was writing this book and I was trying to figure out, like, what could make these people just really want to escape the world? Like, what would be the thing that pushes them over the edge? And I imagined just, like, the worst thing that could happen, you know, in this way that writers sometimes do - right? - like, think about the most dramatic action.

RASCOE: It seemed like, though, even before the death of their baby, that they were already kind of trying to escape. They had moved out to - you know, moved away from the city and...

BUMP: Yeah. Yeah. And, I mean, I guess it's like the difference between someone in, you know, New York moving upstate because they're kind of sick of what's happening to the city or, like, feel kind of like the city's unaffordable - like, just all these different reasons, and, like, taking that extra extreme step to say, OK, like, we're - living in the woods isn't enough. We're going to go underground. We are going to retreat totally from the world. And I know I can empathize with a lot, just especially now, just - and maybe the past couple of years, it's felt like this, too. But the world is just so overwhelming.

RASCOE: Well, can I ask you then - 'cause a lot of the book is written - it's almost like stream of consciousness. There are all these different characters who aren't necessarily connected, but they're all searching for meaning. Talk to me about, like, your writing style. Like, when I was reading it, you know, it felt like each chapter almost felt like a story unto itself.

BUMP: Yeah, yeah. And I wanted to, like, really focus on these characters - like, an emotional level. And I feel like it's a very emotional book, even though there's this, like, grand experiment happening. Like, it's really personal. And even, like, the writing felt really personal 'cause, like, when I started writing this book, I was kind of going through a hard time in my personal life. I was just feeling, like, kind of down and out. You know, like, none of my characters are me, but this character, Bounce - like, this young man that just can't seem to set his foot right in the world, like nothing seems to go his way - that's, like, how I felt, you know? And so in those, I guess, like, vignettes, like, these maybe just stories unto themselves - and so to hear these people in one specific moment on their journey - how are they coping, and where are they moving towards?

RASCOE: You said you felt some similarities with Bounce. I just wonder that, you know, your debut novel was named a New York Times Notable Book. Like, why would you feel like things weren't going right for you?

BUMP: Yeah. Well, so I started writing this book before my first book came out.

RASCOE: OK. OK. That makes more sense. OK. So you were more - so you didn't know where you was going. OK.

BUMP: No. And before that, like - and that's why I'm kind of feeling more just relaxed with this second book, like just feeling - I don't - like, Zen or something 'cause, like, before that first book comes out, it really does feel like your whole life is riding on this thing.

RASCOE: You know, I mean, this story is set up against the backdrop of kind of chaos in the U.S. and chaos around the world. How much were you influenced by current events?

BUMP: Well, yeah. I mean, and it felt like - in 2018, when I started writing this, it just felt like the world wasn't in a right spot. Like, everything was just feeling kind of, like, off the rails.

RASCOE: And this was before the pandemic, so you were feeling this way before it hit...

BUMP: This is, like, before - this is before the pandemic. This is before January 6. This is before the George Floyd, like, protests and uprising, certainly before our two kind of, like, large-scale wars happening, like, simultaneously in the world. And the lesson I learned from that hard time, like, five years ago is I'm married now, so I'm leaning a lot on my wife, you know, not just my immediate family, but, like, her immediate family. Like, we're all kind of, like, finding comfort in each other. And it helps, you know? It does make the world feel less chaotic. But, I mean, I don't know. Like, when I think about change, there's just so many different types of change that we experience. So I can use one from just my personal life. So this year, my wife and I experienced a, like, late-term miscarriage with our daughters at 20 weeks.

RASCOE: I'm so sorry.

BUMP: Oh, no. Thank you. Thank you. And I mean, so my perception of change - and again, even in this book - so when I said, like, that Rio and Gibraltar, this husband and wife losing their daughter, like, I wrote that five years ago, just as this - you know, try and figure out what's the worst thing that could happen to people. And so it ended up happening to my wife and I, right? And we were like, recently married, and we're so excited. Like, our life was changing in, like, the most beautiful way possible. And then just one day, it changes in the worst way imaginable.

And I think that, like, how I've come to accept all different kinds of change, both personal and societal, is by welcoming change in this way, you know, like trying to keep myself and those around me solid and just saying, OK, whatever comes, we're going to be ready for it. We're going to love each other. We're going to deal with it.

RASCOE: Is that the utopia, then, you think that these characters in the book are really looking for? Is it the connection with each other?

BUMP: Yeah. I think that that's what they end up finding, right? I don't know if, you know, the initial plan was different. And I think that what ends up being most important is this utopia they find in each other.

RASCOE: That's Gabriel Bump, whose new novel, "The New Naturals," is out this week. Thank you so much for being with us.

BUMP: All right. Thank you so much, Ayesha. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

NPR transcripts are created on a rush deadline by an NPR contractor. This text may not be in its final form and may be updated or revised in the future. Accuracy and availability may vary. The authoritative record of NPR’s programming is the audio record.

Ayesha Rascoe is a White House correspondent for NPR. She is currently covering her third presidential administration. Rascoe's White House coverage has included a number of high profile foreign trips, including President Trump's 2019 summit with North Korean leader Kim Jong Un in Hanoi, Vietnam, and President Obama's final NATO summit in Warsaw, Poland in 2016. As a part of the White House team, she's also a regular on the NPR Politics Podcast.
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