Jonathan Harper is good at luring and lulling readers. In his debut novel “You Don’t Belong Here” (Lethe, 2023), the queer writer sets the stage with protagonist Morris, a bisexual writer from the DC area, finishing up his residency at the Manderlay Colony. As with many of these kinds of venues, Manderlay is in a small (unnamed) town, which often makes for a good place to create without the distractions of a metropolitan location. But things don’t go as planned for Morris. On what he thinks will be his last night out, he encounters Henry, a significant presence from his past who, like Morris, can’t seem to find his way home. “You Don’t Belong Here” unfolds like a cross between Martin Scorcese’s “After Hours” and Ira Levin’s “The Stepford Wives” and will keep you guessing until the last page. Jonathan was generous enough to answer a few questions before the book was published.
Gregg Shapiro: Jonathan, your first book “Daydreamers” came out in 2015. Looking back on it, how would you describe the experience?
Jonathan Harper: Egads! It’s hard to believe that was eight years ago. The whole experience was such a whirlwind. I had been working on those stories for years, thinking no one would ever publish them and then one day, I’m holding my book in a state of disbelief. There was a lot of anxiety and imposter syndrome, but there was also a lot of joy and excitement. I did a few readings and each time I was just taken aback by how many friends and loved ones showed up to support me. There were a few times when someone reached out to me because they had read “Daydreamers” and wanted to share their thoughts. I kept thinking, what a beautiful way to connect with others. One thing I learned from publishing “Daydreamers” was the importance of being grateful. The publishing world is competitive and no matter how hard you work, nothing is guaranteed. If I’m lucky enough to continue publishing, I need to appreciate the moment as well as the people who make this possible.
GS: Daydreamers was a short story collection. Did your new novel “You Don’t Belong Here” begin as a short story or did you always envision it as a novel?
JH: I knew early on this was a novel. It started with this idea about a failed artist who becomes stranded in an isolated resort town. And before I could even start mapping out the plot line, I spent weeks, maybe months, just thinking about this concept of being stranded, especially in modern America. The whole idea seemed far-fetched. I kept thinking, as long as you have a credit card or a cellphone or access to email, you’re really not in danger of getting stranded. The more I mused over this, the more complicated this scenario became and the more I had to ask about the people and places involved. Eventually, I ended up with this character, Morris, a mid-thirties slacker who tries to escape the monotony of his life by attending an artist colony and finds himself in hell. I knew right away this was going to be larger than a short story.
GS: Were you writing “You Don’t Belong Here” at the same time as the stories in “Daydreamers” or were the books created at different times?
JH: Different times. I’m one of those writers who needs to focus on one project at a time. I had to put “Daydreamers” to bed before I could even think about anything else.
GS: “You Don’t Belong Here” pulses with a subtle sense of dread. How much of it was written during pandemic?
JH: I completed several drafts before 2020, so the core of the novel was done, and I was wading through the editing phase. And then, the pandemic hit, and everything just stopped. For that first year, I was trapped inside my house feeling like the outside world was slowly ending. I could barely look at the manuscript. By the time I regained focus, I did see some parallels between what we were experiencing with COVID and “You Don’t Belong Here.” Just as we were trapped in our homes, the novel was about people who were metaphorically trapped in this little town. Not all of us survived the pandemic; not everyone escaped the town. I’m sure this did have an effect on the prose.
GS: One of the things that struck me about the novel was the way that it reminded me of suspenseful books by Ira Levin (“The Stepford Wives” and “Rosemary’s Baby”) and Thomas Tryon (“Harvest Home”) in the way that it involves a character being introduced into an environment where they don’t necessarily belong and the potentially horrifying impact that it has on them. Are Levin or Tryon influences on you in any way?
JH: Not Levin and Tryon specifically. The original inspiration for “YDBH” was “Wake in Fright” by Kenneth Cook. It’s an Australian novel set in the 1960’s Outback in which a man becomes stranded in a rural mining town. The novel frightened me. The Bundanyabba itself was a really scary place full of these hypermasculine miners and other seedy characters and the main character, a schoolteacher from Sydney, is very out of his element. I didn’t want to recreate “Wake in Fright,” but I did see a queer parallel. Even in modern America, queer people have to be consciously aware of their surroundings. And some places, especially rural spaces, are less friendly than others. This is not always apparent at first glance. Shirley Jackson was another inspiration. Her work can fill you with dread while blandly serving you tea.
GS: Morris, is someone who doesn’t necessarily fit in, something of which he is aware as early as the second chapter when, perhaps because he’s bisexual, comments about a visit to gay club Badlands in DC that “this place is not for you.” Am I on the right track about Morris?
JH: Maybe. I agree that Morris is a person who struggles to fit in, especially when he’s outside of his comfort zone. But it’s not connected to his bisexuality. He’s actually very comfortable with his queerness. What makes Morris an outsider has more to do with his passivity and his reluctance to make hard decisions. Depending on how you perceive him, he’s naïve, coy, immature, and possibly manipulative. He’s not very good at saying what he wants and can be quick to blame. This is something other characters pick up on.
GS: In chapter seven there’s a list of cool bands that Morris likes, including Florence + The Machine, Arcade Fire, and The Flaming Lips. Would that also happen to be indicative of your own musical tastes?
JH: [Laughs] Well, yes. But I hope that doesn’t imply that Morris and I have a lot in common.
GS: Morris and Henry were two close friends whose friendship ended but are reunited unexpectedly years later. Have you ever had a similar experience, and if so, was that a source of inspiration for the book?
JH: Well, maybe? I’m very sentimental about friendship, probably because I grew up in a military family and we moved every other year. My childhood was in constant transition, constantly leaving people and places. So, as an adult, I crave stability. I have a loving husband and this amazing network of long-time friends. Trust me, I’m not trying to jeopardize any of that.
That being said, there is that one “bad friendship” that comes to mind. Similar to Morris and Henry, it was an important friendship that ended rather abruptly. The details of the falling out have faded over time, but I still remember the intense feeling of grief that festered for years after. He was in all of these photos and memories and there was never any chance for reconciling or at least getting closure. For a while, I would fantasize about running into him again and I knew by heart everything I would say to him. And then it happened. I walked by him on the streets in DC and he looked right at me and just pretended I wasn’t there. This didn’t inspire the book, but it’s something I thought about while writing it.
GS: Alcohol is practically its own character in the novel. Morris is constantly being plied with drinks, and the results are rarely good for him. Please say something about the powerful presence of alcohol in the book.
JH: I want to clarify that “You Don’t Belong Here” is not an anti-alcohol story. This isn’t a giant metaphor for addiction. But alcohol does typically play a large role in both queer culture and in resort towns, so it was going to have a noticeable presence. One thing I kept in mind while writing is that we live in a drinking culture and there’s a lot of meaning attached to it. We associate drinking with pleasure, stress-relief, parties, and sometimes sex. A glass of champagne is often a symbol of celebration. These are the things Morris wants. Then there’s the danger of abundance. That first drink gives you access, another to give you courage, the next to prolong the excitement. But eventually, you pass your limit, and you lose control. As for Morris, I think he likes the idea of making bad decisions and losing control, which was the role Henry used to play in his life. So, alcohol is almost a surrogate.
GS: “You Don’t Belong Here” is also timely in the way that it incorporates religious fanaticism and meth heads. Would you say that it’s a kind of political statement?
JH: Yes, definitely. I started writing this book during the Trump regime. And I was so horrified and furious at what I was witnessing. So, when I was crafting Scotty Skeel and his little group, I wanted them wearing MAGA hats and spewing bible quotes while doing something monstrous.
Ultimately, I decided to tone it down. I worried that they were becoming caricatures and I feel like they’re a lot more menacing as they are now. I didn’t need to make a blunt connection to Trump for this to still be political. Acknowledging religious fanaticism is political on its own. And it’s something that exists in this country. And it’s something we will all have to contend with long after Trump himself is gone.
GS: “You Don’t Belong Here” is very cinematic. If there was a movie version, who would play Morris? Henry? Yasmin? Atherton?
JH: This is a difficult question! I’ve been working with these characters for years and have a clear picture in my head of what they look like. It’s hard to replicate that. But now that I think about it, I could see Atherton played by a well-fed Ray Stevenson.
GS: Have you started working on or thinking about your next book project?
JH: So, I have another vague idea about a young man who wins the lottery and becomes involved with a man who is forty years his senior. Not sure if I’ll pursue this yet… but it’s fun to linger in the “thinking stage.”