In the following email interview about her speculative fiction novel End Of The World House (hardcover, Kindle, audiobook), writer Adrienne Celt discusses what inspired and influenced this story of a time loop and a slow apocalypse, as well as why she set part of it in the Louvre instead of your local art museum.
Photo Credit: Adrianne Mathiowetz Photography
To start, what is End Of The World House about, and what kind of world is it set in?
As I was working on the book, I referred to the setting as a “slow apocalypse,” where the “slow”-ness referred more to the pace of social awareness than to the cataclysmic events. That is to say, there is basically a world war going on, but, outside the moments of direct conflict, most middle-class Americans are able to pretend that it’s not happening because they’re insulated by their own financial stability. At least, insulated up to a point: that’s why it’s “slow” but still an apocalypse.
The book follows Bertie and Kate, lifelong best friends who go on a trip to Paris to take advantage of a global ceasefire and help themselves pretend that Kate isn’t about to move to Los Angeles — a move they worry will permanently change, if not end, their friendship. After meeting a strange man at a bar, they end up on a private tour of the Louvre, where reality begins to bend around them. First, they get stuck in a time loop, and then…things get really weird. The novel takes place both in the Louvre and in Silicon Valley, where Bertie and Kate live, and examines questions of friendship, art, reality, tech dystopia and capitalist decline, and the familiar feeling of being deeply, irrevocably stuck. In a lot of ways, it’s a book about “stuck-ness” in all its forms.
Where did you get the idea for End Of The World House, and how, if at all, did that idea evolve as you wrote this story?
It actually changed quite a lot as I wrote. Not least because, in my original thinking, Bertie and Kate would stay inside the museum for the entire book, which (without spoiling exactly how or why) isn’t what happens. When I’m drafting, I like to have a general idea of where a book might go, while still allowing myself to be fluid and take the story wherever it leads me — a teacher of mine once referred to this as having a “rough itinerary,” as if for a road trip. Meaning you have a plan written out (or at least in your head), which you can follow and refer to if you need help getting back on track, but you’re also free to go down a side road if you want to, or totally change course if you see something more interesting than your original destination.
So in this case, the farther I went, the more I felt the need to shake things up. To open up the story, and let a little air in. In most time loop stories, the people stuck in the loop are aware of it, but Bertie and Kate are not (except arguably on a subconscious level), and although the loops themselves do a good job building tension, suspense, and mystery about their situation, I also wanted a chance to learn a little more deeply about the characters themselves. Which led me to make some choices, which again, I won’t spoil.
I began the first draft of End Of The World House in 2017, and the impulse largely came from a desire to write a book where the structure plays a big role in the movement of the plot. I think the idea to write a time loop story about friendship came first, and the specifics after; the slow apocalypse setting was there from the beginning, but it grew in texture and importance in reaction to the world around me. Again, it was 2017, so things were politically turbulent — not to say they aren’t now — and there were all these natural disasters unfurling day and night. I wrote the first hundred pages or so at a residency in Wyoming, and while I was there we got a heavy dose of smoke from some wildfires in California. It was all stuff that people are sadly used to now: the campfire smell, the hazy yellow air, the red-orange sun, but that was my first real experience of it. Some real end-times shit, but simultaneously, I was at this cushy residency with no responsibilities except to my work, sitting by a beautiful creek to read in the afternoons. So there was some cognitive dissonance. And I’ve worked in tech, like Bertie does; I know all about the inertia that keeps you doing the same thing day in and day out, even if it’s not making you happy, just because it’s easier. All that, and a lot of my feelings about art and friendship, came together in my inspiration for the book.
So, is there a reason why End Of The World House is partially set in the Louvre as opposed to New York’s Museum Of Modern Art or The Getty in Los Angeles or some other art museum?
This is a great question — certainly I’ve spent more time in the Met, which is one of my favorite places to devote a day to when I’m in New York. But End Of The World House was only ever going to be set in the Louvre.
One reason, which is kind of silly, is that early on — when the concept was still just a stew of images in my mind — I somewhere came across the phrase “private Louvres” (someone misspeaking maybe?) and it caught in my mind. Because you can turn it into so many things: private loves, private lives, and then also this idea of a museum just for you. An opportunity for deep intimacy with art that you usually see at a distance, in a crowd, mediated through other people and their ideas about it. It’s funny to me that so much came from that, but it did.
Then also, it was important to me that Bertie and Kate (though lovable) come across as being in a privileged position which they aren’t necessarily good at seeing beyond. I wanted to express, through their choices, that despite everything happening in the world, these two women are comfortable, and that comfort is a kind of narcotic. Going to Paris has this romantic, dramatic resonance in the American imagination, especially in a time of war. And the fact that Bertie and Kate have both the means and the desire to do it says something about them. To be clear, it’s an uncomfortably familiar impulse to me, which is why it felt important to look at it closely — I mean it less as a condemnation than a sort of admission, and an attempt to see my place in the world more clearly and empathically.
And in a similar vein, is there a reason you partially set it in an art museum as opposed to an art gallery or a different kind of museum or, I don’t know, a supermarket?
Ha! I can’t say I ever seriously considered a supermarket.
And yes, the setting is very purposeful. Not only does the museum itself provide the effete, privileged sensibility I was describing above — just as importantly, being in a museum is about the art. I personally could spend my entire life in a museum; that’s why I like going to the Met so much. There is something really nourishing to me about being surrounded by beauty that is the work of human hands, the human imagination made manifest.
But also, a museum is a showcase of cultural choices. The pieces on display were selected above and beyond other, perhaps equally worthy art, and those kinds of selections are being made all the time. Decisions about what one person (say, a curator at a large museum) finds valuable, which, because of that gatekeeping imprimatur, actually become more valuable. Monetarily and culturally: once a work of art gets some momentum in the public imagination, more people like it, and they like it more. Is that because taste is an absolute concept (i.e. we all like good things because they are inherently good)? Or is it because we are more inclined to appreciate things as a group (for the reassurance of everyone agreeing something is good, so you’re not out on a ledge with your judgment)? Or perhaps because attention has a kind of gravity, and once one set of eyes fall on an object, more are drawn to it? I think taste and artistic value are a messy combination of all these things, and it’s interesting to me that so much of the time we kind of pretend that they’re simple and pure and don’t require any further examination.
Bertie is an artist, too: she’s a cartoonist, classically trained as a painter. And so for her, all these questions chime on a personal level, in terms of her training, her self-esteem, her own ideas about what beauty consists of.
End Of The World House sounds like it’s a dystopian sci-fi story, but a more down-to-Earth one. How do you describe it, genre-wise?
I’d say “down-to-Earth dystopia” isn’t the worst pitch, actually. The book, for me, falls in the liminal space where sci-fi and literary fiction converge, which is sometimes referred to as “speculative fiction.” I like that term, because it’s so openly about asking questions, thinking through possibilities — speculating. Which I am very much doing in terms of the possible outcomes of the tech world creating products or harnessing forces that they can’t suitably control. And really, that is a sci-fi theme as old as time: the scientists could do it, but did they stop to think if they should? Pure Jurassic Park, pure Frankenstein.
So I’m just as happy to say science fiction, or just plain fiction, or to let audiences decide for themselves based on the description. Genres mostly exist to sell books: on their own artistic terms, so many books actually straddle multiple genres at once. I have mostly published in the literary fiction world, but my work (especially my short stories) has always been interested in the fabulous — and I read everything.
Speaking of which, End Of The World House is your third novel after 2015’s The Daughters and 2018’s Invitation To A Bonfire. Are there any writers, or maybe specific stories, that had a particularly big influence on End Of The World House but not on your other novels?
Since it’s more in the realm of science fiction than my other books, I suppose all my sci-fi reading came to bear on this book in a new way. But generally, I’d say this book was influenced by any stories that are willing to take big swings, make big choices. Fly the freak flag, if you will. The structure and trajectory of End Of The World House is very different from anything else I’ve done, and I definitely had in mind any books that were willing to make risky choices with the basic building blocks of their text. Kate Atkinson’s Life After Life comes to mind; Jo Walton’s My Real Children; Susan Choi’s Trust Exercise; Vladimir Nabokov’s Pale Fire, David Markson’s Wittgenstein’s Mistress. Anything by Kathryn Davis. Ted Chiang. John Langan. The Gone World by Tom Sweterlisch. This book is also more consciously interested in being contemporary than my previous book, so I would add in certain novels of work, like The Factory by Hiroko Oyamada or Severance by Ling Ma.
How about non-literary influences; was End Of The World House influenced by any movies, TV shows, or games?
Definitely Groundhog Day, for movies. The most classic time loop story. And less in terms of structure, but more in terms of its approach to the absurd, maybe also Being John Malkovich, which does an incredibly job of setting up truly bizarre scenarios and then treating them in a straightforward way, which makes you want to follow them instead of trying to pick them apart on a logical level.
I don’t play a ton of video games, but one that does come to mind is The Stanley Parable, which makes the player struggle actively (and in an incredibly meta way) against the game’s “narrative line” — and which I watched my husband and brother-in-law play for a while, back when it came out. I love that game, and in a weird way it does get at Bertie’s predicament.
End Of The World House sounds like it’s a stand-alone story…
You’re right, it’s a stand-alone story. In the same way that graphic novels feed different creative hungers than regular novels do, I think stand-alones vs. series come from slightly different storytelling impulses. I like to let a book teach me what it wants to be, so if I’d reached the end of this one and felt there was more story to tell, I would have been open to that, but I think it works best on its own. The arc felt complete to me, when it was over.
I do really miss Bertie and Kate, though.
Earlier I asked if End Of The World House had been influenced by any movies, TV shows, or games. But I’d like to flip things around, if I may, and ask if you think End Of The World House could work as a movie, show, or game?
Oooh, you know, I think it could work equally well — though for different reasons — as a movie or a TV show. Movies are able to maintain atmosphere so beautifully, because they’re self-contained, and I think that would be a virtue here. But shows have so much breathing room. You can have bottle episodes, you can go off on weird, character-driven tangents. So depending on how a person wanted to adapt it — what their goals for the adaptation were — I think either one could work.
And actually, I do think you could make a pretty fun, moody video game out of it. Somewhere between a strategic first-person horror game and, like, Myst or The Legend Of Zelda: Breath Of The Wild.
So, if someone wanted to adapt End Of The World House into a movie or TV show, who would you want them to cast as Bertie, Kate, and the other main characters?
I’m weirdly bad at casting my own writing with real-life actors. I learned this first hand recently, because my previous novel, Invitation To A Bonfire, is actually being adapted for TV by AMC — it’s very exciting! — and a lot of people have asked me this question about it. (Just from curiosity, that is; I’m not in charge of the adaptation, so I’m not doing any hiring.) I really struggle to come up with answers. The characters in my novels all feel like individuals to me, but not necessarily famous individuals. So casting them as actors feels weirdly hokey to me, when my relationship with them (the characters, that is) is so much more personal and intimate than my relationship (nonexistent) with any people on TV.
That said, I can’t wait to see who they do cast. It’s one of the rare occasions when a writer gets to actually see someone else’s experience of their work: how they think about it, how they imagine the characters. I love that.
So, is there anything else you think people need to know about End Of The World House?
A couple of things.
One: There is no pandemic in the book. There are strange thematic parallels to our experience of quarantine (feeling stuck in place, fear of death and danger, the realization that the world can change dramatically without your permission), but that’s not the basis for my slow apocalypse, and I had already finished most of my drafts before the real-world pandemic happened. In a really tragic way, the invasion of Ukraine feels much closer to what I was imagining.
Two: It feels to me like the “big tech” part of the story doesn’t necessarily come across in a lot of the marketing for the book (for a good reason: spoilers), but it is an important part of the world I built, and I think it’s pretty interesting to settle in and spend some time there. So for people who will be drawn to that, I want to let them know that it’s there.
Finally, if someone enjoys End Of The World House, which of your other books would you suggest they read next and why that one and not the other one?
Ha! I feel like you must know this question is hard to answer. How can I choose?
Oh, c’mon, it’s easy. It’s like picking your favorite child. “Lisa. I pick Lisa.”
I would say that Invitation To A Bonfire has a bit more of the humor and pace of End Of The World House, plus a science fiction novelist at its core. But it’s set in the 1920s-’30s, so it’s very different in that way. The Daughters is half contemporary, half set in a real and also mythical version of Poland, so if you like science fiction and fantasy, that one has more fairytale inflection. All my books are pretty different, though they’re all interested in similar themes, like how we build our identities, the cost of making great art, and what it means to be part of something larger than yourself, for better or worse. Beyond that, I guess people will just have to decide for themselves.