"That's what art does," Rumaan Alam tells EW. "It bubbles up and digests whatever's happening in the culture."

By David Canfield
September 18, 2020 at 10:00 AM EDT
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Michael Bucher; Ecco

When does a novelist's moment arrive? Maybe ask Rumaan Alam. He looks prepared. Never mind the half bottle of vodka he drank last night (source: Twitter) or the Fire Island family vacation he’ll breeze off to tomorrow. For the past month, social media’s literary corners have been loudly abuzz about his next book, Leave the World Behind. Endorsements have come from rival publishers, celebrity authors, Julia Roberts — more on her later — and they’ll likely keep flowing in beyond the book’s Oct. 6 publication. How does all the attention feel? Alam’s reply is composed, elegant, humble, but a huge grin sneaks in — a smile that says, I’m playing it cool, but yes, this is thrilling.

Speaking over Zoom from Crown Heights, Brooklyn, where he lives with his husband, photographer David A. Land, and their two children, Alam, 43, comes armed with sharp insights into his work. His novel strikes plenty of nerves: Set at a remote Airbnb, Behind centers on a white middle-class family from Brooklyn whose getaway is interrupted by the midnight arrival of an older Black couple claiming to be the owners of the house — and asking to stay the night. A blackout has engulfed all of New York City, they explain. The apocalypse may be coming, Alam’s omniscient narrator warns. And so they’re stuck together — to comfort, to cast suspicions, to bond over parenting and good weather and whatever the hell is happening to this world.

Sheltering in place while some unknown terror lurks beyond the house’s walls? The resonance is clear, even if the book was written before the pandemic. “We all feel trapped in our homes right now; our conversation about race has carried into the streets,” says Alam. “But none of these things are exactly new. The quarantine is a strange coincidence, but what the book is distilling is stuff that’s been in the culture for a while.”

Alam is not new to this: His 2016 debut, Rich and Pretty, examined a friendship with bite and acuity; his follow-up, That Kind of Mother, was one of 2018’s more unheralded novels, piercing in its story of a white mother who adopts a Black child. He has a singular faculty for dialogue — he hears just how it sounds, what’s concealed behind it. In Behind, a mother will ask “should I make lunch?” even though she’s “less hungry than bored.” A man who’s just escaped a metropolis under siege can say, “I think it’s something we’re going to laugh about when we hear what it was,” while thinking no such thing.

It fleshes out Alam’s style with an addicting pace. “Thrillers are about seducing and entertaining the reader,” he says. “I wanted the book to feel sticky, like you just couldn’t get out of it. You’re held in there.” He projects a cool detachment not unlike his book’s crafty narrator, tickled by coincidence and dryly witty but reluctant to give too much away. “The simple truth is that I’m not really sure I know what’s happening inside of this book,” says Alam. “And to me, that is what makes it realistic. That describes how I feel about the world right now. I have two answers and 65 more questions.”

Rights to Behind were snatched up by Netflix and director Sam Esmail (Mr. Robot) for a reported seven figures in July. Oscar winners Julia Roberts and Denzel Washington — the latter of whom is referenced (we’ll leave it at that) in the book — are attached to star. “It’s such a cliché, but it was like an out-of-body experience,” Alam admits. “None of it seemed real. We were on these phone calls with studios, and the other folks on the call kept saying Julia, using her [first] name. I said at one point, ‘I just want to clarify that we’re talking about Julia Roberts? Because we’re talking about her like she’s just our friend who’s in the other room.’” Well, get used to it: Soon, she just might be.

For more from EW's Fall Books Special, order the October issue of Entertainment Weekly now, or find it on newsstands beginning Sept. 18. You can also find a special edition of the issue at Barnes & Noble stores beginning Sept. 25. Don't forget to subscribe for more exclusive interviews and photos, only in EW.

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