When it comes to reading about the end of the world, whether we’re in a dystopia, a post-apocalyptic setting or in the pre-apocalypse, there can be something so wildly comforting to be found there, when it’s done well. I know, I know. How can reading about the end of mankind feel like a snuggly blanket? Well, from novels like Emily St. John Mandel’s acclaimed “Station Eleven” to local author Chuck Wendig’s epic “Wanderers,” stories set when the world is crumbling apart often allow us to see humanity at its best … even while facing down the worst.
That’s one of the many reasons we’re drawn to stories about the end. And one of the reasons you’ll love Erik J. Brown’s debut. Because while “All That’s Left in the World” is a novel about the end of the world, it’s also a glorious story about new beginnings and finding hope.
A local real estate agent and Temple grad, Erik J. Brown enjoys spending his non-writing days at his home in Mt. Airy, fussing over his potentially haunted house with his husband. Written long before the very non-fictional pandemic spread across our world, “All That’s Left in the World” was acquired by Balzer + Bray (an imprint of HarperCollins) in 2020 and published just this month.
Set in a future not too far away, a deadly disease has killed off almost the entirety of the planet. Readers meet Andrew and Jamie, two teens struggling to survive in this brutal new world, living in fear of not just the virus, but of other people. Because if there’s anything post-apocalyptic books and movies have taught us, it’s that when the world goes south, some people will do anything to survive. Including turn on one another.
The two boys are forced to flee across the countryside in hopes of finding more people like them, who are holding on and supporting one another, but along the way truths start to bubble to the surface — and not just their feelings for each other, but elements from their past that threaten to tear them apart.
The result is just this really expert blend of humor and heart, set across a desolate landscape dotted with hope. Brown drops in elements of mystery and romance in the speculative novel, creating something that’s so wildly riveting, and truly one of the best debuts publishing this year. And yes, I know it’s March. It’s that good, that I’m confident enough in saying that.
We chatted a bit with Brown about his book, life in Philadelphia and the challenges working on book about a pandemic in, well, a pandemic.
PW: “All That’s Left in the World” published just a few weeks ago. A wildly moving post-apocalyptic novel about a pathogen that’s killed a vast amount of the population … I have to ask, how has it been, working on a book about a pandemic given everything that’s going on?
Erik: TERRIBLE! 0 out of 10, would not recommend. The book was written well before the pandemic, but my agent and I decided we would try to sell it at the beginning of 2020 and it sold on Friday March 13, 2020 — the Friday before Philly’s shutdown. Editing the book during 2020 was so challenging and there were times I was expecting my publishers to say, “This pandemic has gotten worse than we imagined, and we’re pulling the plug on your book.” And a few times I kind of wanted them to!
But there are so many parts of the book that are funny and hopeful, that really helped get through the editing. I think I even managed to add more humor because I needed that while I was working on it. And now that readers are giving it a chance many have said reading it is actually cathartic.
PW: I’ve always felt like there was a lot of hope in reflecting a stark reality through fiction, and that’s something you do so well here, with these teens who find love during the end of the world. Why is that sort of message important to you?
Erik: This was especially important because I’m telling a queer love story. Growing up queer is always difficult, but the last six years or so, things have been getting increasingly worse for queer people. Books with queer characters are getting banned, marriage equality could once again be going before a conservative Supreme Court, there’s legislation being passed to target trans youth and their families. Seeing this happen on a daily basis is so damaging to queer youth because everything seems so hopeless. There are millions of people fighting for them and still things seem so heavy.
I wanted to write a story where things have gotten the absolute worst, and yet these two characters can still find each other. They can still have hope and fall in love. Even at the end of the world. And they choose to fight for each other, for a better life together. And what else are we all fighting for if not hope for a better life?
PW: “All That’s Left in the World” is your debut; can you tell us a little bit about what you’re up to next?
Erik: The good news is my next book has 100% less apocalypse! I pitched it as “‘Empire Records’ in an old folks’ home.” It’s a YA based on my after-school job as a server at a retirement community in Delco. It was a wonderful job and, like the characters in “Empire Records,” we were all such different people but we became friends because of where we worked. It was such a bizarre environment filled with quirky characters. I’m excited for people to meet the fictionalized versions who are even more quirky!
PW: You went to Temple! You’re a Philadelphian! Where do you go to find inspiration in the city?
Erik: My neighborhood! My partner and I live in Mt. Airy and it’s such a wonderful, diverse neighborhood. It really is a special place with plenty of community support. Even during the beginning of the pandemic neighbors were sending out email chains to each other with ways to support the local shops. I’m really so proud to live here.
PW: And as a self-proclaimed vinyl record collector, where in Philadelphia do you like to go to rummage? Any hot spots?
Erik: It’s been so long since I’ve been to a record shop because of COVID! Thank you for reminding me I need to get out and do that again. I loved Beautiful World Syndicate but I think their storefront on East Passyunk was a victim of COVID closures and they haven’t reopened. However! They are still up and running on Discogs under Philadelphiamusic.
I also loved crate digging just outside the city at Vinyl Closet Records in Norristown. I bought a tongue-in-cheek, spoken-word Vincent Price record from them about witchcraft and demons that’s so funny, and one of the most bizarre records in my collection.
PW: What have you read lately that you loved, that you’d want our readers to pick up?
Erik: “A Little Bit Country” by Brian D. Kenney (about two gay teens falling in love at a Dollywood-esque theme park), “The Loophole” by Naz Kutub (a gay Muslim teen on a globetrotting adventure with a drunk genie and three unreliable wishes to find his missing ex-boyfriend), “Every Variable of Us” by Charles A. Bush (a West Philly basketball star’s hopes of a scholarship are ruined when she’s injured in a drive-by shooting; but she finds hope, and love, in the most unlikely place: the school’s STEM team), “Boys I Know” by Anna Gracia (an Asian-American high schooler figuring out the difference between sex and love), and “Seoulmates” by Susan Lee (a girl who spent most of her life trying to shun the Korean side of her identity while embracing the American side is reunited with her former best friend, who is now a K-Drama star).
All That’s Left in the World is out now with HarperCollins / Balzer + Bray in the U.S., and Hachette in the U.K. You can learn more about Erik J. Brown on his official website, www.erikjbrown.com.