Hell Followed With Us came out this week, and if you’re a fan of Resident Evil and The Last of Us, but want more books with trans and autistic characters, you’re in a for a treat. Benji is a trans boy raised by a cult to become the ultimate monster weapon, Seraph. But he wants none of that, and instead runs away to find a survivor community of other queer kids. They team up to take down the cult which also ushered in the apocalypse in the first place.
Join me in celebrating this gory debut in this interview with author Andrew Joseph White. Learn more about the inspiration behind this ferocious book, outlining versus pantsing, what he’s working on now, and what he looks forward to reading later.
Creating Hell on Earth
Where did the idea for this story come from?
Hell Followed with Us is a story that’d been a long time coming for me. I grew up feeling alienated from my peers and always more than a little monstrous. My gender dysphoria destroyed how I connected to myself, and unrecognized autism warped how I connected to others. With a combination like that, monsters were a natural haven for me; strange and unknowable both to themselves and others. As a little kid, of course, “monsters” meant things like dragons and wolves. But when my dysphoria was at its peak in middle and high school, “monster” was anything that could cover up my girlhood…and sometimes that meant fantasizing about some terrible things.
I’m okay, I promise. I found healthy outlets and eventually unearthed the root cause of those feelings, helping me to a better place. But dealing with those thoughts as a teenager weighs heavy on a person, even if I lived a life that was blessed in every other way.
So when I decided it was time to put pen to paper and explore my identity, the truth came to me like lightning. It was impossible for me to write about my identity without writing about monsters. I couldn’t speak truthfully about my experience without facing the things I’d thought of doing to myself, without paying homage to the creatures that offered a strange sort of solace from the world. I had to write about a trans boy who becomes a rotting, disgusting beast, and who is endlessly loved anyway. And so HFWU was born.
The aesthetic is very post-apocalypse but in a way that feels like a video game in the best way. Did any games influence that part of the craft?
For a complete tonal one-eighty, oh my god yes. Post-apocalyptic video games were how I was introduced to the genre, and I revisited a bunch of my favorites as I went through revisions. I grew up playing Fallout and watching S.T.A.L.K.E.R. walkthroughs before turning my eye to Metro and The Last of Us, and you can see them all in my work if you know what to look for. I even took inspiration from Far Cry 5, Dead Space, and Outlast 2, all of which are personal favorites.
Gaming also influenced not just the narrative elements of the book–the atmosphere, the imagery, etc.–but also the story arc as a whole. For a long time, I was stuck in a “stories end with a boss battle” mindset. That’s a habit I’ve broken as I move forward to other projects, since “boss battles” are not designed for literature, but if you ask me, a boss battle is exactly what HFWU needed.
Are you a planner, a pantser (flying by the seat of your pants), or somewhere in between?
When I wrote HFWU, I was a pantser.
I am no longer a pantser.
The amount of work it took to fix the plot in earlier drafts was astronomical, and the frustration wiped out any panster tendencies I once had. I now build a full synopsis before I even deign to put pen to paper, to avoid any chance of that kind of disaster happening again. It’s a change that’s worked well for me. I don’t plot too closely; I leave each scene relatively open-ended, allowing room for exploration and discovery, but I always have an idea of where I should be heading. It’s lessened a lot of my anxiety about sagging middles and unsatisfying endings as well!
What kind of research did you do for this book?
Most of my research focused on the Angels–that is, the fictional Evangelical cult that my characters are entangled with throughout the book. Since a lot of people have asked, I wasn’t raised religious; I often joke that my parents forgot to make me a Christian, since it (apparently) slipped their minds to pass their belief down to me. This book wasn’t written from personal experience, but instead community experience. While the protagonist was once part of the cult, the story is more about how the world as a whole is impacted by the actions of a privileged few, whether you’re a “part” of them or not.
The ex-Evangelical podcast Belief It or Not was integral to getting that insider perspective, as was talking to friends and peers who’ve had experience with leaving Evangelicalism, or other sects like Mormonism. I read endless articles (which I now realize I should’ve collected!), watched televangelist sermons (unnerving!!), and immersed myself in talk of right-wing American Christianity. And of course, I’ve always been fascinated by cults – Heaven’s Gate, Jonestown, etc. – so I already had a base of knowledge to fall back on. Combining these two lines of information helped build the Angels into something absolutely terrifying.
What scene or moments are you excited for readers to experience?
This sounds terrible, I know–and I’ve received pushback for saying this before–but the scene that always gets me, the one I can’t wait to see how readers react to, is the scene where the main character, Benji, is deadnamed for the first time.
A lot of trans authors, especially trans YA authors, refuse to deadname their characters. I absolutely understand why. Being deadnamed can be extremely painful, especially when that name is used as a weapon, and it’s knowledge that a reader is never entitled to. And HFWU does avoid the deadname for most of the book, easily skirting around it in the narrative. But it does eventually get dropped in full: written out, aggressive, unavoidable. It’s as subtle as a brick to the face. It’s practically a jumpscare. And I’m excited because it’s one of the rawest moments–it was so powerful to confront a part of the trans experience that’s often shied away from. I can’t wait for it to find the trans readers who will see a representation of deadnaming that’s just as painful as it can feel in real life… and maybe for it to find cis readers who will get a glimpse of what it’s like.
The Road to Publishing
Is Hell Followed With Us your first novel?
Oh god, absolutely not. Between the ages of 11 and 20, I wrote eight novels and must have started hundreds. Hell Followed with Us, though, was the first to exist in an official capacity; it was the first to be handed to an agent, the first to go on submission, and certainly the first to be published. I was incredibly lucky to have that experience, especially so young. I just happened to have a lot to say, and to find myself at a time where the market was finally ready to hear it.
How has your experience working with Peachtree Teen been so far?
I will never stop singing Peachtree Teen’s praises. Not only is my editor, Ashley Hearn, a literary genius, but also someone with whom I genuinely feel safe writing about the darkest, most intimate parts of my experience. My marketing is the best their indie-pub budget can get, they’ve submitted my book to as many reviewers and award committees as they can think of, and they even faced down our massive distributor and (successfully!) pushed back when the June 7th release date was in jeopardy. The team behind my book is wonderful, encouraging, and the best that I could ever ask for.
What are you working on now?
I must begrudgingly admit that I can’t quite say anything about the future right now; I have amazing news, but as always, we must wait for the publishing machine to give me the go-ahead. What I can say, though, is that I’m working on something I adore, and I’m so excited to branch out into work that will let me explore my autistic identity just as closely as HFWU let me interrogate my transness. I’m also beginning to dabble in different age categories–we’ll see how my exploration in adult horror turns out!
What books coming out soon or out already are you excited to read?
Of course I have to mention Peachtree Teen’s other summer 2022 titles: The Ghosts of Rose Hill by R.M. Romero and Boys I Know by Anna Gracia are both absolutely astounding, and I eagerly await all of Peachtree Teen’s new releases. On top of that, I’ll just say that H.E. Edgmon’s upcoming Godly Heathens series is not something you want to miss–it’s dark, wild, messy, and something I’m so excited for that I’m about to break my teeth on the pages.
Andrew Joseph White is a queer, trans author from Virginia, where he grew up falling in love with monsters and wishing he could be one too. He earned his MFA in creative writing from George Mason University in 2022 and has a habit of cuddling random street cats. Andrew writes about trans kids with claws and fangs, and what happens when they bite back. Find Andrew on Twitter and Instagram @AJWhiteAuthor, and at www.andrewjosephwhite.com.