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Kashana Cauley writes about the unexplored perspective of Black survivalists

JUANA SUMMERS, HOST:

What could set an accomplished comedy writer and former lawyer down a path to writing about preparing for an apocalypse? For Kashana Cauley, it might have started with how she grew up in Wisconsin.

KASHANA CAULEY: For a while, my parents' favorite movie was "Conspiracy Theory" with Mel Gibson and Julia Roberts. It wasn't that they necessarily took all of it seriously, but they had big fears.

SUMMERS: Cauley has channeled some of those fears into her debut novel. It's called "The Survivalists." The main character is a millennial attorney named Aretha. When we meet her, she's overworked and underwhelmed by most of the men she's meeting on dating apps.

CAULEY: She's, like, a have 2.5 kids, you know, picket fence kind of person. But she lives in New York City, where those things are very, very hard to acquire. But, yeah, she's meticulous. She's worried. She wants to do a good job. She's detail-oriented. And she puts that perfectionism to her search for her ideal partner.

SUMMERS: Aretha thinks her ideal partner could be Aaron, the owner of Tactical Coffee, a company that sells coffee beans with aggressive branding.

CAULEY: The bag has an image of a guy running with an assault rifle on one side and a full cup of coffee that's sloshing over the top on the other. And it says, so you don't get tired during the apocalypse.

SUMMERS: And it seems like Aaron's business partners and roommates, Brittany and James, take that slogan really seriously. They have some surprising and dangerous secrets that play out in a story that's suspenseful, cynical and deeply funny. I talked to Kashana Cauley about some of the book's humor, which leaps out from the pages even before the story begins.

Before we get into the meat of this book, I have to ask you about one of my favorite things about it, which, of course, is the dedication.

CAULEY: (Laughter).

SUMMERS: It reads, to everyone who's ever fired me. You have to tell us more about that.

CAULEY: (Laughter) I think a core of the work subplot in the book is my main character Aretha's fear of being fired. She works in a high-pressure legal job. She sees people around her everywhere who do not quite make it. I worked in similar circumstances when I was a white-shoe lawyer. It is something that every lawyer is terrified. And it's something that happens to you and/or all of your friends.

SUMMERS: So at one point in your book, James describes survivalists as the community. And to be clear here, he means doomsday preppers. They are on the spectrum from regular libertarians to militias to people who reject polite society, at least, quote, "on nights and weekends." And most of the people you write about in this book, in this community - they're Black. And that upends a lot of the notions that many people have around survivalists, around prepping. How did you get started down the road of writing about this community?

CAULEY: Well, I grew up in a house that was particularly concerned about disaster. My parents - they were, you know, afraid of things that might happen to them, in part because being a Black Wisconsinite is tough but in part because they had difficulties in their own lives. But, yeah, they stockpiled food. They have a few guns, which they explained is a Wisconsinite hunting thing. Wisconsinites do hunt. It is popular. But we didn't, and so it was confusing to me as to why they had those. When I asked them, they cited things like ice storms and, you know, emergencies where the government couldn't get to you and break-ins. But none of those things ever happened either. When I started learning about the white survivalists, I looked into the Bundys. I was really obsessed with how they were able to do things like occupy federal land and not get immediately killed because as a Black woman, I would feel like that option would never be open to me...

SUMMERS: Yeah.

CAULEY: ...Or other Black women or Black people in general. I did some research. I found some other examples. But I wanted to write about it from the Black perspective because that's the perspective I come from and the perspective I'm most comfortable writing from. And also, people don't talk about Black survivalists, although there are plenty. I mean, you can Google them and watch their YouTube videos and observe their tips. And I thought it would be fun to tackle survivalism from a pretty unexplored perspective in fiction.

SUMMERS: Yeah. Like, one of the things I found fascinating was this idea and the relationship between guns and safety. Who is made to feel safe by having guns? Like, to the point that you point out, many Black people aren't going to feel safe stockpiling a whole house full of guns. And yet you seem to approach this topic with just a lot of empathy and introspection into this community.

CAULEY: I mean, Black people are also Americans. I think it's an American value - not necessarily a universal one but one that many people hold - that guns make you safer. I can't say that I agree with that. I can't say that my characters in the book necessarily agree with that. I think whether that's true or not is one of the book's major themes. But we're Americans, too, and there's a lot of rugged individualism in America, a lot of, if I have a gun, will I truly be prepared for anything that may walk through my door? And I wanted to talk about that, again, from a Black perspective.

SUMMERS: So there is a point in this book where Aretha seems to really start believing in the survivalist lifestyle rather than approaching it with some sort of wariness. It kind of clicks for her. How does she get to that moment?

CAULEY: I think she spends a lot of the time in the book before that being afraid of circumstances that she cannot control, whether she's going to be allowed to continue on at the firm or as a lawyer. And if she does happen to get fired, like so many people she has known has, what on Earth would she do? How would she be able to afford living in New York? What would her life look like? Survivalism, to me, always seemed like a really seductive lifestyle if you want to feel like you have control over something and you can't control lots of the other aspects of your life - where you work or how expensive everything is. So in this world where she's just like, I don't know if I'm going to have a job tomorrow, survivalism is, well, what if I can control how much food I have on hand, if I can have access to clean water, if I have someplace safe to live in case of an emergency? She's battling back to the idea that she doesn't have any control by finding things she can control.

SUMMERS: So people are likely most familiar with you and your work as a comedy writer, including for "The Daily Show With Trevor Noah" and "The Great North" on Fox. I found myself wondering if anything about writing this book felt familiar, particularly satirizing sad and scary realities. What's the key to that process for you?

CAULEY: I usually try to walk away from anger. I feel like if I'm super, super-angry about something, I'm not the best at satirizing it or telling a story about it generally. I just get really angry, and I shut down. And so I always have to put some space between events or feelings and what I want to write down and/or just figure out what is funny about the situation as opposed to what makes me angry about it. I think there's a lot of inherent humor in our situation even if American life can be depressing at times. I think, you know, things like a two-minute ambulance ride costing $8,000 is awful but also hilarious. And so I try to, yeah, separate myself from the immediate emotions, the anger, and just go with what is funny and almost attack these things academically in terms of what to make funny.

SUMMERS: Writer Kashana Cauley. Her debut novel, "The Survivalists," is out now. Thank you so much for talking to us.

CAULEY: Thanks for having me. This was a really fun conversation to have.

(SOUNDBITE OF MUSIC) Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

Juana Summers
Juana Summers is a co-host of NPR's All Things Considered, alongside Ailsa Chang, Ari Shapiro and Mary Louise Kelly. She joined All Things Considered in June 2022.
Elena Burnett
Ashley Brown
Ashley Brown is a senior editor for All Things Considered.