Libertarianism for Tweens

A conversation with young-adult author Arin Greenwood.

National Journal
Lucia Graves
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Lucia Graves
Nov. 12, 2013, 10:57 a.m.

Ar­in Green­wood’s ter­rif­ic new book, Save the En­emy, is labeled young-adult, but her ex­plor­a­tions of liber­tari­an philo­sophy are not typ­ic­al of the genre. The story’s prot­ag­on­ist, Zoey Trask, is torn between her par­ents’ com­pet­ing world­views: her dad’s liber­tari­an­ism and her mom’s spir­itu­al­ity. (Be­liev­ing in spir­its, Zoey’s dad notes, is worse than stu­pid — it’s ir­ra­tion­al). While the nov­el is billed as a thrill­er, Green­wood’s funny, psy­cho­lo­gic­ally as­tute char­ac­ters make the fant­ast­ic­al story line seem just out­side the bounds of nor­mal. An ex­cerpt:

Your dad prob­ably read you books like The Giv­ing Tree when you were a kid. My dad did read me The Giv­ing Tree once, call­ing it “evil” in that it “pro­motes the im­mor­al de­struc­tion of the self.” (I was four.) He pre­ferred At­las Shrugged, which is ba­sic­ally about how rich people shouldn’t pay taxes. He has ex­plained to me a lot over the course of my sev­en­teen years that taxes are “slavery.” People are only “free when they act as they want to act.” Per­fect for tod­dlers—is my sar­casm com­ing through?—At­las Shrugged is also the nov­el­ized ex­plan­a­tion of the writer Ayn Rand’s “ob­ject­iv­ist” philo­sophy, of “ra­tion­al self-in­terest,” in oth­er words: ex­treme selfish­ness.


Try to get your mind around that a minute. Try to ima­gine your fath­er preach­ing the vir­tues of ex­treme selfish­ness. Now ima­gine be­ing four, the most selfish age in the world. Ima­gine try­ing to un­der­stand ob­ject­iv­ism. Ima­gine try­ing to un­der­stand any­thing oth­er than want­ing to play and eat ice cream. (So I guess I was a good ob­ject­iv­ist even without know­ing it.) Over the years Dad tried to ex­plain ob­ject­iv­ism in less ab­stract terms. He said that people should be able to buy what they want and act how they want without the gov­ern­ment or oth­er people get­ting in their way. In­ter­est­ingly, for all this, I still wasn’t al­lowed to set my own bed­time.

I’ve known Green­wood, and even worked with her briefly at The Huff­ing­ton Post. A journ­al­ist by day, she ad­ores an­im­als and lives with her hus­band, Ray, in Old Town Al­ex­an­dria, Va., where Save the En­emy is set. I in­ter­viewed her Monday about her new nov­el, which was pub­lished today by SoHo press. Be­low is an ab­bre­vi­ated ver­sion of our con­ver­sa­tion.

It seems like your prot­ag­on­ist is pulled between, on the one hand, su­per­nat­ur­al­ism and, on the oth­er hand, this hy­per-ra­tion­al liber­tari­an philo­sophy. Can you talk about that ten­sion?

She loves her dad, who’s in­stilled in her this hy­per-ra­tion­al­ism (sort of — he also has his non­ra­tion­al idio­syn­crasies). But on the oth­er hand, she’s also drawn to mys­tic­al things. I think she’s com­ing to real­ize that she has to make choices in life. She’s not es­pe­cially in­clined to do that on her own, and she’s see­ing that her par­ents’ choices didn’t really turn out in ideal ways. But she has to start choos­ing, all the same.

Why so much liber­tari­an­ism?

There’s a couple of reas­ons for the liber­tari­an­ism. One is that I’ve got­ten to know the liber­tari­an world in the last five or so years. I spent some time do­ing work for a couple of liber­tari­an think tanks, and got to know some people and some ideas that I found really in­ter­est­ing. And I’m mar­ried to a liber­tari­an. An­oth­er is that I loved what it did for the dad char­ac­ter. I loved his rants. I loved his les­sons.

Did you ever worry about a plot twist of­fend­ing your hus­band or where the nar­rat­ive lo­gic might lead?

He was ac­tu­ally very help­ful. There were times I’d won­der what Ben (the broth­er in the story) or what the dad would say or do in a par­tic­u­lar situ­ation and I’d ask my hus­band. He would give me his re­ac­tion, which would of­ten­times turn out to be ex­actly the right re­ac­tion for the plot. I do think that some liber­tari­ans might not be happy with the end­ing.

Why’s that?

Be­cause it turns out that the dad’s liber­tari­an be­liefs had him jus­ti­fy­ing private mi­li­tias, which — by his lo­gic — led to the moth­er be­com­ing an as­sas­sin. But I don’t think all liber­tari­ans think that moms should be as­sas­sins. Of course.

So what’s it like in­hab­it­ing the mind of a 17-year-old girl?

Oh, boy — stress­ful. I re­mem­ber 17 as be­ing a very tough time, so try­ing to get back in­to that mind­set wasn’t also the most fun thing in the world.

I have a the­ory that if you know someone at 16, you know the real them. It’s when people are old enough to start know­ing what they like but they haven’t yet figured out how to mask their true selves.

Hon­estly, I think the truest you ever get to someone is how they are in 5th grade. They are old enough to have an ink­ling of what they like but not old enough to be self-con­scious, which they learn at 13.

Maybe we should re­vise this down­wards. So then, the hu­mi­li­ation at 16 or 17 is that they know what they like, don’t know how to mask it, and are so­cially aware enough to be em­bar­rassed by them­selves.

Pre­cisely. Mov­ing on! You work full time as a journ­al­ist. How did you ever find the time to write this? And how long did it take?

It took about a year al­to­geth­er. This is my second book so I went in­to it with some idea about the pro­cess what it would be like and I know what works for me. Mostly, I need to get up a little earli­er than usu­al, do some work be­fore start­ing my full time job in the morn­ing, or write at night when I get home, even when i don’t want to. Then on the week­ends, de­pend­ing on how much I needed to get done, I’d either write one or both days.

Your first book, Trop­ic­al De­pres­sion, more closely re­sembled your own ex­per­i­ence. How dif­fer­ent was it writ­ing this book?

Trop­ic­al De­pres­sion had more per­son­al de­tails in it. It was more of a ro­man à clef, I think is the pre­ten­tious way of put­ting it. It took about five years to write. this second book was not a book about my life, which was a re­lief!

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