Libertarianism for Tweens

A conversation with young-adult author Arin Greenwood.

National Journal

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!