The last time we talked we learned you were born in a log cabin and the illegitimate son of the Queen of England, what good that did anyone is hard to say, but I see you have another book coming out. Quite the coincidence.

I’ll say, and thanks for asking. Yes, it’s a horseracing, record collecting, and insane asylum novel called Whirlaway. It’s also about psychic evanescence, which is existing and not existing at the same time. It’s a funny book, I’ll add, but what else would you expect from the illegitimate son of an English Queen?

 

I understand you’ve used an unreliable narrator for perspective. What are you thoughts on this? Have you done this before?

Never intentionally. And I don’t like it as a rule. In my opinion, the writer should be doing the heavy lifting for the reader, being as clear and succinct and accessible as possible, but in Whirlaway my narrator is an escapee from a psychiatric hospital, a diagnosed and heavily-medicated schizophrenic, so I really had no choice. Poetry is supposedly the art of indirection, the way spaces become bridges and that sort of thing. Also at the heart of Whirlaway is a death mystery, and I found an unreliable narrator quite useful for this.

As an illustration of what I was up against at Napa State Hospital, what they used to call an asylum for the criminally insane, my fellow inmate Arn Boothby, an angry three-hundred-pound paranoid schizophrenic who regularly “cheeked” his meds, tried to kill another inmate one day in the client convenience store by grabbing his throat and throwing him through a glass display case. I was standing in line to buy a pack of breath mints at the time and can attest to him saying, “P. S. I Love You,” as the blood spread across the tiles. Boothby was tackled by two psych techs; a staff nurse and hospital police converged within minutes to beat in Boothby’s brains behind closed doors. Boothby told me later they would’ve killed him had not Dr. Fasstink inadvertently intervened. Boothby went to jail, vacation time for most of us at NSH, and I didn’t see him at the card game for a few months. When you’re surrounded by murderers, bank robbers, arsonists, and child molesters you’ll play cards with just about anyone.

Your book is dedicated To Ceci. Who’s that?

She’s my mom.

 

So why not say, To Mom?

My sister and I have always called my parents by their first names. It’s always been the most natural thing for us—I think I tried calling them Mom and Dad once, and it felt weird and impersonal. When I was nine, one of my teachers asked my mom if “Ceci” meant “Mom” in Spanish, because she kept hearing us call her that. I thought, it is our word for Mom.

In Vanishing Acts, Jaimee Wriston Colbert’s new novel and sixth work of fiction, the author takes us to the Big Island of Hawai’i, where she grew up body-surfing, listening to stories about the volcano goddess Pele, and later as an adult, on return trips from the mainland, observing the alarming signs of her beloved island’s changing ecosystem, due to drought and other environmental stressors.

Through her storytelling lens, Colbert chronicles the effects of the traumatic transformation Hawai’i is undergoing as its rare species and forests disappear, a theme that also informs her fifth book, Wild Things, a linked story collection set in upstate New York.

Your novel The Italian Party is about someone trying to manipulate an election using some very sneaky methods. Are you about to be subpoenaed?

I don’t think so, but it’s a pretty weird coincidence. When I started writing the novel in the summer of 2013, I came across a couple of passing references to how the U.S. had influenced Italian elections starting in 1947 and going forward through the 1950s. I found that very intriguing—I remember pausing in my reading when I came to the phrase “opinion moulders” and staring out the window and thinking, I can imagine bribing someone after an election, but how do you actually throw an election in a foreign country??? The idea was so odd to me that I decided to boil it down to one not very well-trained American trying to sway one small election in one town (Siena), and to make it very hard for him, for all the comic reasons that come to mind in terms of how bumpy it is to try to get anything done in Italy.

2.

Michael and Scottie stood out from the moment they strolled down the gangplank of the sleek ocean liner that carried them and their possessions to Italy. They seemed to have stepped right out of an advertisement for Betty Crocker, Wonder Bread or capitalism itself. He was twenty-four, handsome, always in a nicely cut suit, camera around his neck. She, barely twenty, was a knockout. Blond, pretty, quick to laugh, always in an elegant hat and pearl choker. She had what the Italians call raffinatezza, a word that covers everything that is the opposite of vulgar—a quality Italians deeply aspired to, while at the same time remaining powerless to resist anything gilded, mirrored, shiny or bejeweled. This spring the papers were full of the marriage of Grace Kelly and Prince Rainier, and it was as if Siena’s own version of the royal couple had arrived. Even though there were other Americans coming and going in Siena, those two would become the Americans. Gli americani. Both of them so young, healthy, wealthy and in love. They seemed so free. That was how they seemed.

The House of Erzulie is, if I may be frank, chock-full of atrocities and lurid trivia. Is it really necessary to include this level of detail? It’s as though you enjoy making your readers squirm.

You mean the bloodshed, body counts, and madness inherent in my work? Or the graphic depictions of rabies and yellow fever deaths? Well, it is a gothic novel in the truest, literary sense of the word, thus designed to be atmospheric and sensationally distressing. We navigate this world using our senses, so stories that lack sensual detail feel “empty” to me. Hollow. I like to provide an immersive experience. Maybe submerge is a better term, for my stories do invite the reader to a sink into the deep waters of emotion. And yeah, I guess I do kinda enjoy making people squirm.

Adelaide Randolph does not meet me at the airport. Instead, she sends the intern, Owen, to fetch me. A scrappy little man-boy who looks as if his mother has just finished scrubbing him up for church waits outside the curb at baggage claim, holding up a sign that reads “Mueller: Belle Rive Plantation.”

He offers his hand and I pretend not to see it. Handshakes are the Devil’s germ-delivery system.

“Hey, I’m Owen. Flight okay?”

I nod as he grabs the handle of my wheelie bag and steers us out to the parking lot, his mouth going the whole time.

I saw Elizabeth Ellen before I’d read any of her work. There was a photo of her on a flyer for a book tour during the fall of 2014, and it piqued my interest so I googled her book Fast Machine.  The search result provided several dozen more striking pictures of Elizabeth and I remember thinking, who is this chick? I found her website and read everything I could find written by her online. My obsession with Elizabeth Ellen was born.

Cleary took rooms in a cottage at the seaside. I was sick in the worst way since I heard what happened to the preacher woman. I cried, and he threatened me. He said he would leave me and, at first, I wished he would. But I beg him not to leave me off nowhere. He says, “Be a good, quiet, brave girl. I’ma take you for a turn by the sea.”

Cleary ain’t no weak man. He can walk in anywhere and tell ‘em what he wants, and they better hurry to give it to him. They may look at him sideways when they see me, but they don’t say a thing.

“Blue the Dog, stay.”

The girl was trying to vomit again, retching, and Blue the Dog was worried, whining with that little huffing noise, his nostrils flaring, his big tail smacking against the leg of the table. The girl had been puking on and off for about an hour, and now, worse, she lay suffering on my porch sofa. I held a cup of spring water to her lips so she could sip, but she wasn’t keeping down even a dribble—her body was being hateful, and making not to stop. She couldn’t calm her singleness: the toxins must be deep in her cells.

The stories in World Gone Missing all explore a central theme: that people don’t become fully visible until they disappear. What brought that theme about?

The truth is I didn’t pick that theme as much as it picked me. Before I even had a thought of a book in my brain, my brother-in-law went missing. Decades later, sadly, he still hasn’t reappeared. Though the opening story in World Gone Missing“Bigger Than Life”—has a similar through-line, I completely fictionalized the characters and specific plot points. What remains true to life is the feeling you get when a loved one seems to vanish into thin air. The best way I can describe it is a sinking, helpless sensation. As the years wore on, I began to see my brother-in-law in new ways. I appreciated his subtle kindnesses and sharp wit, along with his sometimes brash and irrational nature. Thought I’m not sure this would have changed anything, I wish I could have been more compassionate.

From the short story “Here I Am”

I’m the last thing people imagine when they think of a funeral director. For this late night house call, I’m wearing a purple dress and heels to match; my nails are painted lavender. I’m hardly the dowdy thing in black the family expected.

The son hesitates, but shows me in. First, I verify that their grandmother is in fact dead: breath and pulse, no, and doll’s eye test, negative. The old woman’s eyes roll right along with her head. Though the hospice doctor’s been here and gone, you can’t be too careful in this business. Last week, some guy in Mississippi woke up in a body bag on the embalming table. It was all over the news.

Ghosts have always been real. I knew that from my dreams, but I never talked about it because no one else did, so I thought I wasn’t supposed to either. They came to see me in my dreams and sometimes stayed as lingering shadows on the wall when I was awake. The really brave ones got close to me, sitting on my chest and covering my mouth so I felt like I couldn’t scream. Those were the mean ones, the ones that wanted something, but I had nothing but my chicken legs under the blanket. The mean ones scared me, but the regular ones were okay. I tried to think that maybe the regular ones had a good reason to be around, maybe they had lived here too and never wanted to leave. The older I got, the more I was starting to think wasn’t just heaven and hell. Maybe life and death both had in-betweens. I don’t know how that fit in the Bible and being the good Christian boy my momma wanted me to be, but I knew these ghosts had been here. I knew they knew things I didn’t know. They just held their place, waiting.

And the other thing was, I only really saw them at night, before sleep or waking up. Never during the day. Except when I saw Theo’s ghost.

What is your debut novel, The Through, about?

The novel has two protagonists, Ben and Adrian. Adrian is a dual survivor of Hurricane Katrina and childhood sexual abuse. Her boyfriend Ben can’t make a decision about the future. So, one fears her past, the other fears his future. Then, a slave ship appears over their heads, and they have to figure out what to do. There’s a witch named Cut Mary, a doppelganger, ghosts, even a zombie. And a cat that has two origin stories. The Through also involves the town of Okahika, which I can best describe as a Southern ghost town. There’s one Okahika, but it exists simultaneously in every Southern state.

To be a bit less concrete, The Through is about the dissonance between the observable universe around us and the magical universe inside us. Sometimes those two realities fit together, and sometimes they don’t. Sometimes the observable and magical switch places. So in the book, we see the observable place in Northport, AL, and the magical place in Okahika, a.k.a. The Through, and characters who navigate both spaces.