Laura Ellen Scott had a lot of wishes granted in 2011: a collection of microfictions, Curio, from Uncanny Valley Press, a promotion to Full-Term Professor in the English Department of the Mid-Atlantic college at which she teaches, and the publication of her first novel, Death Wishing, with Brooklyn’s fab Ig Publishing.
The premise of Death Wishing is simple and yet terrifying: What if your most fervent wish could come true, and all you had to do was die first? Set in New Orleans, the man at the center, Victor Swaim, is a middle-aged, divorced, ex-defense contractor techie now living with his son Val and employed as a corset maker for Val’s vintage/fantasy clothing shop. It is a curious time in history: suddenly, when certain people die (ie, the death wishers), their last wish comes true, to everyone’s joy or detriment.
Of course, it is easy to imagine the moral, political, ecological, and financial consequences of such untamed (and unexplainable) power. David Allen Barker calls Death Wishing “a kitschy parable of consumer culture” Others have lauded its fantasy weirdness. I had the chance to talk with Ms. Scott about Death Wishing, the boor tour circuit, and people you should never write about in your work:
Portions of Death Wishing seemed to be up everywhere before I even knew they went together as a novel—“Do You Know What It Means to Miss” at Juked, “Karaoke People Are Happy People” at Storyglossia, and, of course, “Those Dusty Bastards” in the journal I edit, jmww. It’s so flattering to have published a piece that eventually became part of the book! I have always loved these lines from the “Those Dusty Bastards,” about the actor finding the aliens in the dusty metal hut in New Mexico (presumably Roswell):
Eventually the Army came clean. Their candor shocked us, and no one remembered to apologize to the actor. There were no aliens back in 47. But there were now, and no one knew why. Rows upon rows of bodies. More to the point, these bodies yielded no real surprises once we started taking them apart. That is, every detail of the alien corpse physiognomy had already been imagined and described, by scientists, artists, writers, etc. It was all very exciting, but ultimately, we learned nothing.
Which is what clicked it. The revelation came in our half-drunk dreams: Someone made those fuckers. The bodies were definitely manufactured. Hundreds of copies of an all too generalized ideal. The aliens didn’t come from anywhere. They couldn’t tell us anything we didn’t already know. They were the perfect ambassadors of our limits.
Of course, in Death Wishing, “death wishers” have the ability to have a wish granted upon their death. And, predictably, people don’t wish for world peace or a greater level of understanding/consciousness for the world. They wish for the end of cats or to bring back Elvis. We are the perfect ambassadors of our limits. And it’s brilliant, in a way, as a writer, to let things lie like this. To resist the temptation for greater understanding of the concept of death wishing except to show that, whatever powers we may be granted, humans, out of greed or stupidity or both, will fuck it up. How did you decide where you wanted to be with the scope of the novel? It could be such much bigger or so much smaller, but it feels just about right.
Thank you—this is probably the best question I’ve gotten so far. I’ve received mostly positive reviews of the book, but the common thread among the few negative reviews is that I explain the consequences of Death Wishing but not the mechanics or origin. I always felt being evasive was a risk, but my narrator Vic overruled me every time I tried to get technical. Death Wishing is about Vic as a de-commissioned father/husband in New Orleans trying to recreate himself, and the fantasy elements are a complication of that goal. For Vic the phenomenon of death wishing is like rough weather, he just needs to deal with it. It’s an intimate story that requires an intimate telling for the most part. Those few times that the scenes are more comprehensive—as in when everyone has a thousand dollars and nothing more—dip into social satire that tickles the mind more than the heart, so I reduced those scenes to the level of accessory or gossip. It’s Vic’s story, not the world’s. Besides, anyone can riff on consumerism and pop culture, you don’t need me for that.
I did test out my approach on my former students. I don’t have expertise in fantasy beyond the horror genre, and my collegial peers are just as clueless, so I had to go somewhere to see if what I was doing was viable. Increasingly, my sharpest students are fantasy writers. They not only approved of what I was doing, they became wildly supportive, as if I’d been dead boring for fifteen years, and now this!
Ah, fantasy writing! The great dark hole in the MFA writing programs. It’s ironic that you mention fantasy because the really great SF novels have elaborate technical worlds, but in the end unforgettable characterization, a human need, is what makes the book. And in Death Wishing, behind this backdrop of the apocalypse (who else would take the end of the world so casually except for New Orleans?), you have an older man who’s basically just trying to, like you said, recreate himself. I especially liked his struggles with weight loss—including joining a Weight Watchers-type program—and his relationship with Martine, the gay Canadian “bear” who owns a greeting card shop but whose days consist of leisurely cocktails around town. Although I never thought about the fact that you were a woman writing these male characters, you infused them with a tenderness that I was drawn to. Vic and Martine had layers that I was not used to seeing male characters have. How did you go about entering the mindset of two middle-aged, heavy-set men? (My favorite line about them, BTW, that side by side down a New Orleans Street they were “rhinoceros walking on a very narrow path.”
I’ve been successful at deflecting versions of this question so far, but I might as well reveal a secret. The first version of the novel ended with Vic and Martine commencing a romantic partnership. I was playing with this fantasy of age as a cure for sexuality, but I failed to pull it off, mainly because I’m not Jeanette Winterson. Most of the intimacy is still in the book—unaltered but not contextualized in the same way.
Your comment about layers intrigues me. I’m not comfortable with it, but I believe you. Male characters are often limited to fiction-friendly emotions, leaving the impression that guys are strong, weak, noble, confused, and that’s it. I think I write men and women the same; it’s their challenges that differ. Not that Death Wishing even comes close to being a natural history of dudes. As a set, Vic, Val, and Martine are metro-males, the kind of men that make women and other readers feel very much at ease. Vic’s voice is very affected, something he picked up as part of his New Orleans experiment. Martine, as you point out, lives for pleasure. Val, Vic’s son, is a Goth Romeo/mama’s boy. Not a classic man’s man in the bunch. These guys are a lot like the guys in my life. Men who read, men who are fancy in their hearts.
Making Vic and Martine heavy is emasculating, I suppose. If I were a thin woman, I’d be more suspicious of my own motives there. There were some physical details of sexual response that I guessed at, like when Vic is in an intimate situation with a woman for the first time in years and he’s trying to control himself, but he bangs his shin against a table and immediately gets an erection. I’m told (by readers with penises) that could definitely happen.
Did you have any concerns, with such unique characters and their relationships of 1) finding a publisher, or 2) finding an audience?
This is probably going to reek of magical thinking, but every creative project I manage to complete is always more successful than the last one of its kind, and since I’d gotten very close with the novel I wrote before Death Wishing, I felt confident. And I always thought the content was pretty commercial, even though it wasn’t deliberately designed that way. However, I was surprised when agents started saying, “love the concept, love the writing, can’t sell this,” as if they were all reading from the same script. I saw that Ig Publishing had a New Orleans connection and a political mission, so theirs was the first house I queried. The full manuscript request came within 24 hours. It was an almost alchemical thing.
The question of finding an audience is tougher. If I can get people in a room to listen to me read, I do quite well. I’ve never had loads of readers, but the ones I have are fiercely committed, and for that I am uncomfortably grateful. The passionate strangers who have contacted me about the novel do not fit into any reasonable demographic.
I can totally understand about audience! It’s so difficult, since agents and the industry stress a brand/genre, when as a writer, you want to do whatever you want to do, whether it be a novel of literary satire/regional interest/magical realism preceded by a collection of flash fiction (your collection Curio from uncanny valley press, January 2011). You’re a hard writer to characterize, which I love, and so completely surprise me—you’ve been in everything from Ploughshares to fictionaut, Dorothy Allison is a fan of yours—I think your audience is much, much larger than you realize!
So doing all these things and doing them so well, I must know your secret: how to do prepare, or make the leap, from writing very small fictions, to a novel? How did you approach such a large, different animal? I attended a party recently in which they were a lot of writers, many of whom who had written and published novels, and the consensus (myself included) was that writing novels is hard.
I hope you’re correct about my audience. Dorothy Allison wrote me years ago after she read some of my flash online, and she’s been really supportive ever since—I suspect her endorsement of the novel was the one that put me on a panel with Jesmyn Ward at the Tennessee Williams/New Orleans Literary Festival this year.
I suppose writing a novel is hard, at least commitment-wise, but there must be some oxytocin effect because all I can remember about the process is how fun it is, so much that I can’t wait to get started on the next one. And I now know the secret to avoiding writing hundreds of pages of meandering drivel: find something to write about. My half-baked theory is that much novel frustration comes from approaching the novel the way one writes a short story, by chasing images and tangents, and hoping to make sense of all the elements via a discovery process that is sometimes akin to dream interpretation. That’s a thrilling way to write a short story but a miserable way to write a novel. A novelist will have an easier go of it if she has something specific to say and knows it fairly early in the draft, even if she chooses not to say it, ultimately.
The book tour seems amazing! You must be so happy with your publisher, Ig! A fellow writer (and Baltimorean) Ron Tanner published with them last year, and he went all over the country. It’s heartening to hear, since I’ve heard horror stories of other independent publishers not sending books to writers for events, not scheduling events, basically offering very little support. Has then been anything about the tour or about publishing that surprised you, good or bad?
Ron’s blog is terrific—come for the “How to Sell a Book in America” series, stay for the pet news! I definitely relied on his posts to prepare me for what to expect. I admit I don’t ask enough questions about the business side of things, idiotically because I don’t like bothering people. It’s one of the few areas where I regret not having an agent.
Let me start with the Bad. I have developed a mild fear of flying, and I probably need to go to the doctor because it’s just rude to bum Xanax from your friends. Also, there have been moments in cruddy hotel rooms where I really wanted some heroin, a hooker, and an ax. But otherwise touring has been a wonderful experience, and yes, Ig is great about getting press kits, review copies and boxes of books where they need to be. They set up the non-DC/Baltimore bookstores, and I arranged all the local stuff as well as all festival/gallery/bar-type readings, and everything scheduled for 2012 so far.
I was worried that touring meant I’d be twiddling my thumbs behind stacks of books while browsers tried to avoid eye contact with me, but there’s been very little of that. There seems to be no way to predict if an event will have low attendance or if it will be packed, but no matter how small the crowd is you’re guaranteed an eccentric encounter. So the main thing I’ve learned? People Who Read Are Weird.
So what is this incident on the tour I keep hearing about?
Well the October/November leg of the book tour was dramatic, and not just because the cats snuck out of the house for a moon dance while I was 3000 miles away (don’t worry, they came back). My tour partner was an established poet who had just put out his first novel, and I was mostly riding his coattails. I hadn’t met him before we started, but I did know from an interview that his novel drew heavily from his real life. I was worried about that because fictionalized memoir is sort of an indie cliché, but his novel transcended the usual student-y indulgence and had something moving to say. It earned great reviews and rankings, and by all accounts was poised to be a break-out book.
Let me point out here that I’m not violating confidences, just being un-classy. During our readings he seemed under-practiced for the “where do you get your ideas?”-style interrogation that distinguishes a fiction audience from a poetry one. At City Lights he revealed during the Q&A that even though he’d patterned many characters after his family and friends, his family hadn’t read the book, and in fact they rarely read anything he wrote. He may have meant this as funny, but it just sounded really sad. By the time he and I met up again in Seattle for the next event, his family had read the novel, and they were upset about it. At least that’s what he mentioned in his intro remarks to the audience.
Soon after that he let us know he was unable to continue the tour. He cited family issues unrelated to the book, but it was impossible to discount the timing. He canceled out on events in New York, Providence, and DC, including a major reading party thrown in our honor by Barrelhouse Magazine (thank you Amber Sparks for stepping in last minute.) Also during this time, his Facebook page went away and mention of the novel disappeared from his professional website. We were supposed to pick up the tour again in January with events in Chicago, Memphis, and Cleveland, but those were scrapped, and as far as I can tell he has stopped promoting the novel entirely. He appears to have made a terrible mistake and then a tremendous sacrifice to correct for that mistake. I’ll never really understand it, I’m sure. I feel sorry for everyone involved. I really feel sorry for the book.
Wow, that is really a sad story. It is hard to be involved with a writer—although I don’t appreciate it quite as much as I should because I’m on the other side with you, being the writer. But it must be hard to read someone’s work and discover what they may actually feel about you or your shared circumstances. Sometimes my family reads my blog and my personal thoughts about things and they’re taken a back, as if my perceptions must be wrong because they’re not theirs, or at least what they know of me. And, because I have a bigger platform, my perceptions win out. Has Dean [your husband] ever made it into your work, or other members of your family/friends? Or, has there been anything you’ve written that’s revealed a side a of you they were surprised to see?
Point taken—almost everyone in my life is a writer, so my perspective is skewed. Back in grad school I wrote a straight workshop story just to prove that I could, and I put Dean in it to keep me company. It was a miserable story, one inch away from an Anne Beattie parody, and everyone seemed to like it. I never published it. I’m as self-absorbed as the next writer, but I’ve never thought I was the story. My characters are often inspired by people I’ve met, but it’s more likely for me to write about someone I barely know than someone I know well—I need a wide margin for fantasy. Many of the stories in Curio steal imagery/incidents from my family history, but in that case I’m talking 18th and 19th century.
My older brother just called saying he was trying to read Death Wishing, but it was slow going. He said, “I don’t think I even know you.” He likes war novels. Mom read it twice, said she was “less nervous” about it the second time. If the book ever goes into a second printing, I want to use those comments as blurbs.
Do you think you’ll return to the novel again? Are you more of an “idea first, then vehicle” (novel, novella, flash piece)?
I am working on a new novel set in Death Valley during the great bloom of 2005. It’s about a woman who inherits a mystery shack from a cowboy actor and gets caught up in a treasure hunt for a jazz era brooch purported to be the most hideous piece of couture jewelry ever crafted. I’m going for a wacky, 1960s scavenger-hunt movie feel. I also just finished reading about 67 online journals for the 2011 Wigleaf Top 50 longlist, and that experience has really re-whet my appetite for flash. I’ll probably proceed the way I did with Death Wishing—write a bunch of pages, get lonely for attention, pluck out the gems for flash, repeat.
Oh, yay, Wigleaf top 50 longlist. Scott Garson runs a great magazine. Tell me, you were one of the judges for the long list last year, right? Is this a continuing gig, like American Idol judge or Hollywood Square? Are you and X or an O?
I was a reader for the Longlist last year, and it was a blast. Scott used to do this all by himself, but the scope and the mission has gotten too big for one guy, so he’s handed over the coordination to others—in 2011 to Ravi Mangla and in 2012 to me. For 2012 we’ve put together a big, all-star reading team to join Scott and me (because who doesn’t love expanded administration?) that includes Mel Bosworth, Erin Fitzgerald, and Sean Lovelace as Associate Editors, and Katrina Denza, Marcelle Heath, Shome Dasgupta, and Tawnysha Greene as readers. I still can’t believe that line-up.
Here’s a would-you-rather question I can’t answer for myself: would you rather have a story in the Wigleaf Top 50 or would you rather have a story in Wigleaf?
Hmm, that’s a tough one; either way, you’re going to get a lot of attention! Is that weaselly enough? I will say that those stories in jmww that get selected for the Wigleaf longlist have the greatest all-time page views of any of our authors! Maybe we should pose that question to our faithful readers instead—
You can find out more about Laura Ellen Scott at her blog.