What is your debut novel, A Map of Everything, about?
It’s about “everything,” of course. But at its core: The narrator’s sister has a terrible car wreck as a teen and suffers traumatic brain injury and physical debilitation. The novel thus becomes about family and family tragedy; accident and injury; addiction, sexual identity, and healing; and love. The structure is based on the periodic table, with each subchapter based on one of the elements. The excerpt here, for example, is element number 51, Antimony, described as “Metalloid; Primordial; Solid.”
Why did you write it?
Because I tried not writing it and that didn’t work. It was a story that haunted me until I gave in and finally told it. A lot of the subject matter was inspired by my personal experiences. I have a sister who, at sixteen, sustained a traumatic brain injury in a car accident. That event shaped how I lived my life and how I viewed the world, and it affected all of my relationships with people. Writing a story based on this core human drama was, for me, like playing with a circuit board — the kind we had as kids with wires and spring coils and posts and electricity coursing through it. Connect the wires one way and a light bulb glows, another way and a buzzer goes off. It was exciting and scary. It demanded great caution and care, lest you shock or even electrocute yourself.
What I ultimately sought was an intricate mechanism for the transmission and reception of spectral hopes, secrets, lies, fears, loves — all things charged and hot — throughout history and across humanity. Something to harness the chaos and give it form. I wanted evidence of greater possibility about what a life derailed by tragedy can bear, and encompass.
Some of the book takes place in Paris. Did you write any of it while there?
Yes, I travelled there alone and wrote almost half the book on that trip. Of all the cities I’ve ever experienced, Paris is my favorite. It’s thick with history and ghosts, both real and metaphorical. Paris exudes an energy both melancholic and romantic. It’s the perfect setting for broken people seeking wholeness, and for simultaneously finding and not finding that wholeness.
Why do you switch to second person, present tense for certain scenes?
These are sections where the narrator is high or drunk, generally out of control. The second person adds a psychic distance, a remove that I hope allows readers to feel what the character feels while in such a state. The present tense adds immediacy that the scenes demand.
Why are the chapters so short?
I wrote short chapters to modulate the intensity of emotion, and to obey the natural cadence and rhythm of the story as it moves. But there was another reason, too. One of the novels I read while writing this book was Mrs. Bridge by Evan S. Connell. Connell’s novel is a very different story in terms of the key and register of emotion. Still, what struck me about this quiet story was the length of the chapters. They were so short, like nibbles. That alone made the book compulsively readable, because I could always read just one more chapter. The affect on me was like being presented with bite-sized cookies or miniature cakes. You feel as though you’re just nibbling, but before you know it you’ve eaten a whole cake’s worth.
Who are your top literary influences?
Virginia Woolfe, William Faulkner, Toni Morrison, Jeannette Winterson, Robert Penn Warren, and Oscar Wilde. There are many other contemporary writers I admire. Too many to list. Probably, I’m influenced by everything I read, which is a little frightening.
You’re donating all of your royalties to help people with TBI. Why?
It seemed both fitting and necessary that a novel about healing and regeneration would serve the same purpose in the world. Millions of people are affected by Traumatic Brain Injury and there are not enough resources available to them. I’d like to help change that, even if in a very small way.
There’s a soundtrack to your book. What’s that about?
In combination with the novel, Jaded Ibis Productions produced a compilation of original music and spoken word performances written in response to or inspired by the book. The compilation is a stunning assortment of incomprehensible talent. It will be available at over 750 digital music distribution sites, worldwide. For the book tour, I will be attending seven book release party events in six different cities. At each event, in addition to the traditional reading from the novel, two or more of these talented artists will perform their work live.
Finally, what do you hope people will take away from reading A Map of Everything?
I hate to prescribe what people should feel. But in general, I hope people who read this book will be moved and inspired.
ELIZABETH EARLEY holds a BA in Creative Writing and an MFA in Fiction from Antioch University Los Angeles. Her stories and essays have appeared in Time Out Magazine, The Chicago Reader, Geek Magazine, Outside Magazine, Gnome Magazine, and Hyper Text Magazine. Other fiction has appeared in The Windy City Times Literary Supplement, Hayden’s Ferry Review, The First Line Magazine, Story Week Reader, Fugue, and Hair Trigger. The Hair Trigger piece won the David Friedman Memorial Prize for the best story in that anthology. Elizabeth has twice been a finalist for the AWP New Journals Award, has received two pushcart nominations, and was a finalist for the 2011 Able Muse Write Prize for Fiction and for the Bakeless Literary Prize for Fiction. A new novel excerpt, “Backbone”, won an Honorable Mention in the Glimmer Train March 2013 Fiction Open contest.