Laura Ellen Scott’s short fiction is widely published, and a collection, Curio (with illustrations by Mike Meginnis), is available from Uncanny Valley Press. Scott divides her time between the suburbs of Northern Virginia and the mountains of the West Virginia panhandle. She teaches at George Mason University.
Here she answers some questions about her debut novel, Death Wishing, to be released in October, 2011 by Ig Publishing.
Q: What is Death Wishing?
A: What would you wish for the world without you in it? Death Wishing is the phenomenon of uttering final words that can come true. Anyone might be Death Wisher, but not everyone is, and there’s no way to tell. At the beginning of the novel cancer has been eliminated, which is great, but most of the wishes that take hold are fairly eccentric: cats are wished away, the clouds turn orange, and Elvis—the 1968 version—is back.
The Wishing is the backdrop for Victor to tell his story—he’s a divorced, overweight, disgraced tech contractor from the north looking to reinvent himself in New Orleans. He’s losing weight, he’s taught himself how to make capes and corsets for his son’s vintage clothing shop, and he’s flirting with inappropriate women. To everyone else, Death Wishing is a world changer, but to Victor, it’s a huge distraction. At least at first.
Q. Did you start with the Death Wishing concept?
A. No, not at all. Victor’s personal story came first. I’m an on again off again member of a popular weight loss program based on the support group model, and that sort of sharing involves a different kind of storytelling than what I’m used to as a writer, so I wanted to explore that. But I also knew I needed a stronger context, something that non-dieters could understand and enjoy, which is where New Orleans comes in. It seems like an impossible place to be moderate.
The Death Wishing concept emerged a little later when we read that a public relations officer from the Roswell Army base left a sworn affidavit about the presence of alien bodies in 1947. My husband joked about it in a “but saying it doesn’t make it so” kind of way, and that led to my writing a story about David Duchovny discovering alien corpses while researching a movie role. That story, called “The Dusty Bastards,” was once the opening chapter of Death Wishing, but it turned out that the novel could handle Elvis or Duchovny but not both. Eventually the story was published in the online journal jmww and in their best of 2010 print annual, JMWW Anthology V.
Q: Is Death Wishing a Fantasy novel?
A: Only to the extent that I try to capture the sense of being in New Orleans, a city with a definite other-world, fantasy feel. If fantasy means writing that aims to inspire visceral reactions like fear or excitement, then maybe Death Wishing works on that level. Readers tell me the book makes them hungry, which is interesting since I tried to limit the food-porn—not just because it’s a cliché of New Orleans fiction but also because I felt bad enough for Victor, I didn’t want to be waving po’boys under his nose without good dramatic reason.
Death Wishing might not fit into a particularly descriptive genre, but others have suggested that it is literary fiction with elements of urban fantasy and/or magical realism. I wasn’t thinking about genre while writing it. I just wanted to create something funny and emotional. It’s definitely a humid story, there’s no getting away from that.
Q: Why Elvis?
A: I knew one of the wishes had to bring back an historical figure, and Jesus and Abraham Lincoln just aren’t funny. Victor sees himself as a failed father, but through the course of the novel it becomes clear that he’s quite a good dad despite his weaknesses. The Elvis that returns is like that too. He’s a vulnerable god, intelligent and uncertain. He’s the 1968 version in black leather, post army—the comeback Elvis. When he’s wished back into existence his daughter is older than he is. I like him. I think Elvis is often deployed as a symbol of excess, but that’s a little boring. There are brief moments of satire in the book, but I don’t write stories that are detached and ironic.
Q: You like Elvis, and you clearly like Vic. What about the other characters, how do they come to you?
A: I love all the characters in Death Wishing, even the bad guys like Pere Qua, because they are all just trying to make sense out of capricious fortune, and no one really knows anything. Every character in this novel started as a quick, usually visual impression of a real person, usually someone I don’t know at all. Except Victor—he started as a voice experiment. Early versions of Vic were much more affected than he is now, I think because I had just finished reading the first Dexter book by Jeff Lindsay. I knew I wanted Victor to embody complicated feelings about aging appetites, and that he needed to be ruminative in every part of his life. But the other characters had to be put in motion before I figured them out. The toughest were Victor’s son Val and Pebbles, the bad blues singer who Victor has a crush on. Attractive people are hard for me to interrogate. How do romance writers do it?
Q: You are working with a real setting, and at times, real people as characters in Death Wishing. Did you research the book?
A. I’m from Ohio, and I now live in Fairfax, Virginia where I teach at George Mason University. I went to graduate school at ULL (University of Louisiana at Lafayette) when it was still USL, and that was a very important period for my writing, so in a sense those were the years I spent in research—well before the book was even imagined. We love Louisiana, and we try to visit once or twice a year, but I would never characterize those trips as research. Research doesn’t involve that much drinking.
I tried to be responsible, but I don’t think being accurate is as important as being evocative, and I needed to squeeze my own invented businesses and homes onto some very well known streets. In doing so I played fast and loose with what was geographically possible. As I told one reader, please don’t use my novel as a walking guide to the French Quarter! Plus music clubs are always changing—I think my description of Snug Harbor still works, but I know The Spotted Cat became Jazzbeaux’s for a while, and now it’s The Spotted Cat Music Club with an updated interior design, which renders my version of the club unrecognizable.
Q: What would be your Death Wish?
A: Sometimes I wish animals could talk, but I’m sure they’d be horrible—racist, selfish, all that, like super models. I wish tesseract travel were possible. I wish Whoville were a real place. Maybe a fair, secular Santa Claus? Wow, these are all pretty immature.
A great thing about the concept of Death Wishing is that it makes us equals. I watched three professors and a ten year old have this great, really sophisticated conversation about Death Wishing—what was possible, practical, etc. I loved that, but I didn’t feel brave enough to chime in. In the same vein, my friend has been asking folks for years: if you could have a superpower, what would it be? And I’m the only one who hasn’t been able to answer the question. I take it too seriously. I’ll need to ask my three-year-old god-daughter. She’s good at decisions.