Well this interview was fun, but HARD. William Hoffacker doesn’t let me get away with much, eh?
Also, lookee here. A prose chapbook contest. Deadline July 15, judged by Gabriel Blackwell. VERY TEMPTING.
Thanks to Erin Fitzgerald for tagging me in this author-blog-chain-thingie-self interview-thingie. My writerly activity/output has been wiggly in the wake of promoting Death Wishing, so I appreciate getting the chance to shape my thoughts.
What is your working title of your book?
I have a short story collection called The Temple of Love and Hate. It’s actually a short collection (only about 200 pages) of long stories, including three new ones that nearly qualify as novella length, using The Matt Bell Standard. Anybody want to see it, just holler.
I’m also working on a novel called Willie Judy and The Mystery House.
Where did the idea come from for the book?
Long form is always a collision of ideas–I wanted to write about Death Valley. I wanted to write about a cursed gem. So those two go together, geologically speaking. I also wanted to write about a woman who drives all the men crazy even though she looks like a rodent.
What genre does your book fall under?
I guess it’s a kind of an eccentric mystery. Is Wacky Treasure Hunt a genre?
Which actors would you choose to play your characters in a movie rendition?
Sam Elliot plus the entire cast of Torchwood. There might be room for an Arquette who isn’t totally played out.
What is the one-sentence synopsis of your book?
The cursed Juliet emerald is hidden in Death Valley, and Willie Judy must find it before she’s arrested for murdering a legendary cowboy actor inside a desert shack known as The Mystery House.
Will your book be self-published or represented by an agency?
There is an agent who is enthusiastic about the novel, and she wants to see it first. With the stories I’m going straight to publishers myself.
How long did it take you to write the first draft of your manuscript?
First draft is a myth.
What other books would you compare this story to within your genre?
I want it to be like a movie—It’s a Mad, Mad, Mad, Mad World specifically—but I just finished a big chunk that feels like an outtake from a Taylor Caldwell potboiler.
Who or what inspired you to write this book?
My mom has been interested in rocks and gems all her adult life, and every time she visits we go to the Hall of Gems at the Smithsonian. I’ve always thought it was hilarious that she has no patience for the effing Hope Diamond, and she thinks Hope fans are rubes. So that’s my Maltese Falcon, if you will.
Otherwise, I really enjoy writing about places that move me, and Death Valley is one of those. We were there in 2005 during the Great Wildflower Bloom, and it was like being in Oz.
What else about your book might pique the reader’s interest?
The main storyline takes place in 2005 as grim weasel-girl Willie Judy searches for The Juliet emerald while navigating a burgeoning romance with a depressed innkeeper (a Welsh extreme marathon runner everyone calls Scottie just to torture him) and avoiding arrest for murder. Each chapter alternates between Willie’s storyline and episodes in The Juliet’s ridiculous history. So we start with a grotesquely flawed emerald plundered from an Egyptian tomb and go all the way through it’s many unlucky owners until it ends up as a cereal box prize.
Every once in a while I dream the ending, and it’s “Face of Boe” brilliant, but then I forget it.
I think I’m supposed to ask other writers before I tag them, but I prefer the West Wing Blue Ribbon Commission Approach—remember that episode where Toby neuters Seth Gillette (Ed Begley Jr.)by announcing his appointment to a panel on social Security without asking him?
So I’m tagging for variety–
noir writer: Art Taylor
novelist, children’s author, activist, and educator: Jyotsna Sreenivasan
folklorist and newbie fiction writer: Debra Lattanzi-Shutika
Will they play? who knows. at least I almost tried.
I was delighted to be interviewed by Kate Evans for a feature in The Morgan Messenger, a newspaper that serves Morgan County, West Virginia. You may have heard of Berkeley Springs, a spa town also known as Bath, surveyed in 1748 by George Washington himself. We have a teeny cabin on 5 acres in the town of Great Cacapon, which is about 5 miles from BS.
The Messenger is a genuine community paper with a very lively letters-to-the-editor page.
Been putting this off, and I still don’t know if I have a handle on what has happened to me.
It was a dark and stormy night, no kidding. We left Lafayette Thursday evening and drove east on I-10 towards New Orleans into a howling storm. I-10 is about 130 miles of low, slippery bridge over swamps, and as you approach the metro area, you’re driving along the edge of Lake Ponchartrain. The rain was pounding down, hitting the windshield of our compact rental with that chrysanthemum effect while it seemed like everyone else on that bridge was zooming past in ghost-white pick up trucks. We’d forgotten what Louisiana rain was like. And we remembered why, in the 3 years we’d lived there, we never owned an umbrella. No point to it.
The next day was the last formal event of the book tour: a panel at the Tennessee Williams/New Orleans Literary Festival. The normal promotional life of a new book is about three months I’m told, but my events scattered over nearly six months. While being invited to the Fest was a dream come true (thanks to Paul J. Willis, and I’m sure to the loving influence of Darrell Bourque and Dorothy Allison, both of whom have supported me for years), by the time it rolled around we were fatigued and stressed and dreading more travel. As my husband observed, Death Wishing is set in New Orleans, I received my book contract in NO, and I started the tour there, so it made sense to think of this trip as a natural end.
The panel I was on was called “Singular Women, Singular Worlds,” moderated by the amazing Bev Marshall. The other panelists were Lucy Ferriss, Ellen Baker, and Jessica Marie Tucelli. Each of these women are publishing with big presses, and I was the only indie gal up there. It is probably worth noting that of the books we were discussing mine was 1) the only one set in NO, and 2) the only one that was funny. The rest were fascinating but on the grim side. Here we are, speaking to a crowd of more than fifty attendees:
So this is what happened and I don’t know why it happened. Bev asked great questions of us all, but every time I opened my mouth–even when I was giving a serious answer–the crowd laughed their butts off. I guess they were in a mood, my kind of mood. We started by describing our book concepts, and when I talked about weight loss programs and the way men are often singled out for special attention, I saw a lot of nodding. There was one quasi-aggressive question from someone in the crowd on the topic of cultural appropriation and respect, and I had a ready answer, but apparently the questioner was a legendary fest agitator, so we were segued onto a new topic quickly. Other than that slight hiccup it went well, and I admit to trotting out a little of the Dean & Laura Show (We were all asked who read our first drafts, and the other panelists talked about their book groups. I pointed out Dean and said he liked poetry and science and hated fiction, so he was my go to guy). Later a woman said, “You two make each other laugh all the time don’t you?”
Anyway, before we finished I saw a group of women get up and leave. I assumed they’d had enough, but directly after the panel ended Dean ran up to me and said they were off to buy my book before anyone else could get to the book fair. And another woman said to him, “You are a lucky man.” A couple of people talked to me after the panel, so Dean went off to check the book fair. He came back to tell me there was a line and that everyone had a copy of Death Wishing on their stack. I should point out here that when we arrived Death Wishing was stacked in a hard to reach corner. By the time we left, they’d moved the remaining copies (only two!) up to the front of the register.
I was stopped several times in the hotel. I was stopped on the street. I was stopped in a coffee house blocks away. One woman said she hoped the book was just like me. At the author’s cocktail party that evening I was speaking with two Louisiana Poets Laureate, and a couple interrupted to shake my hand and tell me how much they enjoyed listening to me. The next day we attended a presentation by American Routes’ host Nick Spitzer, and people recognized me at that event as well.
It was great and it was weird and it just like my dreams.
Okay, so this was a cool thing to happen, but what does it mean? Learning to write and being a writer are two different points on a continuum. I’ve been writing since before I could read (true–ask mom), but I think I learned to be a writer in Louisiana twenty years ago when I found a voice that was strong enough to share with strangers. Now I can tell you that I finally feel like a novelist. (Mark it: March 23, 2012.) This novelist identity is a definitely different, and it took more than just publishing a novel to convince me. I suppose I should be worried about how much I need readers, but I’m not. I’m just going to try to ride this ride again.
The wonderful Jen Michalski digs up some dirt when she interviews me at The Nervous Breakdown. Is there something in the air? Because Ethel Roan just posted this amazing entry about the risks and necessity of writing close to your own life.
Elizabeth Buchananchats with me about my collection of short fiction, Curio:
“Laura Ellen Scott’s first book, Curio (uncanny valley press, January 2011), is a weaving together of cold nights and mountain men, cashiers and predators, people who watch from windows and strangers who sit down in other people’s cars. Winter farm houses and harvest moons, neighbors suspiciously like demons, and ax men all make shadowy appearances in this forty-four page, twenty-one story collection (available online as an e-pub at goodreads.com or for a tweet or facebook post) set in the isolated woods of Appalachia.”-eb
“Laura Ellen Scott’s novel Death Wishing is a clever, fun, and smartly written work of speculative fiction. In New Orleans, people’s dying wishes intermittently come true in this charming and unforgettable comic fantasy that begs to be adapted into a feature film.”-lhb
click the boy. he’s over there–>
In late October 2011 Tara Laskowski talked to me about New Orleans, Death Wishing, Elvis, and criticism for Art & Literature, the literary blog of Raleigh’s Metro Magazine.
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.