Interview: Julia Elliott
Julia Elliott’s dark and macabre tales caught our attention from the start. Her story collection The Wilds, out from Tin House in 2014, was followed up by an equally charming novel, The New and Improved Romie Futch. On a craft level, Elliott’s work combines science with magical realism, and her sentences are often infused with dark and gothic inspirations. Here we chat with her about how close science lands to the surreal and why it is such an effective vessel for the absurd.
This interview originally appeared in The Masters Review.
The Wilds comes out later this month. What was the first story you published that appears in this collection and can you tell us about its path to publication?
“Jaws” was originally published in the “Politics” issue of the Mississippi Review in 2004. I, like most progressive types during this era, was all fired up with anti-Bush outrage, and this story was my response. The original narrative contained some pretty stilted political discourse between father and daughter, most of which I cut when radically revising this semi-autobiographical narrative for inclusion in The Wilds. I even changed the point of view to second person and focused more emphatically on the daughter’s emotional struggle with her mother’s onset of dementia.
The texture of your writing and the use of your language has been called gothic, macabre, or even grotesque. (To me this is a wonderful compliment!) What do those labels mean to you? Do you agree with them in the context of your writing?
Okay: I will admit that I have a ghoulish fascination with phenomena like brain parasites, feral-dog packs, and lunatic levitating grandmothers who rave about apocalyptic cannibalistic dragons, but the linguistic excess toward which I’m inclined might be more fairly described as “purple” or “hyperbolic,” a sensibility that definitely includes the “grotesque” and the “macabre,” but that also celebrates “comic” and “sublime” elements. I am comfortable with the term “gothic” as an evocation of both medieval/renaissance and southern nuances. One of my grad-school phases, for example, involved binge-reading antiquated medical texts, like “leechbooks” that juxtaposed cough-syrup recipes with potions that would keep the devil from visiting one’s bed at night. While I have (hopefully) shed the cheesy archaisms and Tolkienesque dorkiness that used to taint my prose, tempering these inclinations with dystopian and satirical elements, my delight in verbal excess, uncanny fairy-tale moments, and gritty sensory detail can be traced back to the ridiculous quantity of medieval and early modern texts I consumed in grad school. Although I admire writers classified as “southern gothic,” particularly Carson McCullers, I think that growing up in a humid, mosquito-infested swampland infects the brain with obscure yet-to-be-discovered parasites that can, when combined with decades of ancestral looniness, create a sensitivity to a particular species of fecund strangeness that can be described as “southern gothic.”
The Wilds is such a cohesive group of stories. Do you utilize language with the same texture that we see in this collection in all of your writing? In your forthcoming novel for example, can we expect similar things?
The New and Improved Romie Futch, does evoke the “fecund strangeness” of the South with linguistic gusto, but in a much more self-conscious way. The novel describes the plight of a divorced taxidermist who participates in an “intelligence enhancement” study at the Center for Cybernetic Neuroscience in Atlanta Georgia. After neuroscientists download a range of hifalutin humanities data into Romie’s head, he returns to his hometown to confront his failed marriage (among other things). For the first chapter of the novel, I had to struggle to keep Romie’s diction under control, and then, as various texts and data sets are downloaded into his brain, his language becomes fuller, incorporating flashier rhetorical tropes, “SAT words,” and terminology from contemporary literary theory. In some ways, this novel explores my own journey as a skeptical Southern person encountering the joys and absurdities of academia.
Your stories reflect an interest in the natural world—many of the characters are scientists, for example—but also contain elements of the absurd and surreal. In your opinion, how close does science land to the surreal? Why is it so effective to use science as a vessel for examining the absurd?
What a great question! As an amateur primatologist who is attempting to write a novel about a “real” primatologist observing baboons at a strange research institution in the desert, teasing out the interplay between science and the surreal is one of my key obsessions. Moreover, if you look at just about any out-of-date scientific theory, “knowledge-set,” or data array, you will find plenty of absurd elements. Again, my grad-school binge-reading of scientific texts included renaissance gynecological and obstetric manuals that blended “clinical” descriptions with superstitious absurdities and wild imaginings in the most breathtaking ways. For a while, misogynist theories of monstrous births were my specialty, and pre-fallopian ideas about clammy, insert, spiritually-vapid “female seed” are not much more outlandish than the Freudian “vaginal orgasm” or evolutionary psychology’s semi-current beliefs about “hard-wired” gender traits. All discourses boil down to a historically-bound, limited human being (or group of human beings) attempting to make sense of an incredibly strange and complex universe that they experience through five senses. Not only are all observations subjective, but even the most “technical” language is laden with poetry, emotion, and the whole sad history of human aspiration. To me, every text—whether religious, artistic, or scientific—is a reinvention of reality.
Beneath the absurdity, your stories focus on real-world or political issues: the fear of growing old, the hypocrisy of religion, the quality of our food, to name a few. Do your ideas start with an issue you want to explore or are they rooted in a more abstract idea?
Sometimes my stories start with an issue, but other times with a more ineffable emotional image. My story “LIMBs,” for example, began with the vision of an elderly woman walking on robot legs, pushing her wheel-chair-bound husband down a crumbling, rural highway. My story “Caveman Diet,” however, began with my contemplating the real-world Paleo fad. The idea of contemporary humans attempting to duplicate not only the Paleolithic human diet, but also the lifestyle, is hilarious and poignant to me, an enterprise that falls into some of the same logistic traps as evolutionary psychology. After reading a few articles on today’s urban cavemen and women, I imagined a health spa devoted to simulating the Paleo lifestyle, but with all the convenient perks of civilization, of course, satirizing not only the commodification of all things Paleolithic, but also investigating the deep human longing for a harmonious, primordial Edenic past.
I often felt the characters in The Wilds were frustrated with the notion of being propelled toward an unsatisfying end. In “Regeneration at Mukti” and “Caveman Diet,” characters go to extremes for the sake of vanity. In “Organisms,” the spread of a mysterious virus renders teenagers addicted to social media and video games comatose. It implies frustration with society’s degeneration, but even in “Jaws” and “LIMBs” characters faced with dementia are in a conflict with a dissatisfying (and terrifying!) conclusion. Are these conflicts a reflection of your own thinking? Do your stories reflect your opinion on the state of the world?
Although “Jaws” definitely conveys a kind of bleak finality at the end, I believe that there is room for transcendence in many of my tales. In “Organisms” the teens who rise from their comas and slip off to heaven-knows-where could, potentially, experience some sublime transformation. Even the sad, vain narrator of “Regeneration at Mukti” could possibly pupate into something strange and beautiful. At the end of “Caveman Diet,” the narrator slips into the forest with a mysterious matriarchal cult leader, which might not be a bad thing. The girls in “Rapture,” after witnessing the antics of their Jesus-freak friend’s weird grandmother, are instilled with a new sense of mystic wonder, as is the narrator at the end of “The Wilds.” So, while I do satirize aspects of contemporary life that I find ridiculous and depressing, my stories often end with a touch of fairy-tale metamorphosis.
Interviewed by Kim Winternheimer