Interview by Bill Verner:
On Friday, December 5th at 7:00, at the Regulator Bookshop in Durham, Pushcart Prize winning writer Julia Elliott will read from her debut collection The Wilds. The Wilds (Tin House Books) is a collection of genre-bending stories that, in the words of the starred Publishers Weekly review, “is a brilliant combination of emotion and grime, wit and horror.” Across the breadth of the 11 collected pieces, Julia applies her uniquely odd Southern Gothic voice to stories that range from sci-fi dystopian farce to spooky, transformative fable to the true weirdness of the contemporary real.
Threading a needle that is the intersection of the experimental and the flat-out comical, The Wilds reads like the love child of Flannery O’Connor and HAL. And if you want more incentive to make Friday’s reading, none other than the great Jeff Vandermeer has praised Julia’s book extensively, including a recent rave on his blog. Using a small stack of photos that this writer has retained from their shared getting-in-trouble years (read: the early 90’s and its attendant fashion horror), we were able to blackmail Julia into answering a few questions in advance of her reading.
Q: Hey, welcome to North Carolina! Do you feel any trepidation, given that you are from that other Carolina to the south, and as such are our sworn enemy? (Warning: flash mob-style sword battles are huge up here. HUGE.)
I was born in Boone, NC, so I’m technically a Tar Heel (as opposed to a dirt-eating Sandlapper). I also lived in Saluda, NC for three years. Most importantly, the North Carolina Zoo in Asheboro houses my favorite baboon species, the Hamadryas, a neurotic patriarchal bunch that hails from the deserts of Africa and the tip of the Arabian peninsula. The NC Zoo boasts the largest troop in the United States, and I devoted the summer of 2011 to living in strange rental cabins and observing these beasts, spending hours watching the uptight males herd their miserable harems around their tiny fake ecosystem (research that will hopefully appear in a forthcoming novel).
Q: Your book of stories, The Wilds, is being called a reinvigoration of the Southern Gothic tradition. Is this a style you willfully inhabit, or is it an extension of your natural voice?
I am convinced that what critics and some readers see as Southern Gothic is less about literary tradition and more about total immersion in a hot, teeming, muggy ecology, a surreal ecology that probably swarms with yet-to-be-identified brain parasites. When combined with centuries of ancestral looniness, this sensibility creates a special species of the baroque absurd—at times tragic, at times comic—that might be described as Southern Gothic. Many Southerners have what my dad calls a “hyperbolic condition,” a tendency to lapse into yarn mode, spitting out tall tales and ghost stories, cracking elaborate grotesque jokes. Although my work definitely contains these elements, I’m also interested in encounters between the “biological” and the “technological,” as well as the permeable borders between these two classifications. For example, in my story “LIMBs,” a demented nursing-home patient walks around on robot legs and undergoes newfangled brain restoration procedures that slowly restore a lost world. While the organizing tropes of the story might be described as “dystopian” or “sci-fi,” the tone, setting, and obsession with a dysfunctional past can be classified as “Southern Gothic.”
Q: Tradition notwithstanding, one doesn’t usually associate the Southern Gothic with strap-on mechanical appendages, medically induced human molting, or lovelorn robots. What gives?
First of all, I wish I’d had access to your elegantly compact descriptions when I was writing my book synopsis (“medically induced human molting” is particularly good).
While Southern people may have an obsessive relationship with a troubled past, they inhabit the same present that everybody else on the planet inhabits: a world in which the distinction between “current” and “futuristic” technologies is ambiguous, a world in which we are inundated daily with diverse forms of information, a world in which assorted species of language coexist (from advertising gibberish to scientific jargon) and pockets of specialization may be superficially accessed with the tapping of a few computer keys.
Personally, in order to attempt to process and express the complexity of this world, I use genre just as I would any other literary device. So while my body inhabits the festering hot realm of the Southern Gothic, and my brain reels from a distinctly Southern species of ancestral craziness (which may or may not involve parasites), I am also a twenty-first century human with a free-ranging reading appetite and access to an overwhelming array of information. As an academic, I’ve dabbled in science and pseudo-science (particularly primatology), and all of this informs my fiction.
I also feel like mainstream society expects quaint and earthy wisdom to spew from the mouths (and texts) of Southern writers—treating them as Holy Fools who are visionary, but half-idiotic, perhaps even feral, not up-to-date or living in the “real” world, and so the appearance of, say, a robot in this world could be slightly unsettling. But the robot in “The Love Machine” lives in a Georgia Tech robotics lab, which makes this story a Southern story, and when the android finally escapes the lab and encounters the humid air outside, several borders are crossed: the border between the robotics lab and the outside world, of course, but also the border between science fiction and Southern Gothic, as well as the border between the technological and the biological.
Q: There seems to be something of an Emperor’s-New-Clothes thing going on these days with fiction: rather than pushing the boundaries between genres, some contemporary writers are simply refusing to acknowledge them. (I’m thinking specifically of Lev Grossman, Lauren Beukes, Kelly Link, and Jeff Vandermeer, though the examples don’t end there.) It must be exciting to be publishing into this cultural moment, given your wide-ranging subject matter.
Again, I feel like we’ve reached a moment in which genre versatility and dexterousness is one way to express the complexity of contemporary existence (not the only way, of course, and I love and respect the work of many writers who fall within what people still describe as a “realist” literary tradition). While Jeff Vandermeer’s Southern Reach trilogy brilliantly melds a variety of genres (fantasy, science fiction, spy novels, and what might be described as the Kafkaesque bureaucracy tale), he is clearly aware of the tools at hand, and the surreal metaphysical border in his trilogy can serve as a metaphor for his attitude toward permeable and shifting genre-borders: Area X’s border in the trilogy is both mental, physical, symbolic, and inter-dimensional; most of the characters in the novel are obsessed with the border’s weird behavior and metamorphic effects; the shifting border also destabilizes our understanding of the barriers between the natural, human, and supernatural worlds.
Q: Speaking of Jeff Vandermeer, he has been extremely supportive of The Wilds, calling it one of his two “favorite collections of the year.” That’s darned high praise from someone who is arguably the most talked about writer of 2014. Has that helped your book get noticed in some circles where it might have been missed?
Jeff Vandermeer has been devoted to dissolving the boundary between “literary” and “genre” fiction for decades, particularly in his anthologies, which tend to pull in work from a diverse range of writers. He and his wife Ann, a New-Weird-Fiction power couple, published my story “The Whipping” in the inaugural edition of Best American Fantasy. This story, originally published in The Georgia Review, was not conspicuously fantastic, though it featured a distraught father obsessed with Arthurian romance and a young narrator who delighted in high (perhaps sadistic) hyperbole. Ann and Jeff’s eye for diverse manifestations of “the weird,” a mode of writing that can be traced back to the most ancient fairy tales, helped me see my story from a fresh point of view, encouraging me to pursue bolder genre-mixing experiments.
Best American Fantasy also placed work from strictly speculative venues like Strange Horizons right next to magic-realist tales from the The New Yorker, articulating a healthy inclusive view of literary classification. When Jeff was in the middle of his hectic Annihilation tour, he took the time not only to interview me for the Tin House blog, but also to Tweet and Facebook about my book, something he does for emerging writers whose work he likes. When I replied (on Facebook) that he was not only generous, but also supernaturally energetic, he replied that this was all part of a “healthy literary ecology,” which resonates not only with his view of genre deconstruction, but also with some of the themes articulated in the Southern Reach trilogy.
Jeff sincerely wants to create a world in which literary diversity can thrive, and promoting other writers is part of this. Jeff’s generosity has not only exposed my work to a variety of readers, but Ann’s publication of an excerpt from my collection on Tor.com underscores their devotion to deconstructing the polarity of “genre” and “literary” fiction, a dichotomy that is fiercely reinforced on both sides of the spectrum. And, yes: kind words from Jeff have exposed me to new readers (and writers)—some of whom I’ve befriended on Facebook.
Q: Much gets made of your experimental ideas, but it’s also true that your stories are just damned funny. Did growing up in small-town South Carolina have an impact on how your weird-ass sense of humor developed?
I think I imbibed my grim, sometimes brutal sense of humor from my dad, who inherited it from both his maternal and paternal ancestors, who are all from the South Carolina low country, a miserable swampy realm. Here is a sampling of it: as a teen, when I got my first nose zit, my dad informed me that I had a disease called “scabrunocatosis,” a hereditary pathology that causes the nose-bone to grow excessively until it pops through the skin, after which it keeps on growing until the sufferer’s head is wreathed in a tangle of bone. Dad not only insisted that such a disease existed, but he kept up his ruse for an entire day, during which I vacillated between smirking at the ridiculousness of it and feeling stabs of paranoid terror—after all, the thing in my nose did feel kind of bony. This darkly beautiful, yet absurdly comic fiction was inflicted upon me when I was about twelve years old, and this kind of elaborate, grotesque teasing seems distinctly Southern to me. Although it may seem cruel, it also creates a kind of mental flexibility on the part of its victims, particularly an ability to swing schizophrenically between horror and humor, and to mitigate the bleakness of reality with moments of dark levity.
Q: Finally, in a recent piece for the Huffington Post you mention your suspicion that “obscure yet-to-be-discovered parasites” have infected your brain and caused you to interpret the world through a Southern Gothic filter. Here is my question: is this kind of thing catching, and if we read The Wilds, what kind of danger are we in?
This is a very timely question, because lately I’ve been dwelling on the idea of parasitic music that changes brain chemistry, and I think literary texts could also do the same thing, particularly since they telepathically transmit one person’s thoughts into another person’s brain, almost like a weird Cronenbergian download that might be fraught with parasites, viruses, and/or bacteria. So, yes, I hope you do get infected with a brain parasite when you read my book. (NOTE: the Regulator Bookshop cannot be held responsible for any brain parasite caught from attending Julia’s reading on Friday, December 5th at 7:00.)
ABOUT THE INTERVIEWER
Bill Verner has been in the book business for over 25 years, lending his questionable talents to independent bookstores and independent publishers alike. Currently a member of the Acquisitions department of Duke University Libraries and a seemingly permanent part-timer at the Regulator Bookshop, his writings on books can be found in The Minus Times Collected.
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