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.
jmww's Elizabeth Buchanan talked with Laura about ghost stories, short form as the most satisfying of the arts, and why she will never again publish anything in those big glossy journals that love to reject you.
Elizabeth Buchanan: Just to start at the beginning beginning, what does the title mean? Where did it come from?
Laura Ellen Scott: I'm actually not good with "I'm-on-the-first-step-Johnny" style suspense. What I love about horror is the stuff itself—the objects, shadows, etc. The best part of any ghost movie is when they find a sheaf of old photos hidden in the attic. I started playing with that, writing about dolls heads, broken plates, and old paper, and early on I described the project as a "curio collection of American bother," a phrase that Scott Garson, founder and editor of Wigleaf seemed to like, so I held on to it.
EB: In all of the stories in your collection, you show both the outward ugliness of your characters and the inward pain of self-loathing. "Bun" is a striking piece about a man who holds people captive—not to rape but to watch—one of whom he still sees at the local grocery store. And "Onions" forces us to look at a voyeur (so close, in fact, that we can see the "dust on his erection") who is so lonely his fondest adult memory is an offhand comment at a wedding. You inhabit the minds of many characters, some of whom are potentially difficult to empathize with. How do you achieve that?
LES: It helps not to believe in evil, a concept that isn't very useful, dramatically. I shy away from trying to define the qualities of big-L literature, but the management of vice and general badness might be a good indicator. Too many characters are merely the embodiment of their deeds, and I need more than that. The space between motivation and action shouldn't be a desert. In particular, I'm a big fan of turning repulsion inside out. You know that weird thing where you think someone is gross one day, but the next day you wake up in love with him/her? (And hating yourself for it. Self-loathing is the icing on the disgust-turned-to-lust cupcake). As a writer, that's where I live. Like the rabbit sez, "Monsters are such in-teresting people."
EB: I love that the collection, too, is a study in storytelling. There are prose poems, short shorts, and short stories that come together to form a novel-in-miniature that is also a retelling of historical events. Do you naturally write with such variety or did you intend to play with form in this book?
LES: With longer projects, I've learned that I'm most successful when I play with multiple ways of telling—my novel Death Wishing is mostly narrated by a guy who is working for his son in New Orleans, but there are several interludes attached to the perspective of Elvis, and those are told in third person. With Curio I started out thinking each piece had to be the same, short and lyric, but when the stories started misbehaving I turned to Tara Masih's great mini-essay for my blog called "How to String Together a Story Collection." It begins:
That's when I realized I could let the stories design themselves, that I should trust themes, moods, and image sets to hold everything together.
EB: Ghosts and witches have a place in this collection as do farmers, couriers, sisters, brothers, and the undead. What do you think of modern ghost stories? How should they be told?
LES: That's not a very modern list, is it? I know more about 19th-century ghost stories than contemporary ones, but my favorite ghost story is probably Toni Morrison's Beloved. I'm also crazy about how Peter Straub's plots sprawl and coil as they like, with an organic rather than guided feel. The dumbest horror film can still consistently do what the smartest short story cannot—make me jump. Which leads me to suspect that the jump-factor, while fun, is a junk value. I don't know if I have original thoughts on the matter, but to answer your second question: How about ghost stories that are unconcerned with scaring readers? I'd love to see a reading list of post-plot, post-Freud ghost stories.
EB: What is "Illegible undecipherable" about? And is this a poem, a historical list, or a blending of the two? I'm curious what this piece represents to you.
LES: The items are culled from estate documents described in Ancestors and Descendents of Norris and Elizabeth Bennett, a family history compiled by my distant cousin, Ned Crislip. The piece is mainly about the language—names for people, things, and cows (but not sheep and swine) that are firmly of their time, and amusing/intriguing on a surface level. However the meticulous accounting and distribution of all possessions, some of which seem minor by today's standards, provides the pathos. So it's definitely fiction, I think. If I were to find this document in a cigar box in an abandoned house, I'd be very excited by it.
EB: "Moon Walk" and "Last Seen Leaving" are two of your more traditional narratives, both short stories (six and eight pages). In the latter, you write about a girl who was last seen leaving at Metallica concert. Can you talk a little bit about why you wanted to write this piece?
LES: It was inspired by a local news story. A girl went missing, the leads were slim, and in the absence of any real news everyone started finger wagging and otherwise filling the silence with judgmental warnings. It struck me as offensive to assume that she had made a mistake because she was uninformed&mash;of what? That there's danger out there? At the same time I was working on a story about a brash kid who drowned in a quarry in 1897—do kids drown in quarries any more?—and it struck me that the kid knew about the dangers of the quarry, the same as the girl knew about wandering off into the night on her own. Just because we take chances doesn't mean we've somehow earned the consequences, good or bad.
EB: There are so many amazing lines in this collection that I have to name a few: "It was there on his brow, the dream. That he was down there, roaming through the abandoned rooms of someone else's childhood." (From "Spoon and Blade") and "Homestead is where all plain women go to die of neglect, and it's where they stay after death." (From "A Closed Throat")
The tone of each of these lines (and the pieces) is one of bleak acceptance, like someone long dead saying, "Well, that's just the way it is." Your collection, it seems to me, first evokes this sentiment, then responds to it by looking deeply into its characters and showing their insides, humanizing them this way. Did you feel like you were confronting anything through the process of writing this collection?
LES: Definitely. The Aspiration, Ohio stories—those are the ones that refer to the past or involve children—come as close to being about my childhood as I dare. Not that any of the events in the stories happened, but I always expected them to. I grew up in a small, semi-rural town in Northeastern Ohio, and like everyone else I remember childhood as being a solid block of magic and misery, which can't have been the case. Shortly before I was born a stretch of I-76 was routed through my back yard. Our house abutted the off-ramp where tractor-trailers pulled over to idle for several hours at a time, every night; that's my sense of the pastoral world, vast fields and highways.
The West Virginia stories, most of which feature lonely adults in the woods, come out of that same, irrational frame of mind, that something extraordinary will happen if you stare into the darkness long enough. I mean that literally, not metaphorically.
Almost everything I've written is about re-inhabiting a place, for better or worse. It may be wrong writing-wise, but place tends to come first. I try to write about where I live now, in a Northern Virginia suburb, but it's hard to find its soul. More often than not, by the time I get a page written, guns have been drawn.
EB: When we spoke before you said you mainly considered yourself a short form writer now, and that you'd never return to publishing in some of the more known glossies out there that dominate the literary short fiction scene. Why is that? And who are some of your favorite short-short masters that we may not have heard of?
LES: Hah, I should never say never. But rather than passing judgment on print literary journals let me just say that I don't read them, so I don't feel right about seeking publication in them. I could go on about craving a more public conversation or rejecting an unsustainable "market," but in the end I should own up to having cultivated a bias against conventional short fiction during my MFA years. I'm flipping through the latest issue of Gargoyle right now, and it's clearly full of marvelous stuff. I don't see any obvious cancer or divorce stories. Does that mean it's safe to go back in the water?
I don't know that I can come up with writers the JMWW readers would not have heard of, but I have a strong preference for wit and strangeness qualities that were well-represented in last year's Wigleaf Longlist.