Earlier in the year, a friend recommended that I check out the short fiction of Julia Elliott. Not long after that came news that Tin House would be releasing a pair of her books: a collection in 2014, followed by a novel in 2015. That collection, The Wilds, evades easy description–like Diane Cook and Adrian Van Young, Elliott’s equally comfortable eluding realism or embracing the grittiness in the worlds she creates. And so the stories in The Wilds brings together a host of disparate settings, and place within them characters seeking something, whether lost memories, inner peace, or a sense of belonging. I reached out to Elliott via email to learn more about the stories in the collection, the role of the South in her work, and her forthcoming novel.
You seem to be equally at home writing in a realistic vein and veering into more surrealistic (or science fictional) spaces. Do you know from the outset what the ground rules of the universe of a particular story will be?
Though I do work with a set of ground rules, consciously using or mixing genres, I suspect that all of my stories are hyperbolic, including the more realistic ones, particularly when it comes to linguistic excess (when I was a child, my father blamed a pathology he called my “hyperbolic condition”). To me, genre is like any other trope that you can use as a vehicle to patch together a theme, make a plot move, or explore a character. “The Love Machine,” my most overtly sci-fi piece, explores a robot’s burgeoning artificial intelligence and its relationship to emotion and cognition. In this story, the robot’s point of view reveals “realistic” human absurdities and frailties. In my story “LIMBs,” an elderly character encounters “futuristic” technologies (she walks on robot legs and undergoes newfangled brain restoration therapies that put her in touch with a past that has been destroyed by dementia), but the lost world that resurfaces falls clearly within the “realist” mode. Actually, robotic legs for the elderly are old news (a Japanese engineer named Atsuo Takanishi was developing this product in 2006), so not strictly science-fictional, though genre conventions tend to classify certain presentations of technology as “science fiction.” In my opinion, sci-fi and dystopian tropes can help a writer make sense of the layered world we live in. My use of surrealism and/or “magic realism,” however, strikes me as more expressionistic. In my story “Rapture” a Jesus-freak grandmother briefly levitates, a poetic moment that conveys the intensity of her spiritual and emotional state. The more elaborately surreal worlds in my fiction (like the freaky health spas in “Caveman Diet” and “Regeneration at Mukti”) tend to satirically hyperbolize “real” aspects of contemporary culture in a more cerebral and detached critical mode. It’s also interesting that even in my strictly “realist” stories, the characters are often obsessed with dystopian tropes (for example, the narrator of “Jaws” is writing a screenplay about obese Americans who have fused with their cars and become arthropod-like creatures that cruise a hot, barren, paved planet).
Many of these stories seem just shy of novella length. Was there a point when you realized that this was the scope that worked best for you?
I’m a long-winded type who has to be kept in check. Most of these stories are actually pared down, as the original drafts where long enough to be unpublishable in lit journals. I wish I could write leaner, meaner stories that get the job done with a lower word count, but I just can’t seem to pull it off. I get too carried away with “world-building” and language-layering. And I really admire writers who can evoke worlds, emotions, and characters elegantly and “convincingly” in, say, 5,000 words or less.
The idea for “Regeneration at Mukti” brings together science fictional technology and a particularly appealing, if harrowing, philosophy. How did all of these ideas come together?
This story is a result of three different yet conceptually interconnected events. First of all, I once suffered a horrendous poison oak infection that turned my right arm into a swollen mass of yellow pustules. The pustules oozed and crusted over, and, after my arm healed, I was shocked to see perfectly normal skin with no scars. During the process, I joked that my arm was “pupating,” and started to imagine weird therapies that used “futuristic” technologies like stem cells and nano-tech to harness natural biological processes to regenerate skin. Around the same time, I read an article about plastic surgery safaris, laughing at the thought of rich people with new buttock implants or nose jobs, all bandaged up and exploring the commodified exoticism of foreign lands, peering at tigers and gorillas as their scars healed. Finally, I once had a conversation with a friend about yoga, and he said, “I like to keep religion out of my exercise,” which made me think about ways that narcissistic beautification processes are often packaged by the spa industry as spiritually profound personal transformations. The characters in “Regeneration” are clearly there to become hotter, but the vanity at the root of the process is transmogrified by a bastardized version of Zen Buddhism.
The South seems to inform a lot of the stories in The Wilds. Do you consider it to be an influence on your writing?
I have said in other interviews, half-jokingly, that what people describe as “southern gothic” might be less about literary tradition and more about “ancestral looniness” and the proliferation of parasitic organisms in this swampy land. I have spent most of my life in the South (Georgia, North and South Carolina) and probably do suffer from a not-yet-identified brain parasite that hails from this teeming muggy environment. There’s also something about the hellish summers, humidity and shrieking insects, that contributes to a kind of delirious linguistic excess (what my dad describes as a “hyperbolic condition”).
Was there any particular inspiration for the once-lauded band in “The End of the World”?
Yes, in college in Columbia, S.C., I was in a band called Spigot, which had a brief period of local glory, mostly due to the efforts of a brilliant designer friend who created enormous posters (one was six feet tall!) in the pre-digital age. We put out a green vinyl seven-inch that occasionally resurfaces in regional used record stores.
Your bio also cites the work you’ve done in experimental music; does that have any influence on your writing?
It’s interesting because my job in Grey Egg was to sing and write “lyrics,” and because I’m a writer, the lyric-writing part was harder for me. Anything written sounds five times more ridiculous when sung, so I copped out by using “fake” language—codified and written down, but a more animal-like approach to melody and an escape from “meaning”—grunting, whining, keening, howling, warbling, etc. My husband, a multi-instrumentalist, still writes and records songs, and I occasionally contribute little scraps of nonsense—I have moved up from fake language to nonsensical English. And I do believe that the brain parasite I mention above makes me pathologically alliterative. I also lapse into spoonerisms unintentionally when I get really nervous.
Your novel is due out next year. How would you describe it to someone who had recently encountered your collection?
I describe it as an attempt to harmonize my upbringing in a small Southern town with my experience in academia and my existence in a technologically obsessed culture. It’s about a South Carolina taxidermist who works as a paid research subject and gets “knowledge sets” downloaded into his brain. Over a six-month period, he acquires the equivalent of an English PhD and returns home to confront his failed marriage. He creates surreal animatronic taxidermy dioramas and gets obsessed with hunting “Hogzilla,” a thousand-pound feral hog that’s been terrorizing Hampton county. It’s a macho novel—what I pretentiously describe as my literary attempt at “female masculinity” (borrowing a term from Judith Halberstam).
Photo: JS Dennis