The Blondes, Emily Schultz‘s new novel, is a lot of things. The basic plotline, in which something causes blonde women to turn suddenly and horrifically violent, carries with it plenty of horror. But there’s also a self-aware element: protagonist Hazel is an academic whose field of study lends her a unique perspective on the crisis. Add some political commentary and some knowing social satire, and the end result is a book that works on a number of levels. I talked with Schultz via email about the book, its origins, and the different reactions readers in multiple countries have had to it.
The structure of The Blondes is deceptively complex: there’s the framing narrative that Hazel is telling, but it’s not as simple as a frame wrapped around an extended flashback. How did you come up with this as the best way to tell this particular story?
Funny you should ask, when I wrote the first draft it was in chronological order. Hazel always narrated the story to her unborn child—I felt that was an intimate way to get at how crazy she was going out in the woods alone, no one to talk to, not knowing what was happening in the world in terms of the blonde virus. She always began the story in New York with living in the hotel and discovering her pregnancy the same day she sees a blonde attack—but it didn’t make sense to hold certain facts back from the reader (that she kept or was forced to keep the baby, for instance) and that was how the story wound up more intercut between past and present.
There are many memorable images in your novel, from various attacks of infected women to Hazel’s isolation in the framing sequences. Was one of those the first scenes from which the rest unspooled?
I wrote a rough draft of the JFK airport attack where the flight attendants come off a plane and storm a waiting area. It was in my notebook before I really had even begun the rest—but it was very rough, just a ridiculous sketch. Before my husband and I moved to Brooklyn we spent a long time basically living on the road. We were staying at the Chelsea Inn on 17th Street when I began the book. Seeing my character halfway up a painted and re-painted old staircase carrying everything she owned (one suitcase) I suddenly knew who this young woman would be—and the shared bathrooms of that hotel led me to the pregnancy test, and ultimately the idea of having a pregnancy progress side by side this female-only disease. Later, I wrote most of it while in the desert outside Joshua Tree—I switched in snow for my cabin scenes but I was definitely isolated. I had to drive 20 miles to get to an internet café.
Throughout the novel, you balance elements of suspense, satire, and political outrage. What was the key for finding the right combination of these?
I have a warped sense of humor so for me the political overlaps with the cruel and the ridiculous very easily. Luckily genre blurring has become more popular, and I think our changing view of it partly has to do with movies and smarter TV. Movies don’t have to strike one note all the way through. I thought a lot about Hitchcock’s The Birds, Cronenberg’s Rabid, and authors like Kafka, Atwood, DeLillo. Writers who embrace oddness, transformation.
How did Hazel’s particular field of study come about?
I wanted to take something that could be in the Humanities but make it so extreme that it’s hilarious. Hazel studies Aesthetology: the study of looking. It’s fictional of course, and she describes it more plainly as “what women look like and what we think they look like”—a field of study that emerged when Harvard School of Anthropology partnered with Empire Beauty Schools to try to increase their female enrollment. She’s not quite the scientist who’s going to solve this crisis, but she’ll interpret the chaos along the way.
For all that The Blondes is about an event that devastates civilization, it unfolds in ways that aren’t traditionally apocalyptic. Your earlier novel Heaven in Small also didn’t necessarily follow the expectations of a book set in the afterlife. Do you tend to have tropes in mind when you write, even if it’s just to avoid them?
I think it’s more playing with them than avoiding them. This does follow a plague novel arc in that Hazel flees New York to try to get someplace else where she thinks it will be safer—and holes up in the woods (like in every good horror) only to discover the person she’s out there with is actually terrifying.
Readers encountering The Blondes will find a look at how society reacts to a horrific crisis, an academic comedy, and several memorable parent-child relationships. Is there one thing above all else that, to you, this book is about?
I think, women. But my next book is actually all about men. I even put it in the title, Men Walking on Water.
At one point in the novel, Hazel takes in an art installation that involves simultaneous projections of different versions of King Kong. Was this based on an actual work of art?
Yes! It’s by the artist Camille Henrot. I saw this at a tiny experimental film space with ten people. A lot of references in the book are real, and others are made up. When creating an outlandish world and premise, the real and the imagined have to touch so closely it’s hard to distinguish them.
Various characters in The Blondes offer up scientific explanations for what’s happened, though no one seems certain if they’re correct. Did you end up doing any research into the epidemic’s plausibility when you were writing the novel?
I’m no scientist but I’m pretty sure there’s no possibility of a hairborne disease. I did look at epidemics and their narratives though, how they travel, how they’re treated, how they’re named. What’s amazing is how consistent our reaction is from the Yellow Fever epidemic of 1793 to how New York reacted this year to Ebola.
The Blondes was first released in Canada a few years ago; have you found that readers from different countries have reacted differently to it?
It’s early, but American readers are embracing the concept while Canadians, I think, focused more on the relationships. The French (it released in translation) seem to like it. It’s doing quite well there. They don’t separate works into literature or genre, but their criticisms can be succinct and sharp. One review praised it in spite of a character “singularly lacking in charisma.” That hurt!