At times jarringly comic, and at times horrifyingly visceral, Kevin Maloney’s novel Cult of Loretta is a difficult book to shake. It follows several years in the life of Nelson, a young man living in and around Portland in the late 1990s. Nelson’s fixation on a woman named Loretta prompts several damaged souls to enter the same orbit; breakups, addiction, madness, and other horrors ensue. After reading the book, I reached out to Maloney via email with some questions about its origins, its setting, and its terse yet disorienting structure.
Cult of Loretta has a lot going on: a series of hugely destructive relationships, drug abuse, Y2K-related paranoia, the dissolution of several friendships, and more. Was there one particular aspect of the book from which everything emerged?
Last fall I was going through some short stories I’d written—odds and ends, mostly unpublished. I had the idea of revising them, adding to them, maybe putting together a short story collection. I was re-reading Denis Johnson’s Jesus’ Son at the time and wondered what would happen if a few of the characters recurred from story to story. At one point I went through and changed all the female characters’ names to Loretta and a narrative began to emerge. I started writing to fill in the gaps, and the book took on a life of its own. I wrote the entire manuscript in eleven days.
One of the undercurrents in Cult of Loretta is the Portland music scene of the late 90s; Heatmiser in particular is mentioned a lot. What drew you to including that particular music scene at that particular time in the book?
I was a teenager in the suburbs of Portland in the mid-90s. Back then, Portland wasn’t known for its music scene. Seattle had Nirvana, Pearl Jam, Soundgarden, and Alice in Chains. We had Gus Van Sant and a pretty bad heroin problem. But there was an amazing all-ages club in Southeast Portland called La Luna. On Friday nights, my buddies and I would pile into one of our moms’ minivans, drive downtown, and pay $5 to see whatever band was playing. The house bands were Pond, Hazel, and Heatmiser. The atmosphere was incredible. All these teenagers smoking cigarettes, getting stoned, listening to homegrown music. To a sheltered kid from the suburbs it felt like heaven. I left Portland in ’97 and ended up in Vermont, and it was only years later that I made the connection that Elliott Smith was the lead singer of Heatmiser. When I realized that Cult of Loretta was going to be a coming of age story set in Portland, I wanted to incorporate this small piece of Portland history that I’d inadvertently been a part of.
The way that Cult of Loretta is structured is also interesting: the short chapters and the fragmented chronology both come to mind. Was that approach present from the outset?
I was really inspired by Kevin Sampsell’s A Common Pornography and Scott McClanahan’s The Collected Works Vol. 1. Scott has some longer stories in that collection, but I love the short, devastating ones that knock you down in a single punch. Also, short chapters allow me to write quickly, without thinking. I write best when I don’t have time to second-guess myself. By keeping the action moving, pushing the characters from one ridiculous episode to the next, I was able to stay invigorated from chapter to chapter. As far as the jumps in chronology, that probably comes from my love of Joseph Heller’s Catch-22. Non-linear formats can be frustrating for the reader, but I think they’re ideal for surrealist comedy.
Much of the book involves Nelson looking back on events from the remove of at least a decade. While there are some clues as to how he’s spent the intervening years, do you have a larger sense of what he was up to during that time?
I’m not 100% sure what Nelson’s been up to. He’s married and has a baby girl. He’s an adult. I think he has a totally different understanding of women than he did when he was a teenager. In my late teens and early 20s, I was overawed by sex; it was hard for me to understand that women weren’t perfect, celestial beings. That attitude pervades Cult of Loretta. If any of the boys slowed down and actually got to know Loretta, she wouldn’t have so much power over them. But they don’t. They treat her like an idol, a god. She’s their reason for living… the monster who devours them and spits them back out. Older Nelson is looking back on all of that, realizing how deluded they were, but also missing it. Because those boys were willing to sacrifice their lives on a moment’s notice for the stupidest reasons, and there’s power in stupidity. It can take you to wonderful places.
Is Nelson a character that you can see yourself returning to for future stories?
Nelson is basically me without any impulse control. All the things I was too nervous to try when I was a teenager, Nelson does without a second thought. Most of my protagonists are variations on the “Nelson” archetype, so I’m sure he’ll keep coming up in different forms in all my fiction. As to whether or not I’ll revisit these specific characters, it’s hard to say. I feel like I’ve already told Nelson’s story. More interesting, I think, would be to go back and tell Loretta’s story, from her perspective. I’m sure there were things going on in her life that would humanize her and make her a more sympathetic character. Then again, maybe it’s better to leave her a mystery. I don’t know.
What’s next for you?
Short stories are my laboratory. Cult of Loretta came out of working in the short story format, and for now that’s where I’m returning. I have about four or five different ideas for my next book, but I feel like the book has to choose me. So I’m going to use stories to explore different ideas and emotional spaces and concepts and hopefully one of them will catch fire. Some writers put out one or two books per year. I have no idea how they do it. I’m pretty disciplined and write almost every single day, but most of my ideas don’t pan out. I only want to put out work that feels vital and urgent, that surprises me in the act of writing it. I can’t predict when that will happen next.