Amelia Gray: Twisted Heartstrings

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Novelist Amelia Gray creates a series of disturbing surrealities so convincing in their breath, you might find their likeness creeping into the shadows of your own reality. Gray says she doesn’t recommend her fourth book as viable pre-bedtime reading. Gutshot presents a collection of stories that masterfully lassoes a spread of fully fleshed nightmare scenarios.

Gray writes magic realism lined with tiny razor teeth; some shiny, some rusted to near-knobs, some warping into bottomless snake pits. Her debut book, AM/PM (2009), whispered signs of the demonic metamorphoses to come — but it was 2010’s Museum of the Weird that ignited an unwieldy bonfire of critical praise. The collection of short, dark narratives earned Gray the year’s FC2 Ronald Sukenick Innovative Fiction award and roaring approval from heavyweights like the New York Times Sunday book review. Her first novel, 2012’s Threats, a murder mystery laced with psychological thrills, valiantly carried on a torch lit from the Weird pit.

Gutshot is surrounded by flyaway embers from the initial flames, but at this point, Gray’s universe has expanded past just one wild element. Her fictional stories trace baseline human fears like suffocation, morbid curiosity, and desperation but nestle them among fluid, bizarre environments. In these gruesome settings — ranging from the cool innards of a mysterious snake to the forefront of a pastry shop as it crackles beneath flames — we catch glimpses of tender emotion among the chaos.

Amelia and I spoke over the phone in March — I from my Atlanta apartment, she from the parking lot of a CVS in Los Angeles. The following interview is an edited transcript of our conversation.  –Beca Grimm

The Barnes & Noble Review: When did you start putting Gutshot together?

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Amelia Gray.

Amelia Gray: I started writing in 2011, after I closed THREATS, my last work. The stories that followed ended up in Gutshot. Creating a collection can be strange. Some of the stories can be very old and dear, some are very new and fresh.

BNR: I noticed a theme in your characters indulging in a courageous itch — like the brave narrator entering the winding maze in “Labyrinth,” and the young prostitute trapped in air ducts in “House Heart.” It’s a truly terrifying detail. I first started reading the collection before going to bed, but had to start reading it in the mornings after “House Heart.”

AG: [Laughs] Yeah, I wouldn’t recommend it as night reading.

BNR: Why and how did this trapped theme come up so much?

AG: The physical space that we’re in can often stand for the mental spaces that we’re in. A lot of my characters find themselves trapped for a lot of reasons. Sometimes because they think in a certain way or they ended up in a kind of relationship that has allowed that or encouraged that to happen. It ends up being represented in very physical ways, in these stories anyways, showing how your surroundings can mirror your internal mind.

BNR: And how has LA done that to you, if it has?

AG: LA is so open and sprawling that you kinda can’t help but create your own maze inside it. Everyone always talks about the traffic — in particular the different routes you take to different places — there’s 50 million ways to do a route. So I create my own little maze that I run every day, because sometimes it shifts a little bit.

BNR: How long has it taken you to arrange that?

AG: I moved to LA three years ago. Before that I lived in Austin, Texas — which was kind of a similar thing. I think when you live in any city, you create your world: your favorite places, the people you see, the neighborhoods you love.

BNR: How did you get settled on the West Coast?

AG: Maybe I’m not totally settled in yet. Right when I moved to LA, I moved to East Hollywood on the third floor of an apartment building. My office didn’t have a window. It was actually one of my larger closets converted into an office. That’s where I lived — in the way that wherever you fall is where you land. Getting used to the city? I guess that depends on what that means — getting from one neighborhood to another is probably one of the more official ways. To recommend you the better Korean barbecue on the West Side in Koreatown.

BNR: Seems like you moved around a bit. Growing up in Arizona, you mentioned Austin and LA now.

AG: Yeah, I lived in Charlotte, North Carolina for seven years. I grew up in Tucson, went to school in Phoenix, and then Texas, and then LA. It’s limited, but it’s a pretty good collection.

BNR: Fairly decent menagerie. Jumping back into the book, there’s another thing I noticed: this very calm surrender among a lot of the characters trapped in (or roped into) sinister situations. Like the narrator in “Away From,” when she’s caught mid-escape by her previously sleeping captor after creaking on the stairs. Or the couple learning of their unplanned pregnancy outside the blazing donut shop in “These Are Fables.” Everybody seems accepting of their situations. Why don’t any of them keep fighting?

AG: I think it goes back to the feeling of trapping yourself in a way of thinking or a way of being. It’s something that should be pretty familiar to everyone. Usually we’re not trapping ourselves in situations like the poor protagonist in “Away From.” But we do find ourselves in dead-ends at the end of mazes we didn’t know we were walking. That happens in relationships, that happens in jobs, with our parents. Of course it all ends up looking a little less terrible or funny or dramatic, regardless. But sometimes it is that terrible or funny or dramatic — we always end up looking at the bottom of some barrel.

BNR: How do we or your characters pull this sense of Zen from it? How do they accept it?

AG: Sometimes they’re accepting it just because they don’t feel they have any other options. Something they are fighting it in their strange little ways, like in “House Heart” when the trapped woman is opening cabinet doors. It’s a small way, but it’s a way that she’s looking outside of her strange resistance into what she imagined is outside. I think that’s something everyone does, or aspires to do. In “These Are Fables,” there’s a pregnancy that will change their lives — the protagonist’s life, at least. She finds herself having to physically move out of the situation and into another place. She’s interested in getting out of there. There’s always some kind of movement.

BNR: When the woman in “The Moment of Conception” sews the narrator’s penis into her body, it’s pretty intense. How do you write something so vivid from a man’s point of view? I don’t have a penis but I could feel the pain while reading it and it was super serious.

AG: [Laughs] I was thinking about how a species of whale does that — I don’t know if that’s true. But I was reading about how some species of whale, the penis or some sort of sexual organ is removed and contained inside the female. I thought that was so strange and cool. I was thinking at the same time the desperate feeling some people feel when they are trying to conceive a child but they can’t. That kind of collaged together, I guess.

In order to write that in a way that was believable, I had to really think about the realities of what it would be like and how it would feel to have some very vital limb removed. I tried to place myself in that situation. I’ve never had a finger removed or anything else, but surely you’d feel this blinding sensation . . . then maybe a lack of sensation. People who’ve described feeling intense pain sometimes say they don’t remember it at all. I collapsed all these things that I knew and mixed them with things I thought might be possible and ended up with this pretty gruesome thing. Gruesome with a purpose, I think.

BNR: It’s interesting because the desire in that story is so palpable they’re willing to extract — like you said — vital limbs from a lover’s body to make it happen, to have a baby.

AG: It’s an empathy, really, for people who want a child so badly they’ll do anything. When anything seems possible, your desire is so strong your own body becomes less important. That’s a very real thing.

BNR: I have definitely known people like that in my life — not that extreme, but with that searing drive to conceive. Maybe it’s a biological thing that develops as we get older. How did your own life inspire “Fifty Ways to Eat Your Lover”? Especially this line: “When he asks if you’re going to write about him, push a corkscrew into his shin and chew what curls out.”

AG: [Laughs] I always take my writing from different little bits of my life and my experience. I find for me, the most successful stories have come from some kernel of reality. Every writer has had or knows somebody who wants to be written about. There’s always a story or two about that moment when you’re sitting with someone or laying with someone or at a funeral with someone, and they start telling you their life story with the idea that you will create a beautiful novel about it.

BNR: Have you noticed that as a recurring thing, especially with dating?

AG: It comes up, yeah. It does come up. I find a little more luck in dating fellow artists; at least they’re a little more subtle about it. [Laughs]

Everyone wants to be written about. Everyone wants to be known. It’s a legacy thing, something that lives on.

BNR: Yeah. If you find out a song — maybe even a mean or angry song — is about you, it’s still a little flattering.

AG: Absolutely! Every subject of a Taylor Swift song has it on repeat somewhere in their Spotify playlist.

BNR: You use really apt olfactory descriptions. Like, “The air felt cold and pure, like inside the case at a flower shop” and “stink like a pile of dead centipedes after rain.” It’s pretty awesome how your descriptions could potentially make sense to someone who can’t smell since it brings a different set of sense into the equation. How do you feel that sense of smell specifically plays a role in your writing?

AG: Smell is important to me. As someone who’s never smoked cigarettes, I have a pretty good sense of smell. I think that maybe when I’m writing about smell, sometimes I’m very deep in the scene and feeling it, really close to what I created. When it’s real to me, it takes me to smell. I have a really good scent memory. I could probably pick out the smell of my first boyfriend’s mother. Or the smell of the vacation Bible camp I went to as a kid.

It’s an interesting sense to write about and to express in words. We don’t have scratch-and-sniff books, so that’s an additional challenge. Some particular smells are very based in place, very culture-heavy. I could describe creosote after the rain all day, but only people from Tucson or the area would know what that smells like. It’s an interesting challenge that puts a story in a place.

BNR: I can’t imagine how intense your books would be with scratch-and-sniff pages.

AG: [Laughs] Oh my god! That would be incredibly gross. I never thought about that.

BNR: How would you describe that vacation Bible camp memory?

AG: Vacation Bible school was a dusty smell. It smelled a little bit like dirty Elmer’s glue and twine and the shells of M&Ms.

BNR: You have a gift for that. My mom doesn’t have a sense of smell and she always asked me and my sister, “No, describe the smell to me.”

AG: That’s cool. I’ve only met a couple people who don’t have that. What’s it called? Anosmia? It’s an interesting thing. How’s her sense of taste?

BNR: She obviously has nothing to compare it to but she does like really spicy food and things with strong tastes. So that’s probably why.

AG: Yeah, yeah. A little dull there.

BNR: I don’t think she realized she was giving us unintentional writing lessons as children.

AG: Exactly! That’s really good.

BNR: So let’s talk about the idea of people assimilating — even if the idea is ridiculous, violent, or harmful. Like the townspeople in “Monument” when they destroy all the headstones in the cemetery or the couple that tear apart their physical bodies on “Date Night.” How do you notice less gruesome examples of this in society or other social situations?

AG: I was interested in writing about the outer skin that we have and the facades that we have, the monuments we put up. Literal or figurative. I think the early draft of “Monument” had them chipping away at the stone and finding flesh underneath. I don’t know why. It’s taking this kind of crust that we built up or come to accept and finding what’s underneath that.

“Date Night” is a meditation on dating and the feeling of having that protective piece of you that covers you heart and organs — your more vital things. The idea that we all go to restaurants and movies and hold hands and make out, but we don’t really let the other person in in our most private moments. Except with “Date Night,” the idea is: what if we do? Or try to, anyway. Try to rub everything off and see what happens.

ThreatsBNR: Yeah. I’m sure you’ve seen the studies, too, that people laugh something like thirty times more if they’re in the company of other people also laughing, versus if they were just alone. That idea is reflected in both those essays — creating a new norm as they’re surrounded by people doing the same thing in an immediate environment.

AG: When I was writing that, I read about how you can improve your mood by laughing even if you’re faking it. I remember for some reason needing to summon laughter. I was at my friend’s house, giving these big, booming, HAHAHAHAs. Probably sounded pretty creepy, while she was trying to make lunch. And it kinda worked? I don’t know. [Laughs]

BNR: If nothing else, probably the goofiness and comfort helped.

AG: Right. That was real.

BNR: Let’s talk about “The Swan as a Metaphor for Love” — but first, I wanna say I was bit by a swan when I was five. I don’t know anyone else that has happened to.

AG: You got bit by a swan?

BNR: Yes, as a small child.

AG: I’ve heard of that happening. Because they’re vicious!

BNR: They’re pretty nasty. And huge. They’re crap animals. [Laughs]

AG: That’s the long and short of it. I love thinking about the swan being such a romantic figure, Tunnel of Love stuff — but how awful they are. It seemed a pretty apt metaphor for love.

BNR: Absolutely. How did you tease it out from that initial concept of swans being beautiful, love being beautiful but actually secretly awful in a lot of ways?

Part of it was telling myself that just because I’m writing about something that exits in reality, doesn’t mean I need to sit there and research all the pieces. So I was letting loose and writing whatever about swans, kinda just making it up. I can’t remember if I actually went back and fact-checked it or anything, but I was making up words at some point and guessing at what a swan eats. Tadpoles? I don’t know, probably. [Laughs] So it was partly that metaphor that you picked up on and it being so weird, partly an exercise in pushing my own boundaries a little.

BNR: Overall, how do you feel about Gunshot — sorry, GUTSHOT — coming out? I keep thinking Gunshot, sorry about that.

Museum of the WeirdAG: No! I keep writing Gunshot. It’s a very hard letter. Because gunshot is the more common word. It’s gonna be happening all the time — from me and from other people. It’s OK. Gutshot is weird — it’s possible that people have never said that word. Or seen it but maybe not thought about it. But anyway, I feel excited and nervous, which is how I feel when any book comes out. Except it’s very important, a very real and vital piece for me. I’m really happy with it. I’m happy about the work I put into it and the work a lot of other people put into it. Excited, excited.

BNR: You’re also working on a novel right now. Could you tell me a little about that?

AG: Yes. I will say it’s historical fiction, and I may have written the last scene today. I’m not certain. I’ve been working on it since 2012, so it’s been going for a while. It’s set about 100 years ago. I’m going to be going through it and editing it for a while now, so it’ll become better. I’m maybe wrapping up the first draft.

BNR: And you celebrated writing the final scene with a victory lap over to the CVS?

AG: [Laughs] Exactly. I visited the bathroom by the photo center and I bought myself some DayQuil. But in the bathroom, there was a trash can and in it was a pregnancy test someone had taken. You always have to look when you see a pregnancy test in the bathroom at CVS. It was negative.

BNR: Well, that’s probably good. Unless you’re the kind of woman who’d sew your partner’s penis into your body.

AG: [Laughs] Oh yeah. It’s probably good — I mean if you’re crouched in the CVS bathroom using a pregnancy test.

BNR: We’ve all been there.

AG: [Laughs] Yeah.