Amelia Gray is the author of three works of fiction: AM/PM (featherproof books), Museum of the Weird (FC2), and THREATS (Farrar, Straus, and Giroux), for which she was named a finalist for the PEN/Faulkner Award. Learn more at ameliagray.com.
Front Porch: There’s an Amelia Grey, Grey with an “E,” that writes romance novels. Is this secretly you?
Amelia Gray: [Laughs] I wish. She’s so prolific. She does a lot more than I do. I tried to interview her once but she was in the middle of promoting A Duke to Die For so we had to put it on hold.
FP: Why’d you want to talk to her?
AG: I think it’s really interesting what she does. She really seems to work constantly and she’s pretty stubborn about doing it for a living. I was very curious about the process of writing a romance novel and having to follow a certain path but also to make her own and make it unique.
FP: You talk about following certain paths, and after reading all of your work it seems like most everything you do revolves around a quirky idea, a conceit, whether it’s stories speaking directly to a John Mayer T-shirt in AM/PM or a giant cube coming out of nowhere in Museum of the Weird. Would you say that your stuff is mainly idea driven?
AG: Sure. I feel like I try to make the idea worth it in the sense that I’m not simply writing a quirky detail. My goal is to make it something that is believable and not just unique. But I do definitely draw from an idea. An idea itself might be drawn from emotion, but I start with that idea.
FP: Speaking as a writing student, it takes a while to develop your own style and to break away from conventions, such as straight realism. I’m wondering how you developed your voice. Was there a story or a moment where you thought, “This is me and this is how I’m going to be different?”
AG: Nah. It wasn’t a single moment. I took about seven years of workshop, counting three years at Texas State, and then some time at Arizona State as an undergrad. I was writing a lot of very strict realism and I loved reading stories that were very real and didn’t have any kind of fantastic elements. The younger I was the less aware I was that such stories even existed. It was a slow process. Even years ago, I was writing more fables than stories and the characters were doing strange things like burying cars or creating clothes out of melted vinyl records or whatever. As I kept writing and as I kept reading and finding other places where people were brave—even novels that were very heavy realism where the poetic leap is unique and inspiring, like Lolita—I took from that a kind of bravery in form.
FP: Your first book AM/PM is written entirely in very short pieces. Did you start out by writing flash fiction?
AG: No. In that project it started as flash fiction. I started writing regular size stories. I wrote AM/PM about a month after I graduated from Texas State. I had just finished the big thesis and I felt pretty frustrated with it and wanted to do something different.
FP: It’s interesting because your novel THREATS is made up of pretty short sections as well. Confined space seems to offer freedom on one hand because you can be experimental and it’s constricting because you don’t have much space to deal with it. What’s your relationship with writing short?
AG: I wanted to use the form that would be most comfortable with me when I was writing THREATS. Long before I had the title, or even the idea that it would be a novel, I just wanted to write in the form that was the most invisible to me in the way that the material of it wouldn’t catch me up. So I wouldn’t say, “Now I’m going to write a very short chapter,” and force myself to do that. Instead I just wanted to write and when it felt like the end of the chapter, I just ended it. And I ended it with the idea that if I wanted to condense or combine or lengthen it, I could come back to it. The basic form of very short chapters and a couple very long ones remained. My goal was just trying to use a form that felt simple and invisible so I could actually do it. These days I’m writing quite long chapters. I’ve been writing the same chapter for about four or five months. So now the comfort level is somewhere else.
FP: Every time I talk to somebody about your stuff, we talk about how language is one of your strengths. You’ve got these nuggets of incredible descriptions. I’m curious to hear what your influence is as far as poetics.
AG: Some of it does come from poetry. And a lot of it does come from fiction and the long line. I found myself, when I was in grad school, feeling that language wasn’t my strong suit. A lot of my fellow classmates wrote such beautiful, long poetic lines and I felt like a dullard. I was writing very simple, short sentences. I still do write a lot of short, direct, to the point sentences. I ended up comforting myself in the idea that I was writing a mimetic, direct prose. I was trying to not make these poetic leaps. And I don’t know why but as such, I’ve heard a lot that language is actually my strong suit. I feel pretty pleased about that.
But also it’s a surprise because when I was writing THREATS I was also writing about six or seven thousand words a week in marketing copy. For my job I was forcing myself to be very direct and simple. I was a little concerned with how that was bleeding over into the novel.
FP: You mentioned that you had some strange marketing assignments. What was the weirdest one?
AG: I was writing horoscopes for a while. That was fun. It was strange. I felt a strange importance in what I was doing. And I really wanted to make it so nobody left their wives because of something I said. My role of writing a horoscope was to couch it in that complicated metaphor so that nobody really understood what exactly they were supposed to do.
FP: That could be a big responsibility.
AG: Yeah. With great horoscope power comes great horoscope responsibility.
FP: Let’s talk about THREATS. I can’t remember a book that challenged me as much as THREATS did, and that’s a compliment. What was the genesis of the book and did you set out to write a novel?
AG: The genesis was the image of Franny at the bottom of the stairs and her ankle’s covered in blood. And I saw that image from a perspective from the top of the stairs and I didn’t know who that was. I didn’t know anything about what it was. As I started thinking it was her husband or her partner in some way, I figured that there was something there. I put down another novel I was trying to write about synchronized swimming, which it turns out is really hard to write. It doesn’t translate very well to fiction—yet, anyway. I put that down and without a lot of hope that it would be anything long, started writing this book. I just didn’t tell anybody about it for a while and kept it a secret. I was very nervous that I was actually writing a novel.
FP: I wouldn’t call THREATS a mystery novel or a thriller. But at the same time it’s got a lot of elements of that genre. It’s got an unexplained death early on. It’s got suspicion of the protagonist, not to mention anonymous threats everywhere. Did you ever view the story as a mystery story?
AG: Sure. I did and do in a lot of ways. Although it does certainly lack a lot of resolution that people who write and like mystery, detective stories want. I found that in writing a genre that I was fully unprepared to write, it was a way to accidentally break all the rules. That made it a lot more fun than when I tried to write a more straight, literary fiction kind of book.
FP: How much fun was it thinking of the individual threats themselves?
AG: That was fun. I actually wrote the threats before I wrote the book. I had written them as a performance piece and I had intended them to be on their own. Once I read the threats a few times in performance, I figured I was done with it. And then I was writing this book independently and as I continued one day, there was one moment when I thought, “Oh, the threats are a part of it.”
FP: How were the threats to be presented in a performance?
AG: They were all together and a few more. Maybe twenty or thirty. I would print them out and put them on individual cards and then yell them and throw the cards down as I finished yelling. There’s a fun video of me reading them.
FP: I told you this book challenged me. A big part of that is that early on I struggled as to how to envision the world of the book. Initially I read it as a POV close to David, who suffered from a mental illness, and this explained his funky world. Then the deeper I got in the book, it seemed like on top of his mental illness, this is a substantially different world than my own and it follows its own rules. Can you talk about what goes into your world building?
AG: I wanted the world to work on a few different levels. One would be for readers who really wanted to read a realistic story, a story that felt very real and true and centered in this world. I wanted that to come through in the potential that this man might have, either in a mental illness or that he might be suffering from some profound grief that forces him to think of people in this way. I also wanted it to work realistically in this surreal level and to have things that could just happen without an explanation or without a necessary corollary and that they could be in their own universe. The one thing I wanted to avoid was a problem written about by Marco Roth in n+1. There’s an essay he wrote called “The Rise of the Neuronovel.” He’s talking about the problem of modern novels and modern characters being tied to these mental illnesses and unique neurological problems and this idea that it’s these brain issues that make these characters act in a certain way. What I took from that essay was that you shouldn’t really make it be your end game. First you should go for a real character and a real world and something that exists without this simple explanation.
FP: You touched on elements of your book that don’t need to be explained. I’m thinking of the doppelgangers in particular. What’s the advantage of having things in a novel that while confounding don’t need to be explained?
AG: For one, I would say you don’t have to do as much work. [Laughs] I think that a novel that explains too much and a short story that explains too much is not trusting the reader’s experience enough. I certainly have had times that I found myself fearing that I had to make everything very clear. When the reality is, if your reader is reading because they want to have some kind of connection, then they need to be making some of the connections themselves. Every single piece of surreality that happens doesn’t need to have a footnote on it.
FP: I’ll preface this next question by saying that usually I hate these sorts of questions. And yet I’m about to ask it anyway. And I think it actually serves as a compliment to the work. Is there a “correct” way to read THREATS? Or is this question completely beside the point?
AG: In writing it, one of the big goals of the book was that any way the reader wants or needs to read it is possible; that there are literal components and there are figurative components. I personally read it as a mystery book with some funny pieces in it and a couple funny and sad characters. And the mystery is very clearly solved to me. I don’t want to spoil it or anything but it is spoilerable, which means that I feel there is a resolution of what happened to Franny and what will happen to all of them. But, with that said, when people come to me with different ideas and explanations, I really like and appreciate that. In my initial writing of the book, the goal was to have even less resolution as to what happens or what’s happening or what pieces are reality and what pieces are not reality. And I ended up having a much more traditional book by the end of it.
FP: Just a quick follow up to my awful previous question. I have to ask: Who is leaving the threats?
AG: [Laughs] I find that question to be less answerable than some others.
FP: Building such a world where some things are staunch realism, some things don’t need to be explained, and then David’s got another bag of issues, it all seems like it amounts to a big risk. Do you ever worry about alienating readers?
AG: I try not to think about readers at all. Whenever I get into that mode accidentally of thinking about, “what will a reviewer think of this” or “what will my editor and my agent think of this,” it’s never a good place to be. I try not to do that at all. It’s hard, it’s really hard. I think all of us write in some way to connect with people. You want to make a real connection with people who are reading your work and that includes people you care about and it includes editors and agents and reviewers. Moving away from that feels against the point of connecting and feeling like part of the world. But I find that it’s necessary to write something that feels real and true to me at the end of the day.
FP: How did you even find an ending, with such a crazy world to deal with, how did you settle on circling back to the beginning?
AG: A lot it is thanks to my editor. I think we got there by her asking me, “What would you say is the point of the book?” One of the major points for me is that these two people loved each other and that their love was real and love is real. That’s a big weird point to make but it’s a good point. In the old ending, the point was that nothing really matters and we’re all going to die. Which is also true and which is also a major point of the book. But in so far as the book is also about love, and is about these people and about this kind of quiet end and quiet death and all that, it suddenly felt much more real and comfortable to go for this loop back to this scene that spawned all of it. I wrote it very simply at the Flightpath Coffee House in Austin at two in the morning and the second it was done I knew it was done and I was so happy. Not every ending of every story feels that good.
FP: What are you working on now?
AG: I’m working on a novel. It’s historical fiction and I’m also putting together a short story collection.
FP: Final thoughts?
AG: Never look at any authority as any kind of authority in terms of creative work.
FP: Does that include horoscopes?
AG: That includes horoscopes. That includes my fiction. That includes classes I’m teaching. Everything.