Interviews

Amelia Gray

Amelia Gray is only twenty-nine, but she already has three books out: two short story collections, and now, Threats, her first novel, released in February. Threats is about a dentist named David who loses, first, his license, and then his wife, Franny. The story begins when David finds Franny mysteriously injured. Instead of calling 911, he decides to sit beside her, and they lean against each other for three days, until Franny dies. “In that way,” Gray writes, “it was like growing old together.”

The rest of the book follows David’s descent into the darkest pits of grief, with the exact circumstances surrounding Franny’s death looming overhead, out of reach not only for the reader, but for David too, who becomes mired in terrible confusion.

Then there are the threats. These are scraps of paper with threats written on them that David finds in his sugar jar, in Franny’s box of possessions from her job at the salon, and everywhere else. Between his wife’s death and the threats, David turns into something well beyond broken.

Gray has a uniquely weird quality to her writing. In her first book, AM/PM, a collection of interconnected short-short stories, she describes a series of seemingly benign events, like cleaning a couch, but she does so with this strangeness that’s not so much like drinking sour milk, but more like pouring milk into your coffee, taking a sip, suspecting something is off, and sniffing your coffee over and over, trying to figure out what the problem is.

In her next collection, Museum of the Weird, the stories get longer, and the weirdness in her writing gets labeled: one guy’s in a relationship with a piece of tilapia, one woman cuts off her own toes, and still another serves up a meal of human hair.

In Threats, she combines weirdness with a rock-solid, two-tracked plot. The result is a riveting read that forces you to stare at its pages in disbelief, gazing at the distant and foreign depths despair is capable of taking us to. But the beauty of Threats is that Gray doesn’t let the strength of her plot substitute her weirdness or her inclination towards experimentation. She finds space to insert wild whims, like body doubles at a bus stop and surreal makeovers from a team of salon workers. And she’s able to do this because her voice is so strong. The weirdness in her voice is like a layer of lacquer over whatever she chooses to describe. She could write about going to the store to buy bread and you’d think she’s exposing you to the darkest corners of a carnival hell. For instance, in Threats, she has David eat an inordinate amount of pears. And pears, in my experience, are a fairly innocuous fruit. But when Gray mentions them, you think you’re hearing about the most foul and awful discharge a tree could ever devise.

Gray and I met at a diner in Los Angeles in the middle of the afternoon. She ordered a coffee and fruit salad with cottage cheese.

In Threats, Franny is an aesthetician and David is a dentist. Why’d you pick those two professions?

I’m a marketing writer for a living, so I write a lot about careers, and aesthetician is a popular one. Dentistry, not so much, but dental assistant is popular too.

I became fascinated by both those careers for different reasons. I like the digging things out of the skin aspect of being an aesthetician, and dental work seems similar. It seemed like people like that would find each other and like each other.

I needed also for David to have a career where it would make sense for him to have enough money to live off of after he lost his license, and enough so that he could pay his mother’s legal bills, and for the house. So there’s a practical reason for dentistry. But then it just started working. They never had other jobs. Sometimes in my writing, characters will switch their jobs. But Franny and David had their jobs from the beginning.

I was actually talking to my aesthetician in Austin, and she said she’s married to a dentist and was very excited to read the novel. But I said, “Mayyyybeee you shouldn’t read the novel.”

(Laughter)

Thinking about dentists and aestheticians, those are jobs that lend themselves to visceral description. In Museum of the Weird, you have lots of visceral description too. But in your first book, AM/PM, there’s almost no physical description at all. Why is that?

A lot of the stories in Museum of the Weird came before AM/PM. But when I was writing AM/PM, I wasn’t writing it for publication. I was just writing to do an exercise: morning and night. It was almost journaling, but in character form.

And, it was a really weird time in my life. I’d graduated with an MFA, and I didn’t know what I was going to do. I was working at a fish restaurant. I was living in Austin. I was really depressed and out of it. It was not a fun time to write, so AM/PM pulled out of me at a weird time. When I’m in a good mood, I write funny, visceral stuff.

AM/PM is a series of really slight, ephemeral scenes, like a series of snapshots. When I was reading it, I got the sense that you could generate a story out of any spare thought. I’m wondering how you generate story ideas, not just in AM/PM, but in Museum of the Weird and Threats.

I learned from Denis Johnson that you should write down any thought you have, anything that sticks in your craw. That’s how I was operating. Because I have lots of boring thoughts, but whenever I have an image or idea, I try to write it down, even if it’s completely worthless.

Let me look at what I’ve written down lately…

“Don’t ever ask a man for anything.” Ooh. That’s probably not going to end up anywhere.

“Cool fact: Taylor Swift got her start as a lady Gelfling in The Dark Crystal.”

“Kissing somebody through a handkerchief.”

Do you sit down with that notebook and go through it and see what sings enough to fit into a story?

Usually I’m writing something else, without thinking about the notebook. Like, right now I’m writing about a grown man who breastfeeds on his mother. None of these thoughts here will wind up in this one, but… you never know what’ll stick.

A man who breastfeeds. Let’s talk about the weird quality in your writing. I had a few thoughts about what might be the ingredients of your writing’s weirdness. One of them is the intermingling of the grotesque with love.

I like that. There’s a band called Dawes that’s out of LA. They’re a country band I fell in love with at South By in Austin, but they’re from here. But they have this great song called “Love Is All I Am,” and one of the lyrics is love is “not kissing or holding hands.” Or, love is not all this wonderful, lovely stuff. Love is gross and desperate and ugly. I took a lot out of that.

But life is gross, with pooping and death and non-lunchtime conversation and giving birth. Some of our most beautiful moments are filthy and gross, and I think that’s important to keep in mind. I think that’s a goal of art, to remember how visceral things are.

I like to make fun of it too, how drawn I am to viscera. But I could never write a story where people were just having a lovely conversation, where everything was totally fine.

One way to describe AM/PM especially would be the absence of that type of conversation.

Yeah. If half those characters sat down and had a lovely conversation, things would’ve been solved.

Another place you see that is in Museum of the Weird in “There Will Be Sense,” when the sick guy goes home with Jeannie the waitress, but can’t get through to her. It seemed like there you were writing to the elusiveness of that breakthrough that happens between people.

I wrote that about the same time as AM/PM. That one’s one of my favorites. It felt like I said some stuff that I believe.

That story was about a friend of a friend who had that Alice-in-Wonderland syndrome, and he had to wear a magnet on his wrist that, when he’d feel these waves of feeling tall or small, he’d have to run over his heart.

How much of yourself is in your stories?

All of it. When I have a sad day or a sad month or an angry time, I write to calm down and to understand things and to feel less frustrated, and to laugh at things.

I’m writing this thing for New Directions. They’re doing this redo of Raymond Queneau’s Exercises in Style. They’re having a bunch of writers contribute, so I’m doing one about the mundane rendered as visceral.

It’s about a guy looking at the pages of a book being printed, and he’s got a cold, so he sneezes and snot is all over the place. It’s supposed to be me laughing at myself. But, I could never not laugh at myself.

But I put everything in. It’s kind of embarrassing. For a long time I couldn’t let my parents read my writing. My mom gets worried sometimes.

By what you reveal in your writing?

She doesn’t like reading sex scenes. And there’s this story about predators that I was nervous to have her read. She doesn’t like that I can think all that. But I think everyone can think that stuff.

She’s gotten over it some, though. She’s an artist herself, so it helped to put her in opposition to mothers of my boyfriends. Like, “She didn’t get it, but you get it, Mom, because you’re smart.” And my mom’s like, “That’s right. I am smart.”

Does she recognize herself when she pops up in stories?

She hasn’t really popped up in stories. My dad has sometimes. He’s a Presbyterian usher, and he’s in that story about the guy who’s in a relationship with a piece of tilapia.

There are little elements of Mom that I recognize, but I don’t know if she recognizes herself. I try not to upset people with my writing.

You grew up in Arizona?

Yeah. And then I went to Texas for the MFA, stayed there for a while, and then I came out to California.

What brought you to LA?

I love traffic.

(Laughter)

Austin has the “Keep Austin Weird” thing, but really a very, after-school, play-date, kid-friendly weird. Which is great. I want to raise kids there sometime.

But it’s not truly weird.

LA is loaded-dead-guy-in-your-car weird, severed-bloody-head weird.

Do you think weirdness is a function of our times? Like, is weirdness especially relevant now? I’m thinking of those articles that came out about loneliness and about how we have no feelings anymore. And I’m wondering if weirdness has come to replace good old-fashioned sadness. Or, if it’s a corollary to sadness.

That’s a good question. I’d have to think about that one. You sat on that one for a minute, didn’t you?

(Laughter)

I do think a function of the internet is how easily we can shape ourselves and present ourselves, and how controlled an environment the internet is, and how a lot of people who are popular on the internet are weirdos in real life. I feel like I’m sort of one of those people.

So, when you take the very crafted, very purposeful internet life and contrast it with real life, which is getting too drunk and making an ass out of yourself, or going to the gym and shitting your pants or whatever, or having your fly down, or saying the wrong thing to a girl, or making a racist joke… All that is odd. There’re oddities that you can get rid of on the internet. If you don’t want to be an oddling on the internet, you don’t gotta be.

Or, if you have a fetish for, like, crystal skulls, there are eight hundred people on the internet that’ll welcome you and want to talk about that.

So socializing online makes it so that you can avoid your weirdness in real life, but indulge it with all the other skull lovers.

I think everybody is weird. It’s less of a special thing and more of a pervasive thing. It’s more about how much you see it and are comfortable with it. I know people who hate the term, and are offended by it, because they don’t want to be weird. They’re good employees or they’re married and they’re parents and they don’t want to be weird parents. They want to be good parents.

Do you think of yourself as an experimental writer?

Yeah. But I think that every writer is an experimental writer.

Do you see a conflict between writing experimentally and writing to entertain?

I find experimental writing to be entertaining.

But. Should writing be engaging? Sure. Maybe entertaining isn’t the word I would use. Entertaining suggests, like, an individual watching a performance, without participating.

But good writing is engaging, and makes you feel empathy or sympathy—it makes you feel there. And I think all writing should do that.

There’s a lot of very Oulipo-based experimenting that’s not designed to be emotionally engaging. Maybe it’s designed to be overwhelming. I’ve never had a lot of truck with that stuff, but Ben Marcus writes very engaging experimental writing.

There’s an argument that Samuel Delany made. He was an experimental writer until the AIDS crisis hit, and then, as a gay man living in San Francisco, he realized he couldn’t fuck around anymore. So, he started writing realism. Like, he felt that there was no place for social change in experimental writing. This is something I ultimately dismiss, but only with the caveat that I’ve never experienced the AIDS crisis.

I started writing a story about immigration in Tucson, and that’s a subject that’s really on my mind and in my heart, and that was not an experimental piece at all.

So, with writing a piece with a social change aspect, it’s hard to fit experimentation in?

It doesn’t feel very playful when you’re talking about someone’s life and death in reality. It feels flippant to be experimental. I would rather write an essay.

I just think of images I’ve seen, bodies in the county morgue—I can’t fuck around with that.

Or, I guess I’d really have to think about it. If I could write it experimentally, in a way that would engage more people than writing it in a realist way, then I would try my best. But I can’t do that yet. I’m too young.

How old are you?

Twenty-nine.

Twenty-nine? Holy fuck.

Holy fuck.

I’m thirty. You’re winning.

We’re all winning. And losing.

(Laughter)

Did you get your MFA right after college?

Yeah.

Where’d you go to undergrad?

Arizona State.

An innovative university.

I just flew from Austin to Burbank and had a stop in Phoenix, so there were a lot of bros from Arizona State on the plane, on their way to Phoenix. And I swear there was this girl standing in front of me on the jetway, and there were these bros behind me, and I heard one say, “Target acquired.” And I was like, “You fuckin bros. I hate you guys.”

I see that here in Runyon Canyon. Have you been there?

I haven’t, for that reason.

It’s where LA puts itself on display.

That’s so terrible. I mean, take any gym in this damn town. I go to the 24 Hour Fitness on Sunset and Vine, and when TMZ is on, everybody is watching, like, both the men and the women. It’s really wild. Usually, in Austin at the gym, there’re sports and the news and Law & Order and a cooking show. But in LA, it’s all TMZ.

Going back to that idea I mentioned with respect to AM/PM, this idea that you could write a story about anything, like, a coffee pot you happen to see, Threats feels like a really deliberate effort to write about grief.

There’s a story I wrote called “The Vanished” that made it into Museum of the Weird about a woman whose husband vanishes, and then she starts eating everything left behind in the house. That’s kind of the original Threats. I wrote it right before I started the novel.

But the grief… A relationship was ending, another one was false-starting, and I was thinking a lot about what it means to lose somebody. Because I’ve experienced loss on a small level—break-ups, having a cat die—but I’ve been really lucky in the sense that I’ve never been in a lifelong relationship and had that person die, because that’s just horrifying. Just saying it now makes the feeling go out of my legs. So knowing that I felt that way about something made me know that I needed to write about it. Not even about someone not being there, but the act of losing them, or fearing you’ve lost them, or thinking maybe you haven’t lost them, and complications like that.

The book had its roots in reality, but it had very shallow roots in reality. I mean, it’s about my parents and my grandparents, because both my parents and my grandparents never divorced. They were all in lifelong relationships, which just would make losing someone worse, it seems.

You have in Threats two big plotlines. There’s what happened to Franny, and there’s where these threats on paper are coming from. What came first? Or did they happen at the same time?

I wrote the threats separately, as a performance piece, without intending to write a novel at all. And then I had this vision of a woman at the bottom of the stairs maybe a week or two later. So I wrote that vision, and then I started slowly building it.

Meanwhile, I was writing more threats, and I had this email conversation in, I think, August of 2009, and I said, “I’m updating threats.txt.” And my friend said, “That’s a novel.” And right when he said that, I thought, “Maybe it would be interesting if in this world, with this weird house, with the woman at the bottom of the stairs, David started to find threats. Who would put those there?” So that’s how I started.

The threats were often really funny, especially the one that has David consider the possibility of walking into a room to find everyone talking about him. This threat comes towards the end of a really serious novel, with Franny who’s died under mysterious circumstances, and David who’s broken in half, and all of a sudden, there’s this threat that somebody’s talking about him?

The way I did it, I had that txt file, and I didn’t really ever add to it, and when it came time to have a threat, I would open it and pick one at random, and work through it as a writer the way David did as a character.

One thing I really hate about, say, people writing their dreams, is that they’re super symbolic, and every piece is in there for a really specific reason. You’re supposed to, you know, draw all this meaning out of it. But I wanted to have a meaningless piece, and have David try to deal with that.

So you had the threats written independently of the story, and you brought them out at random?

Yeah.

And you just put them in there?

I think I closed my eyes and pointed once or twice.

It never occurred to me that you’d done that.

I wanted them to be true-random—as if they could’ve come from somebody else.

I could tell you were having fun with the threats.

I try, I try. I wanted to write a mystery novel that didn’t take itself too damn seriously.

Being about grief, Threats has a difficult plot to fit humor into.

I snuck it in when I could. I’ve always been a dark writer, though, so the humor in my writing always feels a little off. I’ve been called a “lady humorist,” so there’s that. But I don’t know what I am.

I was really letting the dark flag fly for Threats, though. It felt very satisfying. Like, my best writing day was the baby scene, when the baby’s in the pool. That just felt so good. One draft, it’s all out, I wrote it how it is, very little editing, and that’s probably one of the darker scenes.

Another really good writing day was David thinking about the tooth worms, and then operating on the child.

That was an extremely tough one.

It ruled! It was so fun to write. Suddenly it was like, there’s this woman, and this man, and a child, and I was like, “Oh yeah! That’s how he lost his license! I get it.”

When you decided David would lose his license, you didn’t know why?

No.

So you were waiting for an idea grotesque enough to justify David’s loss of his dentist’s license?

It had to be bad. He’s such a patient man, and I see him as a very precise man. And I was like, “But god, there’s something weird about him. There’s something off. What is it? Oh? OhhhThere it is.”

I don’t know how I stumbled on that. But I was looking up cavities, and the history of cavities, and what people originally thought about cavities, because surely people didn’t always know what they were. And then I found this carving of an ivory tooth with, inside it, a carving of a worm in hell—the tooth worm is a demon. And I was like, “Oh yeah. That’s David.”

Tom Dibblee is Trop’s editor. His fiction has appeared in Glimmer Train and his nonfiction has appeared in Pacific Standard, the Los Angeles Review of Books, and the Point. He lives in Los Angeles.