Post Road Magazine #8

Interview: Elizabeth Searle -Sherry Ellis

Elizabeth Searle is the author of Celebrities in Disgrace, a finalist for the Paterson Fiction Prize; A Four Sided Bed, nominated for an American Library Association Award; and a short story collection, My Body to You, which won the Iowa Short Fiction Award. Her short stories have appeared in Ploughshares, Michigan Quarterly, Agni, Kenyon Review, and Redbook. She teaches writing at the Stonecoast M.F.A. program and at Emerson College.

SHERRY ELLIS: In Celebrities in Disgrace, many of the female characters are preoccupied with fame and a hunger for attention—being seen and being watched. What are the challenges of writing about this theme?

ELIZABETH SEARLE: Ambition and women is something I had not written about in any realistic, sympathetic, in-depth way before, and it's easy to satirize. One reason for the theme of Celebrities in Disgrace is what I have observed to be the obsessive need for attention. I taught special education for a while and noticed that this is the common denominator of all people. The phrase is used, “they're trying to get attention,” and it seems that so often the motives of people center on the need for attention. I'm writing a novel now, in which the siblings struggle for notice. I think the challenges are that it is one of those things that people don't want to talk about, and also portraying the characters so they are somewhat sympathetic.

I have a phrase in my mind, “the witch of ambition,” and I do think there is this sort of dark force inside of people and any of those dark forces are hard to write about but they're the ones you want to write about. It seems like such a driving force of our time. Celebrities in Disgrace is a book where I started with the title, it came to me during the time of Nancy and Tanya. It is hard to make the characters sympathetic when they are that ambitious, and it is hard to get past that and not make them shallow caricatures.

Q:“Celebrities in Disgrace” is both the title of your book and your novella. In the novella, a struggling actress, who is elated to believe that her career is about to take off, becomes vulnerable and “the accused.” How did you juxtapose the events in this novella for maximum impact?

A: Oh, that novella was so much fun to write; it was the most fun writing experience I've ever had. During the era of Nancy and Tanya, I was obsessed by it. It was this “girl thing,” the pretty skirts, and I remember there was a quote in the Boston Globe that got me thinking about it that I use in the novella: “America's full of Tonyas who want to be Nancys.”

During the scandal my friends would clip articles and send them to me. I didn't know what I was going to do with them; I just knew I wanted a lot of information. That's what always happens; you have one thing you're thinking about and then another totally different thing happens and you band them together and something happens. I had the title in my mind even before the “Nancy/Tonya thing,” and it all connected with Lowell, Massachusetts. I had some connection with people doing repertory theater there, and I had done some theater in high school and at Arizona State where I went to college, and I wanted to write about it. Then I heard that while the “Nancy/Tonya thing” was still happening, producers were already casting a movie, even before it resolved itself. That stuck in my mind and that triggered the novella. I thought “what if” I wanted to write about a struggling actress and wondered how could I make it happen during the week of the scandal.

Q: The novella “Celebrities in Disgrace” begins, “He stapled his face over hers. In the subzero dawn of Skate-Off Day—7 A.M.. in Lowell, 1 P.M. in Lillehammer—the staples shot back at him, the kiosk's corkboard as ungiving as ice.” Through this image the reader can almost feel the cold, can almost feel the staples. Do you frequently use metaphor to evoke a physical response on the part of the reader?

A: Sense memories are important, I think; you can convince the reader of almost anything if you connect it to their sense memories and I always think in terms of how the reader is feeling. I always try to get physical immediately, to evoke physical sensations, to be very concrete and very sensual. I feel things when I'm reading, so that's very important to me.

I used to read for the blind and I used hearing the typing machines in a story, printing the Braille, it's a terrifying sound; the whole story is in that repeated rhythm. I always try to put sounds in my stories.

Q: In the poem “The Road Not Taken” Robert Frost wrote, “Two roads diverged in a yellow wood/And sorry I could not travel both . . .” Your short story “101” is about a young woman who contemplates dramatic changes in her life as she approaches an intersection. “I approached an intersection, poised my foot over my brake, thinking the way my dad had taught me, Stop, Stop, Stop, then as the light stayed yellow and I floored the gas, Go no matter what.” Do you frequently use metaphor to evoke an emotional response?

A: Oh, yes, definitely. I think it's very hard to write about emotions in the abstract. I'm always telling my students to find some physical thing that their characters can be doing. I can remember having a breakthrough with my editor at Graywolf, when she was trying to get me to show emotions. I had just been abstractly describing it, and we figured out that a character was mad at her husband—he was gone, and she decided she was going to sleep on the couch; she tried to unfold the bed and then she couldn't, she started hitting it, and then she tried to fold it back up but she couldn't. That was so much better than what I had written before.

I use the theme of the road diverging often. In my novel I have girl “A” and girl “B.” I love doubles in fiction, two characters that are similar but follow their diverging paths. And in this story, “101,” the use of the intersection seemed to be a good way to say the character is plunging forward no matter what.

Q: In The Joy of Writing Sex, Elizabeth Benedict states, “A well-written sex scene engages us on many levels: erotic, aesthetic, psychological, metaphorical, even philosophical.” Do you agree with these criteria?

A: I agree with it completely. I used Benedict's book for my master's level seminar at Stonecoast, called The Erotic Pen. So-called erotic writing does not work for me if it is not connected to real characters and does not contain emotional content.

I'm in the early stages of trying to put together an anthology, and one possible slant we might take is to call it “Not Erotica.” The word “erotica” seems to be used to describe work that is written just to put a sex scene together, that isn't connected to the larger work.

Q: “101” ends with the primary character holding an ostrich egg shard as she drives back to Phoenix. The next story in the collection, Celebrities In Disgrace, “Celebration,” begins with the sentence, “Cracking an egg for her husband's birthday cake, Sarah spread her thumb and index finger so the white stretched.” In “Round Objects” from your collection My Body to You, you write, “She lies still as an egg. A heavy egg hidden in a hole.” As a writer how do you find symbols for your characters or do the symbols become apparent to you from the stories themselves?

A: I love eggs and I'm fascinated by visceral and primal things, and I'm always putting them in my stories. It seems that you don't choose the symbols; they just keep coming up over and over again. I believe that the things that stick out in your mind and you're not sure why, are the perfect fiction material. There are often babies, missing babies, and things having to do with the female body in my work; my story “White Eggplant” is another example.

I give an exercise to my students to help them free-associate about objects or animals in their stories that they think are important or charged. I always use as an example something that was really helpful to me in writing the short story, “My Body to You”—free-associating about the whippet. I knew I needed a dog in this story, but at first I didn't know why I made it a whippet. I thought, okay, the whippet has a greyhound shape, it's like a woman's body, but it's all hard, it's not at all soft. And just thinking that—suddenly the whippet made sense to me, and I thought—this is why I have the description on the subway where everyone's flesh is jiggling—the character hates that and she's sort of starving herself. I also free-associated about a friend, whose sister was “going berserk,” who called and came over to our house, and when she got in her car the only thing she grabbed was her dog. That became a big scene in “My Body to You,” when the character escapes from her house and takes only the dog with her. The other thing I got out of thinking about the whippet was my last line, where the character is looking at the bodies of the airplanes, that are so sleek, and she thinks that they are like whippets waiting to run—and she is about to take off too; it makes her feel for a minute that flying is a perfectly natural act.

Q: You said about A Four Sided Bed: “My novel was also inspired by the singer k.d. lang, who says that she sets out to 'seduce' her whole audience.” When you wrote this novel how did you attempt to achieve this goal?

A: Oh, I had that very specifically in mind. I was fascinated by k.d. lang during the writing of this book and she was such an inspiration. In A Four Sided Bed there are three-person love scenes, there's a homo-erotic element, there's a hetero-erotic element, there's sort of something for everything. I thought there was a chance to write sex scenes that could turn on practically anyone, hook them in. And so you set yourself a challenge that is really interesting to you. I saw k.d. lang as a lesbian performer who was very welcoming, not only singing to “her” group. In other ways I felt very nervous, treading on this territory, but I loved having a challenge in writing the sex scenes. Yes, that was a real overt goal of mine.

Q: Are there things that you would be afraid of writing about?

A: My husband sometimes quotes a line from the movie Tootsie where Dustin Hoffman is thinking of something awful or shocking he can do on camera to get out of his soap opera and someone says to him, “I can't think of anything sick and disgusting you haven't done already.”

I haven't tackled the theme of violence too extensively, although there is a scene of violence in my new book, and I don't do strictly autobiographical material, as I would be afraid of hurting people too much. I do take a lot of autobiographical material and use it as a springboard.

Q: How does your process vary in writing a story or a novel?

A: It's a whole different thing. For me a novel involves thinking about a story for a couple of years before actually writing it. I take characters and try them out. And then there is a whole first draft, and rewriting, which I have to do a lot of, because I tend to write dense and long. I cut things down an incredible amount, so it is just such a huge undertaking, whereas with short stories everything is reduced. I might think of it for months in advance, and work on it for months, although if you added it all together it might be years that I've worked on the same story. I take something like a big six-month run at it, and then time passes and I look at it again. Short stories are more manageable. They're fun in that you can know a few important things about your character and have a story, whereas in a novel you have to do so much more character work. A novel is a long, long trance; it takes over your whole life. You have to push though and keep the threads going. Short stories are so instinctive; it's more like putting a poem together; in some ways, I don't like them ending so soon. A novella is a fun mix of the two. You can get immersed but it's not so unyielding.

Q: You use the title “The Young and the Rest of Us” both for a short story in Celebrities in Disgrace and as the title for a chapter in A Four Sided Bed. How difficult is it to return to familiar territory and yet change the meaning of the material?

A: The Young and the Restless was so much a part of my childhood. I could not do anything without that show. I hate typing, and for the past twenty years I have taped it and then listened to it while I transcribe my longhand to typed form. Maybe I'm fooling myself, but as an otherwise “literary writer,” I believe that I have learned a lot from that show about plot. I picture it like a stove, something simmering here, different plots, and I imagine which one was on the front burner, the back burner, on boil, which is a helpful technique when you're writing a novel and you are trying to develop different plots and have them converge. In each scene, The Young and the Restless puts in a hook, and the rhythms of the plot get into your brain.

Q: For the past three years you have served as mistress of ceremonies at a Valentine's Day eve festivity in Boston, where writers read their work, “The Erotic Pen: Passion, Eros and Naked Lust,” hosted by PEN/New England. How did you conceive of this literary celebration and how has it been received?

A: I came up with the idea of this event as a board member of PEN/New England; serving on this board is such an honor and a privilege. I wondered what would be the dream event that I would want to see, and I love high- quality writing about sex. We got Jayne Anne Phillips and Maria Flook, our first year, who are literally two of my favorite writers—and I read that first time too, a loss of virginity piece, and Andre Dubus III for the second year. It is a literary event but it also has this fun, sexy element that people love and people who don't ordinarily go to readings can enjoy.

Q: Carl Jung said “the meeting of two personalities is like the contact of two chemical substances, if there is any reaction, both are transformed.” How does the interaction between characters in your stories and novel result in transformation?

A: I always think in terms of ramming two characters together and seeing what happens. I think what helped me with my novel A Four Sided Bed, and what my editor at Graywolf showed me, is that there had to be a spark of transformation for Alice, the wife character, what happens to her; I already had an understanding of what happened when J.J., Kin and Bird came together. I always seem to have two female characters; I have two sisters in the novel I'm working on now, and girl “A” and girl “B” in A Four Sided Bed. I like to have characters come up to each other and come to know each other in different ways.

Q: What advice do you have for new writers?

A: The standard: read, read and read! If you don't find yourself to be someone who loves to read, and to be excited by what you read, you might be barking up the wrong tree for a form of expression. You have to enjoy the process itself. Of course we know that the publishing life is very difficult; writing has to be satisfying in itself. I would advise new writers to seek out workshops. You have to have other people looking at your work to move forward. When I was a theater major I remember a teacher saying, if there is something else you guys can do, do it. This is only for you if you can't live without it, and I thought about acting, and wondered, whereas I did feel this way about writing—that I couldn't not do it. Writing can be very satisfying, if you are a serious reader, to explore it, give it a serious shot. It is somewhat like a religion; it can give you tremendous spiritual satisfaction.

Q: Which writers have most influenced your work?

A: Virginia Woolf, I was really struck by her in college; Them by Joyce Carol Oates when I was a teenager, I cannot imagine not having read her; Alice Munro; James Salter, who by coincidence wound up being the judge of the Iowa competition; Don Delillo; David Foster Wallace, who I think is very hilarious; Rick Moody; so many contemporary writers: Mary Gaitskill; Maria Flook; there are really sensual female writers, they are my favorite kind of writers.

Q: What are some of the common problems you find in your students' work?

A: I agree with something David Huddle said in his book The Writing Habit: in fact, I'm doing my seminar at Stonecoast this semester based on seventy-seven autobiographical questions he gives his students, that are designed to elicit concrete memories. He says that sometimes students work is so unconnected to their real lives that they are not invested in it—there's a kind of slinging things around and shooting people left and right. Huddle says that they are writing from their false selves. You have to find a natural voice for yourself. Huddle suggests that when you help students start with the real material from their lives, that they care about it more. Often when people start writing they get stilted, or self-conscious. It is hard to find a way to tell a story in a voice that is natural to you.

Q: In a recent Poets and Writers article in which Jeffrey Skinner discussed revision, he said, “writing is revision and yet each time I suggest revisions to a student or a friend, each time I face what remains to be done in my own writing, I feel the specter of resistance rising anew.” Do you resist the process of revision?

A: I don't resist it anymore. I did when I was younger, which I regret; I could have done so much better. I agree with something Janet Burroway said, that revision is “more dreaded than dreadful.” Now I see that I know how to get my prose under control, it tends to be very dense at first, the drafts I would not show to anyone but my husband, you have to hack through them with a knife practically; I actually like doing revision. I boiled the 500 pages that I had for A Four Sided Bed down to 300, not cutting a single whole scene, just taking words out. It takes a long time to get a sense of how to edit yourself. Students who really balk at it and refuse to do revision won't reach a publishable level; the ones that are willing to give in, go over and over it again, that's what it takes.

Q: E.M. Forster said, “Some reviews give pain. That is regrettable, but no author has the right to whine. He invited publicity and he must take the publicity that comes along.” When you read reviews of your work, how do you cope with negativity?

A: I agree about not having the right to whine. Especially in this age, you are so lucky to be published. I think it is a privilege to have these problems. But at the same time I think that every review I've read takes a year off my life. To have that helpless feeling of knowing that this is the way it is going to be presented to the world. But even the bad reviews I've gotten have had good things in them. It's a very emotional experience to have people react to your work in print. Of course it can hurt, but sometimes you look back at it later and see that there's some truth in it.

Q: What are you working on now?

A: A novel about an aspiring actress who half-accidentally lost her virginity on camera, which comes back to haunt her in different ways. The political family that she has come from has given her competitive drive. Something violent is triggered by an autistic character who is obsessed with John Hinkley, Jr., almost an assassination attempt. I've just got to figure it out •

Sherry Ellis coaches and teaches creative writing. Her interviews with Jill McCorkle and Lise Haines can be read in the online edition of AGNI Magazine. Her interview with Paul Lisicky is published in Provincetown Arts 2003. She is at work on a novel.

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