(After reading one of Laurie Foos’s surreal comic novels, after throwing away the box of Kleenex used to wipe away the tears of laughter, a reader tries to visualize what in God’s name could this author possibly be like. Two images come immediately to mind:
1. A deranged bag lady with leaves sticking in her hair and a thick, patch-quilt overcoat pushing a shopping cart filled with half-scrawled notes for her next book through urban alleys.
2. A severe, bespectacled intellectual clad in black clothing and smoking European cigarettes through an ivory holder like muttering with the voices in her head.
Neither, however, is the real Laurie Foos. In person, Laurie comes across as engaging, funny, surprisingly patient – and completely normal. Laurie is the author of the novels “Before Elvis There Was Nothing,” “Bingo Under the Crucifix,” “Twinship,” “Portrait of the Walrus by a Young Artist,” and “Ex Utero.” She teaches in the low residency MFA program at Lesley University and lives on Long Island with her husband and two children. What’s going on here? DaRK PaRTY decided to find out.)
DaRK PaRTY: For those DaRK PaRTY readers who have not read one of your novels -- can you give them a brief description of your style?
Laurie: This is always a hard question to answer. When people ask me what kind of novels I write, I usually say, "absurd comedies," and I guess I identify myself with the absurdists and surrealists--though, quite honestly, I think that the overriding premises of my books are surreal but that mostly, they are grounded in a world we recognize--or at least one that I do.
DP: Your first novel "Ex Utero" which is the story of poor Rita who loses her uterus at the mall. Can you give us a peek into your creative process? How did "Ex Utero" happen?
Laurie: In a way that I'm sure will never happen again. Truly!
The idea for "Ex Utero" came to me while I was lying in bed (hence that first line, I'm sure), and thank the gods I had the sense enough to get out of bed and get myself a notebook, despite the fact that I am forever telling my students to keep one at their bedsides. If I hadn't, I'm not sure--maybe the idea would have been gone. In any case, I had the idea for the three women--I think there were four scribbled on the notebook, but one did not fit in--and the novel, from that point on, evolved from the central metaphor.
I believe in writing a first draft, in getting to the end, and only then going back to revise. With "Ex Utero," the whole novel took about nine months to write (which sounds campy, I know) and came out almost entirely as it went to print. This has not--and I suspect, will not, ever happen again. There were some revisions, but I recall them being pretty minor, not at all like the more major overhauling I've done in subsequent novels.
It's also possible that I've gotten tougher and have had stricter standards with each book, and I know that like most writers, I'm never entirely satisfied and always wish there were things I'd done differently. Of course I never thought the book would see the light of day, and so perhaps I was bolder in that first novel than I've been since. It was only after I'd finished the novel that I realized that I was writing about my own feelings of ambivalence about motherhood--and in some ways, at the people who were asking me, "When do you plan to have kids?" and more intrusively, "Are you trying?" Now I have two kids and try never to ask anyone who doesn't have children that question.
DP: I love your novel "Bingo Under the Crucifix" because I could so relate to the concept of a man turning back into a baby (even if his head remains adult). I don't know what that says about me -- but which one of your books is your favorite and why?
Laurie: I love a man who can admit he relates to that premise. Thank you!
Each book has come out of a certain time in my life and has been born out of the obsessions I've been occupied by at various times in my life, and so they are all special for me for that reason. And each one has allowed me to write the next book. I believe Philip Roth said that each book acts like a bulldozer, clearing the way for the next, and I understand that. But if I had to pick a favorite--and you're asking me to, so I will--it would have to be "Portrait of the Walrus by a Young Artist." There is nothing real or remotely close to my life in the book, but it is in many ways the book that is closest to me--or to who I was at that point. I dug deeply with that book, and I believe it allowed me to write the others.
DP: Your new novel "Before Elvis There was Nothing" may be your wackiest yet. Two sisters are abandoned by their parents who go off looking for Elvis on the 10th anniversary of his death. Are you an Elvis fan and why did you choose Elvis as the story's epicenter?
Laurie: Yes, I am a huge Elvis fan. HUGE. Not ashamed to admit it, either:). I love Elvis in all his incarnations--young and promising, even bloated and near death--and I am fascinated by the death culture and mythology surrounding Elvis. I've been to Graceland three times and have a ton of Elvis memorabilia (though I did pack most of it away when we moved to this new house). My mother was/is a huge fan, and so I grew up with Elvis.
It's always intrigued me, too, that despite all the books, all the films, all the tell-alls, no one has ever quite gotten to the core of why he threw it all away--and of course no one ever will. It's what keeps us coming back. He's the American Dream and its deterioration, its facade, all in one. He embodies both hope and hopelessness, beauty and decay, promise and despair. I could go on and on.
I didn't want to write about Elvis, though, and I naturally worried what I might possibly add to the list of Elvis literature, so I resisted for quite some time, though I knew that eventually he'd win out. When I began the novel, he appeared--in reference to the parents--and I thought to myself, "All right, he wants to be in this book, it seems, so I'll let him, at least for awhile," and he just stayed and seemed to fit. Elvis seemed to personify all the questions of identity that I wanted to explore. So much has been written about him, much of it badly, though, and so I did fight him off as best I could. But you can't win against the King, I've found.
DP: No offense is meant by this question -- but in person you're such a nice, normal woman. Yet you write these radical, surreal novels that completely impale modern society. Are you a closet revolutionary?
Laurie: People always say that to me: "But you seem so normal!" I like to think that I am, but of course, what or who is normal anymore? I live a nice, quiet life with my husband and our two babies. I skewer suburbia--and yet I live in it, always have, probably always will. It seems ambivalence is a great motivator for me. I don't know that I'm a revolutionary, by any means, but I will say that there are fundamental aspects of our society that I simply don't understand, and moreover, I don't understand why we all buy into them and perpetuate them. I suppose, in some way, I'm rallying against them in my work, or at the very least, trying to have a voice.
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Labels: 5 Questions, Laurie Foos, literature, Writing