M.S. Coe on the Identity-Blurring Twists of “The Formation of Calcium”

M.S. Coe author photo

There’s a point early on in M.S. Coe’s new novel The Formation of Calcium when it becomes clear that this is no ordinary tale of small-town anomie. Narrator Mary Ellen, a woman in her fifties who’s increasingly frustrated by her marriage, takes rather extreme measures to resolve things, and then sets out for a new life in Florida. Things do not go according to plan, and Coe’s novel gradually becomes both the story of a woman improvising her way into a new life and an off-kilter take on true crime. I’d enjoyed Coe’s previous novel quite a lot, and this new one left me further impressed by her range; I chatted with her on its genesis, its evolution, and the Florida of it all.

Your previous novel New Veronia was centered around a group of kids; the narrator of The Formation of Calcium is a grandmother in her fifties. Were you consciously looking to write characters of a very different generation with this book?

Though not a conscious choice, I am disinclined to write similar pieces. A new project feels more engaging when I switch things up and delve into a different mindset. I also have to wait and see what captures my attention. For New Veronia, my hook was a story my friend, the writer Lawrence Lenhart, told me about his horny teenaged years. For this book, it was a Florida Woman article that planted itself in my skin and kept sprouting like an ingrown hair. Sometimes writing a novel is the only way to pluck the obsession out.

Structurally, each of the chapters of The Formation of Calcium has an innocuous-looking title that Mary Ellen gives to the tapes in which she outlines her actions. I can only imagine that coming up with these was a lot of fun; was it also challenging to find the right level of innocuousness?

I definitely enjoyed creating the titles of Mary Ellen’s tapes: they were a deep-dive into what she would be thinking and feeling. A lot of them have to do with household chores—Mary Ellen worked as a cleaner—and she truly believes that the dull tape titles will keep any potential snoopers at bay. By labeling the tapes things like “How To Remove Dryer Lint,” Mary Ellen is casting a little spell of protection over the horrifying secrets that she discloses to the tape recorder.

As this novel progresses, Mary Ellen is haunted by ghosts, though it’s not entirely clear if they’re actual supernatural presences or figments of her imagination. Was navigating Mary Ellen’s reliability (or lack thereof) as a narrator a particular challenge for you?

I adore unreliable narrators, which is why I am so drawn to the first person. Unreliable narrators provide a level of irony to the story that complicates things like motive and plot. Do our unreliable narrators know when they are lying, or are they lying to themselves, as well? What inconsistencies and clues can the author provide to help the reader decipher unreliability? The format of this book—a tape-recorded diary—allows for ultimate candidness, and so creating Mary Ellen’s unreliability within that context was a challenge since it was such an essential piece of the story.

Though she never appears in person in the novel, there’s a would-be true crime podcaster who pops up a few times in The Formation of Calcium. What was the process like for you to create a not-terribly-polished podcaster? 

I credit my editors at the amazing Spurl Editions for this idea. In the original manuscript, Mary Ellen wonders what would happen if some podcaster picked up her story, but the idea went no further. In revisions, as I was creating the podcaster, I was also listening to lots of Spotify podcasts in order to improve my Spanish. I don’t know if you’ve heard the commercials, but nowadays anyone can make a podcast and launch it on Spotify—and they do. The podcaster in Formation is a bored mommy blogger who wants more, and in creating her, it was important to think about the ways her unraveling personal life would clash with her ambitions to launch a successful true-crime podcast.

There’s something (to my mind, anyway) very Highsmith-esque about this book; as elevator pitches go, “what if Tom Ripley was a middle-aged woman from upstate New York?” is a pretty great one. Do you see this book as a thriller? As a satire? Something else entirely?

I had not read the Ripley books before I wrote Formation, but I am glad to say that I’ve now read all of them. Thank you for the comparison! Tom Ripley is such a believable criminal—he doesn’t have amazing cunning or overblown luck or an army of savvy PIs to help him, he just does what he can when he’s backed into a corner. I would call Formation a pulpy confessional narrative. 

I was curious about the role of religion in The Formation of Calcium — Natalie’s very Instagram-driven displays of faith contrast somewhat with Pastor Maria’s very different handling of religion, though both are, in their own ways, Very Online. Where do you see religion and morality fitting into this novel?

Morality in this novel is highly individualized and therefore warped. For these characters, morality is something to be displayed publicly and manipulated privately. What better way to virtue signal than post about church online? Attending services is not an act of deference and has nothing to do with selflessness; it becomes a means of self-preservation, of selfishness. 

Mary Ellen reinvents herself repeatedly in the novel, taking on new identities as she does so. Did you think of her as Mary Ellen throughout, or did her identity start to blur for you as well?

The character of Mary Ellen was always Mary Ellen for me because I needed to fix her on the microscope slide in order to examine how becoming someone else would change her structure. But for Mary Ellen, her brain cells do begin to warp; she loses her identity via her self-imposed experiments. I wrote much of this novel during the pinche pandemia, when many of us were staring endlessly into our bellybuttons. During that time, I was losing bits and pieces of who I had been, and so it was a comfort to write about a woman who was casting off her past self on purpose.

Was there anything about writing The Formation of Calcium that was especially challenging for you? 

Revisions. When I’m working on a novel, I usually create a first draft quickly, within six months, and then I must bring myself to revise it. Often I put the mess into a drawer for a year or so, and then, when I finally feel itchy to remember what I’ve written, I take it out and see if it’s worth revising. If it is, then the headache starts. I spend ages coaxing the manuscript into shape. One of the hardest parts in revising Formation was finding the right voice for Mary Ellen: she uses peculiar phrases and her distinct prose is magnified because she is speaking to herself in a diary format. Not only that, but she also consciously changes her voice as she tries to fit into her new life. Outside of revisions, I was frustrated by the lack of toilet paper due to pandemic panic buying. Luckily I had plenty of discarded manuscript pages lying around.


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