Live Springs and Popsicles: A Between Books Conversation with Amelia Gray

The first story by Amelia Gray that I read was “Babies.” The first sentence of that story, if you recall, is this: “One morning, I woke to discover I had given birth overnight.” My first impression was healthy skepticism. How long, I thought, could this go on? I scrolled down the page to confirm that the story was shorter than most. It was. I kept reading, knowing I didn’t have much to suffer if it was bad. The second sentence of that story is this: “It was troubling to realize because I had felt no pain as I slept, did not remember the birth, and in fact had not even known I was pregnant.” I laughed; “it was troubling to realize”! She did not remember? The third sentence comes after that, as it usually does, and the story unraveled in a fluid but strange rhythm, and meanwhile I stopped counting sentences, I read the story, reread it, then read it a third time. And then I read more Amelia Gray stories online until I got her books, which I devoured.

Gray’s first novel, THREATS, is similarly compelling but clearly a departure from her short fiction. It tells a story of a husband’s grief, how it impedes lucidity and all understanding of the mystery of his wife’s death. Earlier this year, the book came out to great success (we reviewed it here). Now that the book tour is over, we wanted to check in with her, see what’s next. I called her on a snowy day in New York, a rainy day in Los Angeles, and she told me after some missteps with our phone connection that her cat might talk throughout the interview. (He did.) We discussed writing, odd jobs, cities, California, and what she’s working on next.

You’re a marketing writer during the day, right?
I was! I got laid off.

Oh my gosh, I’m so sorry.
It’s okay. These days, right now, I’m making a website for an acupuncturist, bartering for acupuncture services.

That can’t be the weirdest career you’ve been associated with though.
Not the weirdest. I think weirder is medical testing, which I haven’t gotten into lately.

You mean you were writing marketing copy for medical testing?
No, I was a guinea pig for medical testing.

What were you being tested for?
It was a hernia medication. I didn’t have a hernia at the time, they were testing how long the medication was actually in your blood stream based on different sizes of coating they were using. It required an overnight stay and a bunch of blood drawn, and they paid me, I think, 800 dollars.

Did you just need the cash, or was it something you were curious about for a story?
I did write a story about it, when I was…gosh, I must have been about 23, so kind of a crummy story came out of it, and it doesn’t appear anywhere but my hard drive. Yeah, I was curious about it, and I definitely needed the money.

This was while you were doing your MFA?
Yeah, it was about year 2, I think.

Did you write the story and have it workshopped?
It was workshopped, and it went over pretty well.  It was less reported and more about a couple who meets in the medical testing place. I think I remember ripping off One Flew Over the Cuckoo’s Nest in some way. It was real bad.

Sorry, hold on, I have a cat too, and mine is less…controllable.
Yeah, mine are about to fight.

You have two? What are their names?
One is named Hopper, and one is named Turkish.

Did you come up with those names, or are they rescues and you just had to stick with what they were called?
Hopper was rescued, and at the vet he was called Brutus because he was so terrible to everyone. But he also has three legs, so I had to end up calling him Hopper. Yeah, that’s life here! It’s raining, it’s cold, the cats are crying, and I’m working on a short story for some reason.

It’s raining in Southern California? That’s impossible.
It is! It’s maybe the fourth day all year that it’s rained, and it’s been kind of drizzling and miserable.

You like living in LA, right?
I like it. I’m from the desert, I’m from Arizona, so no rain and hot temperatures are my happy place. It’s really miserable out there though, nobody knows how to drive, everyone is just kind of slowly crashing into one another.

What neighborhood do you live in?
I’m in Little Armenia. It is home to one of the smaller gangs in the US, Armenian Power. They mostly leave me alone.

Hospitable. Did you find any of your book junket enjoyable?
I did! But I like travel, and I like talking to people. I mean, I got bronchitis halfway through, and that was truly miserable. But I find that half of the reason that I write, the other half being that I can’t stop, but half of it is to connect with people in some way. And the internet is great for that, but I really like going and talking to people about books, my book, other books, people’s stories, what they’re working on. I don’t know, it makes me happy.

Are you going to be working on another novel anytime soon? The novel was such a departure from your normal form, but it seemed natural when I read it. I’m not sure if you’re working on a second one or not.
What I usually do is sit down and say, now I’m going to write a piece that is as much of the piece as I can stand it to be, if that makes sense. I mean, if I’m writing a story about a woman who crawls into a ventilation duct out of a sexual fetish, then I want that to be the most complete story of that woman that I can make it. And so usually when I sit down, I’m like, okay, this is going to be a novel-length work. That’s my goal, even if 95% of the time it ends up not being that long. I sit and want to give it as much space as I can. So the thing I’m working on right now did start as a novel and was about twice as long. I cut it significantly to where it is now, and I’m going to cut some more. I think it’ll end up being a healthy-sized short story.

Does healthy mean a certain number of pages?
This one might end up being about 4000 words. Which would be quite long for me for a short story, but there’s so much to it, and I’m really enjoying it so far, especially now that I know it’s a short story and not a novel.

Does that make you relax?
Yeah, it does. I mean, with THREATS…I’ve tried to write maybe three or four novels before that, and they all tapered off, but THREATS kept plugging along. And there were more characters, more to explore, and more to look at, and with this, I felt the same way when it started, and then it just kind of ebbed off. And then I got very anxious. I’ve been working on it for about six months, but only recently have I decided that I wanted to see what it would look like if it were shorter, if I just looked at it from this one character’s point of view, if I took out the chapters and condensed and backloaded and frontloaded, and once I started doing all that stuff, I got remarkably happier with how it was going. Yeah, I’m feeling better about it.

Six months—is that a normal amount of time for you to be working on one story? Do you usually have stories going concurrently?
Six months is getting a bit long, but usually, I mean, my longest stories have been 2000, 2500 words, and they were originally short stories. A lot of the failed novels have fallen by the wayside, but this one has transformed instead. No, six months is long. For a draft, anyway. I would put it at normal in terms of start to end, editing, going back and forth, and trying different things. It might end up being ten months or a year for this one.

How long did it take you to write THREATS?
It took me two years. Yeah, working fast.

Oh, I don’t know, that seems kind of normal for novels. You have your people who take 20 years to write a novel, you have your people who take 2. That range.
It felt fast, I guess. I would really like to spend a solid five or seven years making something really insane and good. I’m waiting for the book that will allow me to do that.

Why do you think that sounds so appealing?
Oh, it’s really fun to get into the middle of it. I had it with THREATS. To wake up and be excited about what’s going to happen, what’s going to come out about the character, what is going to happen in the language. Concerns about how to do point of view, or which tense to choose, or how to begin it or how to end it just fall by the wayside, and you’re just in the story, and it feels like the most pure story-writing when you’re really in the zone there. It was good. I miss that.

What was the last book you read? Or what are you reading right now?
I am reading Big Breasts and Wide Hips by Mo Yan. It’s really funny and good. I also am reading American Dream Machine by Matthew Specktor, which is really good.

Do you like doing readings?
I do! Yeah, I chew the scenery. The guy I’m dating now was joking and saying that I’m an actress, that I share all the qualities in an actress, which I think is mean.

Yeah, what does that mean?
I don’t know! I think it means that I’m very self-centered.

Well, let’s jump to the worst part of that.
Yeah, exactly. Another trait of the creative class is to assume the worst.

What’s the weirdest thing you’ve found in Los Angeles while you’ve been living there?
Like the weirdest place I’ve physically found, or the weirdest thing I have learned or experienced?

Both are good!
Okay, one thing that I have learned is that I’m a very aggressive driver. I was a little concerned that I would become shy on the road, but I’ve gotten horrifying as a driver. Very effective, I think. Oh, I found that people here are very nice, outside of the driving. Everyone is happy, and people are generally willing to help you and talk to you and be encouraging. I’m talking about career stuff, but I’m also talking about the dude who ran my smog check. He was super pumped about life.

Wait, that’s a weird thing? I’m not following.
Well, I’m kind of a small town girl, a small city girl at heart, and I had this trepidation about Los Angeles that extends to New York and Chicago, that people were mean and mad, but in LA, I don’t know. Very chill vibes. Probably the marijuana.

Do you find it difficult to write in a big city? I’m sure that distractions…you know, you have the Internet, that’s enough distraction.
Yeah, I found straight away that it’s very easy to be isolated here, in a way that I really like. I think that a lot of people who prefer New York feel like [Los Angeles] can be a very lonely city, and New York is kind of stacked, this sea of interaction. That gave me a hive just thinking about it. I have a mixed feeling about New York. I love the people quite a bit.

A lot of weirdos.
A lot of weirdos, yes. A lot of weirdos here, too.

I mean, you do live in Little Armenia, which is its own weird little place.
It is weird, yeah. I have an Armenian neighbor who gave me a popsicle a couple months ago. We communicate through the language of popsicles. I bought a popsicle and gave him a popsicle in return.

What flavor?
His to me was a chocolate-covered Haagen Dazs, and mine to him was a strawberry yogurt.

That sounds flirtatious.
I think it may be!

Sounds like love.
It’s something. He’s always standing on the street corner, he’s always watching everyone’s cars. So that’s good, I feel like he’s looking out for me.

That’s good, that’s safety.
Yeah. I actually live kind of close to where Bukowski lived. There’s this great video of him giving a tour of Hollywood and Western thirty or forty years ago. It’s so good. It’s from The Charles Bukowski Tapes.

Is Bukowski one of your guys?
He’s not really, but now that we’re neighbors I find myself talking to him more now. Yeah, this was ’85, he was sober, and pretty depressed about the fact that he was sober. He lived on this block when he was writing Post Office.

So it sounds like a sinister vibe. But I’ve been in your neighborhood, it doesn’t feel that sinister.
Leave it to me to make everything more sinister than it is in reality.

Yeah, but sometimes things are sinister and you have to just recognize it.
I don’t know, I think it’s a little bit of both. My block is weird, but I love my block.

Were there any writers that you imitated at the beginning of your career?
Oh, sure. It’s always a progression. I started out with some super realist teachers, like Ron Carlson and Mike McNally and Debra Monroe and Tom Grimes. I found their stories to be so wonderful, and the writers they recommended, like Carver and Hemingway, to be the pinnacle. It wasn’t until after that that I started finding the style that was more my voice, and then other writers that were in that style, and then kind of a community. I think it always starts out, you have few tools, and everything starts looking like a nail. What’s the phrase? All you have is a hammer and everything starts looking like a nail.

How did you come to write that essay about water [that appeared in GOOD magazine]?
I’ve always been obsessed with water, because I’m from Tuscon, which is a Central Arizona Project recipient, which is a big deal in Arizona. And then I went to San Marcos, Texas, which has an interesting history with water as well. They’re sitting on the Edwards Aquifer, and a lot of springs in the area used to be live Aquifer points. There are stories, if you go into the library, of people throwing their infants into these live springs and springs buffeting the children up into the air. Insane shit to do with your kids in 1890.

Wait, live children?
Yeah! A live child to throw right into the water. And the springs were so live that the water shooting out of the ground would lift them up and carry them to the surface. And now all the springs are dead, and the water is low, and I find that all to be pretty fascinating. So a friend of mine, Ann Friedman, who was the editor of GOOD at the time, was listening to my meandering about where I’m from, and she was looking for someone to talk about water and a couple writers to talk about their connection to natural resources in the area and wherever they live. So she asked me to do it, and I was happy to. I was well aware of Joan Didion’s much-more-good essay on water in Los Angeles, but you know. I did my best. And it was fun to think of the connections between Arizona and Texas and LA.

No, I thought it was really fascinating too. Have you read Southern California: An Island upon the Land, by Carey McWilliams?

It has the chapter that allegedly—or not allegedly, I guess it’s common knowledge that it inspired Robert Towne’s screenplay for Chinatown. It was about the politics of this one area that got completely drained of its water resources, because the government bought up all these orchards…
Yeah, was it Oroville? [Note: the chapter in question actually refers to Owens Valley, the site of a major episode in what is called the California Water Wars. But a thematically similar issue arose in Oroville, where a government-regulated dam provides water from the North to the arid South. Currently the contract for this dam is under negotiations for renewal, and the state has never paid taxes on it, and everyone local is worried about it. California’s water issues are so numerous and so repetitive that they all bleed into one another.] Do you know the poet Mike Young? He’s out of Baltimore. I was talking to him in Chicago about water in LA, and he was from Oroville, and he talked about growing up as a kid in Oroville and learning about the massive dams, the redistricting of the water. People feel very strongly about it in Oroville.

It’s strange, the priorities shift obviously, the farther north you get.
Indeed! And the farther inland, and the more agricultural. It’s a big divide. It was brought up again in the election, because we had a proposition about labeling genetically modified food. Despite all the support it got from the cities, it got knocked down because of agriculture.

Have you ever been out of the country?
I’ve been to Asia a couple of times. I was in China in June, and then I was in Singapore in 2010.

Singapore’s weird, right? Really clean.
Very clean, very wealthy. They kept warning me that the national pastime is shopping, and I envisioned a kind of Dallas, Texas, faux opulence, but it is straight-up, for-real opulence. It’s the most high-end shopping possible. All the ladies at the purse stores have their white gloves on, so they don’t touch the bags with their greasy skin.

Yeah, it was insane. It’s a gorgeous, interesting place. They have a botanical garden that has the world’s largest collection of species of orchids, which is just insanely beautiful.

You had something in Vice recently…
Yeah, I had some voter guides in Vice.

They’re very relaxed with what they let go on the site.
Yeah, they sure are. They have their guidelines. One of the big reasons why I’m excited to work with them is they have got a new editor, Wes Enzinna. He used to work for Oxford American, and he’s doing a lot by way of bringing in a different kind of writer than what Vice is usually looking for. So I’ve had a lot of fun working with him and bouncing ideas off of him. The articles they typically publish by women sometimes run a little sensationalist or druggy or sexy, and that is definitely a style that isn’t something that I do. So I was surprised to hear from them at all, but pleased.

Did you find that the commenters did not understand your tone?
They have a really powerful, young reader base, so many of them are idiots. Not all of them.

I don’t even know where they come from.
I don’t know either. It was a sweet experience though. I liked it. I love writing nonfiction and humor online. I’m kind of dipping my toes into it and finding it to be very rewarding.

What do you think is rewarding about the specific experience of putting humor online? Is it because you get an immediate response?
Yeah, for sure, and I really loved writing about the election, because I felt that there was an immediate connection and a real social element to writing and sharing it. Politics, man.

Politics. Crazy.
It never gets old to me. I don’t know what it is.

I feel like I’ve already done this, so I am being kind of hypocritical, but did people asking you about how weird or violent your fiction is become a question that you rolled your eyes at? And then suddenly had a crisis about, where you’re like, wait, am I weird? Am I too violent?
I’ve always heard the weird thing, yeah. I would say it’s been a thread that has followed me. My only concern is not necessarily to be too weird or too violent, but I want to avoid being weird for the sake of weirdness or violent for the sake of violence. I just did a story for a collection for New Directions with a bunch of other people. It was after Raymond Queneau’s Exercises in Style. The idea was that you would take a little story that Queneau did in all of the different forms and then find new forms to write it in. So people write an anecdote as a vignette or a third person or a first person or a second person, to kind of show the different styles. That was what Queneau did. But the revamp was to choose a new style, to write a new piece using the same old story. So I chose “Viscera” and wrote a very disgusting, violent, visceral story, sort of making fun of myself for how weird and gross and violent that I tend to be. I don’t know if that was clearing me out or something.

Yeah! I don’t know…I just don’t want to be labeled as a quirky writer writing for the sake of quirk. When I die, on my headstone, it’ll say: She was very odd, wasn’t she?

I think you could do worse.
I suppose, I don’t know. It’s a work in progress.

THREATS is a mystery novel in a lot of ways. Are you thinking about genre when you sit down to write something? What’s the thing that you start with?
I start usually with an image or a phrase, and with THREATS I started with this image of a woman sitting at the bottom of a stairwell, and her legs were covered in blood. And the vision was from the perspective of someone standing at the top of the stairwell with his hand on the rail. I found that to be very interesting. As I wrote, she died right away, and I continued writing, and the police arrived, and a detective came by, and then I was just following the thread of that, and before long I realized I was writing a mystery, because there was a death and a police officer and a mystery involved. Right now the thing I’m working on started with the phrase “There is no such thing as an easy love.” And I’m going from there.

That is true.
It is true.

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