Six years ago, I spoke with Juan Martinez about his excellent collection Best Worst American, a genre-spanning work that encompassed a host of styles and tones, with a pronounced sense of the ominous. Now, Martinez is back with a new novel, Extended Stay. What begins as a novel about a brother and sister on the run from familial trauma gradually turns into something much stranger and more horrific. The Alicia, where both take refuge, turns out to have several qualities that distinguish it from other Las Vegas hotels — including more than a few suggestions that the hotel itself is alive. I spoke with Martinez about the genesis of this book, its connection to his earlier collection, and more.
Extended Stay begins with very human-scale horrors and ends with horrors of a much different variety. I don’t know how much you plot versus writing as you go, so I’m curious — did the novel always have this arc out of realism and into something both existential and cosmic in its scope?
It didn’t! I had initially imagined the novel as fully cosmic horror, with the monstrous hotel at its core and with a multitude of story lines. Alvaro was always at the center, but the human-scale horror he experiences at the beginning? All that stuff was part of a long flashback that originally popped up in the middle. Everything clicked into place when I moved it to the front, and when I realized that Alvaro had to have something to lose — that I needed one person in his family to survive that initial scene. I didn’t quite plot it out initially. I had some ideas, and I knew where I wanted to end up, but those first two drafts were all over the place. I did a bit of a reverse outline, and then I plotted out the revision.
What drew you to use Las Vegas as the setting?
I lived there when I was a graduate student for six years. When I left for the Pacific Northwest, Las Vegas just stuck with me. I couldn’t shake it. I guess I wrote the novel to shake off the city. Much as I love Vegas, it’s also a place so rich with connotation and meaning that it feels like someone already wrote it all out already. Like, I’m pretty sure we all have some version of Vegas in our heads. That’s all to say, I don’t think I was drawn to Vegas as a setting or a subject, but I couldn’t quite write about anything else after I stopped living there. I wanted to write a little about the weird mix of opportunity and exploitation that’s there if you work the service industry — how you really can make a whole life there, or start up a new one.
Did you draw from any firsthand experience when it came to the decor of the Alicia?
That’s such a good question! I did. I mean, I frequented lots of Fremont casinos because you got terrific dinner specials and also because they were just generally welcoming and fun, so a lot of the decor comes from years of ambling the Golden Nugget and El Cortez and all the others. But also — oh God, this was years and years ago — me and a graduate school buddy were roped into taking photos of the carpets for this big Believer visual spread. It was all just close ups of the carpets. And this was before The Believer was bought by the Black Mountian Institute and brought into Las Vegas. I totally forgot about that until you asked me about the decor.
There’s a lot in Extended Stay that’s alluded to but stays in the background, from the cyclical nature of the Alicia to the largely offscreen presences from Seattle. What were some of the challenges you faced when balancing plot and worldbuilding?
I love — like, love love love — the sense of larger worlds and narratives just at the edge of sci-fi and horror and fantasy novels, and I knew I wanted that for Extended Stay. The biggest challenge was knowing that these were more fun for me to write than for someone to read them, so one of the first things to go were scenes where you’d see the owner of the hotel navigating the Seattle outside investors, and with the subplots that expanded on the Alicia’s cycles of waking up, devouring everything in sight, going back to its dormant state. Some of those I miss still — 300 pages of evangelical preachers and Clarabelle’s original owners and lots of backstory and hotel history — but there was this real thrill in cutting it all down and getting to the emotional core of the novel.
Is the secret society that came up a few times in the stories in Best Worst American also a player in the actions that take part in this book?
It is! Wow — I kind of didn’t think anybody would pick up on that, but yes. And I guess my big thing with that, which I hope is clear, is that it’s a deeply incapable secret society that has no business doing anything.
There are two characters with the surname “Melmot” in here, which summons up memories of Melmoth. (Who, admittedly, I know primarily for Grant Morrison’s use of him as a character in their Seven Soldiers comics.) And Jacob and Esther both have names with Old Testament history behind them. What was the process like of finding names for your characters — and was there a challenge to finding the right degree of allusions for them?
Mostly, I wanted the allusions to be as upfront as possible, and because the novel plays with both the cosmic and with Las Vegas, I was looking for names that played off some key ideas (there’s a Melmoth in Charles Maturin’s 1820 Melmoth the Wanderer, who makes an ill-advised bargain, and that’s a banger of a classic gothic novel, but you also have some Melmoths in Anthony Trollope’s The Way We Live Now, and Morrison’s as well). Jacob and Esther were super Old Testament! And very much meant to evoke their namesakes. I loved that these were all names and figures with resonant histories, even though you can absolutely read the novel and not even register that history. I think the allusions helped me in getting a feel for what I wanted from the characters, and they also helped me see their potential better. They were alive to me almost from the start. I’m wondering, though, if it was because they were already alive elsewhere.
Extended Stay features bugs inhabiting hotel walls, a building that shares some qualities with a body, and some unsettling scenes involving teeth. What prompted some of these images — and did you write anything that ended up leaving you unsettled after you’d finished it?
I mean, speaking of things that are already alive elsewhere… What’s funny is that the two most unsettling scenes were eventually cut out. I won’t say much about them, other than one was very much a total Abraham and Isaac Old Testament situation, and that it went on for way too long. The stuff that stuck in the manuscript–and crept and writhed and wriggled — was often initially unsettling, and then it just sort of became a problem-solving kind of thing in revision: like, trying to figure out how much to keep so that it’s still creepy but doesn’t go on for long. Marisol and the bugs still leave me shaken, though. As for what prompted those images in the first place? I’m a scaredy cat! And Vegas had some pretty impressive roaches (so did my previous home town, Orlando), and body horror has always been a deep well of inspiration for me — both in movies and in novels — but mostly because it’s been a place to navigate the stuff the freaks me out about having a body. And having teeth. I have a seven year old, and when he started getting super excited about the tooth fairy, he developed this absolutely plausible theory about her: which was that the tooth fairy took the baby teeth so she could creep into the rooms of babies and put them in their mouths. I mean, it makes total sense for the tooth fairy to recycle teeth. And it’s super creepy. Anyway, that’s all a long way of saying that the unsettling images in the novel feel very much a part of what’s unsettling about having to be a person with a body in the world. And, like, keeping those things in the back of your mind for too long feels like a lot. Better to put all those images in a novel and let them roam free for a bit. Better to let them go a little wild.