Laurie Foos is a weird Midas—everything she touches turns to strange. Her first book Ex Utero told the story of a girl who loses her uterus in a shopping mall. Her second novel The Portrait of a Walrus by a Young Artist begins, “If I’d known Walruses were waiting for me on some back road in Florida, I might have taken more of an interest in bowling.” Each novel is as hysterical, weird, and heartbreaking as the last. Her latest novel, The Blue Girl, is a bit of a departure. Although the novel is still born of Foos’s unique magic, it lacks the humor characteristic of her other work. The characters in The Blue Girl are raw with grief and hunger. Looking for answers, they bake their secrets in moon pies and feed them to a strange blue girl who has recently made an appearance in a small lakeside town.
The Rumpus: All of your work seems to intersect the mythic and the mundane. Why are you drawn to that?
Laurie Foos: I’d say that most of life seems to me to be that way, a mixture of the mundane and the mythic, when you’re living the life of the mind. At least that’s how it’s always felt to me. As writers, we live very much in our own minds much of the time, buzzing in our unconscious spaces as we go about the business of living in the world. You’re thinking about the continuum of life as you load the washing machine or scoop out the litter box. Or maybe that’s just me. That seems to be an endlessly challenging and interesting way to live. Also, I love a good juxtaposition.
Rumpus: What do you think the secret is to making work in your books so that the reader is both credulous without being overwrought with explanation?
Foos: I’ve always gone with Kafka’s model of establishing the world from the first line, as in Kafka’s famous line from Metamorphosis, “Gregor Samsa woke up from uneasy dreams to find himself transformed into a gigantic insect” (or beetle or cockroach, depending on the translation). I have to have that first line before I can go further. With this novel I had the first line, “The blue girl eats secrets in moon pies,” and everything really took off from there. There are other ways to do it, of course, to have a slow building of the fantastical, to begin in a more realistic way and then present magical elements later in the work. But for me, I feel that if I establish the world or the premise from the first line, then I can get the reader to come with me where I want her to go. I think there’s a fine line between being so obtuse that you lose the reader completely, which is the intention for some writers, though it isn’t mine. I work hard at grounding the world as much as possible in the world we do recognize. So, for example, we have a lot of detail in this novel about moon pies and not as much about the actual color of the blue girl’s skin. I guess I’d say there is no secret to how it’s done, but if there were, I’d surely tell you.
Rumpus: Absurdity is something that is used to comic effect in your novels, with the exception of Blue Girl—what is the role of absurdity in literature? What do we gain by using it?
Foos: For my previous books the absurdity worked as satire, most often. I think that absurdity in literature looks into a lack of meaning in some important and fundamental way. It allows us to ask questions in ways that other forms can’t, or in ways we can’t using solely traditional means. Usually at the core of fiction that has some element of the absurd there tends to be an examination of some societal ills that we should talk about more than we do. And it’s funny, of course, so we have that release valve with absurdism. It offers us a safe way to explore difficult subject matter. That’s not the only thing it can do, but that’s an important part.
Rumpus: Your books also seem to circle around these questions about the anxieties of motherhood and the female body. Do you think these topics get short shrift in literature?
Foos: I recently told someone that I’m done with fertility as a motif, and she said, “Oh, I doubt that.” I’d certainly say that the VIDA Count would tell us that they do, as we see every year the very sobering pie charts that emerge. But I think the landscape is shifting. I think we’re moving in the direction where these kinds of topics are garnering more attention. It’s a very interesting paradox, though, as I think it’s still difficult to write about motherhood and anxiety, that talking about not wanting to be a mother or feeling ambivalent about motherhood makes people uneasy. The ambivalent mother is certainly much more interesting.
Rumpus: Domestic life is so mired in the small things, the socks on the floor, the endless stirring of all the meals, but you infuse all of that with magic. Is magic elemental to our world or is it something writers use to give the “small things” significance?
Foos: For me it’s kind of the opposite. I tend to start with a fantastical premise, and then I place it in the world we know. Or, really, it places itself. Honestly, I feel that I have very little control of the magical aspect, as that’s just what comes out for me. It’s very much an unconscious part of the process, and I don’t entirely know where it comes from. Having a magical element in a realistic setting without explanation seems to me to be the hallmark of fairy tales, which present us with a kind of metaphorical look at some aspect of our lives. If we were to have a woman attacked by a pair of socks on the floor, say, then we could probably assume that the writer is making a comment about domestic life.
Rumpus: You work has been described as “feminist.” What do you think makes a work “feminist”?
Foos: I’ve been especially pleased to see that The Blue Girl has been called “feminist,” as so much of the novel is mired in the domestic lives of the three women who to some degree all feel stuck in this lake town, in their lives where the blue girl appears. It seemed obvious to call my first novel, Ex Utero, a feminist novel, as it deals with a woman losing her uterus in a shopping mall. This novel deals with mother-daughter relationships primarily and motherhood, which is female-centric, certainly. The men and boys in the novel are more peripheral to the action. To me, feminism in literature deals with the female characters being in some way central to the thematic concerns of the book, or that they are agents of change to some degree. In other words, the lens is focused deeply and intensely on the female characters and doesn’t waver, which allows for a glimpse into the rich inner lives of the characters. I don’t mind being called a “feminist,” as I certainly embrace the tenets of feminism, though it does feel a little sad to me that we need to call a novel “feminist” simply because the female characters are interesting and strong.
Rumpus: Feminism seems to be making a comeback. Do you think we are in an age of feminist literature?
Foos: As I said, I think the VIDA Count has certainly helped things along. Cate Marvin and Erin Belieu have made a mark in literary culture, and editors and publishers have begun to stand up and take notice, which is a wonderful thing for all of us, not just for women. Certain things are happening that seem indicative of change. Alice Munro won the Nobel Prize, and yet we still have women’s only prizes, such as the Baileys Women’s Prize for Fiction, or other grants that are designated for women only. What I find interesting and heartening, though, is that there does seem to be a shift in the subject matter being written about by women that is doing well in the culture. We’re seeing more women writing dystopian fiction, more women writing novels set post-apocalyptic settings, subjects and themes that used to be dominated by men. And we have Roxane Gay and others who are starting some powerful and necessary conversations both in their work and on social media. I’d also say that Cheryl Strayed’s Wild being such an enormous success points to an important shift, as we see a woman finding her authentic self without being attached to a man.
Rumpus: So much of what you write about is in the wheelhouse of your everyday life—motherhood, marriage, grief—I wonder about this interplay between the personal and the fictional. Because it’s there, but only women ever seem to get asked about it. Is that something that you are conscious of as you write?
Foos: I’m not conscious of my own themes as I write first drafts, no, and in fact, I work hard to stay in that unconscious space and not ask myself what the novel is about or what my metaphors might mean because then, I think, you’re just dead in the water. As soon as you start to question your own intent while you’re still in the process of discovering your story, you’re in trouble because you’ve pulled out of that unconscious space that is so necessary in the beginning of the drafting process. I didn’t set out to write a novel about grief or even about motherhood, really. I set out to tell a story about a strange blue girl who eats secrets in moon pies because that was the story that wanted to be told.
Honestly, I don’t see the direct correlation between my personal life and the novel I’m writing until I’m at the end of the novel or very close to it. I try to remain almost willfully oblivious to any connection between the two. But of course even worlds we imagine contain some component of ourselves, and so I think that is the impulse toward questions about the writer’s personal life. That and the fact that we’re a voyeuristic culture (and I count myself among the voyeurs). I do have two children, and my mother died before I finished revising the novel, so I see the grief in there, certainly. Oddly enough, I started the novel shortly after my father died and would never have imagined my mother would die, too, in such a short span. I think you’re right, though, that we don’t ask the same kinds of questions of male writers. Maybe that’s because they’re less likely to answer.
Rumpus: Most of your novels are comic, but darkly so, The Blue Girl, is a bit of a departure. Was that a conscious decision?
Foos: No, and it made me pretty nervous. In fact, when I first told my long time editor at Coffee House Press, Allan Kornblum, about the novel, I remember being rather sheepish about the fact that it wasn’t funny and that he had to re-assure me that I didn’t have to be funny all the time. Intellectually I knew that it was a departure once I got going, though, and I talked myself into believing that to be a good thing. It was a risk for me, and no matter what the outcome, risk in writing is necessary, no matter how long you’ve been at it.
Rumpus: There is so much mystery in your work: the mystery of our bodies, magic, motherhood, relationships, gender roles. Do you ever feel compelled to answer those riddles you ask of your readers?
Foos: Fundamentally I think we all write the kinds of work we’d most like to read. Or we try to. It’s interesting to think of the mystery in each of the novels. I’ve realized that with each novel I seem to set out a kind of puzzle for myself. And I am never sure in the process of writing a first draft how it’s all going to turn out. As a reader I gravitate toward work that rests in the gray area, that doesn’t come with easy answers. My taste runs toward the less traditional, more experimental vein, and so I would say that the mystery reflects that.
Rumpus: Your books are rife with cultural touchpoints: pizza, bowling, The Dutchess of York, Elvis Presley. What is it that is so compelling about pop culture that it leaks into your work?
Foos: I didn’t want to write about Elvis, honestly, since so much has been written about him, though I suppose it was inevitable. I’m a pop culture junkie. I’m a People magazine reader, an US Weekly subscriber; all of those celebrity magazines get my dollar. As I get older, I’m finding that I recognize certain celebrities only because they frequently grace the pages of US Weekly, but beyond that, I have no idea what they do. My mom was a big Elvis fan and a general pop culture buff, and so I grew up in a house filled with what were then called “movie magazines,” when Rhona Barrett wrote her column about the stars. And so it seeped in. I think, too, that more than being just bubble gum for the brain—which it often is—that pop culture is a reflection of our time. When a certain show or film or celebrity captures the imagination of the masses that has a good deal to say about us, I think, and what is happening in our collective psyche.
Rumpus: You were the one who told me that Michael Jackson had died. You told me while we were sitting in a reading. Do you think he will ever make an appearance in your work?
Foos: I’m sorry that I can’t remember how you took the news. That is really funny hearing that because I must have blabbed that news to any number of people that night. I also told a colleague; that did not go well. She took the news hard. When I think back to the days of “Thriller,” the days when Michael Jackson had the Midas touch, it seems impossible to think he could be dead. His life would hardly need any fictionalizing and became so distressing and sordid toward the end. I could have a lot of fun with Michael Jackson, I’m sure. I’d set it at Netherland. Bubbles would definitely be in it, and he might rise up and start a revolt. It would be a romp. Right now there are no plans, though.
Rumpus: I’m doing my best not to ask you this question, but I think I’m going to anyway, because as a mother and a writer (both all-consuming vocations), I both understand that it’s a question only women are asked, but I’m also compelled by it. Many men like Tolstoy and Upton Sinclair couldn’t reconcile domestic life with writing life, so here it goes: What do your writing days look like? How do you carve out a world to write about in the world of life that almost always seems to be demanding your attention?
Foos: What I didn’t anticipate about having kids—and I waited a long time to have them—was that there would be many times that I wouldn’t want to leave them, to leave their world for the other. When my children were very little, my mother came to the house, and I would go upstairs to work. It was often very difficult not to go downstairs and see why one was laughing or crying. Now they are eight and ten. School makes balance easier, though I think Grace Paley said it best when she said there is no balance. My son is on the autism spectrum, and educating myself and being present for his particular needs becomes its own job. My daughter is ten and can process what I do and why I do it, which makes some parts easier. I think that mostly you become trained to maximize your productivity. That said, there are definitely stretches of not writing. I wish more writers would be willing to talk about the not-writing periods. Mostly I get by on the school calendar and on the occasional bursts when I can get away to an artist colony. I also highly recommend hotel rooms for a few days. It’s amazing what you can accomplish when you know you have to hit the ground running. Really, though, every cliché is true. It is all worth it. You live a part of the human condition you had only imagined before.