Queer, Magicked Reality: A Conversation with JD Scott
I met JD Scott at the Lambda Literary Writers Retreat for Emerging LGBTQ Voices, during the summer of 2018. The retreat took place on a boxy college campus in Los Angeles, a city that I know is home to real people living real lives, but nevertheless felt like an island off the coast of reality. In my memory, it was always sunny except for when we illegally drank wine on a deck with graffiti walls and the stars as our ceiling. We slept in dorm rooms, made friends over tater tots and plastic trays, and lost each other in arcade rooms on the Santa Monica Pier.
The stories in Scott’s new collection, Moonflower, Nightshade, All the Hours of the Day, feel like islands in that same sea, each with their own rules, magic, and hungers. Unpredictable characters guide readers through these worlds, and Scott’s poetic prose shapes a luscious landscape. The collection, selected by Lidia Yuknavitch for the 2018 Madeleine P. Plonsker Prize, is full of wonder and fear, pain and pleasure. It is also full of absurd, dark humor. JD Scott is laugh-out-loud funny.
Through theme and setting, Scott builds bridges to other writers of the ongoing Florida literary renaissance: Karen Russell, Kristen Arnett, Lauren Groff, and Laura van den Berg. The collection is also a spectacular addition to the queer literary canon. It explores the intersection between queerness and fabulism, and toys with the places and tools we use to escape a world that can never be wholly our own. As a queer reader, it was so easy to get lost in these stories; it was just as easy to find myself there.
I talked with Scott about their childhood spent in air-conditioned malls, the act of building little worlds, and campy crucifixion.
The Rumpus: Moonflower, Nightshade, All the Hours of the Day is a stunning title and I get so excited every time I get to say it out loud. How did you choose it and how do you think it represents the collection as a whole?
JD Scott: What I settled on was the third name the manuscript went through. The original two titles I considered functioned in a similar way to me: I wanted them to suggest some tilt of reality, something slightly impossible. The collection itself had two previous titles. One, Glass Scissors, was named after a fairy tale I eventually took out of the manuscript. Where Parallel Lines Come to Touch was named after a story of twins, River and Riley, which remains in the book. I eventually moved past both titles because I wanted to get closer to hinting at the book’s style, especially since not every story pushes up against realism to the same degree. I appreciate titles that almost act like an amuse-bouche of the work itself. I hope what I settled on gives the reader more of an idea about the cadence of what they’re about to enter.
Rumpus: Your style touches many different genres: literary fiction, YA, fantasy, speculative lit, horror, fairy tales, Southern Gothic, experimental prose poetry, and on and on. And yet, the collection felt wholly coherent. Is it possible you’re shaping a new genre? And if so, how would you define it?
Scott: I don’t know if I’m doing anything new. As much as I’ve had to have some perspective on and be able to talk about my own work, it’s hard to think of your own writing that way, you know? I try to be aware of the limits of my experiences and worldview, but sometimes it surprises me how other people view these words. Take the novella from my collection, which exists in a type of magical shopping mall that covers the globe. I thought of the setting more as an enchanted, symbolic place, but my editor distinctly read it as Floridian. Perhaps that was a gap—forgetting not everyone grew up wandering the air-conditioned endless corridors of the mall while trying to escape the brutal heat outside. At the same time, the mall space still feels universal to me, in some capacity.
The stories sometimes feel like that space, too—all the different stories in the mall as all these different components or ingredients to fiction. There is always some concoction, some elixir of personal experience being blended with language and emotional gravitas and myth-making. I don’t think I’ve ever set out to purposefully do something liminal, but in a way I’ve always been a bit of an outcast and a chimera—so I’m writing what I know. If my writing exists on a misshapen precipice, it’s because that’s the real world I live in and experience.
Rumpus: The book does feel incredibly Floridian, in the best way. Your state has been a burgeoning literary scene over the past few years when it comes to critical acclaim, but I’d assume that talent and community has always been there. What’s been your experience with the literary scene in the state?
Scott: The farther south you go in Florida, the less it resembles other parts of the South. Floridians have invariably been our own thing. As far back as I remember, there was always this interest in regionalism for Florida writers that went beyond navel-gazing: various small presses and publishing outlets specifically seeking work about Florida. I suspect because we’re somewhat mysterious to ourselves, and we want to get to know ourselves better. Growing up here—at least in the age before social media—you felt so isolated. This perhaps makes camaraderie a little easier, as we’ve become accustomed to each other and this place. Who will sing our strange songs, if not us? There’s also something about Central Florida that has always felt so transient to me, in a pleasurable way. It feeds the desires of the region. People come and go—but it adds an exciting element so this place rarely feels static. Almost like Area X in Jeff VanderMeer’s Southern Reach trilogy—we are in a constant evolution.
Rumpus: I could sincerely do an interview just about “After the End Came the Mall, and the Mall was Everything.” For anyone who hasn’t read this novella yet, a young man named Joshua lives with his boyfriend Banana and others in a society entirely comprised of interconnected malls. What inspired this story?
Scott: There are always layers I’m trying to weave together in fiction: memoir, fairy tales and magic-making, dreams, research, emotional realism. Sometimes I can’t finish or even begin to approach a story because one to two layers are missing. The mall novella was years of gathering ingredients. My first job as a teenager was at a tuxedo rental shop, so when I write about the front sales floor and the dark endless backroom, those are pulled from my own strip mall memories. The “dead mall” portion (uninhabited, dangerous parts of the mall world) of the novella came from a dream I had in 2006, where I was in a crowded antique mall, and kept going deeper into it, off into side rooms, and suddenly there were no more people around. At one point I knew I was entering the land of the dead, and that I wouldn’t be able to find my way back to existence. Deep in that mall, the air was thin and haunted. It’s not an extraordinary dream, but one that unnerved me and stuck with me, and gave me a push to blend some horror into the story.
This dream ended up blending with some research about the Winchester Mystery House, a California mansion with architectural peculiarities. The urban legend is that ghosts killed by Winchester rifles ordered Sarah Winchester to endlessly expand the mansion until the day that she died, and thus there are oddities like stairs and doors that lead to nowhere. It made me wonder what a Winchester Mystery Planet might look like, and I thought back to my antique mall dream. So when I speak of layers, all of those things were coming together as inspiration for the story.
Rumpus: In the story, there are city malls and farm malls, and even in this new world there is a tension between urban society and wilderness. What does the wilderness represent in this work?
Scott: That which is unknown, or that which has been momentarily lost. There is also a type of ecological diversity that is missing from the human-conquered portions of the mall. I’m always interested in these stories of the provincial—what happens outside the larger cities—and Joshua growing up on a small farm in the mall imbues him with some wonder and curiosity about what else is out there. Perhaps this connects to my own experiencing growing up in the South, especially Florida—this feeling of being sequestered from the rest of the country. You are closer to the wilderness. For me, kids growing up in Central/South Florida—the ones who have never even gone as far north as Georgia—have a specific type of yearning.
Rumpus: How are capitalism and magic at odds with each other here?
Scott: The mall world is a fantastic place, but I hope the reader gets the sense that it’s also nightmarish from a certain perspective. These people never go “outside.” There is no outside: there is only more mall. Joshua has also lost his ancestral connections; the mall people are becoming increasingly homogenized by capitalism. There is a sort of bigoted and uninformed fear of the “dead mall” areas and the magical entities that live in those regions (or past them). How this is all coming together, well, I’d love to hear how readers interpret the overall story.
Rumpus: Even in the mall, there are parts that are unseen, unvisited, and unknown. There’s a shadow world ruled by spirits, and these spirits often present themselves to Joshua in the form of animals asking him to embark on quests. Why is Joshua so susceptible to these spirits?
Scott: Joshua embodies this archetype of the heroic youth. His story is the monomyth. He’s the Luke Skywalker starting out on Tatooine. There is so much Joshua feels he hasn’t experienced or seen yet. He has so much hope and curiosity about his world. Adults have chosen their paths in the mall world; they’ve become rigid and lost their sense of wonder. They’ve become narrow-minded and reject magic. As a young person who is still being shaped and forming his ideas about the mall world, Joshua is susceptible to quests and magic because he is open-minded. Thus, the wonders of the world present themselves to him.
Rumpus: Lidia Yuknavitch said about your collection: “I was immediately smitten with the idea of the queer body as an epistemological site, as well as a real place where narrative meanings are generated and negated endlessly.” How does embodiment function in these stories, for your characters and for their narratives?
Scott: There are so many different experiences with embodiment, and each character acts as a different type of vessel. In “Cross,” which is a typological queer reimagining of the Crucifixion, the story is mostly voice-driven—the exact details of the body are detritus. At the same time, the reader learns the body is strong and gym-going, and even though there’s a certain amount of camp present, the silliness almost acts as a bait-and-switch for the agony of going through with a literal Crucifixion, which is the reader’s final destination. In that story, the body becomes a vessel for queer pain. It’s less about the specific nature of that character, and more about the endurance of what it means to exist inside a queer body, which sometimes means suffering. There are other stories in the book that feel so far from that, though, other edges the characters exist on inside their bodies, as well as journeys that are so much more about place or conflict or circumstance or magic-making.
Rumpus: Magic is present in so many of the stories in the collection, but the way it’s used or carried is never quite the same. Sometimes it’s a tool or an escape; other times it’s a threat. How do you view magic and why is it so integral?
Scott: That is the pleasure of stories for me—they are their own tiny, self-contained worlds. I’m no Brandon Sanderson; I don’t have complex magic systems in place. Although, I do tend to obsess over trying to figure out the rules of each world. Something I’ve had to learn is that the author is not the character. In one of my stories, a brother comes back from the dead as a revenant. I was puzzled by the logic of the dead returning. It wasn’t until I was working with an editor that it became clear that I—the author—was trying to solve the mystery on the page, while the sister (Riley) was experiencing the grief and entering an extremely fucked-up emotional state after burying her brother and having him immediately return. The magic of the dead brother returning has much to do with Riley’s self-centeredness as a character.
Sometimes, the magic of other fictions is softer, more abstract, thematic, symbolic. It’s shaping the world or it’s been shaped by the world. It’s characters who need control over their lives, and magic gives them control. Or it’s a real-world belief system with ancestral roots and a spiritual lineage in place. Or it is a mysterious, foreboding force that is so much bigger than one character on a page. I don’t see the presence of magic in a binary to realism. Every magicked reality is one that challenges other competing definitions of reality, and it’s that umbrage or undermining that feels to give fiction a different edge.
Rumpus: You present religion, especially Christianity, as a type of dark magic. In “Chinchilla,” Angelito the Chinchilla is a savior figure. In “Cross,” the main character prepares for a commercialized crucifixion, and in “Their Sons Return Home to Die,” you play with what it means to be angelic or holy. How do these religious themes run through your writing?
Scott: My parents sent me to a Southern Baptist junior high in the late 1990s, one where I took alternative science classes and had to memorize a Bible verse each week to recite for a letter grade. I read Left Behind books, obsessed with the Christian Apocalypse. I’d ride my bike to Blockbuster Video and rent VHS tapes of Neon Genesis Evangelion, which had its own remixes of the angelic, the apocalyptic. On the news, there was constant talk about Y2K, about how the world would end shortly.
It didn’t end—the world went on—but these Bible stories were imprinted on me. Just on the most subconscious level, their allegories are part of my toolkit, and since so many of these stories deal with young people at various junctions, perhaps the dark magic has snuck out. On another, more conscious level, getting to play with queer angels and a campy crucifixion feels like a reconciliation and reclamation after all those afternoons spent in a classroom learning about how homosexuality is an abomination. Which is, maybe, all to say that I don’t see the Abrahamic religions in a sequestered realm. They are of the liminal, too, and bleed into other storytelling spaces in an almost involuntary way. They come from a life I lived.
Rumpus: Could you talk more about queerness, and how that intersects with the fabulism in this collection?
Scott: I tend to define magical realism, which is separate from fabulism, as the intersection of competing definitions of reality. Magic creates a fracture in the dominant form of reality. Often this takes on the form of marginalized peoples who experience a very different reality from the dominant group. I’m honing in on queerness, but obviously magical realism has its roots in race and the hegemony of white supremacy, as far as competing realities is concerned. This is most prevalent in books like Toni Morrison’s Beloved or what is called the “ravages of life” that Gabriel García Márquez spoke of in his Nobel lecture. So while in no way do I mean to argue that queerness experiences magic in the same way—it doesn’t—as other identities such as race, gender, disability, et cetera, queerness is inseparable from magical realism.
As a queer person, you are constantly in the same space as non-queer people—sometimes you are the only person in the space who lives inside a queer body—and your experiences are being erased or invalidated or overruled. There is always a type of magic, or magical thinking, present. Anyone who has lived long enough to enter a queer adulthood knows what it means to navigate codes and closets, shibboleths and secrets, cruelty and invisibility. There is a type of magic that occurs when this queer reality you’ve lived is completely unseen or overruled. I hope, on some level, that queer magicked reality is present in my fiction.
Featured image of JD Scott by Nina Martinez.