I met Lindsay Merbaum when I had the pleasure of working with her at the now-retired Rivet Journal. Her evocative fiction and candid essays in venues including Anomolous Press, Bustle, and Another Chicago Magazine have been among the few lights piercing the long fog of pandemic lockdown for me. When her debut novel, The Gold Persimmon, became available for pre-order, I grabbed a copy, expecting emotional resonance, literary connections, and layers of meaning.
The Gold Persimmon places readers in the halls of two luxurious, discreet boutique hotels, one catering to needs of sexual desire, the other to grief. As the hotels become repositories for the consequences of disruptive encounters and apocalyptic, incomprehensible crises, the many characters readers follow must recreate themselves—or lose themselves. Lost and fragile hotel greeter Clytemnestra’s delicately ordered life is disrupted by hotel guests who don’t follow rules. The observant, nonbinary writer Jaime; frightened and abusive Jason; Callie, a picture-perfect wife-and-mother metamorphosing into an object of fear and pity; and others secrete themselves in one of the hotels to avoid a potentially lethal force outside, not realizing that they themselves may be more dangerous. Feminist horror, literary narrative, intersectional fiction—this novel lives effortlessly in all of these modes at once.
As Lindsay and I no longer live in the same area of the country, I was delighted to reconnect with her by email and video conference to catch up on her move with her partner and their cats, coping during the pandemic, and her first novel.
The Rumpus: I’ve read many of your short stories and now your debut novel. Each is unique and yet they all have a similarity of feel. How would you describe the root of your work?
Lindsay Merbaum: I would say myth-making is at the heart of my work. I’m a mythology nerd, and I’ve been heavily influenced by some of humanity’s oldest tales, where magic and divinity are taken for granted and not everything “makes sense.” Over the years, as my work has grown stranger and more surreal, I’ve become deeply invested in creating or reflecting unique realities in which rules are implied but not explained. It’s a way of infusing fiction with magick.
Rumpus: The Gold Persimmon is a unique book, and as I was reading, I kept thinking, “I want to live in Lindsay’s head for a while!” What were the seeds for this novel?
Merbaum: Ten years ago, I had the original idea of a hotel to cry in. It really captivated me, and I spent a long time thinking about that before I started writing, what such a hotel would look like and who would be inside it, the structure of the hotel, rules and policies about how the guests should be treated—all of that was there from the beginning. But I had a struggle: If you build a hotel that’s based on isolation and privacy, how do you get your characters to interact? So, my vehicle was Clytemnestra, the main character in the Gold Persimmon hotel [the hotel for grieving], focusing on her as an employee and her relationship to the hotel. The fact that she can leave the hotel and doesn’t exist solely there was the catalyst for the story.
When a second narrative emerged, I remember struggling to write the parallel narrative within the Red Orchid hotel [the hotel of sexual desire] and to manage all those characters, but I don’t know exactly how it came about in my mind. I was having revelations about these stories as I was writing, so it was a very organic process. It was definitely an ambitious story to put together; it took a lot of drafts and a number of years to figure out how to parallel the stories, how to structure the narrative, what should come in what order, and all of that. It was like wandering through my own labyrinth.
Rumpus: We emerge from the novel with the key that fits everything together, making sense of Cly’s story. Jamie, the main character in the Red Orchid, becomes their own person, and their perspective helps us understand the book as a whole. Without giving anything away, finding out about the relationship between the two characters rounds both stories out nicely.
Merbaum: It’s structured that way on purpose, so that when you read Part II, with the Red Orchid, it gives you new information about Part I. Then, Part III ties it all together, reveals where Clytemnestra’s story comes from and her next steps, ultimately ending with the idea that the story’s not over. The story continues for these characters.
Rumpus: I loved the last line of the book: “This is just the beginning,” which speaks to the characters’ stories continuing. My first thought was, “Oh, good, Jamie is going to be okay.” They’re a character who I assume a lot of readers see themselves in.
Merbaum: I hope so. I see a lot myself in Jamie and use Jamie as a vehicle to talk about a number of things, like white people’s assumptions about others, the insecurity of being a writer, the difficulty of being a young person who’s a writer, the difficulty of being a millennial. I wasn’t sure how relatable people would find Jamie. I wondered if people might say, “Jamie needs to be stronger, take a stand and “be a warrior,” but that’s just not who Jamie is.
Rumpus: Now Cly’s namesake, Clytemnestra, is a seriously badass woman from Greek myth. How did the myth inform her character?
Merbaum: Cly’s character is very different from the vengeful Greek Clytemnestra. Cly’s not violent, not duplicitous. There are different narratives about the historical Clytemnestra. In one, her husband, Agamemnon, sacrifices their daughter in order to, literally, get wind in their sails to start the Trojan War. When he comes back, Clytemnestra and her lover murder him. To murder your own husband, to welcome someone and then harm them, are taboos, so she’s fated to be killed in her turn. But you can understand it, right? He kills her daughter for a stupid war. In other narratives, there is no daughter, or there is but there’s no human sacrifice, and Clytemnestra kills her husband anyway. The idea of there being different narratives about her, as a vengeful mother, as a conniving, cheating woman, fascinates me. Neither narrative does her justice, and she’s marginalized in these stories. Women have so little agency in Greek mythology. Cly is also part of different narratives that can be interpreted different ways within her own story. She centers her story around her experience and around the myth-making that she does about her reality from her specific perspective. Over the course of the story, that reality is completely shattered, and she will have to regroup.
Rumpus: In our email exchange, you defined “feminist horror” as a collection of traits including elements of discrimination and violence and suspense. Without giving away what happens in the book, which character is living the most horrifying and frightening situation?
Merbaum: There’s the immediate danger that Jamie experiences in Part II. We have a traditional horror narrative of things going awry, people turning on each other, and things getting physically dangerous. However, Cly is in greater danger than Jamie. Her relationship with Edith, a hotel client, is deeply unhealthy. Edith is not a figure to be trusted. She’s taking advantage of Cly’s youth and inexperience for her own gain, and there’s a lot going on in her life that she’s not sharing. On top of that, you have Cly’s grief about her parents and that she will never be able to live up to their expectations, how that has affected her and the relationship to the hotel she’s placed so much emphasis upon to give her drive and purpose. In the end, we see her heading off for what comes next. But we can assume it’s not going to be easy.
In terms of the risk of harm from others, Jamie is in the greatest danger, but in the risk of harm to oneself, through suicide for example, Cly is in much more danger. This says a lot about dynamics of emotional abuse, which doesn’t leave bruises that you can see and doesn’t set off the same kind of alarm bells in our culture but is rampant and extremely dangerous. The goal of emotional abuse is to break down and destroy the self, your version of reality. Cly gets away from Edith, but damage has been done. Sometimes I say to people that the scariest thing about this book is the gender dynamics, hence the gender-based violence. It’s important to note that this abuse does occur in relationships between women. It’s a taboo to talk about abuse in the queer community, but it is very real. It is very much there.
Rumpus: I think your book, like Carmen Machado’s In the Dream House, is very brave in talking about abuse within the community. In some ways. Jamie manages to get past the harms they’ve suffered. How does Jamie do that, when it’s going to be hard for Cly to do so?
Merbaum: I wonder if the key difference is that Cly is still alone. She doesn’t have a best friend, colleagues, family. Jamie doesn’t talk about a bunch of best friends, just referencing college friends who’ve drifted away, but they make alliances within the hotel, like with Zosiah, who is a key character. They have the desire to help and protect the women within the hotel. To resist and overcome the violence of men is highly motivating for Jaime, to survive both for themselves but also for others. Jamie feels like they have a lot more to live for, where Cly is as young but has already lost so many relationships and opportunities to repair those relationships that her loneliness and isolation make her vulnerable.
Rumpus: The Red Orchid is a “love hotel,” and the Gold Persimmon is a space to grieve. But there’s only talk about sex in the Orchid, and relationships form in the isolation-oriented Persimmon, conflicts that come from characters’ disengagement from their bodies and the impact of disengagement on relationships.
Merbaum: There’s a consistent theme of disassociation from the body, viewing oneself from the outside. I see this as an effect of gender discrimination and the pressure on female-bodied people to adhere to, and kowtow to, the male gaze. If you are affected by that, which it’s hard not to be, you begin to see yourself from the outside. And there’s an additional factor with Jamie being nonbinary—an element of dysphoria that Jamie talks about, because Jamie must view their body from the outside as a protective mechanism. And to negotiate where their body fits in space and how others are going to perceive their body in terms of their safety, their ability to form relationships, their ability to be seen by other people. From watching what happens to Jamie and how people respond to them, you can get a lot about perceptions of gender. You are potentially subject to violence if you challenge people’s view of the world simply by existing.
In thinking about gendered violence, some people will make assumptions about my experiences, but I hope that they will also think about gender more broadly, that this will challenge some assumptions. Most of all, I hope that people who do not fit the gender binary, who do not see themselves represented often, will connect with what I’ve done and will feel like this is their story.
Rumpus: How does gender and gendered violence affect the story of the Red Orchid?
Merbaum: The events happen because of characters’ reactions to each other, right? I thought a lot about the myth of the Minotaur at the center of a labyrinth. The goal of a maze is to get out, but goal of the labyrinth is to reach the middle where the Minotaur, the monster, lives. So, success means being sacrificed to the monster. You can see this reflected in the characters’ pursuit of safety. They’ve constructed a labyrinth, and they’ve set their own monster at the center of it. That has a lot to do with gender dynamics because right away we see the obviously male characters splitting off from the obviously female characters, leaving Jamie in the middle. No one wants Jason, one of the hotel employees, to be in control. But the difficulty in navigating the gender dynamics of early decisions results in things getting way out of hand. It ultimately leads to so much more suffering and violence than actually needs to occur.
Rumpus: Can you tell us about what you have in the works, and the relationship with this novel?
Merbaum: I don’t have a publisher yet for my new novels, so we’ll see what happens. The next book is called Queens of Heaven and Earth. And it is about, in a nutshell, a magical Midwestern queer bar, where witches and goddesses converge. And it is wild. It is a wild story. There is only one cis-man of note in the entire book. The rest is a collection of queer and nonbinary characters. I drew heavily on Sumerian mythology, which I’m fascinated with. So, if you thought my imagination was bizarre in The Gold Persimmon, wait till you see what I’m doing next.
Photograph of Lindsay Merbaum by Jose de los Reyes.