We asked the 'Gutshot' author about sex, scars, her new book, and the Bible as a literary object.
Amelia Gray is an author I've long admired. Her first book, the vignette-comprised AM/PM, was published by indie mainstay Featherproof Books back in 2009, and established Gray as a truly weird and formidable talent. Gutshot is her fourth book, and her second on Big 5-imprint FSG, following her aptly named novel-in-threats, Threats (several of which VICE featured in 2011). The stories in Gutshot, also aptly named, get at you right in the viscera, full of bodily fluids and strange sights and smells. They often end not with a neat tying-up of the various elements, but as if something exploded, like dynamite breaking down a door.
Each book shows Gray pushing herself harder, faster, more. But Gutshot is not all swagger and shock—there's a softness hiding under the derangement, a visible tenderness for her troubled characters that have found themselves lost in the margins of existence, that becomes all the more affecting as it moves with and against the character's sharp edges.
Gray and I spoke on the phone on a Sunday evening, our call delayed an hour because she'd been on a hike in the Altadena hills, just outside of Los Angeles, where Gray currently resides. Her boyfriend had gotten stung by a bee—a scenario that feels like the beginning of one of Gray's stories.
VICE: Your writing often features characters with physical abnormalities like scars, or missing fingers, or crossed eyes—do you have any interesting scars or abnormalities yourself?
Amelia Gray: I think scars make the best tattoos. I've got a good one on my legs from when we were playing this game in Bible study, where you stand in a circle with a bunch of kids and you throw a ball of yarn from kid to kid, and everyone is standing there with this spider web of yarn between them, and then they tell you that that's how Jesus connects you. Then they say that the last person to get to the room doesn't get any M&M's, so the kids start running, and the rope kind of slices everybody. That's how I have my cool ankle scar. I've also got a scoliotic spine, so that's something that's slowly going to kill me. I think everybody's got some weird story about their body.
A lot of the stories in Gutshot read like demented Bible parables. What's your favorite Bible story?
I grew up reading the Bible. I went to Presbyterian church every Sunday for 18 years. At some point I started operating the sound board at the back of the sanctuary, hiding behind the soundboard and reading books, either Twenty Thousand Leagues Under the Sea or the Bible.
My favorite Bible story is probably the one with the swine that are running because the devil has climbed into them and Jesus speaks to them and they say they are legion. I think then Jesus casts them into the ocean, and everyone's like, "Well, they had the devil in them, so they wouldn't be any good anyway," or whatever. And I've always liked the Song of Solomon because it's so sexy.
Do you think the Bible is a good book? Like, I know that it's the good book, but would you say it's a good piece of literature?
I mean, it's kind of repetitive. It's got a pretty cool ending. But it really drags, in certain parts. I would say it's uneven, as a work.
Gutshot is divided into five numbered parts, which caused me to try and figure out the methodology you used while sorting them. Then, after I was finished reading the book, I read an interview you did in the New Yorker, where you said that you unofficially called the sections Major Posits, Predation, Fables, Viscera, and Resolve. Were you hoping that by not naming them, people would do what I did and try to figure your reasoning out?
I had the names on them, and I thought it looked a little leading, or maybe pretentious, to call a section "Viscera," and I didn't want people to necessarily look at a section called "Viscera" and then chuck the whole thing because they didn't think they'd like it or something.
I never grouped them while I was writing them. It was the last thing I did—printed out every story and spread them around my bedroom while moving things around, with notes scrawled on them. Then I was like, "OK, these are fables." When I wanted to call the book Posits—talk about pretentious—those were stories where I had a specific idea and then pursued it.
I wanted to group it in a way so that people wouldn't feel overwhelmed, or could look at each one as a sort of mini-book and just feel it as a method of thinking, but not to necessarily name it or put a real strong cast on it.
The characters in Gutshot finger-bang, have oral sex, give handjobs—but seem to not really have that much straightforward, regular old intercourse. What is it about second and third base that are more compelling to you than making it all the way home?
I do a weird job when I try to write sex. Part of it is about making my characters as uncomfortable as possible, and making me uncomfortable in the process. Then there's just the weirdness of sex. It's a weird bodily thing—natural, but also strange.
Also, a lot of my characters are in trouble, or about to be in trouble, and that is a function of that, or an extrapolation of the trouble they're in—or maybe the trouble itself, I guess. But I have a hard time. The character in the novel I'm writing right now is supposed to be very sexual but I don't know what the deal is. Maybe it was my religious upbringing, but sex always comes out malformed and strange.
Why do you think you're interested in making yourself and your characters uncomfortable?
I think discomfort is where change happens, and change is a good function of fiction. Something about just making a room smaller, a situation smaller or stranger.
But really it's impulse-driven. Like today on the hike, I was looking at the rocky outcropping above us and I got a flash of, "OK, if there was an earthquake, we would die, and the cliff would fall on me, and my boyfriend couldn't get me out, and he would get hit with a rock, and the dog would be crushed." It's this awful kind of impulse and I have to physically shake my head to get it out. With fiction, I pursue those paths, just following whatever dark drive is in my head. Why I do that, I don't know.
Do you ever write from your nightmares?
Yes, for sure. "People of the Bay" was from part of a dream, so was "Monument," and part of " Precious Katherine." I used to obsessively write as soon as I got up in the morning. I remember Aimee Bender saying that she wanted to write while the dreams were still burning off in her mind, and I thought that was so cool. And it was. A lot of good stuff came from it. But I had a full-time job while I was writing this book, and I had to wake up and drive to skip the traffic, and then by the time I was there I was obviously awake.
I was looking at your Twitter, and you tweeted, "Fake modesty remains the leading cause of death for artists under 40." So how do you feel about yourself as an author?
[Laughs] I'm the best.
See, that's what I want to hear. I feel like everyone thinks that in their head but is afraid to say it.
That's what I've been mulling over. I was thinking about it in terms of actors, like Jennifer Lawrence, who everybody loves and thinks is so cool, or that other one—Emma Stone. They're cute, but they're also self-effacing. It's like, here's a video of Jennifer Lawrence geeking out over Jack Nicholson, or here's a GIF of Emma Stone rolling her eyes and sticking out her tongue in this really adorable way. But anyone at that level has to just be a huge maniac. And that's fine, but it's part of the trick that they're playing, to appear down-to-earth. That's my theory, anyway.
And I do it too. When ["Labyrinth" was published in] the New Yorker, it was completely out of left field. The turnaround was ten days, between finding out and the story going up. I felt like I needed to say that it happened on Facebook, and I got so anxious. I was covered in hives, and I had to take a Klonopin. I wanted to say this super humble thing—I wanted to mention a lot of people by name. It came from a real place, the humility wasn't fake—but I think it was a deflection. A thing because I was kind of scared. So I ended up saying something really simple. I don't know if there's a right way to talk about being in the New Yorker.
So the under-40 crack was mostly me making fun of myself.
What do your parents think of your writing? Or what do you think of your parents reading your writing?
I think about that a lot. They are fans, and they've always been really supportive. I used to be a lot more nervous about writing and showing it to them because some of it is pretty dark, and like any parents, they want me to be happy and safe and well. And some of it kind of is, I don't know... unwell.
It was a process. The first book, there was one swear word—the F-bomb was in AM/PM—and it was so hard for me to rationalize them seeing it or me writing it. It was a religious-girl thing, I guess. The second book [Museum of the Weird] got a little more direct but was really aloof, and then the third book [Threats] had a sex scene, and now this book feels like the wheels have come off. They're reading it now, so I don't know what they think of it yet. I hope they like it.
What do you think the progression is due to? You becoming more comfortable with the idea of them reading it, or is it something else?
It's part of that. They saw me doing a reading from Threats in Tucson, where I'm from, which was awesome. Spork Press put it on and it was a half-dance party with booming club music. It was a dudes-in-horse-masks kind of thing. My mom was dancing with a man in a floor-length gown. I was screaming the threats and throwing them into the crowd, and the adrenaline of it carried me away a bit. When I came back down to earth, my parents were still there, and they were proud of me and happy and it was great.
Gutshot is me pushing myself to be less aloof and more direct, whether that means being more unflinchingly violent or more dangerous or more sexual.
In "Go for It and Raise Hell," we are told of a man named Carl who is covered in filth and flips bitches in a dirty Iroc-Z on a dirty road. You say that "the literal goddamn opposite" of Carl is two middle-aged people going on their first date in a coffee shop. So what is the literal goddamn opposite of Gutshot?
Probably a Pottery Barn. I would say Restoration Hardware, but it's a little darker in there.
Amelia Gray's Gutshot will be published April 14, 2015, by Farrar, Straus and Giroux.
Juliet Escoria is the author of Black Cloud. Follow her on Twitter.