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Laurie Foos: The Greatest Fabulist You May Not Yet Know

by Holly Wilson

"You must understand this: I've never blamed Elvis. Not before the horn, and certainly not after. What our parents did with—or in the name of—Elvis was their own doing, not his. Elvis didn't force them into the night."

—from Before Elvis There Was Nothing
Sometimes you stumble across a writer whose brilliance seems like a well-kept industry secret. Laurie Foos is one such writer. A contemporary fabulist, she writes in the tradition of Ionesco and Kafka. Her work is darkly comic and tragic, twisted in all of the best ways. Recently, Holly Wilson tracked Foos down for the Southeast Review to ask her about her work. Hopefully you've already heard of Foos, but, if not, read the interview, buy her books, and live a little in her wonderfully mad interiors.

Q. Something I admire about your writing is your characters’ obsessions, their peculiar but somehow recognizable yearnings towards very specific things: Elvis, hair extensions, feet, mating walruses. These self-made neurotic landscapes can be so revealing. Are you obsessive, too? Are any of these your own obsessions?

It's interesting that both hair and feet have appeared numerous times in my work, though I'm not entirely sure why. I can say that I find feet, in general, and most men's feet, in particular, quite unattractive, but I would not say I'm at all obsessed or phobic about them. My attitude toward feet has changed since becoming a parent, though, as I've found that there is absolutely nothing more adorable in the world than either of my children's feet (they are 2 1/2 and 14 months).

I've always been fascinated by Elvis. My mother was a huge fan and had scads of what were then called “movie magazines” in the house, with some entirely devoted to Elvis, so I learned early about his life, Priscilla, the bodyguards, all of that. The death culture that now surrounds him still intrigues me, but so much has been written about Elvis that I was really resistant to writing about him at all. What could I possibly add to what has been said? This was my biggest worry. He came into the novel early, and I remember thinking, “Well, he wants to be here, apparently, so I'll let him stay," and in a sense I exorcised some of my own Elvis obsessions by writing about them. I am, quite honestly, a bottomless font of Elvis trivia. There’s just no end to it. And I have been to Graceland (she says proudly) three times.

Q. In Before Elvis There Was Nothing, when the protagonist Cass finds herself in a bizarre plastic surgery facility, you manage to “weird the story up” even more than in the first half. I found myself unable to put the book down from this point onward, and read the last ninety pages in one sitting. What obligation does a writer with fabulist/absurdist impulses feel to entertain, to pull out all the stops in order to keep the reader reading?

The novel does become stranger and more surreal as it progresses, but that had not been my plan. In fact, I never begin a book with any sort of "plan" in mind, and I try never to be conscious of the constraints or expectations of either traditional or non-traditional writing. I told the story of Cass and her burgeoning horn as it unfolded to me. I do remember a point, though, when I got her to the hospital and the other "patients" began to appear that I became concerned with the question of what they were all doing there. It seems that, in a sense, I set up a certain problem (in this case, a horn that develops) that arises or is lost in each of my novels, and then it is my job to figure out how it all ends up. I was really unsure what would happen to Cass once she left the more realistic world she shared with her sister, and I remember fretting about it, waiting for the answer. Once that answer became clear, most of the hospital scenes came to me rather quickly, almost frenetically, so it's nice to hear that you found them compelling.

I don't know that I believe a writer's responsibilities as an absurdist or fabulist or surrealist are all that different than those of a realistic writer's, or at least I don't perceive them as such. The weight of creating a convincing world, a world most people will not recognize as the one in which they live, may be greater in novels that depart from the realistic tradition, but I think we are all obliged to keep the reader's interest. We’re all striving to create the "prolonged fictional dream" that Gardner referred to. I am aware, always, that the absurd or surrealistic world must be in some way tied to the real world and that it must contain its own logic and parameters. Personally, I'm drawn to comedy, dark though it may be, and so in that way I do think about entertaining the reader to some extent, but rarely is that a conscious thought in the first draft. In fact, I am often surprised by the parts that people find funny because those were often the most earnest parts for me in the writing. (This is not to say that I don’t enjoy cracking myself up at times. I do. It’s one of the things that keeps me going).

Q. Much of fabulist fiction’s potential seems to be in its range: Kelly Link is not Laurie Foos is not Judy Budnitz is not George Saunders is not Aimee Bender. What do you make of fabulism? Do you consider yourself a fabulist? An absurdist? A satirist? Does it matter?

I'm quite taken with the fabulist tradition, and I'm very pleased to see that there are writers doing this kind of work. I’m especially delighted, I must add, to see women writers like Bender and Budnitz and Link. Young women writers working in this way gives me a great sense of satisfaction, as I think the genre has been male-dominated for far too long. This is not to say that I am not also a great fan of people like George Saunders and Donald Antrim or some of the others, but it has always seemed puzzling to me, whether it was a matter of male writers doing this more or of its being more difficult for women writers working in fabulism (or surrealism or absurdism, whichever term you prefer) to break through. Once we lost Angela Carter, I was worried, but now I feel heartened.

I've always been drawn to fables and to the allegorical, and my work tends to rely heavily on metaphor (and you'd certainly better be aware of your metaphor if you're going to stick it in the middle of your protagonist's forehead), so in that way I can understand why I’d be considered a “fabulist.” I'm always a little bit puzzled by labels such as these because the lines tend to be blurred. These terms always strike me as being tied into marketing somehow or into a particular critic's way of seeing things, and I've tried not to pay too much attention to them in my own work. I don't dislike any of the terms per se, but I guess I do feel there's an inherent danger in thinking about your work with a certain term attached to it.

Q. In your latest book you mention Eugene Ionesco’s play Rhinoceros in the acknowledgments. What does Ionesco’s writing do for you?

Reading Rhinoceros in college was truly a marker in my life. When I think back to reading that play, I feel a tremendous gratitude because I don't think Ionseco is taught with the same frequency and intensity today as Beckett or Pinter or some of the other absurdist playwrights. It was just tremendous for me; I felt as if my head had come apart. I remember thinking, My God, people actually write like that? because my exposure to surrealism or absurdism up to that point had been so limited. There's also such a strange familiarity to the worlds Ionesco creates, as bizarre as they may seem, and here I'm thinking of "The Chairs" and "The Bald Soprano." It's marvelous, ground-breaking, utterly original work. True genius. A writer like Ionesco is inimitable, and yet there I was, writing a novel about a woman with a horn in her head all the same. My feeble attempt at homage.

Q. Who are some other writers or books that first brought you to writing, or changed the way you wrote?

Kafka, certainly, was and is the writer I point to as having had the greatest influence on me and my work. It's as if I look back and think of the world as being divided by "Before and After Kafka." Reading Beckett certainly changed me as well, and later exposure to Donald Barthelme and Robert Coover did also. Flannery O'Connor and her portrait of the grotesque was a major influence. I was also extremely fortunate to land in a program headed by the experimental writers Jonathan Baumbach and Peter Spielberg, and it was they who encouraged me to push my work in an even more non-traditional path, though the work I did in graduate school, like most writers my age, was influenced a great deal by people like Carver. Carver's worlds are also strange, and so his being at the forefront at that time was also fortuitous for me.

The following can be answered in a word, a phrase, a sentence . . .

1) Name a writer who is currently making you jealous.

Anyone who is at The MacDowell Colony right now.

2) What kind of child were you?

Shy, introverted, liked to play alone but also had a strong social side, started writing early, knew I wanted to be a writer when I was nine.

3) What is your relationship with rejection like?

It doesn’t happen as often now, but I remember that it so often did that I cherished the “nice rejections” for a long time.

4) What book did you suffer for the most, and why?

Bingo Under the Crucifix. The truths in there are more metaphorical than autobiographical, but they were painful truths.

5) What was the greatest surprise for you in your most recent writing?

That it's so dark. I thought having children would lighten me up—but no.

6) What writerly habit would you most like to break?

I would have said procrastination before kids, but now it's all about finding time.

And lastly . . . (something random to top it off) . . . What do some of your relatives do for a living?

My brother is a former NYC cop, now on Long Island, my husband's a patent attorney, my dad is a retired mailman (42 years), and my mom was a homemaker and now my babysitter, bless her soul.

Laurie Foos is the author of the novels Before Elvis There Was Nothing, Bingo Under the Crucifix, Twinship, Portrait of the Walrus by a Young Artist, and Ex Utero. She is currently working on a new novel, an excerpt of which will appear in the forthcoming anthology, Beyond Reason: XXperimental Women Writers Writing in the 21st Century. She teaches in the low residency MFA program at Lesley University and lives on Long Island with her husband and two children.

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