Very pleased to be hosting another interview between two fine writers. Tara Laskowski, who interviewed Steve Almond here recently, chats this time with Laura Ellen Scott, currently on tour with her first novel, Death Wishing. Thanks to both authors for taking the time to set this up. — Art Taylor
Set in post-Katrina New Orleans, Laura Ellen Scott’s debut novel, Death Wishing, is also set in a delightful alternate reality in which the dying wishes of some of the populace are magically fulfilled—though often with unexpected results. The book follows Victor Swaim, a cape and corset maker trying to recover from a divorce in carefree New Orleans. After a series of those deathbed wishes come true—including the curing of cancer, the elimination of cats, the return of Elvis (1967 vintage), the clouds turning orange, mothers growing third eyes, and cups of coffee becoming bottomless—the hysteria that grows around “Death Wishing” forces Victor into action. He is forced to consider: What would he wish for the world without him in it?
Scott teaches fiction writing at George Mason University. Her work has been selected for The Wigleaf Top Fifty of 2009 and Barrelhouse magazine’s “Futures” issue. She has twice been nominated for Dzanc’s Best of the Web 2010 anthology. She will be reading from Death Wishing at various locations in November; find out just where on her website here. Additionally, you can also email her through her Wish Tank website and tell her what your own dying wish would be. Even if she can’t make it come true, your wish might be chosen for publication on the web.
In the meantime, Scott helped our wishes to come true by answering a few questions about the new book.
Tara Laskowski: Where did the idea for this novel come from?
Laura Ellen Scott: This Army PR guy died and left a statement that there were aliens at Roswell in 1947, so my husband and I were joking around with the old saying: “wishing doesn’t make it so.” I was already writing in the narrator’s voice, having him struggle with weight loss in New Orleans when I thought, why not introduce an element of the fantastic, see what happens? I’d written some ghost stories before, but nothing with this sort of altered reality. I guess my fantasy-obsessed students finally got to me. But basically, I had all the different ideas cooking in small pots before I realized how well they all went together (sidesteps gumbo reference).
Were there any death wishes that you had happen in earlier drafts of this book that never made it in the final cut? Or are there any that you wish you’d put in?
All the wishes made it in, but some were modified along the way. At one point I thought Elvis was too obvious, so I tried to write about Conway Twitty instead. That idea never made it out of a single paragraph.
How does it feel to be on a book tour?
Odd. The effort-to-sales ratio is hard to believe in, but otherwise this is what I’ve been working towards my whole life—to be the person behind the book. I am writing these answers while on the New Orleans/Baton Rouge leg of the tour. I’ve been many times before, but never like this. I’ll tell you more when I get back.
Say that you and I have just one day and night in New Orleans. Where are we going, what are we eating, and what’s the weirdest thing we are going to encounter?
Let’s start with weird, which might not be the right term. Fortune and confluence are more accurate. Last night my friends and I were having curry fries and smoked beer (tasted like bacon) in a bar where a woman was playing piano and singing “Summertime” in a heavy Japanese accent when the actor David Morse (Treme, House, St. Elsewhere) sort of leaned in to check out the scene. Outside, vampire kid buskers had set up on almost every corner of Frenchmen Street.
As for out day & night: The best thing to do is grab a refreshment and a bench for people watching, but DC area folks aren’t constitutionally suited to that, so the only other option is the Tourist Death March. We need protein for breakfast. Not those damned beignets at Café du Monde; that’s drunk food as far as I’m concerned. We take the St. Charles Streetcar out to the Camellia Grill, even though they have a new location in the Quarter, so you can see the Garden District. Then we go to St. Louis Cemetery #1 on a paid tour. This is where Marie Laveau’s grave is, and our tour guide, a trained/licensed historian, will not be charmed by your voodoo jokes or your sense of humor in general. The tour will probably conclude at a voodoo shop, where you will be so taken by the incense and romance that you will spend a lot of money on offensive trinkets.
We’re not hungry, so we go to The Napolean House for lunch (good luck getting any) and our first alcohol of the day: Pimm’s Cup. Then we futz around Jackson Square and the Moonwalk, roam the shops on Royal and Chartres, take in a beer flight at Crescent City Brewery, and get into an argument about where to go for dinner, which is the signal to stop for a NAP. Dinner and a sazerac at Antoine’s, but if we muffed the reservation, anything at Snug Harbor before we hit the eight-o’clock show would be very satisfying. After that, we bounce around Frenchmen Street clubs till those beignets start making sense.
We might stop at Sidney’s Wine to get an unneeded bottle to take back to the hotel. If you choose something interesting the staff there will get pretty excited and tell you stories.
Notice we didn’t go to Bourbon Street. I’m sending you there on your own. I don’t like watching Nicolas Cage make out with my Grandma.
You are also a very successful writer of very short fiction. How hard was it to switch between the two forms? Which do you like better?
When I was deep into Death Wishing, I found extracting bits for very short stories was a pressure release, but I can’t imagine writing a conventional short story any time soon. Very short fiction still appeals, but right now I really want to dive back into a new novel project. It’s just so fun. They don’t tell you that in school.
What’s your favorite Elvis song?
“Little Sister.” [Editor’s note: I’m curious why!]
In your book, some people are death wishers and some are not. Do you have a feeling you would be a death wisher? Why or why not?
Nah. I’ve never won anything, so it’s unlikely I’d be a wisher. I’ll just look out for the folks who are.
What’s the best compliment/feedback you’ve gotten about this book so far? And to follow up and keep you humble, what’s the weirdest/worst comment you’ve gotten?
The best feedback came from the publishers at Ig, Robert Lasner and Elizabeth Clementson. They read a draft of the book which had a very different, more Hollywood-boom!boom! ending, and they said, “It was too over the top, after the book had been very subtle and specific to that point. While I understand what you were trying to do, it didn’t feel right—it was like being woken up in the middle of a pleasant dream by someone screaming in front of your house.” That was exactly the right kind of guidance to give me for the re-write.
So far the harshest responses have been from folks who couldn’t get past the first ten pages. I got a few 1-star reviews out of them, but I understand their frustration. From a certain angle, this book appears as if the fantastic element of Death Wishing is more central than it is. But in fact, the wishing is a catalyst for the drama of Victor’s growth as a father, lover, and reluctant hero.