“YOUR FATE IS SEALED WITH GLUE I HAVE BOILED IN A VAT. I SLOPPED IT ON AN ENVELOPE AND MAILED IT TO YOUR MOTHER’S WOMB.”
Threats such as this pose perplexing evidence to the fact that something is amiss in Amelia Gray’s mind. Gray grew up in Tucson, AZ; following the publication of two collections of dark tales, AM/PM and Museum of the Weird (winner of the Ronald Sukenick/American Book Review Innovative Fiction Prize), she has released her ominous debut novel Threats.
Centered on disgraced dentist named David, Threats opens as a package of mysterious ashes arrives at his house. We learn that they belong to his wife Franny, who loved him right up until the day she came in from the woods with blood-soaked feet and died at his side. Now, threats are arriving on everything from David’s bags of sugar to his dead wife’s makeup (which he can’t bear to get rid of):
“CURL UP ON MY LAP. LET ME BRUSH YOUR HAIR WITH MY FINGERS. I AM SINGING YOU A LULLABY. I AM TESTING FOR STRUCTURAL WEAKNESS IN YOUR SKULL.”
Whether it’s the plunge of a wasp’s stinger into a boot, or the flicking away of its corpse by a disdainful finger, the imagery in Threats keeps its tone bleak and progressively more hell-on-earth hallucinogenic. How does Franny keep showing up in people’s lives despite the fact that her ashes are on David’s coffee table? Who is in the garage? Gray is a virtuoso of subtle mood building, a concocter of caricatures led astray by their own unreliable notions of a comfortable reality. She will simmer a murder in a shaky spat between a bus-stop doppelganger, a laundromat apparition, and a self-proclaimed therapist who lives among the wasps in David’s shed… all while describing what makes a perfect set of teeth gleam. I recently had the pleasure of asking her a few questions via email. —Sabra Embury
You’re a recent LA transplant, previously a resident of Austin. What are the notable differences between both places so far?
1. In Austin, you wonder why there’s traffic; in LA, you wonder why there’s not traffic
2. In LA, no discernible population change during Spring Break, summer, or SXSW
3. Many more dudes in the dating pool seem to have steady jobs in LA
4. In Austin, you pay heating/cooling utilities; in LA, you pay parking tickets
5. Drinks are very expensive in LA
Your debut collection AM/PM was published by Featherproof; your second, Museum of the Weird, by FC2. Your first novel Threats is with FSG. What has changed in your life since moving to a major publisher?
· As a result of moving to a major publisher: I’m answering a lot more email, lately. It’s pretty easy to get in touch with me and people do it to ask little questions about my books or what it’s like to work with a big publishing house or what I do for a living otherwise or whatever. Also it seems like my travel has increased maybe 33 percent, though it is 78 percent less funded personally. That’s pretty cool.
· Incidentally, since moving to a major publisher: My cat died. I bought a cordless vacuum. I wrote a story about Ulysses S. Grant butchering a chicken. I switched over to Facebook Timeline. I drank a glass of wine in the bathtub. My sister moved to China. I held two babies.
Here are some common themes I’ve picked up from reading AM/PM, Museum of the Weird and Threats: being obsessed with the imperfection of facial skin; an unwantedness by a spouse (or in general) due to some gross disproportion in look; the effects of isolation on the individual; and a disdain, torturing, or killing of babies. Are these themes conscious choices, or preoccupations?
They’re all preoccupations. I can’t imagine making a conscious choice with a theme and then being interested enough to maintain a narrative behind it for any amount of time. I generally just write about a scene that seems funny or sad and then whatever I’m actually thinking about shines through.
Your character David in Threats is (or was) a dentist. Below is one of the most comprehensive passages which illustrates this:
“The patient might wince through the Xylocaine but would hold as still as a sleeping dog while the dentin was breached and burred, Dycal installed to obliterate the possibility of a return, a white resin filler approximating the shape and texture of a tooth so closely it made David wish for his patients’ sake that the entire procedure could be performed without their knowledge, that they could come in unknowing and leave unknowingly improved.” (117-118)
How did you know so many ins and outs about dentistry? Were you ever interested in pursuing the occupation?
I write about occupations for a living as a marketing writer, so I know a lot about a lot of different work. Dentistry has always been particularly interesting to me because it’s not a very sexy career; it requires a ton of education, your patients usually hate you, there are a lot of gross smells involved. I’ve never known a dentist, besides my own dentists, and I don’t know them that well. I’m looking forward to hearing what dentists think about the book.
Threats has an atmosphere saturated with darkness, terror, and a touch of humor. The effect is a bleak, discombobulating madness. A surreal mystery begging for closure.
“The house was a void. Its dark hallway beckoned. Curtains in the living room stood like sentry ghosts. Each room featured an obvious kind of silence that suggested invisible occupants holding their collective breath.” (67)
Where does that come from? Do you enjoy horror movies?
I like zombie movies but I don’t like watching heavy violence in movies. I like writing and reading about that stuff more than I like seeing it, but I do like how viewing or reading violence can change you physically, like how it elevates the heart rate or makes the palms sweat. I honestly think that’s the same reason I liked all those jalapenos on my breakfast burrito this morning.
Below is one of the most disturbing scenes in Threats:
“As an old woman, David’s mother felt ineffective at most things. She remembered her daughter floating in five inches of water, stretched in it, fluid seeping into her little lungs.” (243)
When you enter a place in your mind to access dark imagery for sake of story, are you shaken afterward by seeing what’s inside? Surprised? Are you purging? Do you feel lighter once it’s out?
I remember writing the scene that’s referenced in that excerpt above, when they actually find the child. It was my birthday, the day I wrote it, and I tore through the scene like it had been fully formed in my brain. It was the simplest thing I wrote in the whole book – the description of the body, the eyes – and it felt incredible to write. I know it’s a sad scene but the sadness didn’t occur to me while I was writing. It was only when I brought it up later, at my birthday dinner, that I realized the weight of it.
There have been other difficult scenes that have been more difficult to write. I recently finished a story about a woman who is also a sexual predator, and the scene of her making it known to her victim that she (the victim) was trapped took a couple hard weeks to write.
You have a highly developed sense of perception that you manifest into a survivalist wisdom for your characters.
“David thought about calling the police, but then he imagined handing them the piece of paper, explaining that he had found it while making coffee. He decided that such a discovery would be best dealt with privately. Likely the threat [was] beyond David’s concern. […] He could not begin to think about the number of things that were truly beyond his concern, the hundreds of thousands of things. (67)
It’s easy to imagine that you are prone to bouts of sensory overload. Do you take in all your surroundings with a hypersensitive sponge, or can you take what you want and ignore the rest?
I was just thinking about your question in NYC, a city in which I spend almost all of my time feeling overwhelmed. As a reaction to your question, I decided to go stand in Union Square during the post-work rush and just take in the people and conversations and movement. It was thrilling! Every person was someone I had never met or even seen before, and then they were gone, replaced by ten more of the same. I felt like if any one of them approached me, I wouldn’t be able to speak. Ever since, it has actually been kind of hard to string a sentence together out loud. (I’ve also been mostly silent for the past few days because I’m sick and my voice is gone.) To answer your question, I think it’s possible for me to be spongelike, but I mostly avoid it in exchange for being a functional human being.
Since you live in LA are you working on a screenplay? Do you have any ideas for a hit television show starring quirky 20-30 somethings with bangs and bicycles trying to find “the one?”
BELIEVE IT OR NOT, I wrote a screenplay way before I even had an inkling that I might move to LA. I thought writing it would be a fun way to spend a couple months, but I should have known this would be the devastating result. Now I put fifty dollars worth of gas into my car every week in one of the most expensive cities in America. Friends, don’t let friends write screenplays.