An Interview with Laurie Foos in The Writer's Chronicle
Jorge Armenteros | October/November 2012
Reprinted from The Writer's Chronicle and www.awpwriter.org
I'll be perfectly honest and tell you that I have no adequate answer to why I write the way that I do. Writing fiction that departs from reality in some way is not intentional for me; it's not a precept I impose upon the work. It's simply what comes out of me.
Laurie Foos was awarded the San Diego Current’s “Hot Tamale Award” for her first novel Ex Utero. Her other novels include Portrait of the Walrus by a Young Artist, Twinship, Bingo Under The Crucifix, and Before Elvis There Was Nothing. Her sixth book of fiction, The Giant Baby, was published in September, and a new novel, The Blue Girl, is forthcoming from Coffee House Press. Her short fiction has appeared in literary magazines such as the Rake, Quarterly West, and Gulf Coast, and in the anthologies Girls Just Want to Have Fun and Chick-Lit: Postfeminist Fiction. She is also the recipient of fellowships from the Sewanee Writers’ Conference, Wesleyan University Writers Conference, and the MacDowell Colony. Foos teaches in the MFA in Creative Writing at Lesley University and in the BFA in Creative Writing Program at Goddard College.
Jorge Armenteros: You grew up on Long Island in New York. What was that like? How did it influence your desire to be a writer?
Laurie Foos: I come from a working class family and lived primarily in Levittown, the post-WWI town where all the houses at that time were the same, as well as most of the people, at least in terms of their economic status. No one had more or less than anyone else. My friends’ fathers were firemen, sanitation men, blue collar workers. My dad was a mailman and my mom stayed home with us until I was in my teens. Nobody in my family is a writer; there are many great storytellers in my family, but no writers.
My first memory of writing something and showing it to someone was in 1st grade. I saw a documentary on Abe Lincoln. It made such an impression on me that I sat down and wrote a response. I remember going to my room for a pencil and paper and writing it on my own. I showed it to my teacher and she asked, “Do you know what paragraphs are?” She was sort of amazed that I had written several pages. I have a clear memory of sitting at a table with her where she explained paragraphs to me. So it appears I had the impulse to be a writer at a very early age.
Armenteros: Who were the writers you admired when you first started writing?
Foos: I wanted to be a writer since I was nine years old, but I knew very little about the “important” books, even by the time I went to college. It’s funny, for some reason, I had this idea that all writers who wrote real literature were dead. My sense of living, working writers—beyond the realm of popular writers like Stephen King—was nonexistent. Then, in college, I read a lot of Raymond Carver, who was very big then; I think that everyone was emulating him during that time, the mid-to-late ’80s.
I remember being quite taken with the work of Jayne Anne Phillips and other writers who were then known as the “Dirty Realists.” At the time, I read short stories because I wanted to be strictly a short story writer. I admired the form greatly, and of course still do. So the fact that I’m a novelist came as a huge surprise.
In terms of influence, though, a wonderfully serendipitous thing happened to me my first semester at college. In one course on the Short Story, I was exposed to writers who became my biggest influences. In that course I was first exposed to Kafka, which is interesting because “Metamorphosis” isn’t necessarily always thought of as a short story. Reading Kafka changed my sense of writing and what could be done in ways that are difficult to articulate. It’s as if, for me, there was life before and after Kafka. And Gogol. We read “The Nose” in that same course, one of those huge lecture hall courses, and there I was, this shy freshman who came to class with her notebook, who tried to pretend her head wasn’t about to come apart. I had no idea that people could write that way. A man’s nose running through the streets. Incredible.
Armenteros: How do you start your novels—with a character in mind, a phrase, a scene, a feeling?
Foos: They generally begin with a line, or an image, or a metaphor. My first book, Ex Utero, started with a metaphor. I was lying in bed and had the image—or the notion—of a woman who loses her uterus. It’s one of the few times I’ve had the good sense to follow my own advice and get up out of my bed, where I was nearly asleep, and find a notebook and pen. I’m always after students to keep notebooks at their bedsides for this reason, as I believe so strongly in the connection between art and the unconscious. All of it for me comes very much this way, a sort of leaping out from the unconscious. I try never to step on that, that process, and I can trace each novel to having started in that way.
Armenteros: Do you ever write with an ending already in mind?
Foos: Never. I have no idea where I’m going until I’m almost there, and then I have moments of terror towards the end. Each time I’m not sure how the novel is going to end, and I feel that panic. How am I going to solve this? Is it going to be this or that? I have learned to talk myself through that period because I know the answer will reveal itself, and as a result, I have learned to have more patience because I know I will get there. But it scares the hell out of me every time. The not-knowing.
Armenteros: In his book From Where You Dream, Robert Olen Butler writes, “Artists are not intellectuals. We are sensualists.” Do you agree with this statement?
Foos: I do. And let me say I love that book, as it’s one of the craft books I think every writer should read. I certainly don’t view myself as an intellectual. I think there are certain writers who are more cerebral than others, but I would not say I’m one of them. When I came upon that book, I thought, “At last someone has articulated this,” the fact that art comes not from the intellect or the rational part of the brain. I do agree that it comes from the unconscious, what Butler calls the “white hot center of you.” That is what I try most to teach; to learn to get to that part of your mind because that is where your uniqueness lies. That is where your collective experience lives, that wholeness of experience that is yours and no one else’s. And that is where art comes from.
Armenteros: You teach a course at the Lesley University MFA entitled “Mining the Unconscious,” correct?
Foos: Yes, and the key to teaching that skill—because it is a skill that can be learned—is through the writing and the practice of learning to get out of your own way; that is really the key. Students often tell me afterward that they come in not really understanding what that means; to write from the unconscious. They think I’m going to beat them over the head with a mallet, I think, or put them into some sort of trance. When I was getting my MFA, one of my professors, Jonathan Baumbach, used to say to me, “Your work is so unconscious that I’m almost loath to tamper with it,” and someone in the workshop later said, “I have this image of you with your head down on the typewriter and you are asleep when you write this.” That would be nice, if it were like that. I was fortunate to have an innate sense of how to tap into it and to have a teacher who encouraged that process. It’s so interesting because in all the talk we do about writing, we so rarely talk about the process itself.
As I tell my students, unless we risk we can’t grow. If what we’re doing feels uncomfortable, it’s probably a sign that it’s what we ought to be doing. I do think it’s important to keep pushing yourself and to keep growing and to keep learning from yourself.
Armenteros: Do your characters, scenes, or plot lines come to you in your dreams?
Foos: No, though I have had dreams about the books when I am deeply into the writing. With Ex Utero—and that beginning coming to me in that way—it wasn’t quite a dream, but I was in that state of being nearly asleep. Something inside me said, “I think there is really something here,” and like I said, I got a notebook. Originally I had four women sketched out, in balloons and phrases all over the page, just sort of scribbled down the ideas of these women and what happened to them as a result of the lost uterus.
When I started the novel, I didn’t call it a novel, I called it “the long piece” because I was terrified of calling it a novel. The very next day I wrote the first two chapters, and there in the second chapter was the security guard. I thought, “Okay, he wants to be in here, so I’m going to let him,” and then other characters came along that I hadn’t planned on at all. The writing of that novel was so interesting, and I don’t think it will ever happen again, but it came almost as a gift. What came out in the first draft ended up, almost entirely, in the printed book. In the second draft there weren’t as many changes as I have gotten used to happening since then, where I have taken whole books apart.
Armenteros: At one point, Borges explained that “writing is nothing more than a guided dream.” Does it feel that way to you?
Foos: In the first draft it often does, and that is why it’s not wise to pull your head out of a novel for very long. Haruki Murakami talks about this in his book On Running, in which he compares writing to the running of a marathon, and it makes perfect sense, that analogy, as it is a long distance run. In the first draft it’s a long distance run of the unconscious.
Armenteros: Albert Camus said, “The absurd is the essential concept of the first truth.” Is that why you start your novels with an improbable event?
Foos: I’ll be perfectly honest and tell you that I have no adequate answer to why I write the way that I do. Writing fiction that departs from reality in some way is not intentional for me; it’s not a precept I impose upon the work. It’s simply what comes out of me. Certain aspects of my career would be easier, I think, if I wrote more realistic fiction, but I’ve long ago made peace with the fact that I write what I write, and that’s that. Those terms—absurdist or surrealist—are terms for others to bandy about. I’m fine with any of them, but I don’t think of myself as being a “surrealist” or an “absurdist,” per se. When I think back to the people who have influenced me, the writers that I turn to over and over, like Gogol, Kafka, Ionesco, or Beckett, those are all absurdists. My best answer is that I think that generally much of life is absurd, and, as a result, my work reflects that sensibility.
Armenteros: So when writing in this less realistic, or absurdist fashion, how do you help your readers achieve that “willing suspension of disbelief?”
Foos: I almost always set it up from the first line, and that comes straight from Kafka’s opening, “Gregor Samsa awoke from unsettling dreams to find himself transformed into a gigantic insect” or beetle or whatever the translation is. I generally have a first line that starts in that way, and until I have that line, I can’t really move forward. It seems to me that you have to have them in the beginning, at the get-go, to let readers know they are going into a place where they are going to have to suspend their expectations of realism. That isn’t to say, though, that I don’t ground readers. All of my work has some grounding in the world we all know and recognize. Although the subject matter might be surreal, the form of my work tends to be akin to the traditional novel.
Armenteros: Are you attempting to define a new reality in your books?
Foos: I don’t think so, although I do think our definition of reality has changed with time. I don’t ever write with a particular agenda, at least consciously, and I don’t necessarily understand my own metaphors or know exactly what it is I’m trying to say in the novel until I’m nearly finished with the first draft. I do think that I am to a certain extent trying to understand the connection between the conscious and the unconscious life, between reality and imagination. For me that line has always been blurred. As artists, we live in a certain hyper reality in that we are living the life of the mind, yet we have to manage to go about our daily business, as anyone does. How to best manage that balance has been sort of a central question for me. How to be an artist and still live in the world.
Armenteros: Do you think, then, that there are several layers of reality?
Foos: Yes, and I think that people are sensitive to other layers but push them back. If you look closely enough, you can see the different levels of the mind at work. I find that fascinating. What do people really see? Why do people not see what they do? How aware are we of our own minds at work?
Armenteros: What helped you break ties with traditional fiction?
Foos: I’m not a mystic of any sort, but I do believe in serendipity, or kismet. I believe when you send your intention out to the world, that very often, the world will come back to meet you. When I was looking at graduate schools, I did very little research because I knew so little about MFA writing programs, and somehow I managed to choose Brooklyn College, which was then run by the experimental writers Jonathan Baumbach and Peter Spielberg, who started Fiction Collective in the ’70s. At the time I wasn’t writing work that would be called surreal, or absurd, but it didn’t fall into traditional bounds. There was a moment when Jonathan Baumbach said to me, “You don’t write like anyone, and that’s a very good thing. You’re a real writer, and I don’t often say that.” When you hear that, when you are twenty three… it’s a great gift. That affirmation gave me a great deal of courage.
Armenteros: Tell me more about what that meant to you?
Foos: Everyone needs a permission slip to become a writer, and they gave that to me. In my own teaching, I’ve been very aware of having that as part of my role, to pass on that permission slip. Having Jonathan and Peter believe in my work allowed me to see that the writing life was a possibility. Until then, as I said, I didn’t have any models for living the writer’s life except for them, and they allowed me to feel that such a life was possible. It’s interesting, though, that even with their nudging me forward, I didn’t start to write work that had a distinct departure from reality until after I finished the program.
Armenteros: Were you ever scared to write experimental fiction?
Foos: I was toying with it for a while. I don’t think I was scared because I’d always been so attracted to that kind of work, but it took a while for me to find my own way of doing it. I would have these stories where there would be ghost-like presences or there would be this sort of overall quirky sensibility. Or the metaphor would be the central part of the story, and the plot was incidental. That wasn’t intentional because at that time I wasn’t a character-driven writer. I think that’s still true, although I have gotten to be more of a character-driven writer than I used to be. The work that I read in graduate school, work by Barthelme and Barth and Borges, took some time to percolate, and then I started to write work that took more leaps.
Armenteros: What do you think is at stake when people write experimental fiction?
Foos: That it’s not going to be read. Anyone who writes experimental work has to understand that because the audience for it is so small.
There was a controversy a couple of years ago between Ben Marcus and Jonathan Franzen on this subject. After Franzen’s remarks, Ben Marcus’s response was, “Why attack experimental fiction when we have as little of an audience as we do as it is?” I have always been puzzled by this, by the reason that some realistic writers speak about experimental work with such venom, such vehemence. At one conference I attended years ago, one of the faculty members said, “Listen to me: about the Barthelmes. Frederick is the genius, not Donald. Make no mistake.”
Another thing that I have also wondered is why we see so few women writing surrealist or absurdist or experimental work, and why so few women break out in that vein. There are far more men whose work has done well who write prose that takes flights from realism. Why is that? Is it because we are essentially a Puritan country that we have that sort of ideal, that women are supposed to write the nice domestic novel but men can do other things with greater ease? We do have some women writers who have had success, of course, like Aimee Bender, Kelly Link, and Judy Budnitz.
Armenteros: Turning towards your work, we find the theme of childbearing in Ex Utero, Twinship, and Bingo Under the Crucifix. Were you conflicted about childbearing when you wrote those novels?
Foos: In a word: yes. I got married but waited a long time to have children. Not long into the marriage, though, people started asking me, “Are you trying? No? Well, then when do you plan to try?” I thought these were incredibly intrusive questions, and they took me by surprise. I was young when Ex Utero came out, twenty-eight, and already there had been a lot of pressure. I wonder now whether my ambivalence wasn’t in some way tied to the pressure.
Now, of course, I have two children—seven and six—and I wonder what I was so ambivalent about. But I do feel that waiting, for me, was the right decision, as I was well prepared for how consuming motherhood would be. When I was in my twenties and early thirties, too, I felt that I had a lot to say, and a lot to get out, and so I’m glad that I did. I knew that if I had a child and wasn’t able to write, I would be resentful of the child. I was aware that writing would move to the back burner, at least for a time, once I had children. And I knew I had to be okay with that.
Armenteros: With two young children, is it difficult to balance family life with writing life?
Foos: The fact that they are now in school full time has made it less so. I have written more in these past months since they’ve both been in school all day than I have in the last six years, since my daughter was born. But balance is difficult; it just is. If one of them gets sick, or the school calls that one of them needs to be picked up, then there’s no work that day. There was an article about Gish Jen and Grace Paley on a walk together in which Jen asks Paley, “How do you balance?” and Grace Paley just says, “Darling, there is no balance.” You just figure it out as you would with anything. But there will always be things that pull you away from the writing. You have to make the time, no matter what. You can’t do the work if you don’t show up.
Armenteros: In Twinship you write, “Motherhood, I thought, was a cruel hoax that drew women in with the illusion of unconditional love and moments of joy when in reality it was filled with loss…” Is that why some of your heroines—Rita in Ex Utero and Maxi in Twinship—lose their motherhood?
Foos: I wrote that? I wrote that before I was a mother, so it’s interesting to hear that again. I think there is a certain amount of loss; I realize that now, which I must have had a sense of even then.
I think that line has to do more with the fact that people often see motherhood as the fulfillment of the self and not the fulfillment of the child (who is still yet to be). At least that is the way that many women put it to me. “Oh, your husband’s in law school? Have a baby for company.” Somehow, I knew that thinking was wrong-headed. You do, at times—at least I do—have moments when it’s so consuming that you experience a loss of self, or the self that you were before you became a mother, and I wish people were more willing to talk about that.
I don't ever write with a particular agenda, at least consciously, and I don't necessarily understand my own metaphors or know exactly what it is I'm trying to say in the novel until I'm nearly finished with the first draft.
Armenteros: The media plays a large role in your novels. Is the media supposed to represent a collective voice, a sort of Greek Chorus?
Foos: It’s very perceptive of you to say that because I am so interested in the Greek Chorus, in the collective voice, in the collective unconscious. That idea is central, without giving too much away, in the new novel that is coming out, The Blue Girl. In that novel I play with the possibility of a collective unconscious bringing about a series of events. In the novels in which the media appears, the media offers a kind of commentary on the events, much like the Greek Chorus. I hadn’t realized that, really, though, until you asked me that question.
Armenteros: In Bingo Under the Crucifix, and even more in Before Elvis, you play with form. We find sticky notes, lists, medical records, even a dictionary of “Elvispeak.” How did you come to that decision?
Foos: I have always been interested in the way things look on the page, and I have always admired the way in which people who are very good at it can manipulate text on the page. When I was coming of age, I read a lot of poetry, and I still read poetry, and I’m still fascinated by the way a poem looks on a page. Of course I can’t do it at all—write poetry, I mean. Believe me; I’ve tried, and the results are not pretty. In Before Elvis, I was interested in trying different ways of getting information across that wasn’t traditional. Not to just put it in a scene, to not put it in dialogue, or paraphrase it. To just let it look on the page the way that it looks to the narrator. Any time you try such things, you are taking a risk, and I’m not interested in work that doesn’t in some way risk itself. Picasso has a quote about when you put your head through the canvas you have to be aware of putting your head through the canvas. And you might fall flat on your face. I think it’s the job of every writer to try to grow, and those are some of the ways in which I have tried to grow as a writer. It’s easy to lean on the things that you know you can do well. We all have our staple of tools that we can rely on. It makes the process so much more interesting when we exercise other muscles.
Armenteros: Do you encourage your students to experiment in form as well?
Foos: When I see a natural bent in doing so, yes. It’s a joy to see students who do make that leap if the desire is in them to do so. I do say, though, “I need to see that you can do this in a way that it’s grounded, in a way that shows you know the rules before you break them.” That’s one writerly truism that holds water.
Armenteros: “Sometimes a cigar is just a cigar.” This quote, equivocally attributed to Sigmund Freud, means that sometimes you don’t have to look deeply for answers or meanings, and you should just take things at face value. How should a reader interpret the horn that grows from Cass’s forehead in Before Elvis?
Foos: Well, that novel is my humble homage to Ionesco. What the horn meant to me when I was writing the book: I didn’t know. I’d like to think there is a certain amount of room for interpretation for what it represents: Cass’s inner conflicts, her anguish, her feelings about her looks, identity, all sorts of feelings. I hope to never have a definite answer for how each reader should interpret the metaphor. I hope that there is always a certain amount of openness. But this is not to say that I strive to leave the answer so wide open as to be inscrutable. That is never my intention.
Armenteros: That being said, do you think the author is ever responsible to present the reader with interpretations to the material in his book?
Foos: As I say, I don’t think that you can be so cryptic or so oblique as for it to be completely open-ended, unless that is the express intention of the writer, for there to be a puzzle. I’m open to that as a reader, but it’s not a place I come from as a writer. I don’t want to leave the reader in a state of confusion. I admire writers who do create that confusion, and who do so, purposefully. Here you go, and what are you going to make of this? There is that sense in Cortázar or Borges. Our main responsibility is to have a sense of our own intentions, and to impart those intentions to the reader. Otherwise, I think it’s not going to mean anything to the reader. I don’t aspire to do that kind of writing. I want to reach people on a more emotional level.
Armenteros: At the end of Twinship, Maxi says, “I’m afraid there is nobody else but me.” Questions of identity like this one populate your books. Are you looking for yourself when you write?
Foos: We all have our own writerly obsessions, and identity seems to be mine. That theme is there in Before Elvis, and in Twinship, and in the new novel, The Blue Girl. The sense of each of us being unique retains for me an endless fascination. I wonder if in some way that stems from the fact that my mother is one of nine children. Each of them could tell the same story, and no two stories were the same. Does experience make us who we are, or is there a core self that cannot be altered no matter what we do to it?
Armenteros: You wrote a more realistic short piece entitled “On Bearing Witness” that deals with your father’s battle with cancer, a battle that he eventually lost. The style in this story is very different from that in your novels. We don’t have fantasy, we have reality. Was it hard to write that piece?
Foos: Yes, it was very difficult, and I have no desire to fictionalize it. I am honored to have the piece included in the anthology, At the End of Life: True Stories About How We Die, among so many other beautiful essays about what happens when we are close to death.
I am more drawn to nonfiction recently than I had ever been before, and I attribute that directly to my father’s long suffering. He was ill with colon cancer for seven years. My father had such a tremendous will to live despite what were often horrific circumstances, things that pain me, still, to remember.
The loss of my father has altered the way I see everything, really, and it’s made me acutely aware of the fact that life is finite. I’ve thought a great deal about writing about him at length, in a memoir, which I’d never had the impulse to write before. I’m unsure whether I’ll do it. I do have a few chapters, and I’ve written short pieces about him. It seems to me that it would be wrong not to document that suffering in some way.
It’s been interesting—and heartening—to hear that people react well to that piece about my father. I have almost no perspective on my own nonfiction writing, whether it’s any good or not. I’ve also written about my son, who is on the autism spectrum. Writing nonfiction makes me uncomfortable—which is probably why I ought to do it. We should always write into the places that scare us.
Armenteros: Let’s talk about humor for a moment. Humor suffuses your novels. Is it possible to write about the strangeness of life without humor?
Foos: Well, sure, but it becomes a different animal. I seem to have a natural proclivity toward humor, though I’m often surprised by what people find funny in my work. I’m used to writing things that tend to be dark, perhaps, but comic. Mostly the world is funny to me. Funny and sad and strange.
Armenteros: I noticed no humans ever die in your novels. Why not?
Foos: That’s not entirely true, since I did kill the father in Portrait, though he dies offstage, before the novel begins. I did kill off a dog in Ex Utero, and rather in an unpleasant way. I should say I like dogs, I’m a dog person, and no dogs were harmed in the conducting of this interview. That was a sticking point for my editor, though, actually. He said that other people at the house didn’t like it when the dog died, and thought I’d stepped over a line, which was funny to me when you’re talking about a novel filled with a lost uterus and erections all over the place. I said, “Well, okay, I hear that, but the dog’s got to go.” I’m very fortunate that Coffee House is such an author-friendly house. There have been a few times when Allan Kornblum and I have disagreed, and he will always defer to me if I feel strongly enough about a particular issue, though this hasn’t happened often. I was originally going to kill off the parents in Before Elvis. A friend of mine said, when she heard the premise, “You’ve done the dysfunctional family thing already, and they’re still in there, and they’re distracting. I think you should just get rid of the parents. Just kill them off.” I tried to, but killing them didn’t feel right, so I went with the fact that they had abandoned their kids willingly. That fact made much more sense with the angst of the two sisters.
Armenteros: In an interview for Dark Party Review you said that Portrait of the Walrus by a Young Artist was the book you felt the closest to. How is that book different from the others?
Foos: I’m wondering, as you ask: do you think it’s different?
Armenteros: From my reading of it, I think it is. Its sense of disbelief is not as extreme as it is with your other novels. Also, the protagonist is much younger than those in your other novels. There is a closer and more intimate identification with the parents, albeit in a conflicted way. In Before Elvis, for example, the parents are no longer present, there is a yearning for them, but they aren’t around anymore. There is a clear disconnect. Cass and her sister miss their parents, but not in the same way as Frances misses her father in Portrait. There is a different quality. I was wondering in what way this example stands out from the rest?
Foos: I have a special affection for that novel because I was silly enough to think that when I wrote the first book, the second one would be easier. I thought, “I know how to do this now.” And, no, I didn’t know how to do it at all. For a lot of people, their first novels remain in the drawer somewhere; I didn’t have that. I had this great good luck of my first novel coming out and when I think about it now, I think “So you thought you knew what you were doing, huh?”
I remember feeling this great anxiety about not repeating what I had done in the first novel. Then I was aware of the fact that it wasn’t like the first novel at all, and that gave me more anxiety. With Portrait, I remember saying to Allan that I was worried about what people would say. Suddenly, you are aware that there are expectations of you now that you have had a debut and the book has gotten some nice reviews. It’s a very interesting, wonderful, and disconcerting feeling all at once that people are going to have something to say about what you have written and say it publicly. He said, “You have dug deeper in this novel, and no one will fault you for that.” And we dismantled that thing, Allan and I, and I found I loved doing that, loved getting my hands in there and mixing it all up. And then it turned out to get mostly positive reviews.
I'm not a mystic of any sort, but I do believe in serendipity, or kismet. I believe when you send your intention out to the world, that very often, the world will come back to meet you.
Armenteros: Speaking of reviews, what are your thoughts about reading them vs. not?
Foos: I understand when people say that they don’t read reviews or even look at them at all. In the culture we’re living in now, with so many books competing for review space, I think you have to be grateful to get any notice at all. For me, I have always wanted to read the good as well as those that may stab to see if there might be something to what the reviewer is saying. Am I resting on something that is too easy for me? Have I taken the easy route here? Have I not gone as deep as I should have? I think it would be remiss not to think that.
Armenteros: Do your books, in their final form, turn out the way you want them?
Foos: I’ve read through each one of them only one time when they come in the mail. That’s all I can manage. It’s part of the reason I dislike re-reading because I always wish that I’d changed this or that section, or cut this, or re-worked this or that line, or whether I might have done something different here. There is a point at which you learn to let go, and I do think, with experience, you become better at recognizing that point. What occurs in the writer’s mind, in all its sensory detail, can never be completely translated to the page. I clearly see, as I imagine other writers do, my scenes in my head. So you learn how to live with what you have, with getting as close as you can. We are always the closest and the hardest on our most recent work. If I have to look at something from an earlier novel, I can look at it and say, “Well, that’s not so bad.” It’s a bit like looking at old photos of yourself, ones in which you thought you looked horrible, and then you step back and say, “Why was I so hard on myself?” Like a lot of people, I’m my own worst critic, on the page and in life. I’m hard on myself. But I have learned to let go.
Armenteros: With each novel, I’ve noticed, you become more daring. How far do you want to go?
Foos: I want to try new things with form and with craft. I’m tremendously drawn to fables, and so what I seem to be writing all has this fable-like quality. Recently I was lucky enough to have a week at the Virginia Center for Creative Arts. This was huge for me, as it was the first time I’d been in a colony since my kids were born, and I love colonies. I was there seven or eight days total, which is all you can do when your kids are little. Then I had a series of mishaps which included a crashed rental car, and so down goes one day. What I did was use the time to experiment between resurrecting a novel that I had in the drawer—a draft that I completed shortly before my father died—and this bit of a new novel, eight or nine pages. I thought, “OK, start with one, then do some of the other, and see which one wins.”
The goal with each was to use this collective voice throughout. I tried it with the novel in the drawer, and I still think there’s something to that one, but the prose just kept sounding… tinny. I kept to my word, pulled out the new one, and off it went. I wrote an insane amount—really insane—in five days. Completely exhilarating. So, of course, the new one won.
Armenteros: What keeps you inspired?
Foos: When I read something by someone that I wish I’d written. There are certain writers that I go to and think, “Wow, if I could only write that one line. Or just do this, this right here. How beautiful is that?” That feeling is certainly inspiring to me. Just being in the work, actually, is inspiring to me, having that head buzz at the end of the day when you feel as if the whole world could collapse now because damn it, I wrote these pages. A bomb could go off in the house, and I’d still feel good. I think that is what keeps us going, the feeling of being in the work, deep into the process. Does it happen all the time? No, there are times where we feel we are banging our heads against the wall.
Armenteros: You teach in the Low-Residency MFA Program at Lesley University in Cambridge. Does teaching creative writing affect your own writing?
Foos: In the earlier years it did more so than it does now. The membrane between teaching and writing was more porous earlier on, though there are times I can feel the overseer, the voice of response, creep its way in too soon, and I have to shut that off. As time has gone on, I find that teaching has a much more positive impact on my work. When I have a student with a hunger inside of him or her, it re-awakens that sense in me. All of us could do other things, let’s face it. I really love and value the ability to make an impact, to impart some small bit of what was once imparted to me. That sounds very sentimental, I’m sure, but it’s how I genuinely feel.
Armenteros: You mentioned your newest work, The Blue Girl. The book is not yet available, but can you talk about when it’s coming out?
Foos: It is in my editor’s hands at this point and Coffee House is going to publish it (no specific publication date yet), and portions of it have come out in short story form in and anthology called Wreckage of Reason: XXperimental Women Writing in the 21st Century, and in a couple of magazines. This novel is a darker and moodier piece than the other novels. The “surreal” element, for lack of a better term, is that this girl in this lake town is blue, though no one knows where she came from or why she is blue. She also happens to eat moon pies and repeatedly tries to drown herself.
I was lucky enough to have this chorus of voices that were speaking to me at different points. There are multiple first-person points of view, which fit well with having small children because there are different sections for each narrator, so I could move in and out. I’m excited about it, and I look forward to getting my hands in and revising it.
Armenteros: As this is your most recent work, can you talk a bit about the process of writing it?
Foos: The Blue Girl evolved over a period of about eight or nine years. I began pieces of it at VCCA and then I let it go, but it kept coming back, coming back, until I finally said, “All right. I’m ready to hear you now.” That has never happened before, where I laid something to the side for that long and then managed to go back to it in such a circuitous way. I have—right now—six first-person points of view in the book, and this is why we need to thank the gods for the people at places like Coffee House Press. When I said to Allan, sheepishly, “Well… there are six points of view,” he didn’t even bat an eye. He laughed and said, “We’ve done more.”
Armenteros: You are clearly taking risks in your writing. Is that a thrilling experience for you?
Foos: Absolutely, and as I tell my students, unless we risk we can’t grow. If what we’re doing feels uncomfortable, it’s probably a sign that it’s what we ought to be doing. I do think it’s important to keep pushing yourself and to keep growing and to keep learning from yourself. We all have a sense of what we can rest on, what comes a bit more easily. But does that mean we ought to be doing it over and over? No, hopefully not. At least that’s not what I aspire to.
Jorge Armenteros is a practicing psychiatrist who recently completed his second novel, The Book of I, about the inner turmoil of a painter with schizophrenia. In addition to his medical training, Dr. Armenteros completed an MA in Spanish and Latin American Literature from New York University and most recently an MFA in Creative Writing from Lesley University. He has published extensively in medical journals on the diagnosis and treatment of children with schizophrenia and autism.
From The Giant Baby
Toes. Baby’s toes. Ten of them, not just bones but pink skin and impossibly tiny nails.
I looked up at Earl, and he at me, and I cupped my hands as he poured the toes into the palms of my hands.
“Are these what I think they are?” I whispered, and Earl nodded, folding his one hand over the two of mine.
“From the garden,” he said.
I just stared down into my hands at those perfectly formed miniature toes and felt them grow warm in my hands. Slowly I counted them over and over, one through ten, marveling at the shape of each toe, the plumpness of the big toes, the splendor of the pinkies.
“Our luck is about to change,” he said, and I didn’t answer him. I kept holding those toes in my hands and wondering what was going to happen to us now that the garden that we thought had turned against us had now risen up and sent us ten baby’s toes.
Of course we planted them.
Of course we did. What else would we do?
It was like that old saying, that when the world sends you lemons, you make lemonade. The world sent us baby’s toes, and we saw nothing to do but plant them.
We never thought of any other possibilities. I guess other people might have. Other people might have imagined horrible things about a baby cut up, dismembered, and thrown in our garden, but Earl and I had never been much like other people.
Lucy and Ricky would have planted them, too. I feel sure of that, even now when I watch reruns. If Lucy found toes in the earth in her garden, she would have called for Ricky. He might have said she had some ‘splainin’ to do, but she would have planted them all the same.
The world sent us baby’s toes, and we never thought of sadness. The world sent us baby’s toes, and we rejoiced.
That next morning we woke up at dawn and got ready to plant. Neither of us had our morning coffee or even brushed our teeth. I picked up the shoe box next to the bed where I’d placed the toes the night before. I’d wrapped them in a pair of Earl’s socks to keep them safe. It had been hard to sleep with the toes there on the bureau next to me, but I’d kept my eyes closed and held onto Earl all through the night, pressing myself against his back.
We walked across the lawn in our bare feet. It seemed the right thing to do. If we were going to plant toes, there was no sense in wearing shoes. I felt the wetness of the grass under my feet as we made our way across the lawn. Earl held his arm around my shoulders, and I kept the shoe box close to my chest.
You might say I cradled it.
Excerpted from The Giant Baby (2012) by Laurie Foos, published by GemmaMedia. © Laurie Foos.
Reprinted with permission from GemmaMedia www.gemmamedia.com.