Your first novel, Amberlough, comes out in February 2017 from Tor—congratulations! You recently revealed the cover, and it’s stunning. How are you feeling about your upcoming debut and the process in general?
I don’t think I could have put out a debut novel more representative of the mess of glitter, anxiety, and jazz that makes up my personality. I’m incredibly excited about it, and was so, so lucky that Victo Ngai created a cover worthy of a cabaret marquee. I couldn’t have asked for anything more perfect.
As of this interview, I’ve just wrapped up copyediting. Knowing I’d have to go back over the manuscript with a fine-toothed comb, I set it aside for several months after turning it over to my editor. So now, it’s very fresh, which is delightful. I feel like I’m reading someone else’s book. Not having read it for six months has gotten everything out of my head, so I can approach it more like a reader (albeit a reader who’s allowed to change things). It’s available for pre-order on Amazon right now, which is absolutely surreal to me. I hope actual readers are as captivated by Amberlough as I’ve been.
How did you come up with the title for “The Dirty American”?
I have a superstition about titles and stories, because of what’s worked for me in the past. Namely, if a concept comes without a title, or a title comes without a concept, the story rarely ends up working out. All the stories I’ve written that I’ve felt good about (in fact, all the stories I’ve actually sold) arrived simultaneously with their titles. Not fully-formed and titled, exactly, but as the rush of inspiration came for the short story, a title naturally bubbled up out of that. It’s how I know a story is going to work.
So, I didn’t come up with the title, exactly. Something in my hind brain did, at the same time it spat the story out. I liked it especially because of its ambiguousness—the word “dirty” does a lot of work, in that title, implying a host of different things. And the story is about two Americans. So who and what is it really talking about? I don’t know. I change my mind, day to day.
Is there anything interesting you discovered in your research into perfume that hasn’t yet made it onto the page?
This story came out of one of those strange confluences of life experience, tangential reading, and a deadline. My dad often talked about Patrick Süskind’s novel Perfume, the plot of which I came to understand vaguely from his descriptions. Then, a few months before I wrote “The Dirty American,” an article about perfume popped up online: a story about how the best perfumes have a note of foulness, and how American scent makers have historically had a really hard time wrapping their puritanical minds around this. And everything coalesced into this story. (And also, of course, resulted in me finally reading Perfume on the subway, in the summer, while I hunted for an apartment in New York. Talk about unique scents creating a lasting impression.) But I wouldn’t assert that I did specific research with intent to learn about perfume, with intent to write a story about it.
That said, I think gas chromatography is like magic. Gas chromatographs let you analyze the chemical components of . . . well, just about anything, without decomposition or alteration. It clearly didn’t make it into “The Dirty American,” but I think there’s huge fictional potential for something like that, especially if combined with perfumery, and the way scents can influence human behavior. I just haven’t figured out what yet. And given the way most of my fiction percolates, with random additions from random reading and experience, I probably won’t figure it out for a while.
What is it about scent that’s so evocative, do you think?
If you couldn’t tell from “The Dirty American,” I often conflate scent with sex. And I think that’s true of many people, in real life, even if it isn’t something we talk about or even realize consciously. It generally requires you to be close enough to the other person to smell what they’re wearing, and a lot of perfumes use musky or earthy base notes reminiscent of, well, sex. There was actually a wonderful study done a while ago in which women were asked to smell sweaty t-shirts recently worn by men they had never met. An overwhelming majority of the women preferred the sweaty t-shirts of men with different MHC genes than their own (diverse MHC genes help offspring in fighting illness). This study would seem to indicate that humans select mates in large part based on how they smell.
Less scandalously, but equally as scientifically, scent is a shortcut to the part of the brain that deals with memory. So, the scent of freshly turned earth or cut grass or cooking onions, encountered randomly in your day, can bring memories welling up or put you in a certain mood. One of the things I’ve realized since I started semi-regularly wearing perfume is that you can create little wormholes for yourself—wear a certain perfume on a certain day, and later, when you smell it, you remember your experiences with more clarity. Like emotional time travel.
Do you see yourself continuing to write short fiction, or do you plan to focus mostly on novels? What are you working on now?
I’d like to work on both! One of my Clarion teachers said she thought there were two kinds of writers: short story writers and novel writers. Not that you can’t write both, just that there’s a medium in which you’re more comfortable. I thought it was novels—short stories always seemed to elude me. There was never enough room in them to develop the characters or plot. I had a lot of problems with character passivity. Post-Amberlough, though, I’ve cranked out a couple of shorts I’m really proud of, while making abortive starts on some other novels. What I’m saying, I guess, is that currently I’m focusing on neither and both.
My two latest projects are about as far removed from each other as two pieces of fiction could be. First, I’m working on an increasingly meta epistolary novella with Sam J. Miller, concerning World War I, time travel, the Bright Young People, and gay liberation in 1960s England. Second, I have an in-progress piece of horror called “The Urchin,” about the trials and travails of a female sushi chef struggling to rise in what’s still a bit of a culinary boy’s club. The latter is going to be in The Yellow Volume, the third in a series of fundraising anthologies my Clarion class (2012) has put together to benefit the Clarion Foundation. In fact, “The Dirty American” originally appeared in The Orange Volume, which we released last year. The Yellow Volume is bound to be chock full of excellent original fiction, so keep an eye out for the release in October 2016.
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