Dear Julia, welcome to Altavoz Cultural! Let’s start from the beginning: what was the main inspiration you had to write The Wilds? How do you justify its formal structure about the order of the different stories inside the book?
My story collection The Wilds includes short stories published between 2004 and 2014, so rather than springing from a unified inspirational vision, it’s more of a selective compilation of my best stories published over a decade. Nevertheless, recurrent obsessions include genre-bending, the grotesque, Southern Gothic blended with sci-fi and fantasy, and various dystopian scenarios—sometimes satirical, sometimes more emotionally charged. My brilliant editor at Tin House thought it would be more effective to arrange the stories in terms of contrasts rather than grouping similar stories (for example, after reading a Southern Gothic sci-fi story, you might next encounter a speculative satire that does not take place in the American South).
What degree of autobiography from Julia Elliott’s life can we find reading The Wilds? (for example: corporal punishment in ‘The Whipping’, Alzheimer in ‘LIMBs’ or some troubles with dogs in ‘Feral’)?
While all the stories are visceral evocations of my obsessions, only four contain autobiographical elements, details that are either grotesquely hyperbolized or blended with completely fictional features (which means that none of them are purely autobiographical). These four stories include: “The Whipping,” “Jaws,” “Rapture,” and “The End of the World.”
Some stories from The Wilds express fears like physical human growth in adolescence (‘The Whipping’), motherhood (‘Organisms’) or that wrong first love (‘The Wilds’). As a specialist in Gender Studies, do you think feminine fears are different from masculine fears? Are the first ones wilders than the second ones?
I feel that some fears can be gendered due to both cultural conditioning and biology. For example, the horror of female puberty in both “The Whipping” and “The Wilds” arises from deeply ingrained societal anxieties about burgeoning female sexuality and fertility, anxieties that the female adolescent characters internalize. While some of these fears revolve around the biological realities of female pregnancy (easily translatable into horror and sci-fi tropes of parasitism and possession), many of the apprehensions women and girls internalize about their bodies come from epochs of patriarchal attempts to colonize and discipline female bodies, which have been regarded as “alien” and “other” by male-controlled discourses and institutions.
Do you think pessimism or gloominess around characters life inside each story is more attractive to develop than any lack of sadness?
I have a hard time maintaining interest in characters who lack conflict or sadness of some kind—though I could imagine relentlessly happy characters who cluelessly afflict others with their oppressive cheerfulness.
How important do you think the sociocultural context of the author is to face the writing exercise? How do you consider that context can affect the writer’s register?
I feel that all writing is ideological, whether intentionally or unintentionally reflecting aspects of writers’ relationships with their sociocultural contexts, time periods, class, ethnicity, gender, sexuality, etc. Even if a writer builds a fantastical world radically remote from their reality, the scale of the escapism itself is a reflection on the writer’s state. At the same time, I quixotically believe that writing can also transcend its cultural context, evoking ineffable and mysterious aspects of existence that move beyond the writer’s subjective identity. While I evoke both regional realities and dystopian and sci-fi speculation that reflect my relationship with a rapidly changing, data-inundated world, I use genre-bending to reach beyond both Southern Gothic evocations and speculative exercises.
The images from The Wilds whole collection are strangely poetic and so powerful too: your literature is highly visual, you love smells, you show us a lot of textures… Do you write your stories like a filmmaker? Do you imagine the environment first of all?
When I was in grad school, one of my scholarly areas was English Renaissance literature, and I took a feminist cultural materialist approach by pairing the highly baroque and sensorily stimulating literary texts with “nonfiction” works on early modern obstetrics, gynecology, cosmology, and tabloid monster theory. The Renaissance blend of earthiness and highly lyrical language infected my prose to a pathological degree. I have, however, recovered somewhat, and my prose is far less dense than it used to be. Growing up in the hot, humid South Carolina Lowcountry, where throngs of insects shriek all summer long (day and night), clouds of mosquitoes hover, and obscure putrid smells drift in the air, may also explain my intense evocations of corporeal experience.
Where do you feel more comfortable: creating short stories or producing longer stories (like your novel The New and Improved Romie Futch)? What are the advantages from both spaces?
I am probably better at short stories than novels, but I enjoy writing both. Short stories enable me to explore intense emotionally charged situations or absurd scenarios with low-level commitment—propelled by the novelty of the situation. If a story doesn’t work out, I can move on to another idea without too much time wasted. A novel, however, requires intense stamina and a human predicament worth exploring to great length. For me, novels also require radical revision after the first draft, while my stories are usually in pretty good shape after the first attempt.
How do you feel about Lo salvaje, The Wilds Spanish edition made by Horror Vacui?
I am thrilled that Horror Vacui chose my collection as their first publication, especially since they are interested in the monstrous feminine, the disturbing, and the grotesque—all elements that fascinate me (I teach a college course called Monstrous Mothers, Diabolical Daughters and Femme Fatales: Gender and Monstrosity in Horror Films). I suspect that the translator has made The Wilds into a new book, with intriguing nuances that can be voiced only in Spanish. I plan to revisit the Spanish language by reading the translation this autumn, which seems like the best season to embark on such a project.
What new literary projects do you have for the future? What thing cannot miss in your perfect apocalypse?
I’m currently working on a novel that teeters between the ridiculous and the apocalyptic, a science-fiction retelling of the old fairy tale “The Princess and the Frog.”