Every month, I interview an author I admire on her literary firsts.
I first discovered Amelia Gray’s writing through Gutshot, her collection of sharp, macabre short stories that took me through all sorts of emotions: fear, discomfort, anxiety — and almost always, surprise. So when I picked up her latest novel, Isadora, I was expecting something similar — and was surprised again.
This historical novel is much more lyric in style, dissolutely sad and languorous — Fittingly so, since it’s based on the modern dancer Isadora Duncan’s life, taking us through the years right after Isadora’s children’s untimely deaths.
Besides Gutshot and Isadora, Amelia’s the author of three additional books, THREATS, Museum of the Weird, and AM/PM. I’m now curious to read those, to see how different they are from the ones I read —
In this interview, Amelia talks about the energy in grief, the odalisque quality of sentences, and the Italian vacation she took in the name of research.
Siel: This is your fifth book — but your first work of historical fiction, I believe! In a previous interview, I read you took a couple classes at Duncan Dancing in San Francisco as part of your research for Isadora. What other fun things did you do in the name of research? Did you eat blackberries in Paris? Sunbathe in Corfu?
Amelia: I made it to Viareggio, on the Italian coast, for a week of off-season wave-watching. I’m glad I did, too; that sense of a shuttered beach community off-season was exactly the feeling I was going for with the book, and getting to spend a few days walking cold sand was important to the whole. I was writing this book while working a full-time job, so I didn’t get to take as many trips as I might have liked.
I think most people know you for your dark, tight, jewel-like short stories in Gutshot. How did your writing process change for Isadora?
I wanted lines that suited the character, and in reading about Isadora and looking at pictures of her, I came to understand her as a languid woman of great and enduring passion. The sentences naturally needed to have this odalisque quality, a confidence, a patience about them. The sentences would go on for pages and pages in the first draft. The word count probably stayed about the same from first to last draft but the number of sentences quadrupled.
The novel’s told from four perspectives — Isadora herself, her lover Paris, her sister, and her sister’s lover. All are relatable, with their little selfishnesses and self-loathing — and hateable too, for the same reasons. Is there one character you most related to personally?
I couldn’t sustain a novel’s worth of work if I didn’t related to the characters personally. In Isadora I see vanity and self-interest, in Elizabeth my fear and practical sense, in Paris my mysticism and idea of country. Max is a bit of a scapegoat as he represents a few different things, I’d answer your question by flipping it and saying I least related to Max, though of course there’s plenty of me in there.
The overarching mood in Isadora is that of grief. What was the experience like, day in and day out, writing a book-length work on such a heavy topic? I ask mainly because the mood of whatever I’m writing does tend to affect me, even if what’s happening in my own life has nothing to do with what’s happening on the page.
It’s a grief-driven book but I wonder if it might not be quite right to say that the overarching feeling of it is sadness. I found myself energized by writing it, but there’s a lot of energy in grief, power in passion that maybe lives under cover of ordinary life. Writing about grief is an opportunity to live in one of the more dynamic emotions we get. I’ve had a much harder time writing from the perspective of someone losing their own life.
Though your writing’s often described as dark, I think of you as a pretty cheery and funny person, having seen you ham it up as a Literary Death Match judge! You were hilarious in the LDM Book Report too (below). I mention this because I’ve been thinking a lot about what a writer’s writing actually says — if anything — about the writer herself. Do you think the former offers any sort of window to the latter?
Oh, thank you. My hammy stage nature is perpetually mortifying to me, but I can’t help myself. There’s something way over my pay grade about the relationship between humor and the abject. I can only speak to the feeling of this constant search for balance. I don’t think I’d last too long writing death novels and no jokes.
Enter to win a copy of Amelia Gray’s Isadora by signing up for my newsletter. Already joined up? Then you’re already entered — but you can get a second entry into the drawing by leaving a comment on the giveaway post with the title of the last historical novel you’ve read. Good luck!
Photo by Matt Chamberlain