Laurie Foos’s newest novel, The Blue Girl, is a strange, surreal work that bends expectations with each passing page. A novel on motherhood, the mundane, desire — both explicit and internalized — and the secrets we keep from others, The Blue Girl unfolds like one would imagine the wind does in the small lakeside town in which it is set. Told in alternating passages from each participating character, the novel winds beautiful prose with the stark, sorrowful imagery of loss, misunderstanding, and the ever-tightening, close-to-breaking ties of family. Though some might view The Blue Girl as a departure from Foos’s debut novel, the groundbreaking feminist commentary, Ex Utero, or her second novel, the bizarre and wonderful Portrait of the Walrus by a Young Artist, her latest novel still continues in Foos’s now-trademark surrealist style, though this time, her work is steeped in a more sorrowful metaphor, one that answers questions such as: What happens when we doubt what we know? How do we tell another person something they need to hear, or we need to speak? What do we expect from those we love?
Devin Kelly: There’s a lot I want to ask about this novel, but I don’t know where to start. Maybe with blue? The notion of blueness has been around for awhile in art — from Picasso’s Blue Period to Gass’ On Being Blue to Joni Mitchell’s gorgeous album Blue, and even recently, Maggie Nelson’s haunting Bluets. And plenty more examples that I’m not giving justice to. Your novel plays with some of the standard associations with the color blue, but also tinkers with them and extends them into the surreal and beyond. What are your thoughts about the color blue? Why did you use it? What did you draw from?
Laurie Foos: It’s such a evocative color, isn’t it? I got the first line about the blue girl, and as I continued, it seemed important that she is blue — essential. But then I asked myself — rightly, I think, as one has to ask herself these questions — if she is to represent some sort of otherness, must she be blue? Is the color essential? And I found it was. I did look at a lot of Picasso’s work from his Blue Period and read about that time in his life, though one always has to be careful not to fall in love with the research and distract from the writing. I think for me, on a personal level, the blue girl was born of grief. My father died shortly before I began the novel, and in many ways, I think I was writing metaphorically into my sorrow. But I don’t think it stops there. There is something otherworldly about her, and the color blue evokes that. I didn’t want to be too specific about what shade of blue she is, how dark or how light, and the way she appears to the characters varies. I wanted to leave it up to readers to inject their version of blueness without being deliberately evasive. That was a challenge.
How did you approach this novel from the outset? How did it conceive of itself in your mind? With a voice, an image, anything?
This novel began with that first line for me: “The blue girl eats secrets in moon pies.” The word “our” wasn’t in the sentence at first. The line came to me and kept repeating itself through my head, over and over, for weeks, maybe longer. I kept thinking, “Who is this blue girl, and why does she eat secrets?” Finally I sat down at the desk and wrote the first ten pages or so, then had a residency at VCCA not long afterward. I was working on something else at VCCA — what seemed to want to be a novel but ended up being a short story — but this kept calling to me. In the two weeks I was there, I wrote about 50 pages, I think, but then left it alone again. In that first 50 pages, two of the mothers and daughters emerged. I didn’t come back to it again until roughly 2008 or 2009, as the women kept talking to me while I was trying to work on something else. At the time, too, my children were young, and I thought, This is what you should be working on now. It seemed easiest to pull myself in and out of because of the different voices, and anyone with small children can tell you that’s what life is like when your kids are little.
There was a strange feeling of delight that I garnered in reading The Blue Girl. Strange, because the novel is steeped in the sorrow of the mundane, the sorrow of not knowing, and even the sorrow of being simply unable. But I found myself delighting in language, in the melody of some of the passages, and in my own constant surprise as a reader. Is this something that you think of while writing? How to keep an element of surprise or delight? How to even perhaps surprise yourself as a writer?
That’s very kind of you, and I’m so happy to hear that. The novel worried me for quite a while because it’s something of a departure for me, I think, in that it’s not comic like my previous work. So it made me nervous, which I knew instinctively to be a good thing, that I was stretching muscles. I very rarely know where I am going with a novel, or at least I don’t know very much about where I’m going. I have images that lead me — it happens in my head all very cinematically, as I imagine it does for most writers — but no discernible plan. And I believe firmly that the work ought to surprise me, and if it doesn’t surprise me, I tend to be suspicious of it, as that tells me I’m imposing my intent upon on it too much or too soon. The great challenge of this novel, too, was to be sure that the voices sounded distinct from one another. That took waiting, often, and patience, and it was great fun to play around syntactically with lines. When I stumbled or felt stuck, the language helped me along.
Your novel subverts a lot of stereotypes about gender roles, but it also plays with them, too. You take the familiar roles and familiar places — mothers in houses, wives in bedrooms, wives together smoking cigarettes — but you subtly tweak them constantly, twisting and turning them until the familiar becomes extraordinary and the mundane becomes haunting, scary, deeply felt. How do you take on writing about gender and sexuality? Is it an idea you approach head-on, or do you find yourself touching on it and prodding it without full knowledge?
It’s not an idea that I approach head-on, no, nor do I have much of a conscious notion of what it is I’m trying to say thematically in a novel until I’m very close to the end, or even not until I’m finished with the draft. I was aware in the writing, of course, of writing about marriage and the differences between mothers and fathers, the ways in which the male and female characters react to the blue girl or to their children, especially to Ethan, the boy with a disability. But I don’t ever come at anything with a specific intent, i.e., “I really want to say this or that about gender roles,” and I believe that if you become too aware of or too focused on your intention, you’re likely to end up dead in the water. Or at least I am. These do seem to be themes running through the bulk of my work. To that I’d say that all of us have our obsessions, and these, in part, seem to be mine.
The setting of The Blue Girl became more and more claustrophobic as the novel progressed. The town became smaller, the lake became deeper, more haunting. Rooms became tighter, more contained. Is this something you thought about while writing? Setting plays a big role in some of your other work — I’m thinking of the shopping mall where a woman loses her uterus in Ex Utero. How to place your trust in the work a setting will do for you, the work that extends beyond the words and into the minds of your readers?
I thought a great deal about the setting in this novel, about this lake town, about how specific to make it, whether to set it in a specific place, real or imagined. Allan Kornblum, my long time editor at Coffee House who passed away last year, wanted me to set it on Long Island, where I live, though there aren’t any lake towns here that resemble this town. I liked the idea of setting it anywhere, of allowing the reader to place it in his/her mind. That said, I had a very specific map of the town in my head and tried my best to evoke that in the novel.
How do you feel you have grown as a novelist over the years? What have you departed from? What have you moved into? And, maybe, if you can speak to it, why? I think many people writing are often scared of losing — losing their grasp of humor, or losing their ability to turn a word, a phrase. Could you speak to this, maybe as both a teacher and a writer?
But of course you change a great deal over the course of twenty years. Many things happen in your life, some outside of your control, and these things impact the work. Since my last novel came out in 2005, I have had two children, one of whom is on the autism spectrum, and I have lost both of my parents. So I have had my fair share of sorrow these past ten years, but also a great deal of joy. I’m sure that has impacted the work. I don’t think I’ve lost my grasp of my sense of humor, entirely, but life has been more serious in recent years, certainly.
I went through a period this past year after my mother died unexpectedly in which I questioned what was worth saying anymore. I began to think about time, the amount of time that it takes to write a novel, and wondered: Do I want to spend the next X number of years on this?
I seem to have traversed that, I’m happy to say. What I’m working on now has a certain level of similarity to my other work in that it has an absurd premise — a kind of absurd suburban apocalypse, and really, aren’t they all? — but I’m taking a different kind of risk, doing something I haven’t done before. It’s either going to be great, or I’m going to fall flat on my face, but that risk excites me.
As a teacher and a writer, one thing I’ve noticed when I speak to my students about how badly they want this thing, how intense their focus is, that I’m not as hungry as I was in 1995. And certainly, you can’t sustain that kind of hunger, I don’t think. But I miss it from time to time.
What do you feel is important about the surreal in fiction? The mythos of things? Why do you feel people should engage with the surreal, the absurd, the incomprehensible?
What pulls me in as both a reader and a writer, what drives me as a writer, is that the surreal must contain metaphor for some element of the human condition. If there are butterflies leaking out of someone’s ears, for example, then the writer must be saying something about the power of listening, or of music, or something about the human condition that couldn’t be illuminated without that magical element. I think that the surreal and the absurd often intersect with the lineage of myth and fairy tale, and as such they speak to your collective unconscious, our collective psyche. Also, I think fundamentally that life is often inordinately strange and absurd. You just have to pay attention, and you’ll see it all around you. I guess that’s how I see the world and always have, since I was a child.
Finally, what’s next for you? What are you working on now? What are you reading, borrowing, drawing from?
I’m working on re-animating a novel I set aside in 2008 shortly after my father died. This is the suburban apocalypse I was talking about. I think I’ve finally found my way in. I’m also very interested in the notion of the collective voice, in the chorus of voices, and so am playing with that as well. While working on this, though, something else is percolating, something that involves a younger narrator, so that’s interesting to me. I’m not sure whether it’s possible to work on two things at once, or whether one will win. I’m looking forward to finding out.
Devin Kelly is an MFA student at Sarah Lawrence College, where he serves as the nonfiction editor of LUMINA. His poetry, fiction, and essays have appeared or are forthcoming inArmchair/Shotgun, Post Road, RATTLE, The Millions, Appalachian Heritage, Midwestern Gothic, Forklift Ohio, Big Truths, Passages North, and more, and he has also been nominated for a Pushcart Prize. He co-hosts the Dead Rabbits Reading Series in Upper Manhattan and teaches Creative Writing and English classes to 7th graders and high schoolers in Queens, as well as the occasional children’s poetry workshop at the New York Public Library in Harlem, where he currently lives. You can find him on Twitter @themoneyiowe and online atdevingkelly.wordpress.com.