Author Julia Elliott talks with bookseller Rachel Kaplan from Avid Bookshop. The Georgia Review and Avid Bookshop will present Julia Elliott in celebration of her new book The New and Improved Romie Futch tomorrow, November 18 from 6:30pm – 7:30pm.
Rachel Kaplan: Like your mutant Hogzilla, The New and Improved Romie Futch is an amalgam of literary genres and themes like science fiction, Southern Gothic, literary theory and taxidermy. Describe your process in threading all of these parts into a cohesive, brilliant whole.
Julia Elliott: Although many people see “sci-fi” and “Southern Gothic” as incompatible genres, combining the two seems natural to me because the contemporary South exists in the same technology-mediated world as other parts of the US, a world in which the internet inundates the mind with diverse forms of information and where the boundaries between science and sci-fi are often blurry. The character Romie Futch helped me synthesize the seemingly inharmonious experiences of growing up in a rural Southern town and spending years immersed in the arcane language of academia. The brain-download trope provided a way for me to evoke my own diction range—colloquial speech, slang, lyrical “poetic” language, and the arcane gibberish of academic theory. Non-Southern readers often picture Southern writers as backwoods prophets who are somehow detached from the complexities of 21st-century existence, and one of my main goals with this novel was to convey the overlapping realities of the New New South—where so-called Southern Gothic elements exist simultaneously with surreal technologies and ecologies.
RK: Speaking of fusion, the novel’s epigraph is a quote from Donna J. Haraway’s Simians, Cyborgs, and Women: “By the late twentieth century, our time, a mythic time, we are all chimeras, theorized and fabricated hybrids of machine and organism; in short, we are cyborgs.” Will you expound upon how this relates to themes found in Romie Futch?
JE: A cyborg is any organism that bodily combines biological and technological components. By that definition, a person with a hearing aid is a cyborg, as her capabilities are enhanced by a mechanical device. As our lives become increasingly tech-mediated, and biotechnology becomes more sophisticated, the interplay between the biological and the technological become more complex, the boundaries between the two blurrier. When Romie Futch receives BAIT downloads, or “bioengineered artificial intelligence transmissions,” his gray matter is altered by biotech nanobots formed from revamped brain parasites, and his transimissions come from a computer composed of “bioengineered microorganisms and animal components: leech neurons, strings of bacteria, bat ribosomes, and assorted amino acids.” Not only is Romie himself a biological organism enhanced by technologies, but the technologies themselves deconstruct the technology/biology polarity.
RK: You must have done a lot of research on brain enhancement technology. What was the most disturbing thing you read about futuristic tech?
JE: I did, and there are diverse theories about how brain enhancement through technologies might be accomplished, from nanobots restructuring neurological pathways to electrode-studded brain-computer-interface caps and implantable microchips. Most of the research is in the very early exploratory stages, and not many of the articles address the bioethical issues surrounding these potential technologies. Who is going to test the products? What are the potential side-effects? Will access to instant knowledge intensify or challenge class divisions? These are just a few of the questions that popped into my mind as I read about potential brain-enhancement technologies.
RK: Romie and his cohorts at the Center for Cybernetic Neuroscience were implanted with knowledge and skill sets of their choosing. If you were a participant in the study, what humanities package would you have downloaded?
JE: I’d like to become proficient in a variety of musical instruments so that I can compete with my multi-instrumentalist husband and also compose more textured songs (currently, I’m limited to singing, keyboards, and glockenspiels).
RK: Your protagonist is a white male, but he acknowledges his white, heterosexual privilege and occasional sexist thoughts. Explain what it was like writing in a male voice, and your process of writing a “masculine” novel from a more diverse sociocultural perspective.
JE: My debut collection features feminist themes and an all-female cast of narrators (with the exception of a transgender robot), and I often joke that Romie Futch is my repressed inner hesher warrior male who just burst out onto the page. But seriously, the so-called male gaze also has something to do with it, as American girls and women are socialized to see the world from a predominantly white male perspective. I was also inspired by Judith Halberstam’s concept of “female masculinity,” the idea that masculinity is not a biological feature so much as a cultural performance that can be enacted by anyone: gay, straight, male, female, trans, intersex. In many ways, the novel is an exploration and expression of my own culturally-inscribed masculinity.
RK: If you were a genetically-modified organism, what kind of mutant would you be?
JE: I would be a quasi-omniscient biological computer—like Minerva in my story “The Love Machine.”
RK: You are often compared to other female authors like Kelly Link and Karen Russell. Which of you would win in a mutant hog hunting mission?
JE: Although I can run my mouth about hog hunting, I’ve never shot a gun and would not be able to keep my cool if faced with a grunting, stinking, murderous tusker. I don’t know why, but I get the feeling that Kelly Link would take the trophy mutant hog in such a contest.
RK: If Romie Futch was made into a movie and you played a cameo, what character would you be?
JE: I’d like to say Pig-Slayer, the Romie fantasy version who resembles like Raquel Welch in One Million Years B.C., but I’d probably end up playing Marlene, alas.
RK: Being a literary genius must be exhausting. What do you do to unwind?
JE: Bless your heart, what a sweet question. I take long walks and bike rides along the Congaree river, which is about three blocks from my house.
She is currently working on a novel about Hamadryas baboons, a species she has studied as an amateur primatologist. She teaches English and Women’s and Gender Studies at the University of South Carolina in Columbia, where she lives with her daughter and husband. She and her spouse, John Dennis, are founding members of the music collective Grey Egg.
Rachel Kaplan is a bookseller at Avid Bookshop.