Author Julia Elliott talks about dystopian satires, Southern gothic tall tales, brain enhancements, and feral-hog hunting in this Q&A with her editor.
Meg Storey: The New and Improved Romie Futch is an epic novel about brain enhancement, genetic modification, feral-hog hunting, and lost love. What was the original spark for the work? Where did you begin?
Julia Elliott: This novel sprang from a failed short story that was too big for its britches. When I wrote the original story, I was teaching an English class on dystopian fiction, and I began each session with a “real” dystopian fact and a “fake” one, challenging the students to distinguish between the two. Googling for futuristic factoids, I happened upon many articles about “mind uploading,” “brain computer interfaces,” and cybernetic pedagogies that may one day allow lazy humans to download “knowledge” and “skill sets” into their brains. Instead of envisioning a humorless dystopia in which somber characters experience the dark side of enhanced consciousness, I imagined the comic potential of the material, which led to the vision of a South Carolina taxidermist suddenly armed with the equivalent of a humanities PhD. This convenient trope allowed me to synthesize my upbringing in rural South Carolina with my experience in academia, two seemingly unharmonious aspects of my life that were fun to mix. I was also inspired by the work of my cousin Carl Elliott, a bioethicist who writes popular nonfiction about the medical industrial complex, including an amazing piece called “Guinea-pigging” (originally published in the New Yorker) that explores the subculture that has sprung up around pharmaceutical drug testing. Carl’s work helped me flesh out the Center for Cybernetic Neuroscience, a fictional research facility in Atlanta, Georgia, where impoverished and desperate men undergo experimental downloads for pay.
MS: This is your debut novel. How was writing Romie Futch different for you from writing short stories? What elements of the way you approach writing short stories, if any, do you think contributed to the making of Romie Futch?
JE: I should confess here that I have two failed novels rotting in my desktop dumpster. Before I wrote The New and Improved Romie Futch, I approached novels as though they were gigantic mutant short stories, which led to amorphous plotting, sluggish narratives, and self-indulgent tangents that contributed little to the overall structure of the work. Using a finished short story as an outline for Romie allowed me to have a stronger grasp of organization and plot momentum before I got lost in the writing. When I did get lost, my brilliant editor was always there to yank me out of the badlands.
MS: Like many of your short stories, Romie Futch is set in the South. Do you think this story could take place anywhere else? Or is there something inherent to the South that is necessary to the novel?
JE: For my story collection, I spun loony Southern yarns, wrote cerebral dystopian satires, and sometimes combined both modes—Romie is definitely a combo of dystopian satire and Southern gothic tall tale. As I mention above, the brain-enhancement trope allowed me to reconcile growing up in a small Southern town with my graduate studies in English, equipping my inner hick with fancy diction and critical theory that hopefully express the complexities of living in the contemporary South. In the past, Southern writers have been fetishized as holy fools, semi-feral backwoods prophets that give voyeurs a glimpse of the wilderness below the Mason-Dixon line. Even today, readers sometimes forget that Southern writers inhabit the same technologically complex world they do, where the Internet inundates the mind with diverse forms of information, where the line between science and sci-fi is blurry, where “reality” is a mercurial hodgepodge of tech-mediated experiences and encounters with the natural and postnatural worlds. Romie enabled me not only to voice my own conflicting cultural experiences but also to meld the diverse ecological and cultural realities of the contemporary South. While this novel could, hypothetically, take place in a non-Southern setting, I couldn’t have written that version.
MS: There’s a wonderful musicality to your language and your word choices are often especially evocative. Are there any writers whose work, on a sentence level, influence your writing? Who are some writers whose use of language you admire?
JE: I fell in love with Vladimir Nabokov in high school, with Angela Carter in college, and with Thomas Bernhard and English Renaissance literature in grad school. At an impressionable age, I spent obscene amounts of time reading sixteenth- and seventeenth-century gynecological and obstetric texts, which often contained elements of grotesque magic realism. I was a bad poet in high school and a hyperpoetic writer of purple prose in college and grad school. The combination of Bernhardian verbal repetition and baroque Renaissance lit infected my diction for over a decade, making my fiction unpublishable. When I learned to chill out with the linguistic excess, edit for “overwriting,” and focus on narrative craft, I began to publish my work. While linguistic obsession and rhythmic hysteria were at first debilitating, the lingering pathologies sometimes work for me.
MS: The main character is a recently divorced taxidermist whose business is failing and who spends a lot of his time drunk, drug-addled, and watching Internet porn. (In other words, he’s nothing like you!) How did you go about creating this narrator and was it difficult to inhabit his mind?
JE: First of all, thank you for assuming that I’m nothing like Romie, though I do envision him as my inner hick animus. Ripping off Flaubert, Romie Futch, c’est moi! The Wilds is a feminine and often feminist collection of stories in which all of the main characters are female except for a transgender robot who struggles with various socially constructed gender personas. While inhabiting an assortment of female narrators, my repressed macho-hesher-badass-warrior side was struggling to burst out onto the page. Ironically, I was pregnant with a female child when Romie was conceived, my estrogen levels at their height. During this time, Romie’s voice came very naturally, perhaps because I’ve internalized the “male gaze,” perhaps because I’d hitherto repressed literary masculine gender performances, perhaps because I listened to a lot of metal and pop-prog during my adolescence, male-dominated musical genres that often glorify a contrived masculine swagger. On the other hand, Romie’s encounter with some of aspects of academia are similar to my own as an “outsider” who has spent much of her “career” on the margins in adjunct and instructor positions. While Romie feels liberated by theorists like Foucault, who give him tools to understand postmodern subjectivity and the power of corporations and other institutions, he’s also suspicious of the graduate students who design the tests he takes.
MS: What kind of research, if any, did you do for the book?
JE: When I wrote the original (failed) short story, I did a lot of research on potential methods for downloading information into the human brain, finally settling on a blend of various techniques. In the novel, the technicians use bioengineered brain parasites (Naegleria fowleri) to revamp Romie’s brain, making it compatible with the master biological computer and “wetware” accessories that transfer data “nanobiotically,” i.e., by rebuilding neural pathways and altering the biological structure of the brain with swarms of microscopic bioengineered robots. The original short story also contained a shorter version of an ATV sporting event that I expanded for Romie, and I vaguely remember surfing the net for sites and forums on which real ATV enthusiasts voiced their passion for quads (four-wheelers), used specific terms for stunts and driving techniques (“whoops” and “monster jumps”), and demonstrated a surprising eloquence in their description of XXXtreme driving. In order to narrate Romie’s epic quest to slay a genetically modified feral hog called “Hogzilla,” I conducted research on recombinant DNA technologies and boar hunting in general, spending hours on hog-hunting websites and message boards, bowled over by the knowledge, wit, and lyricism of some of the “tusker” enthusiasts who ranged from primitivists who worked with arrows and spears to “night hunters who installed remote-operated corn feeders and rifle-mounted target illuminators.” I pored over gun catalogs and online hunting supply emporia, which sold, among other things, special hog attractant potions like “Feral FireTM Sow in Heat Spray.” Finally, since Romie is a taxidermist, I continued earlier research on this art, finding online taxidermy supply stores to be the most useful and surreal, an elaborate deconstruction of nature into artificial “lifelike” components, many of which had vivid details and poetic names. For example, among the thousands of products offered by McKenzie Taxidermy Supply are “WASCO Wild Boar Eyes . . . [, which] feature an accurate oval-shaped pupil with the precise corneal bulge and over-sized white base.” When the enhanced Romie Futch returns to his hometown ready to revolutionize his taxidermic dioramas into elaborate, animatronic “postnatural” extravaganzas, he “deconstructs” the “nature-culture binary” and questions the “Disnifeyed . . . farce” of “lifelike mounting styles,” enterprises that are, ironically, already embedded into the process of taking an animal apart and putting it back together again.
MS: Technology of all kinds appears in Romie Futch, both on a large and a mundane scale. Can you talk a little about how the book is commenting on the ways in which technology affects our lives? How far-fetched do you think this story really is, in terms of the kinds of scientific experiments being conducted today by major corporations?
JE: The novel’s epigraph from Donna Haraway’s Simians, Cyborgs, and Women, a quaint quote from the end of the last millennium, sums it up pretty well: “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.” When I was teaching the class on dystopian lit, we often distinguished between “clean” dystopias and “dirty” dystopias: i.e., between soulless efficient robotic cities and feral postapocalyptic scenarios. To me, our current reality (especially on a global scale) seems like a mix of the two: clusters of sophisticated technologies that are either on the rise or entropic, changing contexts and meaning. Romie Futch becomes a commodified cyborg when his brain is enhanced with computer technologies, and every facet of his existence is mediated by corporate technologies—the social world of E-Live (this novel’s version of Facebook); the scattered contract research organizations that hop between the commercial and academic realms, inventing half-assed products and marketing them before their properties and potential functions are fully understood; the biotechnologies that change the nature of flora and fauna, turning plants, animals, and, finally, humans into products. In the novel, even the hog-hunting scene is rife with newfangled gadgets like remote-operated feeders and infrared tracking lights. In the “real” world, technologies sometimes work, sometimes they malfunction, and, in my opinion, they will never reach a stable totality and have a coherent meaning in human lives. The future is already here; the future will never be here. Perhaps Romie’s obsession with bagging Hogzilla, a genetically modified feral hog escaped from a biotech lab, is symbolic of the human desire to control technology not only physically but also mentally. Framing his hunt in terms of the classic epic quest gives Romie’s life (and hopefully my novel) a narrative coherence that reality lacks. Corporations are clearly the most powerful entities on the planet, inundating every facet of human life through marketing, technological developments, the commercialization of natural resources and the infiltration of national, state, and local governments. Nevertheless, I don’t envision them as an organized ruling class, i.e., as a dark international illuminati in cahoots, but more as a global clusterfuck of constantly shifting alliances due to marketing patterns, availability of resources, unstable and surreal economies, and human revolutionary pushback.
MS: What are you working on now?
JE: I’m currently writing a novel set at a surreal American research institution in a semidesert region on the Horn of Africa or the Arabian Peninsula, the habitat of hamadryas baboons, who play a central role in the narrative. The main character studies a troop of hamadryas whose feeding and social habits have changed due to their foraging from fast food dumpsters. The novel chronicles the primatologist’s research, her encounters with others scientists and artists at the institution, and also the research facility’s relationship with a fictional oil-rich country (I haven’t pinpointed the region and its politics yet, though the institution is financed by an international oil conglomerate). To prepare for this novel, I spent a summer studying hamadrayas baboons at the North Carolina Zoo in Asheboro, which boasts the largest troop in the country.
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.