Friday, March 3, 2023

Q&A with Kerri Schlottman



Kerri Schlottman is the author of the new novel Tell Me One Thing. Her work has appeared in a variety of publications, including The Dillydoun Review and Belle Ombre. She lives in the New York City area.  


Q: Tell Me One Thing was inspired by a 1990 photograph by Mary Ellen Mark. Can you say more about that, and about how you created your characters Quinn and Lulu?


A: I studied Mary Ellen Mark’s photography when I was in graduate school and was always drawn to her photo "Amanda and Her Cousin Amy." The image depicts 9-year-old Amanda standing in a kiddie pool in a bikini with full makeup and fake nails smoking a cigarette, while her cousin Amy sits in the back of the pool.


The photo was taken in rural North Carolina in 1990 when Mark was sent by Life Magazine to photograph children in a school for troubled youth, which is where she initially met Amanda. She caught the photo as she was leaving town.


When Mark passed away in 2015, NPR found Amanda, then in her late 30s, and asked her why she allowed Mark to take her photograph. She said she thought someone would see it and come and help her. She had a very challenging life - in and out of foster care, lots of neglect - and she’d had a hard adulthood as well.


I was on a road trip through rural Pennsylvania when I heard that NPR segment and we had stopped to get gas in a tiny town that’s very much the fictional Riverdale in my book.


Things clicked in my mind. Mark was already well known when she photographed Amanda, but I decided to make my character Quinn be in her early 20s, just out of art school, and I started the story in 1980 to also discuss the challenges of that time period in New York City (and everywhere).


Quinn takes a very different type of photograph of Lulu, who she meets while on a road trip with her friend Billy when they’re forced to spend the night in the small town where Lulu lives. Quinn’s photograph is of Lulu sitting on the lap of a trucker outside a motel, smoking a cigarette.


Soon after, the photo changes the course of Quinn’s career, not only the type of photography she’s doing but also the attention she begins getting for it. I wanted to explore what it would mean for an artist to gain notoriety from such a questionable photograph, while also telling the story of the little girl’s tough life.


The book follows both characters from that moment of interaction through their lives up to present tense.


Q: Did you know how the novel would end before you started writing it, or did you make many changes along the way?


A: I always knew how I wanted the book to end because it was very important to me to remain authentic to the story and to what would have been most likely to happen given the circumstances. In that way, I think there’s only one way the book could have ended.


Still, I left it a little open because I like readers to be able to wonder what might happen next after this time we have with the characters.


It’s an interesting thing about telling a story - that you get to a certain point and then you have to stop telling it, but still there is life to be lived in the characters. So maybe my answer is actually that I don’t think the story really ever ends.


Q: The writer Chelsea Bieker called the book “A devastating and rich exploration of trauma, art-making, love, and the unmistakable hauntedness of what we cannot control, yet long to.” What do you think of that description?


A: Chelsea is one of my favorite writers and her opinion means so much to me. I think she articulated things about the book that I wasn’t even fully aware I was doing, which happens when you’re deeply engaged in the process of creating something.


I hadn’t really been thinking about the concept of control, but Chelsea was so right in seeing that.


In the next sentence of her quote, she says, “I want everyone to read this book,” which I also love. I am very grateful to her and the other authors who were early readers of the book and gave it initial praise.


Q: How was the book's title chosen, and what does it signify for you?


A: The book’s title is taken from the song lyrics for Roxy Music’s “More Than This,” which I think is such a classic ‘80s song. The song is playing in the book in a particularly tough scene between Quinn and Billy.


I chose it as a reference back to the moment, but also because it has a strong correlation to the way the book is positioned for Lulu to question Quinn later in life when she realizes that the photograph of her has become iconic.


For a long time, before the book had a publisher, I was calling it Lulu and the Trucker, which I still like as a title, but I’m happy we went with Tell Me One Thing instead.


Q: What are you working on now?


A: I have two completed manuscripts and am hoping to find a home for them soon.


One is titled American Dreams and was inspired by a true story of some Michigan folks, not far from where I grew up, who plotted to hijack the Michigan vote certification after Biden was declared the winner in 2020.


The group tried to hide overnight in the Michigan Capitol building and were going to present themselves the next morning as the electors and vote for Trump instead.


That plotting is an undercurrent in the book, but mostly it’s about the culture of desperation in the areas where these pockets of unrest arise. I grew up among it and think these are stories that need telling so that we don’t repeat history.


The other book is called A Daytime Moon and is based on a concept called solastalgia, which is feeling homesickness even when in your home.


The story follows a young woman trying to put her life back together after a tragedy in her teens pulls it apart. Amid her searching are real-life climate situations that are altering our environment. The book looks deeply at the idea of home and family, and what it means to feel a sense of belonging.


Q: Anything else we should know?  


A: Tell Me One Thing has a few scenes that are like small love letters to my favorite photographer Nan Goldin, who chronicled the late ‘70s and the ‘80s in her work. Some of the photos that Quinn takes are photos that Nan took in real life.


There are also some scenes in the book that are inspired by Nan’s photographs, for instance when Quinn and Alex are lying on the grass together, when Quinn is photographing Tisha and the man in the motel, and also some of the intimate scenes between Quinn and Billy. 


--Interview with Deborah Kalb

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