Thursday, May 4, 2023

Q&A with Laura Scalzo



Laura Scalzo is the author of the new novel American Arcadia. She also has written the novel The Speed of Light in Air, Water, and Glass. She lives in Washington, D.C.


Q: What inspired you to write American Arcadia, and how did you create your characters Mina and Chry?


A: I wanted to write about transcendence. When I tell people this, they ask me what I mean by it, what I think transcendence is, and I say, I’ll tell you, but it’s going to take a minute, it’s going to take a novel’s worth of minutes.


I saw [jazz musician] Jaco Pastorius play in 1985. I see, I see, I remember thinking, he’s ripped something open, he’s standing in the doorway to some other place telling us there’s more. Come to find out this was not unique to me; if you meet someone who saw him play, they will say something along those lines.


Layered over that is the saint story of Chrysanthus, the son of a Roman Senator and Daria, a Vestal Virgin. I had come across an article about their remains being discovered along with scientific evidence of their actual existence, and so on. I thought it would be interesting to retell their story with the genders reversed. They became Chry and Dare.


Mina was only ever going to be the narrator in a kind of Nick Carraway way, but her story kept forcing its way to the surface. It’s an incredible day in the writing life when you finally let go of the plan and give in to a character’s will.  


Q: The author Mary Kay Zuravleff said of the book, “The lesson of this riveting and distinctly American story may be that, in the end, we are each improvising our life.” What do you think of that description?


A: I love it because it’s a nod to jazz and Jaco Pastorius, but more than that, it’s a description of what it means to be American. Each of the four main characters are grappling with their origin story, not just grappling, battling. How much of their own histories will define them, how much will they break free from, and how much will they make peace with?


Q: You've said, “I pinned this story to the year 1985 which I saw as a turning point from a time of celebratory wild fun money rush antics to dark and still unexamined days. I did not set out to write about AIDS, but AIDS came to call.” Can you say more about that?

A: In July of 1985, Rock Hudson went public with his secret, that he had AIDS, and then he died that October. Behind that Reagan-era optimism was this dark denial, refusal to acknowledge a pandemic, and that denial exacerbated the grief and suffering. The power in this country pushed to frame AIDS as a moral and religious challenge rather than a health crisis.


I’m not gay and was not part of the gay community during that time so didn’t think it was my story to tell. But as I revisited the details of that year in my own memory, I realized how close I was to it all. We all were, if you were sexually active in New York City, even if you were or possibly were not in a monogamous relationship, you were One? Two? Maybe Three? degrees of separation from infection.


So here was the story for me to tell, that I was adjacent, which is not the same as what it must have been like to watch not one, not two, but 10 friends, more than 10, get sick and die in an atmosphere of fear and denial.


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


A: This book had so many titles! The longest running one was Waterline. There’s a lot of water imagery and Mina’s inability to swim is a prevailing conflict. Metaphorically, beneath the water lies transcendence. Chry is so much a seeker, she’ll let herself be dropped into the East River on a dare. That is the first and only time in Chry’s life she experiences fear in or around a body of water.


It’s a warning for the reader, seeking is not free, or easy, or safe. That’s Mina’s view but she’s on the other end of the extreme; she won’t go near water.


Chry’s grandmother’s lake house is named Arcadia. It’s been described to Mina as pastoral perfection, a kind of heaven on earth. When her wish comes true and she has a chance to go there, she finds out it’s inhabited with humans like everywhere else and there is nothing perfect about it.


Arcadia also refers to the immigration thread, the yearning for this country as an ideal/idyll. I live in D.C. and in the days after Jan. 6 when this beautiful, vibrant, interesting, art-filled city became a ghost town, I was down by the Capitol on my bike, watching them put up all that fencing, and I thought American Arcadia with so much bitterness.


The title is both hopeful about our American lives, so lush with possibility, and truthful about the cost of wanting all of that and how so much of it is a mirage.


Q: What are you working on now?


A: I originally pinned my current project to the days between Prohibition passing and the law going into effect, October 1919 to January 1920. I think of it as a kind of national last call, which interests me. It’s since expanded to include the textile/silk industry which moved from SoHo to Patterson, N.J., to the Lehigh Valley, where coincidentally I grew up.


There’s a lot about class which, maybe because my parents came from opposite cultural and socioeconomic backgrounds, I keep finding myself writing about.


Q: Anything else we should know?


A: I was that kid with my novel inside my math book while the teacher went on about . . . something. The reader is as much a part of the life of a book as the writer and I’m grateful to every single one, from bloggers to reviewers to book clubs. It’s all very personal for me, always a one-on-one experience.


--Interview with Deborah Kalb

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