When Malin James first invited me to participate in this blog tour celebrating the release of her book Roadhouse Blues, I didn’t hesitate to give a resounding, “Yes!” What a dream come true!
I’m relatively new to erotica. Back in September 2015, as I first began to research the genre, encountering Malin’s website had a remarkably positive impact on me. With each of her stories and essays that I read, my conviction grew stronger: this is the kind of erotica I want to create. I’ve got a long way to go on that front, but I’m persisting.
Those familiar with Malin’s prose know the way she brings her keen intellect, profound sensibility, and lyricism to every piece she writes. And yes, her work is fucking hot, too. Not to mention funny and tender. Look, I don’t do hyperbole. Exaggerating praise is less useful than chewing gum. I mean it sincerely when I say Malin James is brilliant. She’s hard working, too. Her body of work shows it. So without further prelude, let’s talk about Roadhouse Blues!
Melina Greenport: Welcome, Malin! For this virtual book chat, what are we drinking? I’m thinking either black coffee or a lemon drop for me. How about you?
Malin James: Thank you for having me, Melina! I’ll have my tenth cup of tea or a gin and tonic. Summer is gin and tonic season.
Refreshing. And cheers! I’ve been following the blog tour and have loved reading all about Roadhouse Blues and your experience writing it. I hope to expand on what’s been covered in the previous interviews.
For starters, in conversation with Lana Fox, the co-founder of Go Deeper Press, you mentioned the ways that your characters in Roadhouse Blues surprised you as you wrote their stories. That’s my favorite part of writing, when the characters begin to assert their motivations despite what I thought I had in mind for them. Can you talk a bit more about that surprise during the writing process?
Sure! Every writer seems to approach their characters differently. For me, it’s as much about trust and empathy as it is about craft – trust because resisting the urge to control the process can be hard (especially when you think you know where the story should go); and empathy because it’s the foundation of my relationship to my characters.
For the most part, I’m a character driven writer (rather than plot, genre or theme), so my stories tend to come out of a character’s response to their interior or exterior circumstances. If a character isn’t surprising me, I’m holding on to the reins too hard, i.e.: I’m not trusting the process. When things start to feel surprising and uncertain intellectually, but inevitable and right emotionally, I know I’m on the right track.
“Uncertain intellectually”—that’s a great way to put it. And yes, we are always searching for that inevitability that feels emotionally believable. I think you’ve mastered this. So, do you have any techniques or rituals you use to invite surprise?
That’s a good question… Initially, I was going to say no, but that’s not entirely true. This sounds a little loony and woo-woo, but I talk to my characters when I start to feel stuck. Rather than pushing at a preconceived plot, I try to sit back and ask questions. What’s wrong? What do you want? What aren’t you saying? That kind of thing. The answers are always spontaneous and often enlightening. If I’m trusting the process, they break the stalemate and point the compass in the direction the story naturally needs to go.
Yes! That’s not loony at all. It’s how I imagine improvisational acting—minus the pressure of an audience. In fact, you have actual experience acting. How does this process of asking your characters to reveal themselves feel similar—or dissimilar—to acting for you?
It’s very similar, actually. I was never a Method actor—the training I received focused on being present from moment to moment by letting the text inform a spontaneous response to what you were experiencing on stage. It was a strange blend of textuality and instinct, and it definitely informed how I write.
By the time I sit down with a story, I already have a sense of who a character is, but I start to really find them when I put myself in their context and let my instincts respond, much as I did on stage. I find that if I’m able to clear away my attachment to a particular outcome or “performance”, my access to the character is clearer and less encumbered. As long as I trust it, that access then informs and is informed by the story.
Yes, trust is such a huge part of writing. Trusting the process, and—when I think about it—trusting ourselves. Which leads to my next question. You’ve said that “Each story in this collection explores a fundamental question I had to ask myself.” If it’s not too personal, are you willing to share with readers what some of those questions were?
I’d be glad to. I drew a great deal from my own history as I wrote the stories in this collection. While none of the characters are autobiographical, they tend to struggle with issues I relate to – anger, fear, healing, mortality, isolation, identity, grief, etc. That’s where the empathy I mentioned comes from.
At the time I was writing the bulk of these stories, I was struggling with a lot of personal demons and certain questions kept coming up: What would it feel like to confront the person you loved and learned to fear? Under what circumstances could you possibly learn to trust yourself? What does it feel like to be at home in your body? What would it be like to act on messy, dangerous feelings? But the big, overarching questions behind most of the stories are how do the challenges you face shape you, and what do you look like on the other side? Those are the questions I asked myself again and again as the characters looked for answers.
I think this is why Roadhouse Blues resonates. Through the interiority of these characters—and their subsequent actions—you give readers the experience of living out these big questions.
That reminds me of how seamlessly your stories flow from interiority (i.e., internal reflection / characters’ thoughts) to scene (action and dialogue in a concrete setting). Which is to say: you write stories. LOL! Has this smooth weaving of deep POV always come naturally to you or have you had to work at it?
There were a lot of things I had to teach myself when I first started to write—pacing, structure, effectively using point of view. There were some messy, catastrophic attempts at using flashbacks too. But one thing I never struggled with was weaving deep POV into the action of a scene. I think it goes back to my experiences acting. In life, action and dialogue aren’t separate from a person’s interior life—they happen simultaneously. The same thing goes for characters. Part of what makes communication so complicated is that we very often only see the tip of the emotional iceberg. There’s so much that we don’t see from the outside, but that still informs how a person / character navigates a situation. Allowing that interior life to bleed into the action of a scene is a way of getting at that human complexity.
All that said, it’s a little like asking the centipede how it walks. I’m not entirely sure how I do it, because I do it by trusting the characters and their voices. The fuller and more developed the characters are, the more natural the weaving of interiority and action is.
On the topic of Roadhouse Blues being a collection of linked stories rather than a novel, you’ve said, “It’s sort of like photography—rather than take a traditional portrait, I wanted to create a collage from as many angles as I could.” I love that. Linked collections are my favorite structure of long form fiction. In Roadhouse Blues, the main link is geographical: all the characters are from or in the American town of Styx. So with each new protagonist, readers can enjoy seeing various characters repeatedly through different points of view. It makes for really fun reading.
Do you have any favorite linked collections by other authors?
Yes! I have two actually. The first one is Winesburg, Ohio by Sherwood Anderson and the second is Kissing in Manhattan by David Schickler.
The stories in Winesburg, Ohio are about the residents of a town called Winesburg, Ohio (appropriately enough) and the secret histories they tell a young reporter. The stories are bound by the setting and provide a multifaceted view of a fairly typical Midwestern town. That kind of storytelling has always appealed to me, and it directly influenced the role that Styx, the town in Roadhouse Blues, plays in the collection.
Conversely, the stories in Kissing in Manhattan are bound by plot more than place, which was equally influential in a different way. The stories in Schickler’s collection end up piecing together to form one cohesive story. In Roadhouse Blues, most of the stories brush by each other in passing, but there’s a small suite of stories – “Down and Dirty”, “The Things You Do”, “Natural Mother” and “Love in the Time of War” – that form one coherent arc. One of the things I love about Kissing in Manhattan is the way Schickler explores the interpersonal knots that develop over time. His approach directly influenced how I linked that clutch of stories.
It’s compelling to see those knots form and unravel. I love the way great linked collections—and Roadhouse Blues does this—allow readers to participate that way. I’m so glad your favorites differ from mine so I can add to my reading list. By the way, mine are A Visit from the Goon Squad by Jennifer Egan and Olive Kitteridge by Elizabeth Strout.
I haven’t read Olive Kitteridge yet, but it’s on my list, along with her newest linked collection! And I loved A Visit from the Good Squad. That book is nuts in all the best ways.
Totally! I’m so glad you mentioned Strout’s new book because I didn’t realize it’s a collection. Amazon actually has an error in titling it Anything is Possible: A Novel. Or maybe that was a marketing choice. In any case, I’m all the more drawn to it knowing it’s not a novel. Vive Short Fiction! OK. Back to Roadhouse.
I gather Styx is a fictional place, but do you have a sense of where it’s located in the U.S.?
Officially speaking, Styx is Anytown, USA, but the landscape was inspired by west Texas. I lived just outside of Dallas for about a year, and in that time I got to know how suffocating that specific brand of dry, dusty heat and wide-open space can be.
How did you come up with the town name?
I wanted it to have a sort of desolate quality, like Devil’s Fork or No Town (which is, I swear to god, the name of a real place). Early on I just called it Hellmouth—
Hilarious. Such a dark, early perception of the setting. I love it.
Ha! Thanks—it definitely made my feelings clear. Sadly, it was way too pejorative to keep, so, ultimately, I stayed with the underworld theme and went with Styx, in part because I liked the way it looked (I’m a sucker for an ‘x’), and in part because of the River Styx, which separates the worlds of the living and the dead in Greek mythology. I always felt like that town was a kind of halfway place—one that most people never leave. In the end, it just seemed to fit.
I had a feeling Greek mythology might come up. The name totally works, but I’m sort of sad there’s no relation to the fantabulous band. Do you have a favorite Styx song?
I’ve heard of the band Styx, but I’ve never listened to their music. Clearly, I need to fix that!
They may be before your time. I’ll reveal my age and channel my inner 11 year-old music geek and offer you this (so! romantic!).
I noticed that Styx has been defined as being a blue-collar town. Meanwhile, you are a Northern California-based writer with a background that includes dancing with the San Francisco ballet and acting at NYU. You hold an MA in Comparative Literature. I’m impressed with the way this book plays with stereotypes without succumbing to them. My hunch is that this works because you’ve so expertly given the main characters emotional depth and vulnerability. Can you talk a bit about this?
Thank you! Yes! When I was acting, my favorite roles were the ones that subverted stereotypes—the bombshell who plays dumb but reads voraciously, the goth girl who loves a fairytale prince, the mother who runs away from the baby she loves. Regardless of what the world sees, people are faceted and complicated. I’ve always been drawn to exploring those facets, both as an actor and, now, on the page.
No matter how close we are to a person, we can never fully know exactly who they are. That’s why private lives and secrets fascinate us. Revelations give us the illusion of knowledge we can’t have, and we want that knowledge because we’re social creatures who have evolved to bond and connect.
OMG. I’ve never embedded at gif at this site, but if I were to start now it would be someone nodding their head voraciously.
We want to be seen. We want to understand and be understood. That’s where stereotypes come from—the false idea that we know everything there is to know about a person.
Stereotypes make me feel restless and itchy. They make me want to crack the shell of my own perception and glimpse a little of what’s underneath. The fact that I can do that with characters is one of my favorite things about writing.
You do it very well.
Thank you, Melina. Even if all of my work ended up lost in the void, I would keep still keep writing because I love working with characters so much.
Of all the characters in Styx, I’ve got a crush on Sam from “Good Love”. Who’s your crush?
My crush is Sam too 🙂 I just love her. She is so kind and intuitive and compassionate and healthy. I just want to be around her. Plus, I have to admit that she’s just my type. I’m a sucker for a beautiful, smart people covered in ink.
I can’t even tell you how excited I am to hear this. As you know, some of the buzz around this book so far has been about how readers are moved to tears. Sam’s story (“Good Love”) is the one that made me cry. The generosity of spirit she shows Leigh is both natural and profound. Portraying grace in fiction is one of my big goals. You’ve accomplished this in spades through Sam. [Readers, there’s more about this story in Malin’s interview with the super smart Xan West at Kink Praxis.]
“Good Love” was the story that was hardest to write, and also the one whose reception I was most concerned about. As a bisexual cis woman writing a lesbian trans woman, it felt incredibly important to get Sam right, both for the sake of the story, as well as for the sake of responsibly portraying a trans person and supporting trans visibility. In my mind, Sam was always just Sam – beautiful, amazing, cool, kind Sam, but I was very aware of how writing her would have implications beyond simple characterizations. Lana Fox and Jake Taveres at Go Deeper were instrumental in helping me get there. Leigh needed an anchor to get her through that scene. She needed someone transcendent and good to help her transcend her horrible, painful past. That person was Sam, and I needed to do right by her.
In reading the story, I was so struck by the beauty of their interaction, that it didn’t even occur to me how challenging it must have been. You’ve made it look easy! And you were clearly in good hands with Lana and Jake.
Have you ever had any of the jobs featured in the book?
I was a waitress for a while—a really terrible waitress. And I’m a mom, which isn’t a profession, but is an all-consuming, identity driven role. Other than that, I’ve been a bookseller, a librarian, a teacher and a tutor, so my sense of all the other jobs, from mechanic to exotic dancer, comes from talking to, or knowing, people who work in those professions.
I’m glad you mention motherhood! As someone who’s not a mom, I’m looking forward to hearing reader reactions about “Natural Mother”. It’s an incredibly poignant story. This collection is so well suited for book clubs. Sexy book clubs.
Thank you! I like the idea of sexy book clubs. There have to be some out there…
Were you tempted at all to raise political or religious topics?
I was, and I had to wrestle with how dominant I wanted those themes to be. Styx is a socially conservative place, and I would have been remiss if I hadn’t touched on the effect religion, tradition and social expectation have on the people who live there. That said, I didn’t want to make the collection a political polemic. Ultimately, it had to be about the people and their experiences living in a seemingly traditional, conservative place.
I could have been much more direct about raising political and religious issues, especially as a liberal American in these strange and concerning times, but I wanted the characters to remain the driving force of the collection, so I let those issues pop up organically, and often quietly, in relation to them and their experiences.
I’m curious about the choice to put “The Waitress” after “Truck Stop”.
That’s a great question! You’re the first person to notice that they’re the only two stories that aren’t set in chronological order! The answer is actually pretty boring. The stories form loose groupings – the Pak’nSave / Debi stories, the Joe and Mary stories, the diner stories and the roadhouse stories, with the Elk’s Lodge making a solo appearance in “Good Love”.
After “Love in the Time of War”, I needed to transition from that house to the diner, but “Love” is fairly serious and so is “The Waitress”. I wanted to give the reader a breather before dropping them into one of the more difficult stories in the collection. So, rather than put the “The Waitress” after “Love in the Time of War” I buffered it with “Truck Stop”, even though the events in “The Waitress” happen the before Luke and Cody get together.
That’s not a boring answer at all.
So, you worked on this book “for the better part of a year”. Can you give us a picture of what the days and weeks were like? How do you schedule your workdays?
I work five days a week, Monday-Friday. I freelance so my time is always divided between creative projects and regular work. I’m a creature of habit, so my routine is pretty regular—drop my daughter off at school, get to my desk by 9am, write until 1pm and then pick her up. I handle social media and emails in the afternoon when she gets home. I can multitask a lot of things, but creative work I can’t, so between 9am and 1pm, I’m a hermit. It helps me focus and I find that for me, the semi-monastic portions of my day are the most productive.
Did you work with an editor before turning the manuscript in to Go Deeper Press?
Yes and no… Lana Fox and I started exchanging pages for feedback about a year and a half ago. Her feedback was always amazing (she’s a fantastically gifted editor, as well as being a fantastically gifted writer). So, when I started toying around with the collection, I sent her a couple of the initial story drafts for “Skins” and “Natural Mother”. We started talking and the project gently progressed from there. By the time I’d finally signed the contract with GDP [Go Deeper Press], we were both super comfortable working with each other and had a wonderful rhythm set. It was all really serendipitous and ridiculously natural, like it was just sort of meant to be.
Malin, it’s been a complete delight to be able to chat with you this week. First, you generously agreed to follow up questions—which bred more follow up questions, and even more after that—and now I honestly feel as if I could talk with you for a decade!
I feel the same way, Melina! Talking with you is such a treat! Your work and preparation have been nothing short of amazing. That same care, detail and curiosity come through in your fiction. It’s a wonderful thing.
You’re so kind. Thank you! Needless to say, I would love to hear more of your thoughts about erotica as literature and reading and writing. After a much-deserved vacation, would you like to return for another chat?
I would love to! Anytime, any place! One of these days I’d also love to turn the tables and host you for a chat too. I suspect finding things to talk about wouldn’t be a problem. In the meantime, thank you so much for hosting me. It’s been a real and genuine pleasure.
Wonderful! And congratulations on the launch of this beautiful book.
About Malin James:
Malin James is an essayist, blogger, and short story writer. Her work has appeared in Electric Literature, Bust, MUTHA, Queen Mob’s Tea House and Medium, as well as in podcasts and anthologies for Cleis Press, Sweetmeats Press and Stupid Fish Productions. Her first collection, Roadhouse Blues, is now available from Go Deeper Press.
Buy Roadhouse Blues at:
Header photo courtesy of The Other Livvy.