ORIGINS: Laura Ellen Scott’s The Juliet

julietcoverIn today’s ORIGINS at jmww, author Laura Ellen Scott discusses the origins for her novel The Juliet, published March 11, 2016, by Pandamoon Publishing.

Everything starts with place for me, and once I decided on Death Valley as my setting for The Juliet (original working title: Willie Judy and The Mystery House), it felt natural to write about lost treasure and legends. Specifically, I wanted to write a fun, MacGuffin-type novel with a cursed gem at the center.  My mother is an expert-amateur gemologist, so I grew up with rubies, sapphires, amethysts, opals, and garnets all over the house. Now that I live near DC, we go to the Gem Hall every time she visits, partly to make fun of the tourists swooning over the Hope diamond. Mom thinks curses are boring, especially when there are many more wonderful specimens on display, and I’m always impressed by her impatience with magical thinking.

The main storyline for The Juliet follows seven days in Death Valley during the record wildflower bloom of 2005 when a retired cowboy actor named Rigg Dexon comes out of seclusion and signs away the deed to his home—a legendary shack called The Mystery House—to a rootless fan named Willie Judy, who assumes that Dexon hopes she’ll carry on his life’s obsession: searching for a cursed emerald.  Dexon’s connection to The Juliet goes back to when he was a spokesman for Nuggetz cereal in the 70s; inside every box was a piece of a treasure map that was suppose to lead to her. Willie’s assumption is confirmed when she discovers that the Mystery House is full of old cereal boxes and map pieces. This is an idea I borrowed from Kit Williams’ Masquerade—the picture book that launched the armchair treasure hunt genre. Williams hid a beautiful 18-carat gold filigree pendant in the British countryside and imbedded clues to its location in the book.

The secondary storyline features episodes in the 100-year history of The Juliet, and highlights the madness and depravity the emerald seems to generate as it passes hand to hand. Each of these episodes features some sense of theater or performance, starting in the late 1880s with the murder of a corrupt industrialist and finishing in the 1980s with a squatter in The Mystery House who scares off horny teenagers, Scooby-doo style. There are several other episodes between these, but you get the picture.

Originally, I thought the book would be about Dexon’s present and his past, and that I was going to kill him off in the first 10 pages of the 2005 storyline, but he wasn’t letting go that easily, and he ended up being a very powerful force in those sections. Perhaps more importantly, he shifts tension towards older characters, especially when he encounters a figure from his past, a rock star long thought dead. In my original plan, I was going to emphasize the scramblings of younger characters embroiled in a It’s a Mad, Mad, Mad, Mad World-style plot, but the 70-somethings turned out to be just as interesting—and more dangerous—so there’s a lot more balance among the characters than I expected. Rigg Dexon may be a cowboy cliché, but he refused to become a device.

The theme of The Juliet popped into focus after my third trip to Death Valley in 2013. In Rhyolite—the model for the ghost town I call Centenary in the book—there is a cenotaph for a murdered woman with two names on the cross, a Christian name and a prostitute name, and she was supposedly murdered by her pimp and denied burial in the cemetery by the “good women” of the town. She is the source for the character of Lily Joy, a prostitute who uses the talismanic reputation of The Juliet to control her lovers, and whose murder kicks off the rapid collapse of Centenary. However, in a larger sense her duality lays out the pattern for almost every character in the book.  Not only do they all have past identities, but their present identities are rife with contradictions—like Death Valley covered in flowers, or a cowboy who must take male hormone reduction medication to control his prostate cancer.

Finally, I have to say that the braided timelines only came to me after reading Jen Michalski’s The Tide King.  Not to blow smoke up Jen’s culottes, but that book was the key.

Laura Ellen Scott’s mother claims that she saw her daughter struggling to copy letters and words from a dictionary before she could even read. When asked what she was doing, Laura explained, “I’m writing a book,” marking the first and last time she would be eligible for The New Yorker’s Writers Under 40 list. Raised in the tiny Northern Ohio township of Brimfield, she was suspended twice for ditching high school so she could hang out at nearby Kent State University’s twelve-story library, but despite her poor performance as a student, Laura was allowed to graduate in her junior year to start at KSU where she excelled at writing and playing cards. It took her more than five years to complete her BA, so only by marrying very well did she manage to weasel her way into graduate school in Louisiana and later Northern Virginia, and immediately upon graduation she was offered her first and only full time job. She is now a Term Full Professor in the English Department of George Mason University, where she has taught creative writing since 1993.

For decades Laura wrote short stories that were published in places like Ploughshares, Pank, Mississippi Review, and Wigleaf, but it wasn’t until she received an out-of-the-blue email from the great Dorothy Allison (Bastard Out of Carolina) that she started writing novels. That email said, among other things: “Damn you are good. You are just seriously satisfyingly good.” Eventually Allison would blurb Laura’s first novel, Death Wishing, a comic fantasy set in post-Katrina New Orleans, launching her debut at a time when other writers would be considered “mid-career.”

For Laura, writing novels offers her the chance to revisit the places that have affected her most deeply. For example, Death Wishing is about her favorite city. Her second novel, The Juliet, is a western about the search for a cursed emerald in Death Valley during the great wildflower bloom of 2006, and it seems especially fortuitous that the book’s publication occurs during the midst of another great bloom. The New Royal Mysteries series is set in a fictional college/prison town in Ohio, a sort of fusion between her hometown of Brimfield and Athens, Ohio, where she and her husband spent the early years of their marriage while he attended graduate school. The first New Royal Mystery is The Mean Bone in Her Body, and it is slated for release in late 2016.


2 responses to “ORIGINS: Laura Ellen Scott’s The Juliet

  1. Pingback: The Origins of The Juliet at JMWW plus Conversations and Connections – Laura Ellen Scott·

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