‘The Blue Girl’–
An Interview with Laurie Foos
by Karin Cecile Davidson
“The Blue Girl,” Laurie Foos’ sixth novel, is told in the language of fairytales, immersed in metaphor, lyrical and leading to magical places, where magic is draped in sadness and secrets. The central story of the blue girl is told in the multiple voices of three mothers and their three daughters, each with the quiet desperation, longing, and immediacy of the present moment and her own unique perspective. Here, in this small lake town, Once Upon a Time is measured out in the same spoons and cups used for making moon pies, their sweet, rich denseness adding layers to the overlapping relationships within the story as each narrator reveals her part.
In the fabulist, feminist worlds of her earlier novels—to name a few: “Ex Utero,” a comic tale in which a woman loses her uterus in a shopping mall; “Portrait by the Walrus by a Young Artist,” a satire wherein walruses and bowling alleys are given equal time; “Before Elvis There Was Nothing,” a bittersweet, hilarious story about Elvis-crazed parents, agoraphobia, and societal takes on beauty—Foos gives us rollercoaster rides, complete with surprise and laughter. With “The Blue Girl,” Foos has found her way into a different kind of surrealist story, one in which the prose has a rhythmic lilt, one that never rushes, but lingers inside the minds of the characters, uncovers their secrets one by one, and floats on their interweaving narratives.
The blue girl eats secrets in moon pies. She takes them in, her mouth and lips smudged white against her blue skin, tongue clacking at the roof of her mouth, crumbs dribbling down her chin… we pass our secrets across the bed and into her hands… mostly she seems to enjoy them, her lips pursed with the sticky surprise of the things we have come to offer her, the things that she has come to take. – Irene –Laurie Foos
KARIN CECILE DAVIDSON: Irene is the character who begins and ends the story of “The Blue Girl,” leading in with the collective WE—the trio of women, the mothers who feed the blue girl homemade moon pies, always in the same order—Magda first, Libby last, Irene in the middle. Out of this collective, voice comes forth to set the tone, move in time, and tell the tale. “We never speak of the secrets, only the moon pies we have made, and even then, we are careful not to reveal too much.” Then without the reader taking notice, the writing flawless, Irene turns to her own thoughts.
Tell us about Irene and your choice to begin and end the novel with her voice.
LAURIE FOOS: The novel began for me with Irene, and it began with that first line, “The blue girl eats secrets in moon pies.” It was a line that came to me and turned around and around in my head for some time, as I wondered: “Who is the blue girl? Who is telling her secrets? And why in moon pies?” I remember doing a good deal of pacing in my house with that line in my head before sitting down and thinking, “Okay, let’s see what happens here; let’s see where this goes.” Irene emerged in this very unconscious way, in that delightful way when a voice comes and begins speaking to you. It soon became clear that Irene stood at the heart of the story, that she had the most regret, as it’s Irene’s daughter who saves the blue girl while the others stand and watch. I remember being surprised by the melancholy in the voice, and also the strength. Once the rest of the structure sort of revealed itself—that there were three mothers and three daughters—it was clear to me that Irene should also close the novel.
DAVIDSON: The mothers and daughters of “The Blue Girl” are lovely, candid, funny, remarkable women and girls. Irene and her Audrey, Magda and her Caroline, Libby and her Rebecca. Relationships are examined through secrets withheld, kept too long, then painstakingly given away in baked goods never meant for bake sales, but for the enigmatic blue girl who accepts them all too willingly.
How did you decide on the multiple voices of mothers and daughters, along with the interlaced secrets and stories of these women?
FOOS: I should say that every draft of a novel is a process of discovery for me, that I believe very much in trusting your unconscious impulses in the drafting process. You have to get out of your own way as much as possible to allow the story to unfold. That has always been my cardinal rule—that the drafting should surprise me. If it doesn’t surprise me, I become suspicious of it. Once I wrote the first chapter and discovered that Irene had a daughter, and that Irene’s daughter, Audrey, had saved the blue girl, then it made sense that Audrey should speak next. And then the other mothers and daughters. The structure revealed itself, essentially, in that first chapter and came about in this very unconscious way. I never begin with any discernible plan. I think most other writers work in this way as well; I’m certainly not the first to speak about the role of the unconscious in first drafts. Ray Bradbury writes about the role of the unconscious in his book, “Zen In the Art of Writing,” in which he says that the Muse and the unconscious are two names for the same thing. Robert Olen Butler writes at length about the role of the unconscious in writing in his book, “From Where You Dream,” and Madison Smartt Bell also writes about the importance of not tampering with unconscious processes in his book, “Narrative Design.” I believe deeply in the importance of allowing your unconscious to guide you in drafting novels and do my best to stay out of my own way. With that in mind, once I knew there were three women and three daughters in that first chapter, I knew that fact would dictate the structure of the novel. That is the point at which you make your leap of faith, when you allow yourself to accept what the narrative is asking of you. Of course, I had no idea whether I could pull it off, writing a novel in multiple first-person voices; though, it was a technique I had long admired and had always wanted to try.
But, of course, you can’t impose that kind of impulse on a novel. The novel has to need a particular device or technique. I think what was most important for me was to allow the leap of faith to happen, to trust my instincts that these voices all needed to speak, that each of the characters had something to say that would contribute to the larger whole. There were many times when it was terrifying—and exhilarating. I think, too, that it became the novel I needed to write at this particular juncture in my life. I have two children, now nine and ten, who were four and five at the time. It felt very much like the right kind of structure in terms of my being able to move into and out of it, and so I could pull my head out, waiting and playing with getting the next voice right. I’m not sure I saw that at the time, as you often don’t see things as they’re happening, but I see it now.
DAVIDSON: The metaphorical blue girl has so many ways of being seen, and yet, those living in the lake town see her as legend or myth. To our narrators, however, she is incredible and real, phenomenal in her silence, in terrible need of attention. Cerulean, deep turquoise, indigo, like the sky at twilight, “a strange blue, unnatural,” becoming a deeper and deeper shade with every breath, with every entry into the lake. The descriptions of the blue girl are beautiful, disturbing, and mysterious, each of the six characters discretely describing her.
Have you written the blue girl so that each reader can come away with a completely singular idea of who she might be and what she might mean, symbolically and otherwise?
FOOS: It’s been so gratifying to hear that she feels so real to people, as she was and is very real in my own mind. It took some doing to keep her in some ways ethereal but also physical; the point of the novel for me didn’t simply involve readers puzzling out whether the blue girl exists. There is an air of mystery about her, as there is for the characters themselves, but the mystery alone was never the driving force. I think there are some commonalities of what people will come away with, but I do hope that the blue girl has a singular meaning, that she provides a kind of singular experience for the reader.
If I could, I would share it, but somehow, whatever this is, this huge thing inside me that I carry around, this thing that makes me dream even when I can’t sleep, it seems to be mine alone. – Audrey –Laurie Foos
DAVIDSON: Audrey appears as the typical teenage girl, her relationship with her mother strained and distant, devotion to her younger brother Buck sweet and believable, time spent with her fearful, disturbed father sad and true. We come to understand that her independence has its risks, her feelings of responsibility toward the blue girl too much for someone so young. Audrey is burdened with secrets, with the “something huge and whole and mine” that she breathed in when saving the blue girl, and she is unable to share them.
While each of the novel’s mothers and daughters have secrets, to me, Audrey’s feel the most immediate and unsettling. How did you infuse her character with this incredible distancing and longing all at once?
FOOS: It’s hard to say which of the characters was hardest to write, and I’ve gone back and forth with that in my own mind. I was just saying to a friend and colleague in a letter that the writing of the novel feels like such a romantic experience, but only in retrospect. After the struggles and days of nearly blinding self-doubt, days when you’re convinced you’ve fallen short, that what you’ve tried to express on the page will never meet your own standards, that you’ve failed to communicate the dream you have living in your mind that you’ve tried so hard to convey. All of that falls away, and you think, “Yes, but wasn’t it wonderful?” And of course it was, and it is, but it’s also slow, often agonizing.
And so this is a roundabout way of getting to your question. I would have to say that Audrey was the hardest to write. Audrey felt in many ways closest to me, and yet she would slip away just as quickly, kind of clam up just as I felt I was beginning to know her. Audrey carries so much in the novel: the closeness she feels to the blue girl; her anger toward her mother; her sorrow for the father who has fallen apart in front of her; her responsibility to her brother, Buck. She’s experienced the one thing none of the others have been able to, which is to save the blue girl, to have a kind of communion with her. The relationship with Buck allowed me to find a way into her softness, as it’s in the scenes with Buck that she lets down her guard. I’ve long been interested in what happens to someone who’s had an experience that is so personal, something that hasn’t happened to others, how that changes that person inside.
DAVIDSON: Buck, dreams of balancing a bag of sugar on his head while waltzing with the blue girl, while Libby lives in a world, white and dreamless, burdened with a disappointing husband, a beautiful daughter, and a son lost in the spectrum of disconnected synapses. Ethan, Libby’s son and Rebecca’s brother, is challenged with “fragile X syndrome;” the blue girl is, by Magda’s daughter Caroline’s researched estimations, blue and breathless due to chronic pulmonary edema and cyanosis; Colin, Irene’s husband and Audrey’s father, has come to fear the television and to live in his own world.
Dreams, differences, disturbances. Please tell us about these subjects of the unconscious, otherness, and spectacle, and how your writing embraces them.
FOOS: I’ve always been interested in the unconscious and the role of the unconscious in writing, in the making of art, the role of the unconscious in our daily lives. I’ve always been deeply interested in the workings of human behavior and of the mind and of the thin veil that rests between the conscious and the unconscious mind. This seemed to come about for me at a very early age, a fascination with dreams and what they meant, and then later, how that world might be translated into my work.
Now that I’m the mother of a son on the autism spectrum, my interest in the mind—in the workings of a brain that isn’t neurotypical—has shifted and deepened. I now have a front seat on the journey of how it feels when the world doesn’t entirely make sense. I think a great deal about how the world treats difference, and “difference,” of course, has many, many permutations. From the time my son was four years old, I have been told by his many therapists and teachers, “He is going to have to bend to meet the world; the world is not going to change to meet him.” Often I have thought, “Why not? Why won’t the world meet him? What would the world look like if it did?” But, of course, these people are right; the world doesn’t adapt, and so he must. In some ways I suppose my work explores this, directly with the character of Ethan, but with the blue girl as well.
Perhaps we all know what will become of us, that one day we will have children who do not or cannot follow what we say, that what seems broken is in fact strongest. Perhaps we know then that one day we will have to release what we are tired of feeding and caring for, when the song of the trees is all we can hope to hear. – Irene –Laurie Foos
DAVIDSON: Magda. Of Russian descent, reminiscent of her youth—the wife of long-haired, townie David, the mother of studious Caroline with her shining white teeth and her widening waist, and of Greg the boy, “this swearing, freckled, lanky boy who can’t keep his hands to himself”—Magda stirs the chocolate and wonders about the difference between secrets and lies.
Libby. Inside her dreamless state, the white walls of her home, she considers her husband Jeff’s absence as “disappearance,” her daughter Rebecca’s beauty and presence and strength a godsend, especially in caring for Ethan, “my real boy… the blue trying to emerge in all this whiteness.”
Irene. Trying with all her might to hear the songs of the trees, songs her mother encouraged her in childhood to listen for, but “thinking of the girl… blue as a dream with her mouth full of wanting.” And meanwhile, her husband Colin losing his mind, her daughter Audrey sleepless and exhausted, her son Buck so young and vulnerable. Irene’s sadness is as thick as the cream filling of the moon pies.
Each of these women carries her own story through the emotional strains of language—Magda’s wry humor, Libby’s unending despair, and Irene’s sadness and desire. How did you discover each woman’s voice and depth of character? Were you inspired and influenced by women you’ve known in real life, in literature, in art?
FOOS: The voices, as I say, did begin in an unconscious way, though, in the revision process, I had to work hard to make them distinct from one another. Each woman had to have her own struggle, something that she was harboring inside that she felt the others didn’t know. In the revision process I worked on the language, the rhythm of the speech, making sure there were distinctive syntactical patterns. This is a delicate balance because you have to do it in such a way that the reader isn’t pulled out by the peculiarities or distracted by speech that comes across as too mannered. I did this very much on a line-by-line basis, and some voices were more challenging than others.
This novel is about mothers and daughters, and to some extent I was inspired by my relationship with my own mother, who died while I was writing this novel. It seems strange to think of that now, as when I began it, she was in perfect health. I’d never have imagined that she might die during the writing process. Now though, of course, I’m aware that each of the women has lost a mother. With most of my work, I think I have a tendency to write into what I fear. I’ve always been interested in the inner lives of women, the quiet strength of those who endure. In terms of literary influence, Toni Morrison’s “Beloved” has long been a favorite of mine, especially with regard to the collective consciousness of the townswomen when they come to drive Beloved out of the home. Although this was not a conscious decision, I do think there are elements of the myth of the sin eater at work in this book. Margaret Atwood has a short story, “The Sin Eater,” that I can see having inspired some of the impulses in this book. Influence is a strange thing; I read that story probably twenty years ago. It’s important to recognize the importance of what we take in, what becomes part of the warehouse of our unconscious minds, the unique part of ourselves. That is the one true thing that each of us brings to our work, and we have to nurture it, believe in it, set it forth on the page.
Karin Cecile Davidson, Interviews Editor