Author Q&A: Sarah Elaine Smith

Marilou is Everywhere
(Hamish Hamilton) 

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When the beautiful, intelligent and mixed race teenager Jude – known as Marilou – disappears from her largely white working-class town in Pennsylvania a search party isn’t called. Instead, a white trash teenager is able to slip into her life unnoticed. This lyrical and unsettling debut novel is a story about the desperation to escape – and the terrible, intimate crimes we commit to do so.   

Marilou is everywhere but is actually nowhere since the name is a moniker for the character Jude and she is missing. What are you exploring with the themes of absence and presence?
I think presence is the prerequisite for a happy life, but it’s tricky because it’s so easy to fake (as the vast Instagram “wellness space” of “high vibe” life coaches will attest). But I still think it’s true that anyone who’s happy or effective or successful is, no matter what, somehow very present inside their moment. Very alive and full of contradiction. And this is everyone’s birthright, but you can lose it if you become preoccupied for any reason with seeking approval, like I very much have, as Cindy has. And, if you’re black or mixed race in America, it seems that your presence is threatening to white people in just a basic way. So both Jude and Cindy have a complex relationship with the business of existing.

The book is set in Greene County, Pennsylvania, where you also grew up. What was it like growing up there?
Greene County is coal country (bituminous, to be precise), so its landscape has been hollowed out and polluted by resource extraction. There’s a sign at the end of the road where I grew up that says “Prepare To Meet Thy God”. Times have been hard for people in a large-scale, generational sense. It shrinks the horizon. You had better not get any big ideas, and who do you think you are?

My parents moved to Greene County in the early 1980s, so I was an outsider automatically by virtue of the fact that my parents had Midwestern accents and it didn’t help that they ate hippie foods like buckwheat groats and hummus, you know? My experience growing up there was incredibly lonely, in part because I grew up on a 250-acre plot of woods, but also because I was sensitive, hyper aware, so self-critical. I was different and I didn’t know why or what to do about it, so I developed this constant running commentary about whether I was doing a convincing job of performing a version of myself that others would approve of.

So, for me, it was an incredibly painful place to grow up. And I don’t think I could have grown up anywhere else. It’s so beautiful. I grew up running around outside all the time, and as a result, I feel very taken care of and accompanied by nature. It has a voice, and I’m grateful that I can hear it. For better or worse, I became a writer out of loneliness and hunger and frustration.

Cindy is poor and Jude is black. Could this story have unfolded the way is does were it not for these factors?
Regarding Cindy, I’m not sure. I don’t think that isolation and self-hatred are exclusive to poverty. There are as many ways to be abandoned as there are people. But material reality does push Cindy into a desperate place, and she doesn’t have easy access to the kind of numbing diversions that are so popular with us all. Whiteness is a more important factor in this story. I mean, I’m limited by my life perspective here, but it seems like an especially white kind of madness to think it’s possible for you to swap yourself with a mixed-race person in the first place.

Regarding Jude, I think it’s clear that in this community a no-holds-barred search brigade would have materialised immediately when she went missing if she had been white – because that’s exactly what happened in this world when a white girl went missing the year before.

The deception is mutually beneficial for Cindy and Jude’s mother, Bernadette, so is it not harmless?
That’s certainly Cindy’s justification initially. Bernadette is a messy drunk and full of grief, so it seems like a kindness to distract her from that. But I don’t think the deception is actually beneficial for either of them because in this world, pain is a gift, a necessary gift for growth and realisation. Cindy and Bernadette sort of agree to hide in this cozy story together. All they’re doing is hitting the snooze button over and over again, but eventually you have to wake up. When the pain gets to be great enough, you wake up. Swooping in and removing the consequences from someone, you could also call that stealing their pain. I’m an alcoholic who doesn’t drink anymore, and I think about this all the time when I’m in the middle of something really uncomfortable: I would have never stopped drinking if the pain didn’t get great enough. I needed to come to with a black eye, lose my car, break my nose, lose friendships. If someone had stolen that pain from me, I would still be drinking.

Cindy’s turn of phrase is poetic and literary but unpolished. How did her voice come to you?
The honest answer is this voice is me! I know I’m not supposed to say that because I don’t want to encourage anyone to think that this book is autobiographical. Like all books, it is and isn’t. But my main objective in writing this voice was to be as plain and open and straightforward as I could possibly be, to not modulate in any way. To be exactly as strange as I am, to be exactly as stubborn and self-centred as I am. For me, writing isn’t about thinking or trying; the second that I have some sort of agenda or ambition for what I’m writing, it loses its animus and I want to throw it out the window. The real process is listening, emptying out, and disobeying the million critical voices that say “Ugh, don’t say that, it’s embarrassing, it’s stupid, it’s crass, it’s too pretty, you’re not supposed to be like that.” Cindy is the most like that I could muster. Any time I heard my inner critic say “ugh, take that out,” I took it as an indication that I should keep going.

This is your debut novel but you are also a poet. Are the writing processes very different for you?
I think all writing is about listening, surrendering, and emptying out, and disobeying the ego’s instructions to be hip, slick and cool at all times. Poetry is just an incredibly heightened version of that project. It’s so much less forgiving. The lie of even a single word in a poem – and by “lie” I mean a word where you can feel any ambition on the poet’s part to be cool or twist your neck – can deflate the whole thing. I think this is partially why poets make such excellent fiction writers: their bullshit detectors are top notch.

Ultimately, I think all writing is actually just the husk of the real work, which is sitting still and paying exquisite attention. Poems and stories are the evidence left behind. You are the poem and the story – and the text is evidence.

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