Elvis has not left the building 

Laurie Foos’ fifth novel, Before Elvis There Was Nothing (Coffee House Press) can be described as bizarre. How else to describe a book about a woman who grows a horn in the middle of her forehead while she and her agoraphobic sister cope with their Elvis-obsessed parents’ abandonment to search for the long-dead King of rock and roll?

Yet, the bizarre distortions of the story make this novel resonate with truth and authenticity about universal subjects like fear, family, and personal identity.

Last week, in a telephone interview from her Massachusetts home, the 38-year-old novelist and creative writing professor plainly stated that the wild distortions in Before Elvis There Was Nothing are intended to focus attention away from the events themselves, and to zero in on the characters’ perceptions and reactions to events that surround them.

Laurie Foos will be in Savannah to discuss and read excerpts from her forthcoming novel at StarCCa Gallery, 2425 Bull Street between 40th and 41st, at 7:00 p.m. on Friday, March 4.

(Editor’s Note: Foos’ book should not be confused with Patrick Higgins’ book of the same name. The titles are derived from a famous quote by John Lennon.)

In addition to writing novels, Foos teaches creative writing at the Low-Residency MFA Program at Lesley University in Cambridge.

Before Elvis is Foos’ fifth novel, and is set for release at the same time that her first child is due. “The book comes out in May, I’m having a baby in May, everything’s coming out in May! It certainly was not planned to have the timing this way, but it’s great to have a new book and this new chapter of my life starting all at once.”

In conversation, as in her writing, Foos’ every sentence is packed with something interesting and also revealing, yet delivered in a matter-of-fact way that is neither grandiose nor self-deprecating.

Before Elvis is narrated by Cass, the older of the two sisters. By all appearances, Cass seems to have successfully dealt with the long-past disappearance of their parents. She has a career as a hair replacement specialist, a successful podiatrist boyfriend, and plenty to keep her busy as the emotional caretaker to her sister.

Lena is a paranoid recluse who treats her frequent panic attacks by breathing into paper bags, popping Xanax, and engaging in lengthy chat sessions with her online psychotherapist.

To appease Lena’s anxiety, Cass weaves real memories of their parents with made up tales, and forges birthday cards from them to Lena each year. Lena lives in hope of their reappearance, setting out cake for them on her birthday like a child leaving cookies for Santa on Christmas Eve.

Then Cass grows a horn in the middle of her forehead. Bizarre, indeed.

Foos credits her inspiration for the absurdity and truth in all of her novels to her influences Eugene Ionesco, Franz Kafka, and Nikolai Gogol. “I go back to Kafka. The stories are human, it’s just a matter of the way in which they are told,” says Foos.

Foos was first drawn to the idea of a person growing a horn when she read the play Rhinoceros in college. In the classic Eugene Ionesco play, residents of a French village evolve into rhinoceroses, and the play addresses the reaction of the other villagers to each phase of these changes.

“Something was set off in me, I was amazed that you could write this way,” says Foos. “The theme of the physical change of these people turning into rhinos. I was struck by the reactions of the people in the play. I played with the idea of a horn about ten years ago. I tried it with a short story, but I really needed a novel to open it up.”

In her writing, Foos strives to depict reality by over-distorting the surreal. “I subscribe to Flannery O’Connor’s belief that what writers do is not necessarily to give a reflection of what really happens, but if you blow things up enough the truth will emerge. People understand something that is allegorical, fable-like, if you keep things weighted in realism.… It’s harder to get readers to buy the realism than the surrealism sometimes. You don’t need to explain why the woman grows a horn, but you do need to explain why the women smoke pot at work. The writers I’m interested in -- that’s what they do so well. The parts grounded in reality are very real.”

Foos says that her first book, Ex Utero, was “literally rescued from the slush pile by an unknown intern to whom I am forever indebted” at the non-profit Coffee House Press. “The intern was reading the manuscript and she kept saying ‘Ooh, gross. Ooh, this is disgusting.’”

When the publisher asked the intern what she was reading, the intern responded, “We wouldn’t want to publish a book about a woman whose uterus falls out while she’s at the mall, would we?”

Coffee House’s publisher Allan Kornblum did want to publish it, and the novel received critical acclaim nationwide, from The Philadelphia Enquirer to The Los Angeles Times.

Says Foos, “Coffee House has been my champion from the get-go. Kornblum gets my work like no one else does. Each book is a better book because of his input.” Four of Foos’ five novels have been published by the Minneapolis-based independent press.

Foos began writing in elementary school. “I had a great fourth grade teacher who encouraged me,” says the author, who says she always saw herself as a short story writer. “The first novel came as a complete surprise to me. My professor at the MFA Creative Writing program of Brooklyn College suggested that I try a novel, that it might be easier to sell a novel than short stories.”

Most of Foos’ novels feature some fantastical anatomical anomaly. Cass’s forehead horn in Before Elvis There was Nothing; the lost uterus in Ex Utero; a man who turns into a baby but keeps his adult head in 2002’s Bingo Under the Crucifix, or a woman who gives birth to her clone in Twinship. Only 1995’s coming-of-age novel Portrait of the Walrus by a Young Artist steers clear of biological weirdness.

Yet all of these physical aberrations, and the themes from all five of Foos’ novels, touch directly or indirectly on parent-child relationships, personal identity, and family.

Says Foos, “It’s interesting now that I’m pregnant with my first child. I’m interested in change, in fundamental change. Whether it’s from an internal or an external change, how do characters react to bizarre change, because I think that bizarre things happen in everyday life. I think that all of the books are about the search for the self.”

Of the title character in the new novel, Foos notes, “I didn’t mean to write about Elvis. In writing your unconscious is your guide, especially in the first draft. I am always suspicious of things that don’t surprise me when I’m writing. I’ve learned to trust it. I said to myself, ‘Well Elvis wants to be in here, so I’m gonna let him.’”

In describing her writing methodology Foos paraphrased a quote from E.L. Doctorow: “Writing a novel is like driving a car at night. You can only see as far as your headlights but that will take you the whole way.”

Foos is a self-described Elvis Presley fan. Says the author, “My mother loves Elvis; I sort of grew up with him. My younger brother and I would be listening to Elvis, making up little dance routines. My mother went to see him many times. Of the three kids I inherited the Elvis fan-dom. It wasn’t until I went to Graceland that I became fascinated by the death culture. On the tour of Graceland you really sort of forget that he’s not there. Then you stop at the meditation garden and reality sets in.”

In Before Elvis, both Cass and Lena are named by their parents for singers heard on the radio while the girls were being born — Mama Cass and Lena Horne. Both women have been given celebrity names, and spend their lives seeking their own identities.

The cult of celebrity and the search for identity are woven through the narrative of Before Elvis. “I’ve always been fascinated by our fixation on celebrity culture,” says Foos. “The idea of celebrity has changed in the last few years with all the reality shows. People that appear on them become celebrities. It’s about projection, projecting wants and desires.

“We love celebrities, we love to put them on a pedestal, but then we love to pull them down. It’s amazing to me that we are continually surprised that they have human foibles.

“In Before Elvis I’m playing with the fact that Elvis was deified in the culture. In death he’s become the object of ridicule but he’s also, for the die-hard Elvis fan, this deification that existed when he was alive as well. The King and the King of Kings.”

In all of Foos’ novels, the exploration of reality includes family history. In Before Elvis the third chapter opens with a list of 16 discarded items — the complete inventory of what their parents left behind in their disappearance. The list includes a strand of used dental floss, an old belt buckle, a Twister game, and a yellowed newspaper clipping of Elvis in his casket. From these cast-offs the sisters have constructed an entire set of stories that encroaches even into their dreams.

Foos notes that Cass and Lena “have had to create these mythical ideas about their parents since they have so little to go on. I think that all families kind of do that. There are certain stories in my family, and in my in-laws ‘ family… you wonder how accurate is the story? Is it in any way, shape or form related to what actually happened?”

“I’m interested in what is reality, does it exist more in what we think it is, or does something need to have actually happened in order for it to be real? I’m not sure it does. I think that reality is something that is amorphous at times.”

Laurie Foos will discuss and read excerpts from Before Elvis There Was Nothing this Friday, March 4 at StarCCa Gallery, 2425 Bull Street between 40th and 41st, at 7:00 p.m. Admission is free.




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