On Monday, March 5, Amelia Gray was sitting in a windowless closet — which she had turned into her office — in her home in the Little Armenia area of East Hollywood, when she received a rare phone call that only top writers like Philip Roth or Don DeLillo typically get. She was told that she was one of the finalists for the prestigious PEN/Faulkner Award for her debut novel, Threats. Yeah, it's kind of a big deal.
Before writing Threats, Gray had released two short story collections, AM/PM (Featherproof Books) and Museum of the Weird (Fiction Collective), but it was her first novel (from Farrar, Strauss and Giroux), a twisted detective story, that had the judges slurping up all its oddities and enough literary devices to fill a high-school teachers' lounge — minus the corny jokes and books used to mask soft cries of loneliness.
Gray is one of five finalists for the award, which is for the best published fiction work by an American citizen in 2012, as judged by Walter Kirn, Nelly Rosario and A.J. Verdelle. The winner will be announced in the spring.
Gray, born in Tucson, was named after Amelia Earhart. When we spoke over the phone Wednesday, she was in Boston for the 2013 Association of Writers & Writing Programs Conference. She called me from the cab on the way to Bukowski Tavern in Cambridge.
How did you react to the news that you were one of the finalists for the PEN/Faulkner Award?
I got the call about 10 in the morning on Monday…I got off the phone and cried about it for a little while. Then I called my mom and my dad and agent and editor and my best friend. No one was picking up the phone, and I was going down my phone list to find someone who was awake — or not at work.
How do you tell somebody such epic news?
The first person I told was my best friend Susan. She asked me what was wrong, because I was crying…She was confused and asked me why I was upset…She was geared up to call in the home therapy, but then she figured out it was good news, and we yelled about it. I left some crazy rambling messages on my parents' machine.
Is it fair to say this has been a dream of yours for a long time?
That's funny. I was speaking to some high schoolers about when I knew I wanted to be a writer. It was really a moment when I was in my early twenties when I realized I was a writer, and it didn't matter if I got a book deal, won a prize or had a story published. But I wrote, and I wanted to write, and thought about writing every day. Realizing the distinction between writer and author, it's kind of meaningless distinction, but it calms me down a little bit.
I heard you say that you like to separate writer and vocation. Could you talk a little bit about that — and have things changed?
That's interesting; I'm trying to remember where you got that.
I never reveal my sources.
Until June of last year, I was a marketing writer — full-time writing, 800-word articles about online education and how to properly redo the roof of your house. That felt to me like a job…In doing that, I found that it became a relief to write fiction and not something that I was sitting down and having to do. Once my content was done, I could finally do what I wanted.
Now has that changed?
It hasn't much. I don't know when it will — or if it will — but I'm freelancing and doing a little bit of marketing writing and non-fiction writing…everything is freelance. I'm living hand-to-mouth, but for me, it works better than getting on contract to teach. I feel a lot more freedom in the freelance world — at the moment.
A video of one of Gray's readings
I know you're up at the AWP Conference. Are people treating you differently? You getting free drinks everywhere you go?
I did just a get a free Coors Light; it was the best Coors Light I have ever had. People have been very sweet. The interesting thing about being a finalist was that two of the finalist were coming out of Coffee House Press…but that's huge for independent presses and small presses. It shows that people who are writing amazing books are going to these presses. Incredible editors are working there, and people are taking chances on cool and interesting books. Plus our peers and established writers are paying attention to that, which is incredible for someone who came from a small press.
T. Geronimo Johnson, author of Hold It 'Til It Hurts, came from Coffee House.
I came in reading Laird Hunt [Coffee House Press]. He's one of my favorites from years ago.
But you want him to lose don't you?
I would like us all to win. [She laughs.]
In Los Angeles we have a lot of great independent presses — Narrow Books, Writ Large, Red Hen Press.
[Literary journal] The Rattling Wall is amazing; [literary press] Les Figues is amazing. There is incredible and exciting literary events happening in Los Angeles. I'm so thrilled to be a resident at this time.
Do you feel a part of Los Angeles? Or that Los Angeles is part of you?
I have lived in L.A. for about a year and half, and I hear it takes a while to feel fully ingrained, but I love it. I think there's some part of L.A. that's always been in me. Certainly my erratic and aggressive driving. It's just a town of collaborators of good vibes and positive energy.
Would you call Threats a detective novel? Would you put it in a genre?
It's hard because there are people who really want it to offer certain things. I find that when I place the book in genre, people are generally kind of confused and upset by that. I've always thought of it as a crime novel and a detective novel. And it's a mystery. But the resolution to the mystery is not what one would expect, and the reader who I found liked Threats a lot is the one most willing to let go of their expectations.
What drew you to that conceit? When I read a detective book like Chandler, it's not always just about solving a crime.
The love story is honestly what drew me. The writing process began with an image of the woman dying. And the rest of the book is an argument for her love for her husband and his love for her, and they had a very strange love and affection for each other. In writing it, I was trying to determine what that was and what it looked like. My writing always ends up exploring some aspect that I'm not entirely familiar with. Such as a life-long partnership or childbearing. I don't know why that is, but it meets these corners of the human experience I'm so curios writing about it.
So it's a mystery, and it's a search for some form of truth in a very tangible way for your characters, but would you also say it's a search for yourself somehow?
Yeah, it's a search for a concept. The search being love, peace and death. In that sense, it fulfills completely the search parameters, but the search to what happens is less clear.
I know that you usually write short stories, and I know that you're really interested in fables. What's so special about that form and how did this transition to a novel?
I started writing a lot of fables and allegories, using an image — a strange image — to sort of tease out a larger truth. In that way, I think [Threats] mirrors the movements. There is the set piece of what happens to the woman, and the rest of the book is simply a movement to a larger truth, a larger idea. These days I'm back to writing stories, and I'm writing a novel as well. I'm finding that similar movements are there still…That same sort of concept and extrapolation feels like a fable or a fairy tale. I'll probably always come back to it.
How does it feel to be in the same category as Richard Ford, Tobias Wolff and Jamaica Kincaid?
These are the masters. I feel incredible. I'm still trying to wrap my mind around it without slapping myself or feeling sick to my stomach, but it's exhilarating. It's such an honor and such a surprise.
Congratulations. Anything else you want to say to the L.A. Weekly audience?
My writing partner and I just finished a screenplay on a perfect romantic comedy, and it's just waiting for the right home. [She laughs.] How Hollywood of me?