Grab The Lapels: First thing’s first: what would you like readers to know about your new book, The Juliet?
Laura Ellen Scott: The Juliet is a fun book, packed with secrets and eccentric characters, and by the last page the reader should feel like they’ve taken a rattling train trip out West. There are two alternating timelines—one covers 100 years in the history of a cursed emerald known as The Juliet, and the other follow seven days in 2005 during a record breaking wildflower bloom in Death Valley, when a retired cowboy actor comes out of seclusion and signs over the deed to his house to the first fan he meets. The fan happens to be a slightly deranged woman named Willie Judy who is convinced that the actor knows where to find the emerald because when she was a kid, the actor was the spokesperson for Nuggetz cereal, and inside each box was a piece of a treasure map that was supposed to lead to The Juliet’s final hiding place.
Do you remember Kit Williams’ picture book called Masquerade that inspired the armchair treasure hunt genre? The Nuggetz promotion is supposed to be a low rent, scammy version of that, but both Willie and the actor are swept up in its mystery more than 25 years after the cereal company went out of business.
GTL: Are there aspects of your writing that readers might find challenging to them?
LES: I was told that my first novel, Death Wishing, a comic fantasy set in post-Katrina New Orleans, was not an “easy read,” so the prose is a lot more direct in this novel. I think the biggest challenge might appear to be all the plotlines, but no worries. Everything comes together. I know what I’m doing.
I do have some trouble with the “Western” label. That carries a lot of baggage. While The Juliet contains a lot of Western elements, it’s really a crime story where most of the interesting stuff happens outdoors. Don’t expect any heroes on horseback.
GTL: Does The Juliet include any research? If so, why/why not, and can you talk about why you made that choice.
LES: Research was an enormous part of writing The Juliet, and, of course, because I am not a trained historian, the hard part was figuring out what questions were most important. Rhyolite, Nevada, was the settlement that I used as a model for the ghost town of Centenary, and at some point I realized that source reliability wasn’t as important as a sense of voice—as if a town can have a voice—and anecdotes, mistakes, and outright fabrications from personal accounts and newspaper reports in the 1900s were more useful than meticulously researched studies. The same is true of contemporary accounts of Death Valley—I learned a lot more about the desert mindset by reading through message boards than any other resource.
We live under the illusion that everything you need to know is at your fingertips, and that might be true of some places, but Death Valley still keeps some secrets close to the vest. The next and most important step in my research was to go to Death Valley. I’d been twice before—once to hike the canyons, and once to see the wildflower bloom that I write about in the book. Those were pleasure trips, but this time I went specifically to tour ghost towns and focus on human history in the Valley. Ghost towns play on your spirituality in different ways—you can feel Rhyolite’s aspirational core in the crumbling monuments that sprawl across the basin, including a train depot, a bank, and two schools. Ballarat is spookier, though; even though there isn’t much there, it feels dangerous. It was in Rhyolite that I was introduced to the legend of Mona Belle, a prostitute who was supposedly buried behind the Jailhouse. Belle’s story became pivotal to The Juliet, and I wouldn’t have known anything about it if I hadn’t gone out there to see it myself.
GTL: What was your writing process like? Which did you favor, starting or revising?
LES: The basic routine starts this way—I scrawl a few big ideas on a giant whiteboard in my home office, take time off work and tell everyone to leave me alone because I’m starting a new novel. Then I stare out the window for 7 to 10 days. As soon as I get back to my day job, the ideas come in a flood. My creativity doesn’t really fire up unless I’m neglecting other duties. If that’s true for other writers, it explains why we can be such jerks.
I love getting started, but the first third of a book takes twice as long to realize as the rest, and once you’re on that road it looks endless. Revising is a totally different adventure, especially when I uncover connections I didn’t recognize before. But the part I like best is being right smack in the middle of the draft—when you know it’s going to definitely be a book, but anything is still possible.
When I talk to people who have red The Juliet, their questions/comments are all over the place, but everyone comes back to the complexity of the story and how I built it. So here’s the thing about that: the book is way smarter than I am. I built it doing close-up work, and I feel lucky that it became large and whole. If I have a method to rendering plots, it’s that any event is defined/redefined at least three times, and I think that makes complexity. I’m not going to show you a postcard once and forget about it. That post card is going to keep coming back, delivering more meaning each time it does.
The Juliet ends in 2005, and I had not considered writing a sequel, but my mother had a brilliant idea that I need to use somehow: ten years later, someone finds a bleached human skull in the desert, and inside its jaw is The Juliet.
My next three books with Pandamoon Publishing will be a series set in a fictional college/prison town in Ohio (think Athens+Chillicothe), called the New Royal Mysteries. That means I have to start with a more defined plan than I usually do, and it’s going to be an interesting challenge. I’m used to discovering as I write, and I’m excited to see how that works when I already know how the big mystery will be solved.
GTL: What did you want to be when you grew up, and do you see any hints of those ambitions in The Juliet?
LES: That’s a great question—I knew I wanted to be some sort of artist, and my mother claims that I was trying to write books before I could read. In school I performed in the choir and in plays, and for a while I was serious about acting. I even faked my way into the cast of a college play when I was fourteen. No one knew until the after-play when I wouldn’t drink beer or smoke pot. However, I dropped acting like a dead cat after I was told I had to join the high school Thespian Club to be in any more plays. Not my thing.
Interestingly, The Juliet features a number of performer-characters, not the least of which is Rigg Dexon, the retired cowboy actor. There are also four other actors along with several characters with dual identities. Perhaps there’s some deep psychological reason I’ve written so many characters who aren’t satisfied with who they are; from a particular angle, it sure does look like I was working up a theme.
By the time I hit college, it became clear that writing was my real calling, and I haven’t looked back. My entire family is good with their hands, and everyone does a little something—gardening, quilting, mechanics, etc. That is how writing a novel feels to me. Like I’m doing something big that requires a crafter’s sense of attention.
GTL: Why do you think your book would be a good choice for a book club pick?
LES: I think the variety in the The Juliet means there’s something for any adult reader. History, lust, secrets, danger. There are plenty of characters to pick apart, none of whom are very good decision makers. Though I think this is a beer book, a flight of Californian wines would work just as well for a book club, and there could be some fascinating discussion about whether the ending was happy or sad.
I think the biggest appeal might be a sense of place. I like a book that feels like time out and away from where I live, and I worked hard to render Death Valley with realism and love. The Timbisha tribe of Native Americans called the valley tümpisa for at least a thousand of years before the 49ers renamed it. Tümpisa means “rock paint,” because of the red ochre color of the clay. There is a huge clash between public perception and reality in the Valley, and it was one of my goals to try to talk about its beauty.
GTL: I want to thank author Laura Ellen Scott for answering my questions! Also, thank you to The Next Best Book Club blog for asking Grab the Lapels to be part of The Juliet’s book blog tour. It’s been fun! Be sure to check out all the other great stops of the tour celebrating Scott’s newest novel:
July 11: Lovely Bookshelf
July 15: Grab the Lapels and History from a Woman’s Perspective
Laura Ellen Scott is the author of several novels including Death Wishing, a comic fantasy set in post-Katrina New Orleans, The Juliet, a western about the search for a cursed emerald in Death Valley, and the New Royal Mysteries series set in a fictional college/prison town in Ohio. The first New Royal Mystery is The Mean Bone in Her Body, will be released in late 2016. Born and raised in Northern Ohio, Laura now lives in Fairfax, Virginia, and teaches creative writing at George Mason University.