Chloe Yelena Miller Interviews Lindsay Merbaum

Guest Post by Chloe Yelena Miller.

Chloe Yelena Miller, author of Viable (Lily Poetry Review Books, 2021) interviews Lindsay Merbaum, author of The Gold Persimmon (Creature Publishing, 2021).

I so enjoyed reading your book, Lindsay. I was curious to understand what “feminist horror” meant, and these two, interwoven, gender-focused storylines offer a clear definition. The psychological horror of loneliness and loss and the distance between self and the mother figure felt tangible throughout the book. The characters were seeking physical and emotional comfort, despite or because of what’s happening around them. I admire how easily the characters’ mothers’ voices interject in scenes where the mothers would not otherwise be present.

I was most taken by the rising pitch of urgency throughout the book. It starts in almost complete silence, bound by rules, despite a death and (assumed) acceptable human reactions. And then part II, of course, becomes more frenetic and urgent with external pressures.

Both storylines take place in hotels, which creates community and breaks it apart with the separateness of each room and the experiences within. These characters run through the hallways, stopping in the rooms momentarily, as they face themselves, their ghosts, and each other. The structure of the buildings reminded me of the end of Robert Hayden’s poem Those Winter Sundays, “What did I know, what did I know / of love’s austere and lonely offices.”

Thank you for spending some time answering my questions.

CYM: You dedicate some luxurious lines to the description of eating and preparing food. The title, of course, The Gold Persimmon, refers to the first hotel, the fruit in the first hotel and later the second. In the third paragraph of the novel, the reader immediately encounters the fruit. “{Cly} wears simple gold earrings and a matching pendant in the shape of a persimmon tree. On her desk, there is a glass bowl of persimmons. She offers one to each guest. The fruit will never go out of season. It’s grown especially for the hotel in a greenhouse somewhere.” The persimmon offers a touch of nature indoors, but it fits into the set of careful rules and structure of the hotel.

Can you share a bit about the role of food highlighted throughout the book? I know that you are also a mixologist, and this comes across not only in the direct description of fruit, meals, and food preparation, but also the scents of rooms, fabric, and people.

LM: Drinking and eating are the ultimate sensual experiences, next to sex. In a novel that is so focused on the body—distance and dissociation from the body, first sexual experiences, and various sexual encounters—it seems fitting that lush descriptions of food and drink would pair with the equally detailed portraits of the hotels’ structure and designs. Additionally, fruit has great symbolic history: there are Persephone’s pomegranate seeds, the “apple” of Eden, which was more likely a fig or pomegranate. Persimmons are symbols of transformation in Buddhist thought. The thing about fruit as a symbol is it represents new life and possibility, but also death and decay. I love the dichotomy of beauty and grotesquery inherent in fruit, and food in general. Hence the scene in Part II where Jaime and the women trapped in the hotel go into a frenzy in the kitchen, gorging themselves, kissing, making a mess.

CYM: I’m very interested in your choice of two distinct hotels: One for individuals to retreat to silently with full anonymity and one “sex hotel.” In each other, the separate compartments of the rooms and the many rules mimic mini-societies with their own, taut rules, starting with privacy. This reminded me vaguely of college dorms with their communities and interconnected lives. You described the bed in the “Garden Room” of the second hotel as, “round, nestled in a wicker frame like a bird’s nest, the pillows shaped like eggs, the comforter made up of strips of felt in varying shades of brown and beige.” This sense of creating a copy of something real, sized for humans, and then lining the various rooms next to each other for a community of privacy, was fascinating to me. The close vicinity of each room and their similarities to each other (rather than the outside world) reminded me of many communities, like dorms or camp experiences.

The rules behind the two hotels, the parents’ expectations, and even the relationships between the characters almost seem to be run by an invisible Oz since our main characters (Cly and the marriage she enters into, and Jaime in the second part with the other characters and their relationships). Could you share your thoughts behind this rule-structure? The fog outside the second hotel appears to have its internal rules, but it works as an external force that is kept out and isolates the characters. The other rules of the hotels and the characters directly affect their choices and what they must navigate in order to thrive.

LM: Institutions—both literal ones, like schools, and the metaphoric, like marriage—are made up of rules. That’s what holds them together. The Gold Persimmon is defined by this, as it’s only through such careful control that the hotel can continue to offer guests the privacy and solitude they seek. But there are always variables beyond the system’s control. For example, a guest died at The Gold Persimmon. As a result, there’s a rumor the rooms have cameras in them, which is a complete violation of the hotel’s most sacred service.

Gender roles are likewise a powerful system of control at play in the novel. What’s expected of whom and how, and how much, depends so much on the role society demands each character fill. Edith is not the good mother or good wife she’s expected to be. Clytemnestra, in turn, fails to fulfill her role as the devoted, studious, intellectual daughter her parents long for, which sets off the parents’ self-destruction. As the nonbinary creator of this entire story structure, Jaime by definition exists outside the rule structure of gender binaries, and suffers tremendously for it. It’s fitting that the character who lives in an in-between space is the only one able to move beyond the confines of each story, taking on the role of master of the entire reality of this novel.

CYM: The physical relationships between the characters and themselves are an important thread throughout the book. There’s an electrical “Zip” between Cly and Edith before their relationship blossoms. In the second hotel, the paraphernalia in the background and the themes of the rooms are both the background and the foreground. The sexual energy between some of the characters is palpable and even when unfulfilled, drawing lines between the characters. Can you share something about the space that the physical fills beyond the emotional rooms that each character builds for herself within?

LM: The relationship here between characters and their bodies is a complex one: they inhabit their skin, experiencing their stories on a very physical level in terms of sex and violence, yet they also disassociate, watch themselves from afar. In a sense, the novel is full of vessels: the hotels are like hives, awaiting guests to fill them with their needs, their stories. The same is true of the body of each character. Clytemnestra is a composite of other characters in Part II, including Jaime themself. Claire, Cly’s mother, is the successful poet Jaime’s mother longed to become but never could. In this sense, the characters become vessels for one another. They’re composites of each other’s personalities and experiences.

CYM: Of course, I might be reading into this as a writer, but the entire book seems like a metaphor for writing. In the second part, Jaime relies heavily on the notebook and documenting. The fact that Cly’s mother was a poet who didn’t write the stories that Cly wanted to know felt important.

Throughout the novel, there’s a growing sense of urgency. First there is the silence of the hotel (pointing to the danger within, perhaps) and then the immediate and every present fog surrounding the second hotel. The external danger leads to frenzy and immediate alliances forming.  The novel addresses how humans respond to such urgency and our need to both report and catalogue what happens. You write, “The hotel was a vessel. My fingers twitched. I would write it. I would live to it. I was compelled, notebooks or no.”

LM: This novel is about many things: sexual awakening, gender roles, trauma, grief. It’s also about storytelling itself. When we meet Jaime in Part II, we learn they’re a young writer, struggling to make a name for themself and achieve success. Meanwhile, their parents send them money. Jaime goes to The Red Orchid so they can get a job there and research the hotel for their novel, without anyone being the wiser. At the end, we realize Cly’s story is Jaime’s novel, presumably written after the crisis within The Red Orchid. Positioning the stories in this order gives the reader space to reflect on Part I and uncover the threads from Jaime’s experience that have been woven into the story. We get to observe the process of an author reconstituting their experience into fiction. We see the observations they make, the assumptions that become anecdotes, the trauma that becomes narrative. I wanted to offer the reader a glimpse of what happens inside a writer’s imagination.

CYM: What are you reading now? What do you hope to read next? If you’d like to share, I’d love to know what projects are in the works, too. I’m curious to know if or how your drink project, Pick your Potions, might come into your writing.

LM: I have been reading like crazy, mostly for the sake of turning the books into cocktails—or booktails, as I call them—an ongoing @pickyourpotions project that has exposed me to so many great reads I might not have found otherwise, which is always an enriching experience for a writer. Some favorites: Appleseed by Matt Bell, Annie and the Wolves by Andromeda Romano-Lax. I just read Kristen Arnett’s new novel With Teeth, which now has its own drink, complete with a tooth for a garnish, and Lincoln Michel’s fabulously strange futuristic noir, The Body Scout. My taste runs the gamut in terms of genre, but it’s safe to say I generally look for something a bit unusual.

I am also revising my next novel, which just so happens to center around a magical lesbian bar full of witches and goddesses. Meanwhile, I’ve written a portion of the next-next book, which is kind of like a cross between Outlander and “Being John Malkovich.”

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