Between the gothic and the absurd
By Craig Brandhorst, CRAIGB1@mailbox.sc.edu, 803-777-3681
It doesn’t matter if she’s describing science-fiction “brain downloads” or patriarchal baboon harems, Julia Elliott has a way of making you laugh, then think, then laugh again, really hard—which may be one reason the University of South Carolina Extended University assistant professor’s other career, as a fiction writer, is suddenly taking off after years of steady but smaller successes.
A USC alum who earned a Master of Fine Arts in creative writing from Pennsylvania State University and a doctorate in English from the University of Georgia, Elliott isn’t new to the writing game. Her distinctive brand of modern gothic short fiction—which she describes as “teetering between the grotesque and the absurd”— has appeared regularly over the years in the avant-garde journal Conjunctions, as well as in Tin House, the Georgia Review, the Mississippi Review and elsewhere. She also recently snagged a Pushcart Prize for her short story “Regeneration at Mukti,” which will appear in the award’s 2013 anthology.
However, the biggest development in Elliott’s blossoming career may be the announcement earlier this month that she is among six winners of this year’s Rona Jaffe Foundation Writer’s Award, a $30,000 cash prize honoring “women writers who demonstrate excellence and promise in the early stages of their careers.”
In a news release announcing the 2012 award, the Jaffe selection committee described Elliott’s fiction as “incredibly imaginative, sharply observed, and totally original.”
“There’s usually an attempt at strangeness and the surreal in my work that goes a little bit beyond just satire,” says Elliott, who will be feted by the foundation at a private reception in New York later this month. “It’s more of a visceral thing, but the satirical elements are always there. Humor is something that I’m comfortable with.”
Indeed, Elliott is currently wrapping up work on a new project titled "The New and Improved Romie Futch," which she describes as a "macho novel" about a South Carolina taxidermist who undergoes brain downloads of "complex humanities disciplines" as part of a research study before returning to his hometown to deal with a failed marriage.
Never one to sit still creatively, Elliott is also hard at work on a second project—this one about primatologists studying Hamadryas baboons, which she herself studied in-depth at the North Carolina Zoo in Asheboro in 2011, partially with the aid of a creative and performing arts grant from USC’s Office of the Provost.
"It’s a much more extensive novel, much bigger than 'Romie Futch'," she says, indicating that the research itself has taken many months. She observed the baboons for hours at a time in an effort to understand their sometimes complicated behavior and social hierarchies, but jokes that the experience was occasionally overwhelming.
"So I was sitting in this chamber, which was ideal for watching [the baboons] because you could see them up-close behind the glass, and I’m breathing in some of the nastiest smells possible—musky baboons, urine, feces, baboon food, not to mention all the humans that would pack in there, with their colognes and Febreze-drenched clothing and their sweat," she says with a laugh, peppering her descriptions with the very hyperbole that drives her fiction.
"It was just a fug of primate filth combining the baboon and the human. And that was while I was pregnant, so it was very palpable and very extreme."
For all the super-charged imagery, though, Elliott isn’t after easy laughs and doesn’t pile on weirdness for its own sake. As an assistant professor of women’s and gender studies, she is grounded in — though never grounded by — feminist theory. "The New and Improved Romie Futch," for example, was influenced by Judith Halberstam’s "Female Masculinity."
Elliott is particularly fascinated by the depiction of women and fertility in horror films and mythology and ultimately sees fiction—both her own work and the works she teaches—as a way to spark dialogue about everything from gender issues to the medical industrial complex to dystopian societies. Still, if she can milk a little irony from a particular situation, she’s not one to miss an opportunity.
"I once found myself in the unique position of teaching 'Rosemary’s Baby' while I was seven months pregnant," says Elliott, who gave birth to a daughter last winter. "I actually got to stand in front of the class in a 1960s shift dress while pointing up at pictures of a woman impregnated with the Devil’s child and making jokes about it."
As odd as that situation may have been for her students, it also couldn’t help but make them think—then laugh, then think again, really hard.
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