Savannah Schroll’s first book, a collection of thematic short stories titled The Famous & the Anonymous: The Deep & Darkly Secret (which she also illustrated), is now available from Better Non Sequitur. She has previously been published by an eclectic assortment of publications, ranging from online literary reviews such as Eyeshot.net and Hobart to the print magazines Phase, Modernism/Modernity, and The European Journal of Cultural Studies. She also edited Achingly Human: Tales of the Troubled, a collection of surprisingly unpretentious and quirky stories about—yes—the human condition.
The twenty-two tales told in The Famous & Anonymous are playfully dark and haunting, sometimes showing the reader a world of glitter and fame and sometimes plunging them into darkness and obscurity. Despite the many differences between the characters, they strike the reader as both foreign and familiar. The feeling throughout is that what is so deep and darkly secret about being human, is how similarly mysterious and beautiful and horrible we are, regardless of our fame or anonymity.
This interview was conducted by Email, mostly between Pennsylvania and Tennessee.
Ryan Kennebeck: What does it take for a character—real or imagined—to interest you to the point of becoming something you can write about?
Savannah Schroll: I love people—zoology. And by that I mean, I really like observing people and speculating on what they go home to at night, what they desire, and what they fear. When I lived in D.C., I used to spend my Saturday afternoons in the Starbucks on M Street and watch the people who came and went. When that wasn’t democratic enough, I’d go to the subway or ride the bus, where a greater socio-economic cross-section of people can usually be found. Everyone always has a story, and many people sport their personal history or mental state like outerwear. When I write, I attempt to step into their reality for a while; I try to operate by their idiosyncratic logic and engage what I feel are their senses. Everyone has rocks in their psyche under which bugs and creepy things hide—it’s those things that make me want to write. Some of the stories featuring ‘anonymous’ characters, like “Drowning” and “In the Big House” are actually based on people I’ve known or closely observed. For the famous characters, I frequently watch E! or scan the news headlines in search of something to chew on. I generally choose figures with an established aura—whether kitschy, tarnished, or respected—that I can play with. It gives me narrative parameters in which to operate.
RK: To what extent did the plots/tensions in The Famous & the Anonymous grow organically from the characters?
SS: It often takes a single photograph of a star, someone else’s tell-tale gesture, or an article of clothing that allows my mind to begin generating a story. It’s a bit like getting on an escalator—once I find that single step to stand on, the characters carry me upward on their own. When writing, I slip into their world and navigate using their perceptions. I look around at the contours of their emotional landscape, apply their judgments to things, and consider their reactions based on their personal horizons—because I believe everyone responds to events based on some concept of their future. And from all that, a whole story is born.
RK: What makes a “celebrity”—both in their own stature and in society’s consciousness?
SS: I think many celebrities are an imperfect construction of the media, of public desire, and their own response to these collective needs. Sometimes stars propagate and encourage particular characteristics, whether good or bad, because it’s their way of finding a distinct (and potentially marketable) identity. But underneath all those onionskin layers of fabricated character and bogus individuality is exactly the same quivering essence that you and I have. Celebrities might be even more riddled with self-doubt than I am on a daily basis.
RK: Did you find it more difficult to imagine yourself into the famous or into the anonymous?
SS: I think I’m able to imagine myself pretty readily into both. With the famous, I can often see the aching humanness underneath all the bling, and with the anonymous, I can imagine all too vividly the estrangement and inner angst they regularly confront.
RK: In the book, there are a few celebrities that, while they are famous in the traditional sense, are only thus because of the dark/tragic roles they played in history. What went into preparing for these stories, and can you talk a little bit about what makes these specific characters such giants in our collective imagination?
SS: For many of the stories involving historical figures, I did various amounts of book research, although occasionally, I’ve bent the facts to suit bigger conceptual aims. With “Movie Star,” while the main character Gregor, whose chief occupation is intermittent film acting, remains anonymous (to his mild dismay), around him swirl both famous and infamous characters: the director Fritz Lang, the satirist George Grosz, and members of the Sturmabteiling. The movie in which Gregor is slated to appear as an extra is actually Metropolis. The inclusion of Grosz was a personal gag because I spent three years studying him in grad school, and it only felt right to include him. “Dead Ends” involved my looking up old newspaper articles about the Black Dahlia murder, which happened in January 1947. Most of the exchanges never occurred (with the exception of the man who requested the victim’s eye for the purposes of retinal photography—that actually happened). I wrote the interviews imagining the very tedious process of interviewing crackpots—people who confess but do so because of some latent personal agenda. “Freedom & its Alternatives” grew from my own fascination with Bonnie & Clyde. They were two people capable of unbelievable cruelty yet unexpected kindness. For Easter, Bonnie once brought her mother a bunny, which she fed carrots in the back of their getaway car until she saw her mother again. It was Bonnie’s head that I was most interested in getting into—examining the soft spots, the fears, her thoughts about what life might be like if she weren’t on the lam. Even as she ran from the law and from the menace of poverty, she was freer than many women living an honest life with their husbands during the Depression. What’s made them such icons is a two-fold issue: (1) our culture lionizes the socially rebellious, and Bonnie and Clyde unquestionably defied the established system, which, because of the economic debacle, was seen as fundamentally untrustworthy—therefore, the mold for their admiration was cast almost immediately and (2) what’s also helped is the romantic idea of star-crossed lovers, something that has tempered and softened the very brutal historical facts associated with the murders they committed.
RK: You’ve talked some about celebrity and its problems, but the book also deals with those being completely ignored in society. What are some of the pains of being invisible?
SS: Being invisible does have some incredible advantages, as it allows for a great deal of freedom. If you’re invisible, you can get away with just about anything. This causes me to think of the novel Perfume by Patrick Süskind—the main character is born without a native odor and can therefore move among people largely unobserved—much to their detriment. However, for people who crave attention, anonymity can be agonizing. When I lived in the city, one of my friends remarked that he felt like an ant marching along in an endless line of other ants—nothing he did really seemed to count in the big scheme of things and this really ate at him. Most of my anonymous characters aren’t necessarily upset about being anonymous. They have so many emotional issues that cause them to psychically curl up and cease trying—like the characters from “In the Big House” and “Pigeon Lover.”
RK: Your background is in academia, which a large portion of the stories seem safe within, and yet some of the stories could almost be read as classic pulp. Would you say pulp is an influence, and if so, what can be done better with pulp than with the academic/literary approach?
SS: Pulp is definitely an influence, although I was never given to reading detective stories or thrillers. I just think it’s some mental discharge from a previous life, when I was a boy and read Nick Carter novels pilfered from the dime store. I often gravitate towards seedy settings and unseemly characters because they make the best stories. (Who was it who said that all the interesting people are in hell?) In both “Dead Ends” and “Sandless, Shapely Hourglass,” there’s certainly sensationalism, murder, and abduction. “Secret Urban Stories #2,” which delves into the musings of a hit man in his own unpolished vernacular, was an attempt to show the emotional life of what might be considered a definite stereotype and also manifest his guilt-ridden attachment to his mother, who’s really like a forsaken wife to him. I think pulp is escapism, but escapism that involves going into even grittier and dirtier personal lives than one’s own. Making it literary and a little more cerebral softens it to a certain degree and makes it easier to cross over the threshold and believe it.
RK: In exact detail, where and when were these lines written:
Often, I had only to look at a man to deduce the street address of the particular brothels he frequented when his virago wife believed him to be at his club… The plunge of another woman’s neck line, her new ringlet-trembling coiffure, the spectacular diminution of her waistline, and her inhibited, fleeting glances towards the room’s periphery, where men sat smoking, told me that she was possibly unfaithful with one or another of them. These are secrets that bind the societal to the psychological, the internal world to the external.
SS: I actually wrote these lines about a week or so before the book went to press. Steven Coy, my editor, suggested I do an intro. We discussed contemporary or historical characters that might provide the appropriate introductory voice. And it was my Mom who lit on Oscar Wilde in a Maxwell House-fuelled moment of inspiration. And I was able to run with it from there. I love the darker sides of the Belle Epoch, the crepuscular parts of history, and I wanted to create an image of those restrained social codes under which the controlling current of human appetite surged. I also wanted to incorporate some of Wilde’s trenchant human observations, and underscore the fact that our internal worlds determine the course or disarray of our external reality.
RK: Some of the stories give the reader a strikingly nonjudgmental window into the heads of characters that would usually be considered some pretty awful people. How did you approach these villains—or what could be called villains?
SS: When I write about villains and their usually concomitant emotional problems, what I’m most interested in is that they operate by logic—just not the same logic that the general population exercises. Theirs is reason full of cul-de-sacs and fanatical intricacies. However, because they engage these damaged rational processes, which misfire and ricochet, causing them to commit unbelievable wrongs, that’s what makes them so fascinating and painfully human.
RK: You also provided the illustrations for the book. How did you set about illustrating your stories, and what did you want to capture in them?
SS: I did most of the illustrations in black ballpoint, which is my favorite medium because (well, depending on the pen—I can’t abide an ink-spitter) it allows for a very subtle articulation of form and shading. I actually began life thinking I would be an artist, and I spent most of my senior year of college beating my brains out trying to get into art school, but then life took a slightly different turn and I moved to Germany. Anyway, I really like the Victorian gothic of Edward Gorey, and I also draw inspiration from the work of Y. David Chung, who filters comic book art through his own distinctive artistic prism and employs it in his life-size drawings.
RK: There is a sense of claustrophobia and talk of hauntings in a lot of the settings. In a collection about secrets, how does a house become a character?
SS: The mansion of “In the Big House” is actually one of the immense robber baron manors located in Pittsburgh, where I lived for several years. It is based in part on people I once knew, and I gave the story its title because the main character, Jackson, lived his entire married life in a spacious prison with a Wagnerian warden (albeit of great intelligence). There’s a triangular relationship between the husband, the wife, and the house, which is a symbol of the wife’s aspirations. She loved it like a devoted mother might love a child—with involuntary disquiet. And once she dies, she won’t leave it. By comparison, her emotionally immature, but well-intentioned husband, needs her in order to cope with everyday life. I realized after I wrote all the stories that there is a great deal of the supernatural involved—specifically this story, along with “Essential Wreckage,” “Pigeon Lover,” and “A Place of No Wind.” There’s a large part of me that loves the (preferably benevolent) supernatural and believes that what I call “disembodied intuition” exists, although I’ve never seen a ghost myself. I do live near Gettysburg, so I suppose there’s always a first time.
RK: What was your experience publishing with a small press?
SS: Working with BNS was truly fantastic. Steven Coy, editor at BNS, provided so much valuable feedback and was there with guidance at every step of the process. And I really feel the book reflects my intentions, which I believe is one of BNS’ objectives—to allow authors the artistic control necessary to create works that represent their voices.
RK: What’s next?
SS: Right now, I’m working on a series of stories about gamblers, psychic frauds, snake oil purveyors, and late-1920s rum runners (specifically those who shut down legal distilleries during Prohibition, but continued to operate stills on the down-low). I’m also very tuned-in to local history, that is, the history of my gothically rural hometown and all its old farm families, sprawling graveyards, rocky gullies, and vacant stone meetinghouses. Here, there are a lot of strange tales of the Sleepy Hollow sort and they provide the necessary fodder for an overactive imagination.
Schroll’s The Famous & The Anonymous.
Experience excerpts, illustrations, and other interesting items.
Visit the author’s world.
Also! Keep an eye out for Ryan Kennebeck’s book, How it Changed His Sense of Humor, coming in November, from Better Non Sequitur.