Sarah Elaine Smith’s novel, Marilou is Everywhere is not your typical coming of age story. Cindy is an observant fourteen-year-old, living “feral” with her two brothers after their mother quietly floats out of their life. She roams freely in her rural Pennsylvania town, bathing in ponds, ditching school and helping her brothers somewhat keep a household. After eighteen-year-old Jude goes missing — the only biracial girl in a community with its fair share of racists— Cindy finds herself spending time with Jude’s ailing, alcoholic mother, Bernadette, in an attempt to cure her boredom and curb her curiosity. When Bernadette mistakes Cindy for Jude, Cindy impulsively encourages the delusion and begins to feel for the first time like she is someone’s daughter.
All at once, Marilou is Everywhere addresses racism, poverty, addiction, the relationship between mothers and daughters, loneliness, the human need to belong, teenage girlhood and the desperate desire to discover one's true self. Smith’s lyrical proses are sharp and enchanting, showing deep empathy and love for her flawed characters, for their cultural landscape, for their humanness.
I had the privilege of speaking with Sarah, via email where she discussed the wisdom of teens, the habitual ways people can write about rural America, the discovery of the self, why she pursued two MFAs and her writing routine for Marilou is Everywhere.
I’d love to know what sparked the initial idea for this story.
The initial idea came to me when a friend of my mother's began losing her memory. All of her friends banded together to take care of her, but it became increasingly difficult because she would overdose on her medication unless they put a lock on the medicine cabinet, or her pipes would freeze because she didn't recall which season it was. I started to think about how that dynamic would look in a story. Without a short-term memory, it seemed like you would approach every moment as if it had never happened before. It's so vulnerable: to show that, over and over again, given the same stimuli, you'll make the exact same joke.
Also, I started working on the book about a year after I quit drinking, and I think I was still very much preoccupied with my own questions about whether blacking out every night had revealed something about my psyche. I would do things that didn't seemingly relate to my normal self at all--but I would do them every night when my short-term memory was checked out. I was trying to understand, was this part of me more real or less real than my waking self? Was one of them the true self?
Teenage girlhood and the discovery of self is very much at the forefront of Marilou is Everywhere. You also talk about disregard, specifically how people are eager to dismiss young girl’s actions, even if they are serious like disappearing, as being simply “teenage.” Do you think society misunderstands teenagers, especially teenage girls? Did you feel this way in your own adolescence?
I suspect the way characters consider Jude's disappearance as teenage drama might have to do in particular with the fact that she's mixed race. It's like how studies of school disciplinary records show that white teachers have an implicit bias to see black teenage girls as older, less innocent, more adult than their white counterparts. In the book, the community's reaction shows, in lots of ways both subtle and blatant, how those biases dampen the effort to find her.
In general, I think society misunderstands the depth of just about everybody, honestly, but teenagers are the last stand. Teenagers are negotiating the edge of their emotions, in the place where a sense of societal obligation starts to announce itself. The subtext is something like: OK, have your fun, but you report for duty in four years, so get it over with. When really, I think the energy and wisdom of teenagers (and not just girls) is super potent and destabilizing. Like anything magical, it has to be denigrated by the people who find it threatening.
Rural Pennsylvania plays such an important role in this novel as you delve into poverty, loneliness, alcoholism and the effects of small-town boredom. Despite these hardships, your characters are so human— flawed of course— but I don’t feel judgment in your voice. Was that particularly important to you when speaking about poverty and rural America?
Absolutely. I'm really bored with and angry about the habitual ways people write about rural America. Being someone from Appalachia who doesn't necessarily sound or look the way people expect, I've spent my life overhearing conversations in literary and academic and left-leaning spaces presuming that it's fine to say what "we" really think about those backwoods idiots since there's nobody here but us enlightened chickens. It's been fashionable to mine Appalachia for tropes and metaphors, which especially angers me because it hollows out the place and the people--which is a perfect echo of what happens when coal and gas companies extract the riches from under our feet.
In a very interesting way, I think Appalachia serves as America's shadow self: Isolation and alcoholism and cycles of family trauma exist absolutely everywhere, but Appalachia is where we allow ourselves to see it.
I guess the key is, I never set out to write about poverty. I didn't have a set of themes to address. I wrote about where I'm from, and later, people describe it using those words. It's natural to judge when you're starting from the idea of making a point about a specific social ill, but a lot harder to do if you're writing about people who are, in some way, yourself.
Towards the end of the novel, Cindy makes an observation about her mother — “I was ashamed of something I didn’t quite understand at that time, which was: My mother was not very smart...But there was some flavor of stillness in her gaze. She did not see any worlds beneath this one. This was a rude new understanding, and I did not care for it at all.” I loved this moment so much I thought you captured the discomfort one can feel when faced with this reality. I was curious if this was an observation taken from your own life?
I think I felt that way about a lot of adults--it seemed very obvious to me that this was not the only world, that there were things beyond the spoken that happened to everyone and mattered in our lives. But so many of the adults that I knew, even the ones who considered themselves bohemian, could not see it. Which, at the time I chalked up to intelligence, but unfairly. It's not so much intelligence as it is a feeling of aliveness, the benevolent presence of mystery. Now I think we're socialized to make the other world invisible, even though we do so at great cost to ourselves. It costs us, but it benefits those who would hold our power. The people who want you to see the world as a dead, doomed place are the ones who want to sell you narcotics and Cheetos and luxury leather goods. And fuck them. I still get really frustrated by that, actually! I mean, frustrated by the people who think the world is determined by what happened before. But people can be reluctant to wake up, or even just to momentarily put aside some of their habits and fears.
What prompted you to pursue two writing MFAs, one in fiction, the other in poetry? Can you speak about this experience?
Honestly, I thought it would save me. I had gotten a poetry MFA and published a book, and yet I still had this small, desperate life. I convinced myself it was because I didn't have the credentials for a teaching job (since nobody teaches at the Michener Center), so I would go get the teaching credentials by getting another degree in another genre. At the time, I didn't realize that my small, desperate life might have had more to do with alcoholism than my choice of employment, but I suppose I had to try that bandaid solution in order to rule it out. But a fiction MFA, writing a book, buying a house, none of this has saved me. Not in the way I wish to be saved, anyway. Because I want to be saved in some impossible way. I really hope I'm at the end of my delusions about that, although they're such human delusions that I might not actually want to come to the end. And I might go to school for massage therapy. It's awfully hard to say.
What did your writing routine look like for Marilou is Everywhere?
I was previously a highly perfectionistic writer--I wouldn't write the next sentence of a short story unless every sentence before it felt right. Every now and then I would get the idea to write a novel and start merrily down the path, only to stop a few days in because I found the uncertainty totally paralyzing. I read books and interviews about how to write a novel, and basically it all comes down to the brutal truth that the only way to do it is to, you know, write a novel. There's no quick way. You actually have to write all of the words.
So I came up with this plan for myself, that I would write 1,000 words every day for 90 days, with the only goal being the quantity of words. Absolutely no judgment of the writing quality or whether it made sense. And when I wrote my thousand words, I gave myself a gold star--literally--as a reward. That was the only way I could do it. And that first draft was a big mess, but I needed to flail around and try out all these voices and characters before I found the ones that actually stuck. The first draft was more about finding the material, and every other draft was about actually crafting the story.
I moved back to Pittsburgh after grad school and I was working full-time while doing revision after revision. My style with big projects is to break it down into an amount of work I can handle doing every day, and then to be absolutely spartan and unwavering about doing it. So with revisions, I might revise five pages a day instead of writing 1,000 words--I make substitutions as needed. But I typically work every day, and I think it brings me good luck.
You have a course for writers on your website “Here Be Monsters — 90 days to write the draft and meet your wild dark.” It sounds fantastic. How has it been going so far? Also, why do you think it can be so hard for writers to get their stories on the page? Can you share some of your own mental block or moments of self-doubt while writing your novel?
Thanks! Its premise is the same as the process described above, except you also get an email every day with some kind of encouragement, a spark, a prompt, something to help you sit down and work in spite of how uncomfortable it is to do. It's basically a collection of these little adaptive mind tricks I've invented for myself, not just to withstand the uncertainty of writing, but also to withstand the uncertainty of life. Some of them are as simple as a way to cheer yourself up. Some are more like a little treatise on how to make a character feel real. It runs for three months, so we're getting close to the first batch of finishers, and I'll be really curious to hear how it's worked for them. But I've been thrilled to hear people say that they're actually finally getting somewhere with projects that have been stalled. I'd call it a huge success on that basis alone.
For me, a lot of the mental block while writing is just some part of me trying to keep me safe. It's saying, "Ugh, that's weird, don't write that down. Don't say that. Don't let anybody know you've seen that or felt that. Don't use that word, it's too precious. Don't tell another story about coming of age, don't let anybody see this pathetic thing about you," and on and on. And it's saying all of that to me because it doesn't want me to get kicked out of humanity for writing something too weird. It's trying to help me, but it doesn't know how. The only way I know how to wade through that feeling is to say, "OK, you're right. This is weird and pathetic and everyone will hate it. Thanks for the help, now leave me alone." Because the great irony--and I'll probably spend my whole life forgetting this and learning it again--is that the things I'm almost afraid to say about my time on the earth are the same things that other people recognize in themselves and which can help them feel less alone. That's the wild dark. And even if it doesn't help anybody else, it heals me to meet it.
Sarah Elaine Smith was born and raised in Greene County, Pennsylvania. She has studied at the Michener Center for Writers, UT-Austin (MFA, poetry); the Iowa Writers' Workshop (MFA, fiction); and Carnegie Mellon University (BA, English and Creative Writing). She has worked as a metadata analyst (signed an NDA & shall say no more!), a college teacher, a proofreader/copyeditor, design consultant, waitress, and ghostwriter. Her work has received support from the MacDowell Colony, the Rona Jaffe Wallace Foundation, and the Keene Prize for Literature, among other generous entities.
Her first novel, Marilou Is Everywhere, is forthcoming from Riverhead Books in summer 2019. She is also the author of I Live in a Hut, 2011 winner of the Cleveland State University Poetry Center's first books prize, selected by Matthea Harvey. Her work has appeared in publications like FENCE, jubilat, Tin House, and Gulf Coast, among others.