Circus Freaks & Spirit Moans: An Interview with Lindsay Hunter

Sarah Rose Etter


Some books come out and the first thing you want to do is crack open the brain of the author who wrote them.

That’s been the case when it comes to Lindsay Hunter since the get-go. Hunter’s mash-up of heartfelt creepiness and raw emotional twang hit just the right note in a sea of too-safe stories.

Her latest, the novel Ugly Girls (FSG), keeps the momentum going with a strong focus on trailer parks, the girls nobody loves, and the chaos of human emotion building to an inevitable climax that explodes like a keg of gunpowder.

Let’s take a look at the explosion.


SARAH ROSE ETTER: The last time I saw you read, you spoke a lot about Stevie Nicks. I’m also obsessed. Can you tell me what you love about her so much and when you started wearing lace in homage?

LINDSAY HUNTER: Oh man. Where do I begin? She fascinates me on every level. Her songwriting is unparalleled. It has this otherworldly quality to it while also imbuing a nostalgia my soul craves. It has this way of looking at love and life and sorrow and being a woman that makes me feel like I’m listening to a spirit moan after it’s been moaning for a timeless amount of time.

And I’ve always felt this kinship with the 1970s, maybe because I obsessed over my mother’s yearbooks (class of ’76, holla). And she is a female songwriter who wrote rock music at a time when female rock musicians weren’t taken all that seriously. Her voice is simultaneously raw and ancient and so very young and pure. She feels like a kindred spirit if only I could just harness my fairy power. That Wild Heart video on YouTube, she is just fucking around in that video! Just kind of messily running through a new song. The windows are open, there’s a breeze coming in, she’s in a loft in a white dress with gauzy things in her hair, she reaches out with her voice and commands the axis of the earth to revolve around the song she is singing.

Then she lets go, because she knows she can grab hold again. I read a lot into that video.

One item being: she is used to others reacting to her as if she is an alien. She sings on. Another being: that is a moment in time that will exist forever. Part of me lives in that video. I’m ironing a shirt for Lindsey Buckingham, and I burn it a little while Stevie sings.

That kind of badassery, that familiar ache, that nostalgia for things I’ve never experienced, the way she is the atmosphere, she just is, that is why I love her so. Her work means everything to me. When she does become of the spirit world, I hope she haunts me daily.

SRE: What are the last three books you read and loved?

LH: 1) The Handmaid’s Tale, Margaret Atwood. I had never read anything by her. Why? Why? I think I have this ugly quality in me to balk at a chorus of people demanding I read something. I put it off for far too long. But then I was with you last fall in a great used bookstore and found a gorgeous hardcover, and I brought it on vacation with me over the summer, and it blew me away. It is a perfect book in that it is flawed and imperfect and totally itself. The language, oh my God, the poetry of it. I swooned and I cried and I felt utter fear and appreciation as I read it.

2) Fourteen Stories, None of Them Are Yours, Luke Goebel. Luke lives on the page. His life spills out. It is frenzied, heartbreaking, soulful.

3) Nevers, Megan Martin. You know how you read something that is absolutely foreign to you in that YOU could never write it, but also feels like finally someone is talking to you in a language that means everything to you? Is finally bringing the world to you in a way that makes you see the world you already knew so well in a totally new, mindfucking way? That’s what Nevers did for me. Also the book is called NEVERS. Best title I’ve heard in a long time.

SRE: Do you listen to music when you write? If so, what did you listen to while writing your forthcoming novel, Ugly Girls?

LH: Sometimes I do. Usually the same song over and over. Today I’ve been listening to Blondie’s “Union City Blue” over and over as I try to write this essay about drugs and anorexia and being a teenager. For Ugly Girls, I listened to Waka Flocka’s “Hard in da Paint” over and over as I wrote the first big chunk. It felt like Baby Girl’s anthem as well as mine as I tried to get my focus right on the book. Pissed Jeans’ “False Jesii Part 2” – that song was huge. I wanted to write a novel that felt like that song and I often put it on to get my mind right. And Vanity 6’s Make-Up was another big one. The utterly dead way Vanity sings felt dangerous and exactly right in terms of how Perry and Baby Girl approach fear. Vanity dares you and doesn’t mean to. Perry and Baby Girl dare you without knowing what they’re actually daring you to do.

Once the voice takes over as I write, though, that’s when I turn off the music. It’s like the voice has it now, don’t need the musical help, thanks.

SRE: Ugly Girls is a hell of a book – I could practically taste a trailer park while I read it. What drove that book for you?

LH: I wanted to write a fairy tale about a girl who couldn’t feel fear. That’s where it started. It eventually became about all the ways people misunderstand each other, all the ways they assume things about themselves and each other, and how that can lead to explosions. It became about identity: the identity you cultivate, the identity you have no power to change, and how those two things can lead to disaster. I also wanted to write teenaged girls that ran the spectrum of ugliness. I wanted them to be real, and I wanted to take the risk that they might be unlikable. Because guess what, that’s life. Girls and women can be unlikable and ugly and make terrible decisions and trade power back and forth like anyone else.

SRE: Wait, wait, let’s go back to the explosions.

LH: Well, by explosions I guess I mean varying shades of disappointment. “Disappointment” is a word I use a lot in the novel. How someone reacts to disappointment is almost like a fingerprint. Because disappointment, and expectation, actually reveals a lot about the expecter. Just think how many expectations and assumptions you have to count on just to get through the day. These are all things that are important to you as an individual. They are important to the world, the safety, you’ve created. This is beyond the actual world. Outside of that. Or inside of it but sealed in whatever you’ve built that makes it possible for you to exist without screaming. Baby Girl feels ugly so she turns that on its head and draws power from it. Tries to use it as a weapon. But it is a papier mache weapon, easily bent, and then she is weaponless. So she grabs an actual weapon, one that means something in the real, actual world. There are degrees to which a person feels comfortable being seen. Especially in this day and age, when social media is such a huge part of identity, IS identity, when we can choose what to show. It’s a kind of armor. Both Baby Girl and Jamey have that armor. It gives them a remove from being actually seen. But they’re both seen for what they are anyway. Jamey by the two girls. Baby Girl by herself. She no longer has a say. She didn’t know that but now she does, now she knows that the only identity that means anything at all is the one she has no power over.

SRE: It seems like there’s a nice movement of women creating what might be considered ugly, edgy work. I’m thinking specifically of you, Paula Bomer, and Alissa Nutting. Do you feel the same way? How do you think Ugly Girls is in conversation with these works?

LH: Yeah man, I feel like maybe women have been writing this kind of stuff for a while, but there’s a bigger market for it now? Or a bigger curiosity, maybe? Haha, we’re circus freaks. I was blown away by Tampa. Alissa is the sweetest human on the planet but she will slice you to bits with her writing. Every word in that book was immaculately selected and placed. All of it fed on itself like a literary ouroboros. The language fed the characters, the characters created the language, and it never shied away from the darkness. I’ve read so many reviews that got pissy about Celeste not getting her comeuppance. Would they have said the same thing if a man wrote it? Why is it Alissa’s job to write a satisfying punishment for that character? Her job is to actually write the story she was writing. You were unsatisfied? GOOD! That is actually the point, dear readers. If Ugly Girls is in conversation with Nutting or Bomer, I would hope that it’s how we all gave in and wrote the thing we wanted to write. I think, also, it’s easy to make dismissive statements about our work. It’s too dark, or hateful, or nasty, or gross…but look closer. Try to consider why we’re writing these things. Look past your own judgment if you can. For my part, I feel that I write with a full heart and empathy for my characters. And sometimes wet underwear. Maybe delete that. I want readers to feel. I want that so badly. I want them to transcend the staid feelings they’ve had before and go further. That is scary for some people. I’m sorry. But let’s keep going.

SRE: I won’t delete that. There are lines in the book that hurt to read – describing the sun as a butterscotch candy dropping below the horizon, describing the lives of two girls that seem to be going nowhere and somewhere at once. What was the process of editing like for Ugly Girls? How did you whittle down to these lines?

LH: My editor at FSG, Emily Bell, is my soulmate editor. She works hard to preserve my voice while also calling me on horseshit lines or lines that don’t go anywhere or go too far. I trust her eye with my whole being. She is able to see the big picture and the details, and how they all work together. She let me stet the hell out of my copy edits, and then she called me out for not stetting more. What a dream.

That said, I think it’s my impulse to obsess over sentences as I write, to write things that make ME feel first and foremost, and to write from that place of feeling. I think I also try hard to write in the particular voice of any given moment in the story or novel. It’s this relaxation into pain (a real technique I learned studying the method at Lee Strasberg in NYC as a 20-year-old) and then existing/typing in that pain. Or whatever emotion or feeling it is. It’s about trusting the pain, trusting the void. So if the lines hurt to read, hallelujah. I need to go change my underwear.

SRE: I just thought of you while checking out these pictures by David Waldorf, it felt like staring into Ugly Girls, into that trailer park. How did you create such a realistic portrayal of that landscape? What got you into that headspace?

LH: My grandparents lived in a trailer, albeit a trailer on a wide swath of empty acres, so that helped me when I was writing the interior. And I’ve been in plenty of trailer parks in my life, so it was easy to draw on that. I think more than anything, I kind of wanted to write the opposite effect of what David Waldorf’s pictures seem to do here. They are lurid and posed and are beautiful and seem to be meant to highlight the freakishness of the people who live in the trailer park or parks where he shot these photos. I kind of wanted to highlight that this was home for Perry. Home. You know? All the connotations of that word. Her home is a cramped space inside and outside; her mother marks time with objects; it’s two steps from the TV room to the kitchen; the walls are alternately too thin and perfectly suitable because they keep the outside air outside, but you can also hear the sigh of your neighbor if it’s quiet enough. Another thing I notice in Waldorf’s photos, the closer I look, is that his subjects seem defiant.

Are they defiant because they think they should feel shame about living where they live, and are like fuck you, this is where I live? Are they defiant simply because life is hard? I think Perry feels shame about where she lives but rather than feel defiant about it, she just ignores it altogether. Or tries to. It’s home, after all, and home is something you take for granted while also being reminded of its existence literally every day of your life. She compares Travis’s home and its objects to hers in the scene where she forces herself on him. It makes her feel closer to him, like she understands him on a deeper level. He also has a mother who collects things. There are conclusions she draws because of it. His rejection of her is even more unfathomable because of it.

SRE: Is this the part where I ask what you’re working on next? I think this is the part where I do that.

LH: I’m working on a screenplay about the year my best friend and I became obsessed with a glam-goth band! And I’m writing a novel about witches. And I’m spending a lot of my time wringing my hands about finding enough time to finish both. Life is hard.