Clark Writer of the Month: Emily Denny

In this month’s Clark Writer of the Month, Emily Denny chats with editor Laura Barker about the 1950s LGBT+ community, science fiction, and society’s treatment of women. Read more below!

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LB: Your honor’s thesis is about a society where women are manufactured in factories. Could you tell me a little bit about what inspired that?

ED: I read Margret Atwood’s The Handmaid’s Tale for a class, and it got me thinking about the ways we talk about women in novels. So much of what you read in high school and even in college is written by men, and the way that men represent women is different than the way women represent women, but I’ve found that the way men represent women colors the way women represent women. For the longest time, everything you read about women is about women who are depressed and then kill themselves or women that had anxiety and then killed themselves. It’s such a depressing line that I don’t think I’ve read that many books about what women are really like. When it came to writing a science fiction novel, I wanted to write about women, and I wanted to write about a really intense version of the way society looks at women now, and how we commodify women and commodify their bodies and the role they serve in our society. Even as the conversation is changing, women are still in archetypes, you know, like ‘the strong women.’

LB: I hate the idea of the ‘strong women’ so much. She has to be beautiful, perfect, sexy, but still smart and tough.

ED: Exactly! I think those [ideas] are damaging too, so I wanted to write about a society where we just pipe women out of factories and make them whatever we want them to be.

LB: For the people that are reading this and don’t know about your honor’s thesis, could you give them a little plot overview?

ED: My honor’s thesis is a novel [The Ladies Room]. The project itself is that I read a lot of science fiction because I originally thought I wanted to write a theory-based paper. I made a really long reading list and I drew up my research questions, and that I hit stop and was like, “Ok, here’s the traditional trajectory where you write a paper with a bunch of big words in it, and it’s going to be indecipherable to anyone that reads it outside of the world of academia.” I wanted to do something different. I wanted to make a contribution using the information that I’ve gathered. The novel itself takes place in a future where women are literally manufactured, and they each do one thing. You’re either a housewife or an actress or a prostitute or a model or a teacher or a nurse or any of these really feminine roles in society. It follows this one woman, Darla. She wasn’t manufactured, she was conceived naturally. The novel is about her being in this relationship with a man that she doesn’t want to be, he paid $2 million for her.

LB: That’s expensive!

ED: [Laughs] She’s a good-looking woman!

LB: So in this society, are the more attractive women more expensive?

ED: Yeah, the men bid for them at an auction. Darla gets bid on by this guy, and the story follows her figuring out who she is, and it leaves her with this question of “Now that I know the truth, what do I do next? Is it possible to escape from this society? Is it possible to go against it and do something radical?” And that’s the question I found in science fiction in general: people identify a problem and they try to fix it, and they either fail or they succeed, but we see that the problem in our own society doesn’t change. Brave New World could have been written yesterday, and it was written in 1931.

LB: I noticed in some of your writing is set in the 1950s [such as The Lavenders, which won first place in the Loring Holmes & Ruth Dodd Drama contest]. What draws you to that era?

ED: You hear the phrase “write what you know” a lot, and my caveat is “write what you don’t know, but you want to know.” I didn’t know a lot about the fifties before I wrote that. I had that fringe interest that people have, you know, it’s got a cool aesthetic.

LB: I do love the hairstyles.

ED: Yeah, the hairstyles, and the clothes. I also didn’t know a lot about gay people in Los Angeles, I’ve never been to the fifties, I didn’t know a lot about the era, but I wanted to because I read something about it and I got interested. I think I watched the movie ‘Carol.’ So I wrote a short story that was set in the fifties and it was about queer women. [Writing is] the only way I know how to share that knowledge, because it’s boring if someone comes up to you and says, “Did you know…” It’s so much more interesting to write about it. That’s how you can use the stuff you do know, you know about feelings and what it’s like to say things to be people and to be in a relationship with someone, and you can mush them together. It’s what you know and what you don’t know.

LB: Is there a lot of studies or fiction about the LGBT community in the fifties? I don’t think I’ve read any. There’s always undertones or hints of homosexuality [in literature], but I don’t think I’ve seen anything that openly talks about it.

ED: It always comes in the form of a dude with really nice hair who wears glasses and there’s these prolonged shots of him staring at a dude’s ass.

LB: But there’s never a movie dedicated to that guy!

ED: I’m actually seeing it more in film now, it’s the indie film thing. They’re never presented as people, they’re “gay people,” and that’s what I wanted to do with my play, it’s not about “gay people” in the fifties, it’s about people in the fifties. And the play is not about the fact that they’re gay, it’s about the fact that they are two people in a relationship and there’s a problem in their relationship. That problem happens to stem from a problem that stems from them being gay in the fifties, but the play isn’t about the problem, it’s about how they deal with it, because they’re people, and sometimes people don’t deal with their problems well, and sometimes it causes fractures in relationships. So that’s what I think is kind of lacking in that literature, treating them like people that have problems instead of people that have gay people problems.

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