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Paul Elwork lives in Philadelphia and is the father of two sons. His work has appeared in a variety of journals, including Philadelphia Stories, Short Story America, SmokeLong Quarterly, and Word Riot. His novel The Girl Who Would Speak for the Dead is out now and here he talks to gr about his inspirations and writing.
Where were you born, raised and schooled?
I was born in Philadelphia, Pennsylvania, and have lived in Philadelphia or the immediate surrounding area my whole life. I graduated from Northeast High School, Temple University (undergraduate), and Arcadia University (graduate).
What did you want to be when you were 13?
Two things: a writer and a musician. I only play around with the guitar once in a great while—and as a result, I’m pretty much a hack at it—but the writer part stayed with me and became my single true goal by the time I was in college.
What did you strongly believe at 15 that you don’t now?
When I was 15, I believed in ghosts. I spent my whole childhood being fascinated with stories of hauntings, and I wanted to believe in ghosts very much. I’ve always loved science and I was a pretty flinty skeptic about most things by the time I was 15 (or thought I was), but I had made this little cul-de-sac in my worldview for ghosts because the romance of the notion captivated me. Now I’m the guy who wrote a novel full of ghostly elements but no literal ghosts.
What led you to your writing career?
So many things, obviously—so many books and writers. I do remember that for me reading Tolkien’s The Hobbit at around the age of 12 was a revelation. Up until then, I loved books and read every chance I got, but I remember that book made me feel like I wanted to spend my life telling stories.
What should a reader expect from The Girl Who Would Speak for the Dead?
A compelling story, I hope; characters with complex emotional and psychological histories. I tried to write a novel that would do justice to the complications of belief, grief, and the longing for forgiveness.
What do you want a reader to take away from your novel?
I hope that readers will come away haunted by the characters and the moral ambiguity of belief, for believers and deceivers.
Was the inspiration behind your book an animal, an experience or a curiosity?
The novel came together from two direct sources of inspiration: the true story of the Fox sisters and Glen Foerd on the Delaware, a riverside estate on the outskirts of Philadelphia. In the mid-nineteenth century, the Fox sisters of upstate New York convinced people in their home, their neighborhood, and—eventually—across America and Europe that they were communicating with the dead through rapping noises actually created by cracking joints in their toes and ankles. I discovered their story while still in high school, in a passage from Carl Sagan’s book, Broca’s Brain.
Years later, I started volunteering at Glen Foerd and got interested in the history of the estate and the garden house there, which had been converted into a play house for the children. I thought of the confidences that must have been exchanged in the garden play house, and the story of the Fox sisters attached itself to this notion in my mind. I placed my story in the 1920s to follow World War I, recast the characters, and fictionalized everything.
Which writer or writers have floored or astounded you?
So, so many. I’m amazed by the impact and brevity of James Salter’s prose, his capacity to capture powerful emotional moments in a few lines. Kurt Vonnegut’s writing amazes me—a master of a humorous, conversational style with deep moral depths. Flannery O’Connor’s short stories astound me; you’re not going to find a more unflinching encounter with reality in fiction. Jhumpa Lahiri’s fiction, though more tender in many ways than O’Connor’s, also has this quality of unflinching honesty. Scott Smith’s novel The Ruins floored me in telling a story of only a few days in a span of over 800 pages without a dull moment—all while providing textured, human characters rather than automatons to further the plot.
When writing, what quirky habit/s do you have?
I have the tendency to redraft as I go, rather than write a whole draft and then rework it. My way has advantages and disadvantages. The advantage of having a more directed go at the first draft when it’s completed is one I can’t seem to part with, even though this method slows me down.
What did you intentionally not do when writing your novel?
I tried to avoid making my believers seem to be simple dupes, people laughably lacking the intelligence to protect them from charlatans. I don’t think it’s simply a matter of smart or dumb. Every person—even people who consider themselves skeptics like myself—navigates through life mostly on belief and guesswork, since there are so few things we can know for certain. Also, I think belief is a matter mostly of emotional psychology, both individual and cultural, and that we often choose (consciously and subconsciously) what we accept and buy into as believers. The messy humanity of it is in the details.
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