Julia Elliott’s debut novel, The New and Improved Romie Futch, zips between various genres, from Southern gothic to sci-fi satire, in a clever, wildly imaginative romp through the landscape of the South and the neural pathways of one man’s brain. At times heartbreaking and at times hilarious, The New and Improved Romie Futch announces Elliott as an undeniably original voice.
Romie Futch is a sensitive, deeply lonely taxidermist in South Carolina, and his life consists of pining for his ex-wife, drinking (a lot of) beers and talking about metal bands with a few buddies while sinking into debt. When he offers himself up as a test subject for an intelligence enhancement study, he doesn’t quite know what he’s getting into. He emerges from the neurocenter with a brain housing the rough equivalent of the Library of Congress, splitting headaches and the desire to make some truly beautiful, bizarre taxidermy.
I sat down with Elliott while she was in Nashville for the Southern Festival of Books, and we talked about hog hunting, the tall tales of the South, meat-eating plants and more.
This is a pretty wildly creative plot for a novel. Where did it come from?
Well actually, it started as a short story, and it was just insanely too complicated for a short story. I was teaching a sophomore literature class at University of South Carolina, and we were reading some dystopian stuff. I would have this game that we played everyday: which fact is fake which one is real. So I would always have to find things that were outrageous that were actually happening. I came upon all this research on brain download procedures. And it’s still in the experimental phases, of course. People had different theories about how it would be done. Some quite horrifying, like that bioengineered nanobiotic creatures would rearrange your neurons to create knowledge. I mean, it sounds pretty ridiculous.
I started thinking about how absurd that was, and the idea of a tech student from South Carolina who never went to college getting a “brain download.” I tried it in a short story, and it was way too short. I didn’t even introduce the neurocenter at all. It was just, suddenly he can evoke fancy diction. I sent it to maybe one or two places, and they were like, “Wow this is pretty crazy, but kind of out of control as a short story.”
Five or six years later, I read my cousin Carl [Elliot]’s piece in The New Yorker called “Guinea-pigging.” It’s about test research subjects who do it for a living. They go from one facility to another, taking all kinds of crazy drugs, and that’s how they live. It’s even such a weird subculture that there’s a zine and stuff. So that was truly fascinating, and that inspired me to return to the story to flesh out the neurocenter and create more of a novel-length work.
I started thinking about how absurd that was, and the idea of a tech student from South Carolina who never went to college getting a “brain download.”
Romie is really transformed. He’s a supreme genius, but in the beginning he’s just a regular guy. Is Romie still Romie after the tests, or is he essentially two different characters? How did you write that?
One thing I wanted to convey was that he was a complex and smart character before he gets the brain downloads. That just gave him a certain vocabulary and conceptual framework through which he could analyze the state of being and maybe gain a little more agency because of that—critique the world a little bit more.
And part of it was investigating what effect does [knowledge] have on you. I grew up in a small, rural Southern town, and my dad was an elementary school principal, so education was important, but I wasn’t from a really sophisticated cultural background. Then I went to grad school all the way up to the Ph.D. level. [The novel] is sort of a way to make sense of all of the cultural realms that I inhabited.
This novel is about awful things that humans do to each other and the terrifying ramifications of science, but there’s also a lot of humor to it. Was that intentional?
I just couldn’t help it. In my short story collection [The Wilds], some of the stories are very funny, and then some of them have this kind of dreamy, magic realist quality. So I kind of have two modes I can go into. It’s pretty over-the-top satirical, but I wanted it to have a heart also. The situation is just so absurd, and it was really fun playing around with it. [Romie’s] voice was really fun to create.
Your short stories, like this novel, take place in the South, as well. What about the setting of the South really inspires you?
It’s almost ecological, because I’m tormented by the summers. In several interviews I’ve described them as psychedelic summers. The cicadas are shrieking, and it’s really hot, and you feel kind of delirious, and it seems like it’s never going to end. I do feel very inspired by that exuberance, and the low country is a very jungle-y place. There are even species of meat-eating plants—the Venus fly trap and the pitcher plant.
Are you serious?
Yeah, they’re in certain parts of the coastal plain. The pitcher plant’s really weird, because frogs fall in, and it has these digestive enzymes. There’s this kind of brutality, there’s this beauty. I’m really inspired by the ecology and also the absurd grotesquery.
I feel like also my family has this tradition of telling ridiculous stories, and teasing children a lot with ridiculous stories. Trying to scare them with stories of ghosts, whereas nowadays, childrearing has certain rules about protecting the tender beings. I actually have a toddler, and do I tease her a lot. I play around with the boundaries of what kinds of things are OK to introduce. Because I feel like the things I was introduced to—especially the humor and the teasing—creates a certain form of resilience and humor.
There’s this kind of brutality, there’s this beauty. I’m really inspired by the ecology and also the absurd grotesquery.
Do you think that’s just a Southern thing?
Probably not, but it does seem like, compared to say, people I know from the Midwest—they seem more stoical. In Maine, I read a story about some girls who went to a slumber party, and this Jesus-freak granny comes downstairs and starts ranting about the Book of Revelation, and it’s got all this graphic grotesque imagery and lots of humor, and then she levitates briefly. They all stared at me with not one crack of a smile. I asked my host, “What’s up? Wasn’t that story kind of funny? No one laughed.” And he was like, “They were all raised on farms, and life was harsh, and it snows for eight months of the year.” So maybe there’s something in the delirium of the South that creates this kind of thing. You know, the tall tale is very Southern.
There are so many literary and mythological, philosophical and medical references throughout the novel—not to mention hog hunting. Did you just pore over research?
The academic stuff was already there, so I just made use of it. Most of it was still in there, floating around. To be honest, I’d always considered much of it useless, and so finally it’s put to use. The brain download stuff I had to research. It's all very theoretical, so it was easy to invent. Just throw in nanobots and people are set.
With the hoghunting, the best sites for that were message boards, where they were just talking about stuff in their own voice. I was bowled over by their lyricism and wit. I even stole some of their lines, like, “Hogs take a heap of killing.” They’re very hard to kill, a heap of killing!
OK, can you really make eyes blink in taxidermy?
No, I don’t think so. But we’re close! I mean there’s rogue taxidermy, with weirdo artists doing stuff. I went to taxidermy shows, and all Southern taxidermists that I saw created these life-like mountings with their Disney-esque little scenes. I didn’t see anything humorous—except there was a line of sportsman squirrels playing golf, shooting hoops. But in rogue taxidermy, they’ll add wings to monkeys, that sort of thing. So then I thought, why not make an animatronic hog, almost like an Elizabethan masque, this elaborate crazy diorama. It’d be hard to do, but it was easy to pretend to do it in a fictional work!
The book is also kind of a mock epic, and an epic is a masculine dominant genre. That was fun to spoof.
The Wilds was almost completely focused on the feminine and the feminine voice, but Romie Futch is completely focused on the masculine. What was it like to switch voices?
Well, a short story collection doesn’t necessarily represent everything you’ve done over a certain period, just the best stories. There are a couple of stories that didn’t make it in that have male narrators. I do teach women and gender studies, so there are definitely feminist themes everywhere, but it’s almost like my macho, "hesher" inner-warrior was dying to get out. What’s even more ironic is that I was pregnant when I wrote the first draft—with a female. So my body had more estrogen in it than it ever had. A female baby was steeping, and out pops this masculine character—but he’s also very vulnerable. The book is also kind of a mock epic, and an epic is a masculine dominant genre. That was fun to spoof.
Romie comes out of the experiment with a new brain, and he’s got all this knowledge, but he chooses to focus on this very cave-man-like task of hunting a hog. No matter how much technology there is, are humans just going to be humans?
Some people believe that! Evolutionary biologists think that we’re all cave people trapped in a technologically advanced place. But one thing that was interesting was that hunting can be quite complex, and it’s very technological these days. You can get all kinds of target-illuminated feeders and weird tracking lights and digital topography maps. Hunters can get seriously into that kind of technology. On the other hand, he’s becoming obsessed with the beast, and having an epic beast theme was a good way to make the plot move a little bit, with the tongue-in-cheek Moby Dick thing. But also, the reason he wants the pig is because he wants to put it in the most ass-kicking diorama in the history of taxidermy, and it is also a mutagenic recombinant DNA freak from a biotech lab. So it’s not your regular hog hunt.
I was wondering about the theme of youth in your work. Romie is continually harking back to youth and the beauty of young women and men. I was wondering why he’s so focused on youth.
Because he’s reached a middle-age crisis. Mostly you think about women in their 40s getting hung up on that, but I’ve applied all those things to a male character, which I think is just as true, but you don’t see explored in fiction as much. Usually male writers explore it in a different way, I suppose. A lot of male writers might explore that by having a male character have an affair with a younger woman. And there might be some anxiety and some feelings of doom, but for the most part, it’ll also be about reinvigorating themselves through the affair. In reality, it doesn’t quite seem to always work that way. Romie does have one encounter with a young woman, in yet another absurd sex scene. I love to write ridiculous sex scenes. I don’t think I could write an erotic one.
The reason he wants the pig is because he wants to put it in the most ass-kicking diorama in the history of taxidermy.
Do you think there’s a future for these brain downloads?
If you look on the internet, they’re always saying, "It’s not a matter of if, it’s a matter of when." There are computers made with biological components already, from leech neurons and things. But they’re not hooked up to human brains. A lot of the stuff that they’re doing, they’ll do something to a stroke victims brain so they can move their arm, and that’s the very basic beginning of it. So thought would be the next step, I suppose. I hope I’ll be dead before that happens.
There’s so many authors references in this novel, like Nabokov and Karen Russell, whom you’ve been compared to. I was wondering what authors you admire and really enjoy reading.
That’s such a hard question because I read so much, and I love so many things. I love magic realism like Borges and Gabriel García Márquez. I also love weirdos like Angela Carter, Karen Russell and Kafka. But I also love many realists, like Jonathan Franzen.
But there are certain books that create a turning point for you. When I was younger, the first one was Nabokov, and it was the language that did it. The second was Angela Carter, and I thought, “Oh my God! She’s rewriting fairy tales from a female perspective. There’s so much that can be done with this! I can have weird magical moments!” And later George Saunders and Karen Russell, definitely. With Saunders it was like, you can use cheesy genre things in a literary way, and with Russell it was like, yeah, the stories are wacked out, but its really her language that appeals to me, because it’s so beautiful and rich and poetic. All of those were inspiring, but there’s so much. Jonathan Latham. Sam Lipsyte. I need to name more female writers! Kelly Link . . . I just read the Amelia Grey collection, and I loved that.
It’s OK, I won’t pressure you for more.
I feel like when people ask that, it’s like OK, here’s my alphabetized list. It’s five pages long.
(Author photo by JS Dennis)