Brenna Ehrlich spoke with Jessica Cluess about moralism as a romantic ideal, her fascination with tentacled monsters, how writing is like shopping at Walmart and the characters from world religions she’d imagine would share a house in Los Angeles.
My ideal man is a Fox Mulder or Dale Cooper type who is nerdy but also forthright and clean-shaven and who is noble-minded and can handle a gun if he has to.
For readers not in the know, we were roommates in college. I remember somewhat you writing in college. Perhaps a book? Was this your current series, or a precursor? What happened to that book?
Yes, those college days! Oh man, that story was about Goliath (from the Bible), Helen of Troy, Isis and Osiris, and a renegade angel named Moonfly B. Juniper leaving hell in a Ford Explorer and driving out to the San Fernando Valley to share a house together and go bowling. It has, perhaps correctly, been lost to time and possibly space. I’d like to make a graphic novel out of it someday, though. It seems too bogus not to share.
I remember once we decided to write out the characteristics of our ideal men on slips of paper and burn them by the lake on our college campus. I only remember one thing that I wrote: “Looks good in a cowboy hat.” I don’t know about you, but my list has changed. A lot. Can you write a new list?
Ha! I remember that. Yes, my list has changed rather substantially. As it stands now:
You’re an actress as well as a writer. How has acting informed your writing? And the other way around?
Acting absolutely informs writing. When you’re onstage, you need to have a motivation, something you’re trying to accomplish as the character. If you don’t have that, you have no reason to be there.
My stories are always very character-driven, probably because of that. Beautiful prose is wonderful, but I need story that’s motivated by people’s wants and fears and needs. That alone makes me want to turn the page.
If you had to get stuck in an elevator with one literary character, whom would you choose? What do you think would happen in that elevator?
Cthulu. I have something of an affinity for tentacled monstrosities. Mostly, I want to know if he’d fit in an elevator car, and how mad he’d be.
I find the pieces I know will be indispensable to the trip, throw them on the ground, and stare at them until I can figure out which goes first and why.
What is your strongest, most vivid childhood memory? Please take us through it.
I was six at Catholic school, and we were going through the Stations of the Cross for the first time. None of it was particularly violent in description — a lot of “Then Jesus fell down again, and Veronica wiped his face.” But the images I was conjuring up in my mind were so horrific I collapsed and had to be carried to the nurse’s office. When my dad came to pick me up, I apparently told him “the violence had been too much.”
Name an author without whom you would be a different person. Tell us why that is. Tell us who you would be without them.
Stephen King. I think he’s our twentieth century Dickens, and I think time will prove me right. Fundamentally, he is a writer who is keenly interested in story, in human connection, in the primal part of what makes us human and fearful. At his best, he transcends simple horror tropes and makes the reader take a hard look at him or herself. If it weren’t for King, I wouldn’t have read his book On Writing, which is the most useful writing instruction book of all time. I got more out of that book than I did any single writing class. Without him, I also wouldn’t have scared my sister half to death with Pennywise impressions when we were kids. Many golden memories there.
Describe your writing process using only things you’d find in the Walmart camping aisle.
Honestly, it would involve me running through the aisles like I only had five minutes before I had to go, knocking stuff that seemed important like a tent, sleeping bags, fire lighting equipment and canned goods into my cart, then rushing through checkout before heading home and squatting in the backyard with everything laid out around me going, “OK, I know I’m supposed to be able to have a camping trip. I just can’t see how everything goes together.” That’s the closest analogy I have. I find the pieces I know will be indispensable to the trip, throw them on the ground, and stare at them until I can figure out which goes first and why.
I have been way too into ghosts lately. If you were suddenly rendered a ghost (if you died, I guess) what would your unfinished business be?
I’d want to go to that one jackass who tormented me in eighth grade and hover just over her shoulder when she was looking in the bathroom mirror. Then I’d repeat until she went crazy. I don’t really hold grudges, but this one went deep enough that if I had the opportunity I’d haunt the shit out of her.
Finally, please tell me about your most cherished object.
It’s a squid in a teacup. An evil squid. His name is Squiggy. My friend Traci gave him to me for the launch of my first book, A Shadow Bright and Burning. My main creature in that book, Korozoth, has tentacles, and the setting is Victorian England. So monsters and tea seemed an appropriate combination. I love him. Squiggy often sits with me when I write.
Curated by: Brenna Ehrlich
Conducted by: Email
Edited by: Morgan Enos
Published: February 5, 2018
Total questions: 9
Word count: 915
Reading time: Three minutes
acting, author, Brenna Ehrlich, campus, Catholic, character, combination, cowboy, creature, cross, Cthulhu, Dale Cooper, Fox Mulder, ghost, Goliath, Helen of Troy, ideal, information, Isis, Jessica Cluess, Korozoth, Los Angeles, monster, morals, novel, Osiris, paper, Pennywise, pieces, San Fernando Valley, sleeping bag, squid, Squiggy, stations, Stephen King, substantial, tea, teacup, tent, torment, Victorian, Walmart, writer, writing, young adult
About the guest curator
Brenna Ehrlich aspires to write a novel that’s a classic album. She enjoys taking solitary trips to distant locations and scoring the whole experience with the perfect book, record and restaurant. She often dreams (literally, while sleeping) of getting lost in unforgiving locales sans shoes or socks.
Related conversations W