Emily Schultz is the co-founder of the literary journal Joyland. Her novel, Heaven Is Small was named a finalist for the Trillium Book Award alongside books by Margaret Atwood and Alice Munro, as was The Blondes.
The protagonist, Hazel, writes a thesis about women’s looks and how they can be perceived. With the virus impacting only blonde women, the increasing climate of defiance against women is chilling in its resemblance with our own world. Is the novel itself a way to hold up a mirror to society’s distorted depiction and representation of women?
I like to think of writing more like a radar than a mirror. We should be scanning and looking for these turns in our culture early. As I was writing The Blondes I was looking for situations that seemed realistic, even within my outlandish premise, and I did not have to look far.
The Blondes can be seen as a dystopia, or speculative fiction, all the while being also literary fiction, with references to pop culture. How meaningful is it for you to explore different genres?
I love playing with genre. Movies like Hitchcock’s The Birds or Cronenberg’s Rabid influenced this work, but so did novel’s like Camus’ The Plague. As I think about it, I am realizing I have a lot of French influences. Catherine Breillat is one of my favorite filmmakers and is always exploring ideas of beauty and femininity using dark humor. Claire Denis’ Trouble Every Day was also an influence and both are great examples of women who look at genre through a feminist perspective.
How did you decide that the narration would consist of Hazel addressing her unborn child?
I had not yet been pregnant when I began the book—but being in my mid-30s then it was very much on my mind and I was trying to decide if motherhood would fit into my life. Writing The Blondes contributed to my decision. I became pregnant and had my son during the writing of this novel. I really didn’t talk to my abdomen, but a lot of women told me they did. For Hazel, I felt a personal story had to ground the more fantastical and dystopic elements, and that walking around the cabin talking to herself (or her soon-to-be baby) was one way to do that. She leads the reader through chaos, so it was important to hear her voice. I also thought it was important to show how a woman, her goals and sense of self, changes throughout the various stages of pregnancy, which is why Hazel could easily have not become a mother early on, but is very committed later. And on a very basic, technical level, it was a solution to have an isolated character be able to converse.
Although a part of the novel is set in a chalet in Canada, the first part is set in New York where Hazel works on her thesis. There is notably an arresting passage about Hazel’s mental map of New York, built from memories, imagination and movies. How does the city, and urban landscape in general, in every shape and form, resonate with your work?
Even though I’ve now lived in New York for five years, writing The Blondes was still challenging because New Yorkers are a distinct culture of people, and it was hard to get the voices (and the actions) of the characters right. Strangers interact a lot more here than in Canada or the American Midwest, but connections are fleeting. By making Hazel a bit of a tourist, she still sees New York with a romanticized vision when the blonde disease begins to change the people around her. In horror movies, and especially plague narratives, the characters are always fleeing the city to try to get to the country where it will somehow be safer. I wanted to explore that dynamic too.
You publish your own literary magazine, Joyland. Do you feel it has an influence on your writing as a novelist?
To be constantly reading new work by others is inspiring. Joyland is organized by city, so that the work is showcased in a regional manner. I started the website with my husband, Brian Joseph Davis who is best known for his project The Composites. We were traveling a lot at the time and meeting writers from elsewhere. We liked the idea of being able to peer in on a writing community somewhere else, and that was what we wanted to accomplish with the magazine.