Uplift, Clothing Optional: An Interview with Novelist D. Foy by J.T. Price

“To credibly present ecstasy, pure ecstasy, is incredibly difficult. Once upon a time this wasn’t the case. This is what capitalism has done to us all—rendered earnestness—a thing of suspicion and contempt.”

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Photograph by Ryan Chapman.

It starts with a new hairdo based on that of Bubbles Wilson, “the most beautiful blonde on Broadway… a Ziegfeld Follies girl.” Rachel, the protagonist of D. Foy’s ticklish breeze of a novel, Absolutely Golden (Stalking Horse Press), moves to change her life by adopting a retro look before following her dodgy boyfriend into the culture of a 1970s nudist colony: “My hair was a great golden downpour of trumpets and flames, gold as the goldest dates.”

A fast read, funny and revelatory, Absolutely Golden is a spin on the divide between youth and maturity, purity and experience, put-on and genuine self-expression. It moves from insidious darkness to unabashed uplift, a decided change of tack from Foy’s tonally bleaker first two books, Made to Break and Patricide. Foy, a signature prose stylist, has published his fizziest novel to date—which is not to say that it lacks a knowing edge.

J.T. PriceA significant plot-point in Absolutely Golden revolves around Rachel’s amazing new haircut, the importance of which stretches over the course of the story. The novel offers a complex rendering of both her own self-image and how she’s received by others at Camp Freedom Lake. What is the best haircut you’ve ever had?

D. FoyMan, haircuts and barbers and stylists in general are my bane. I have ultra straight hair. It’s thick and very fine, and without a product, the slightest mistake is glaringly ugly. As a kid, my dad took me to these hacks who invariably butchered me, to the point that, I’m not joking, I was traumatized.

JTPHave you ever attended any sort of big communal festivals akin to Camp Freedom Lake?

DFWhile I’ve never been to a nudist camp, I have been to nude beaches, as a child. My parents took my brothers and me. This was when they were still “cool,” I suppose.

Honestly, I never did like it. There seemed to me, even as a boy, something disingenuous about it, as if the true reason everyone had got naked wasn’t actually spoken or acknowledged. I felt in my little boy’s head that we were all “supposed to be doing something.” It felt as if, “Hmmm, we’ve all made the effort to walk past the ‘normal’ beach, where everyone still wore suits, so that we can get naked without anyone yelling at us,” and yet, I didn’t understand the point. I do now, but then I didn’t. It just felt as if something extra would appear or happen, but I had no idea what.

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JTP Did those reflections contribute to your conception of this novel? Which you originally wrote… not recently. A decade ago?

DF I think what it contributed to was the general sense of wonderment that Rachel has throughout. She is continually noting that things aren’t what they seem, that she thinks she can’t be surprised, and yet here again, hey, she’s surprised.

And, yes, I wrote this book a while back—2002, actually. That’s a long time, I know, though it doesn’t feel that way.

JTP I know more than a few of us writers have a novel or two tucked away in a drawer. Many of those are relegated to Tucked in a Drawer status, the sort that’s hard to shake off even in a writer’s own mind. It’s exciting, in a way, to hear of one emerging after such a good stretch.

DF I’ve always had confidence in the book. It meant a lot to me when I made it, which greatly helped me through a difficult time. I wrote the book, in fact, because of the crisis I was in, as a way of understanding things I hadn’t before. I tried to get it published years back, and failed, went on with my other business—writing more books, that is. Then I found a publisher who wanted it.

After so much time away from the work, a disconnect naturally sets in. The process of publishing was the process of reconnecting to the work, both as I’d been connected to it and afresh, in ways I couldn’t have anticipated. The book was much longer in its initial draft. By the time it was accepted for publication I’d cut more than half of it. The work at that point lay principally in the line, which, at the end of the day, is utmost to me.

JTP You write some pretty spectacular sentences, more than a few that nobody else could have written. These sentences have a signature quality to them. Vivid edge. In a time where much of what’s published by our big publishers plays it safe—certainly as far as style goes—yours has a quality near to purple prose, and yet really a kind of surfing at purple prose’s ebullient edge. Reminds me of Melville, in a way. Also, feels fairly rock ‘n roll. Am I going to ask a question? I’m not sure that I am.

DF Thank you! None of that, by the way, is incidental. The sentence for me has been a quest of sorts. It’s always out there, elusive, protean, hidden and hiding, teasing and taunting, ridiculing, mocking, encouraging, and more. No sooner have you wrangled with one merely satisfactorily than another’s calling your name, and, more often, just whistling at you

I’m fascinated with how words play together in countless permutations. And the order of the words themselves isn’t even the only criterion. There are so many others, so many. What are you trying to say? In what context are you trying to say it? Is there more than one meaning you want to convey? And so on, and so forth, and so on.

JTP The language is indeed a wonder. This novel has a soundtrack, duly noted over the course of the narrative. I wonder if that is the sort of music you listened to while writing?

DF I listened again to the songs as I thought of them, though not while writing. I can’t listen to music with words when I write. I listen to instrumental stuff with a headset when I’m doing business or tech writing, to get and keep me in a zone. Other than that, I really do need silence. I’m one of them, yes, I know.

JTP At heart, Absolutely Golden is about a couple, one that’s experiencing some toxic and unexamined aspects to their relationship. What the novel explores is how, in coming undone as a couple and as individuals, they get to a better place. Rachel is telling us this story in vivid fashion at some years’ remove from its events, is that fair to say?

DF Yes, she is, and I’m very glad you’ve got that. I strove to make that clear without pounding the reader on the head. But coming to a better place is the point. The book works decidedly from dark to light.

JTP In some big way (one that only a diligent grad student of literature would hallucinate), I saw Absolutely Golden as an inversion of Nathaniel Hawthorne’s “Young Goodman Brown.” In place of Young Goodman, we have Rachel at the outer limit of her thirties. And in place of the haunted New England woods, we get sunny California coastal beauty. And for Young Goodman’s vision of all-pervading guilt, Rachel’s communal journey to freedom and relief. Hawthorne, by way of dramatic irony, gets his reader to a perspective that you bring your reader to with earnest uplift…. and yet I couldn’t help looking for dramatic irony.

DF I love this comparison. Hawthorne’s worldview, I’d wager to say, at least the one he presents there, is considerably more glum than the one we see in mine. There’s a great deal of irony in Absolutely Golden, too, but I’m curious to know which of it stands out in greatest relief to you?

JTP The ironies in your book are no doubt there, nested throughout, but more on the level of character and incident. On the other hand, the ending, with Rachel about to take a celebratory leap, rang for me as completely in earnest.

DF Oh, it’s earnest, all right. I wanted nothing more than sheer earnestness. I hope that this comes off, too, absent any unctuousness or fluff?

JTP No doubt. It’s easy to go with irony, since as I think Tolstoy once said, ‘How do I write a credible vision of ecstatic happiness?’

Or, no. He did not really say that.

DF Ha!

JTP But I guess people will believe anything on the internet.

DF To credibly present ecstasy, pure ecstasy, is incredibly difficult. Once upon a time this wasn’t the case. This is what capitalism has done to us all—rendered earnestness—real earnestness—a thing of suspicion and contempt.

JTP “Yet what is this guilt but our belief that somehow, somewhere, we’ve been badly judged?” You write as Rachel, “And what is that belief but our misled acceptance of this judgment?” Is there too much guilt in the world, would you say? Or not enough? Devilish question, I know.

DF Oh my god—a no brainer, for me anyway—there is far, far, far too much guilt to allow for any real sanity today. It’s so much easier to point out the nasty than it is to honor the good. Good is all around us, and definitely in us. But this is the problem. We see it only as around us, and rarely, if ever, in us ourselves.

A guy can call himself a devil and the crowd will joyously agree. But we all know what happens the moment someone calls herself a saint.

JTP As Rachel says, “We spend our lives in need of praise, yet when at last we’re handed the key to freedom, what do we typically do but toss it in a ditch?” If someone accused you of having written a self-help novel, what would you say?

DF I’d say they need to read a real self-help novel. You know, Paulo Coelho and such.

JTP When you look at this photo, what do you see?

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Photograph by J.T. Price.

DF The water stain on hot concrete of someone’s ass. They were sitting on it after getting out of the pool, then walked away.

JTP To the reader concerned that Absolutely Golden might be somehow too vulgar to approach (in light of, let’s say, the cover of the book), what would you tell that person?

DF Do you think the cover is potentially offensive? If some did think that, I’d say they need to go spend some time in Europe. Or sit under a tree for a significant period of time.

JTP I think it’s complicated—to those un-offended, in fact engaged, they likely see the, um, cheekiness on display, the sort of directness that the characters experience within the nudist colony. But on another level, yes, I’m sure the potential is there for the cover to be misleading at least. Readers may glimpse it and expect a bawdy sex comedy, and while Absolutely Golden does have a measure of that, it’s not only that, and in fact manages to subvert many of those expectations. I mean, this ain’t exactly Henry Miller, you know! Or really even Terry Southern. As vulgarity goes.

DF The comedy in this book is in the service of the philosophy it espouses, which is that who we really are is most often very far from who we think we are. And in the space between these two fundamentally divergent visions—the difference between enlightenment and delusion—is a radical absurdity. We encounter the vulgar in Absolutely Golden, yes, but more often it’s good-natured bawdiness. All of it, though, is aimed at showing how silly the contortions, rationalizations, machinations, and confrontations we find ourselves endlessly mired in really are, most in the name of finding happiness. This in itself is what’s offensive to the majority of us: the glaring evidence that all in all we don’t know what we’re doing or why. The other stuff, the offense we cry at an image, the cover of a book, for instance, is just the front we put up to keep from getting down with the real thing, which is, “Who are we really, and why are we here?”

J.T. Price’s fiction has appeared in or is forthcoming from The New England Review, Post Road Magazine, Joyland, The Brooklyn Rail, CONSTRUCTION Magazine, and elsewhere; nonfiction in The Los Angeles Review of Books, The Scofield, The Millions, and The Daily Beast. He is at work on a novel.

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