Shared Worlds 2016: An Interview with Writer in Residence Julia Elliott

The ambition of Shared Worlds, the creativity and brilliance of its students, and the camaraderie I felt with my fellow writers and teachers were all amazing. –Julia Elliott, Shared Worlds 2016 Writer in Residence

Shared Worlds was proud to host critically acclaimed author and South Carolina native Julia Elliott this summer as our Amazon Writer-in-Residence. Amazon awarded Shared Worlds an $18,000 grant for the 2016 camp, for the purpose of establishing an Amazon writer-in-residence and providing need- and talent-based scholarships for students from all over the world. 

During her time at Shared Worlds, based at Wofford College, Elliott diligently mentored students from one of our six classrooms. She provided general writing advice and specific comments on the stories written by the students. Every year, each classroom creates its own science-fiction or fantasy world in the first week of the camp and in the second week the students write a story.

Elliott also provided a fascinating lecture and writing exercise on genre-bending, which included examples from the work of a number of wonderful writers, many of whom the students were encountering for the first time. Her comments about how you can combine elements of different genres to create something new really resonated with the students. Shared Worlds students are often the most advanced readers in their high schools and also generally creative across not just writing but other forms of imagination, like illustration and game creation. 

Once the student stories were complete, Elliott critiqued them and then had a one-on-one meeting with each student to discuss the critique and to talk about writing in general. This is one of the unique services provided by Shared Worlds: the students get to sit down with their guest writer in a variety of different contexts, from large groups to small groups. This ensures that every student has a fun and useful experience.

Elliott also participated in readings at Hub City Bookshop in Spartanburg and Malaprops in Asheville, North Carolina—along with Shared Worlds guest writers Nathan Ballingrud, Tobias Buckell, Terra Elan McVoy, and Leah Thomas.

The author’s writing has appeared in Tin HouseThe Georgia ReviewConjunctionsThe New York TimesGranta online, and other publications. She has won a Rona Jaffe Writer’s Award, and her stories have been anthologized in Pushcart Prize: Best of the Small PressesBest American Fantasy, and Best American Short Stories. Her debut story collection, The Wilds, was chosen by KirkusBuzzFeedBook Riot, and Electric Literature as one of the Best Books of 2014 and was a New York Times Book Review Editors’ Choice. Her first novel, The New and Improved Romie Futch, arrived in October 2015. She teaches English and Women’s and Gender Studies at the University of South Carolina in Columbia, where she lives with her daughter and husband.

We interviewed Elliott about her work and about her ties to South Carolina to celebrate her writing residency at Shared Worlds.

Can you tell us a little about who inspired you when you were a teen?

My dad, an avid reader and talented liar who looked like Jack Nicholson in his youth, infected me with the writing bug when I was about four, taking me upon his knee and reading the entire Chronicles of Narnia series. When I started writing poetry as a teen, he hyped my work and encouraged me to read gigantic classics like Crime and Punishment. His crumbling 1938 edition featured creepy woodblock prints that I remember examining as a child, including an image of Raskolnikov skulking behind a door, clutching an axe in his freakishly sinewy hand. When I got my first adolescent nose zit, my dad informed me that I probably carried the ancestral gene for a disease called “scabrunocatosis,” which involved a malfunctioning nose bone that never stopped growing, that would pop through my skin and eventually wreathe my head in a tangle of bone. Dad not only taught me how to make up dark, outlandish stories, but also encouraged a love for Russian lit that led to a Nabokov obsession in high school and college. On the other hand, my grandmother, the postmistress of Davis Station, SC, provided a steady supply of torrid pulp romances, which I pinched from her secret stash. Finally, in tenth grade, my high-school English teacher, a writer of YA history and fiction books, encouraged my lurid poetry, which gave me the confidence to apply to the South Carolina Governor’s School for the Arts summer program and also helped me score the Archibald Rutledge Scholarship (for poetry) in twelfth grade. 
Was there anything in particular you were looking forward to about Shared Worlds?

I was excited about many of the program’s features, including the awesome lineup of fellow writers, though particularly stoked about interacting with young writers at crucial stages of creative development. While I hoped to help them shape and refine their world-building skills, I also suspected that their enthusiasm and creativity would reinvigorate my own imagination, which has grown more sluggish over the years. 

We had teenagers from five countries and 20 states this year. But a significant number of our teens are from the Carolinas. As someone who has deep ties to the area, can you comment on the importance of encouraging creativity in young people?

Although my nuclear family nourished my youthful oddities, I was the oft-teased weirdo in the South Carolina low-country town where I grew up. When I was in tenth grade, my family moved to Aiken, a comparative metropolis, and there my weirdness flowered, partially due to a supportive freak clique of creative types, but also because an English teacher encouraged me to apply to the South Carolina Governor’s School for the Arts. At this amazing summer program, my writing hobby turned into a burning passion that’s kept me going over the years. South Carolina can be hard on nonconforming teens, corrupting creative impulses into shame and self-doubt and squelching the drive to produce art. Arts programs that not only encourage creative development but also help teens form cultural identities that connect them to larger arts communities can give young people the skills and confidence to flourish in conservative states. 

Can you speak to some of the current controversies involving the Carolinas?

Even though South Carolina isn’t known as the most progressive of states, at least our governor recently shot down Republican Senator Lee Bright’s attempt to pass a “bathroom bill” similar to North Carolina’s HB2 law, which discriminates against LGBTQ people. In my opinion, it’s crucial that creative people support progressive cultural hubs in North and South Carolina, particularly bookstores like Hub City in Spartanburg and Malaprops in Ashville, both of which have provided havens for marginalized groups and creative people in their respective regions. 

You’ve had a lot of amazing and deserved success the last couple of years. Does it match the vision in your head of what your career was going to be like? Anything you still haven’t gotten use to?

When I won the Archibald Rutledge Scholarship for poetry in twelfth grade, I assumed I’d be a world-famous writer by the time I hit the legal drinking age. Instead, I had to work for almost two decades to get my first two books published. Though publishing in journals and anthologies over the years gave me the validation I needed to keep going, I’ve scribbled in relative obscurity for half my life. Having two books come out over the past two years has been thrilling, but also exhausting, especially since internet literary culture can turn you into a self-Googling monster immersed in publicity and increasingly aware of the fleeting nature of literary success (how quickly those little dopamine bursts fade!). On good days, I feel overwhelmingly fortunate; on bad days, I feel like I’m still struggling to “break out,” like I need to be hustling and strategizing. I also find myself longing for the days when I wrote in a giddy bubble without obsessing over publishing, publicity, sales stats, and such. Though it’s harder to reach that enchanted state of pure immersion when I’m writing (the happiest of mental states for me), I’m thankful that I can still manage it.  

What are you currently working on?

I’m writing a novel that, in part, takes place at a surreal, big-oil-funded international research institution on the Horn of Africa. My main character Sylvia, an American primatologist, studies commensal Hamadryas baboons who feed from a McDonalds dumpster located in an Americanized suburb inhabited primarily by oil execs and contractors. Sylvia not only studies baboons, but also interacts with various other scientists, like ecotoxicologists and environmental economists, as well as artists in residence. Her boyfriend at the institute is a French guy who studies naked mole rats. Her best friends include a Somali Egyptologist, an Israeli hyrax expert, and a British painter who produces enormous canvases featuring monstrous toddlers. Although I’ve been obsessed with Hamadryas baboons for over a decade, I didn’t get serious about the species until the summer of 2012, when I did amateur field research at the Asheboro Zoo in North Carolina, which boasts one of the largest zoo troops in the country.