Laura Maylene Walter is the author of the short story collection Living Arrangements (BkMk Press, 2011), and her writing has appeared in the Sun, Poets & Writers, and various literary journals. She was a 2013 Tin House Writers’ Workshop Scholar, the recipient of the Ohioana Walter Rumsey Marvin grant, and a past fiction editor of Mid-American Review. “The Necrophiliac’s Almanac” is part of her in-progress short story collection focusing on the taboo. An excerpt from her story “The Necrophiliac’s Almanac” can be found here. It appears in the Nov/Dec 2016 issue of the Kenyon Review.
This isn’t the first piece you’ve published with us about taboo subjects. “Zoophilia in Four Acts” appeared in KRO in Summer 2016. Can you talk a little bit about your larger project on taboos? And what your research process is like?
My in-progress story collection focuses on the taboo: cannibalism, euthanasia, incest, abortion, menstruation, virginity, you name it. Research has been a huge part of my writing process—it’s helped me gain a larger historical and cultural perspective when it comes to taboo subjects, and it’s sparked many story ideas I never would have had otherwise. For example, my research has inspired stories involving a menarche museum, snake sex shows, an advertising executive specializing in taboo products, a euthanasia roller coaster, modern-day mortuary cannibals, and more.
Most of my research took place in libraries. I am so grateful for the strong library systems in the Cleveland area, where I was able to check out stacks of books on taboo topics like cannibalism, menstruation, pedophilia, taboos in pop culture, and so on. This process did require me to sacrifice my dignity at times—like when I risked becoming known as the “sex crimes lady” after specially requesting a book about necrophilia, or when I absentmindedly mentioned how hungry I was while checking out a half-dozen cannibalism books—but of course the beautiful thing about libraries is that there is no judgment.
The very nature of taboos means that many people are reluctant to acknowledge them publicly, but do enough research on a topic and you’ll start to assume that, say, zoophilia is an appropriate topic of conversation at a party. My apologies to anyone I may have mortified in the process.
Can you talk a little bit about the structure of this story (especially the headings—the weather, gardening, and so on)?
“The Necrophiliac’s Almanac” is one of the last taboo stories I drafted for this collection. I knew I wanted to try to tackle writing about necrophilia, but I felt intimidated by the topic. I hadn’t done any research yet, didn’t know where to start, and worried this taboo was too sensational even for my collection. Then one day I was folding laundry when the phrase “necrophiliac’s almanac” popped into my head. I liked the sound of it, so I thought: Why not make that the title, and build the story around the structure of an almanac?
I went to a library, checked out a copy of the Old Farmer’s Almanac, and studied it. I could tell right away that many of the chapter and section headings might provide a structure for my story, which I’d decided would be set in a cemetery. Headings like “Weather,” “Food,” “Gardening,” and “Nature” point to such mundane aspects of life—which seemed appropriate, considering that my narrator struggles to achieve normalcy—and could, I thought, create a basic framework for the story. The larger concept of a farmer’s almanac and how it is used also served as a driving metaphor. That wasn’t anything I planned, but it all came together.
Of course, not every almanac heading I tried worked, and I cut several of them during the revision process. “Advertisement,” “Pets,” and “This Year’s Trends” were a few that didn’t make it.
Which non-writing-related aspect of your life most influences your writing?
In the present? Long, solitary walks.
In the past: My mother’s death. She died from cancer, fairly suddenly, when I was twenty years old. In my mid-twenties, I wrote a lot of fiction influenced by her death or that surrounded dying, dead, or distant mothers, but I think I’ve largely moved beyond that in my fiction. Even so, I often find myself returning to that period of my life, particularly when I write nonfiction. I think it’s because, as difficult as that time was for me, the darkness made it rich. It’s like compost, something destroyed and broken down but full of waiting energy. It’s a time in my life I can never fully escape, and at this point, I don’t think I’d ever want to.
What project(s) are you working on now, or next?
In addition to the taboo collection, I’ve been working intensely on a novel that shares several themes with my stories, including female autonomy and sexual taboos. It’s about—and forgive me for being a bit vague—stars and skin and girls and foretelling the future. It’s also about sibling relationships and coming of age and rape culture.
The novel has been in progress since 2012, but just last summer, I embarked on a significant rewrite. The best and hardest writing lesson I’ve learned over the years is to embrace the act of throwing out a draft and starting anew. I’ve done this with a few stories in my taboo collection as well, and it always, always makes the work stronger.
What is the worst piece of writing advice you’ve received or given?
Years ago, another writer insisted that I absolutely must outline a novel before writing it. I don’t outline! I can’t outline, in fact. If I could, then maybe I wouldn’t need to rewrite my novel after I’d already revised the former draft countless times. Some writers outline before writing, and other writers must write to explore and find the full story. I’m in the latter category, and as messy as it might be, I prefer it. It allows me to surprise myself.