An Interview with Lindsay Merbaum

  • By Megan Culhane Galbraith
  • November 16, 2021

The writer talks mythology, erotic tension, and the absurdity of having a body.

An Interview with Lindsay Merbaum

The characters in Lindsay Merbaum’s The Gold Persimmon are all in a state of suspension — a ghostly purgatory — waiting to find relief from their grief, yet so utterly human in the way they go about it. Reading this book, I felt captive in a dream-like state. Here was Merbaum using all the divination tools at her disposal. For me, her work evokes the Magician in the tarot deck. I kept repeating in my head, “As above, so below.”

I talked with Lindsay, whom you may know as the person behind Instagram’s @pickyourpotions, an account that accompanies micro-reviews of books with customized cocktails. I told her I’d had a dream that she was behind the bar making us both drinks, and we were talking about queering the narrative, debut books, writing about sex, and experimenting with form. Although this interview was mediated by technology, it felt like we were in the same room. 

Can you talk about how you wove mythological symbolism as meta-narrative throughout the book?

I thought a lot about the minotaur while writing this book, perhaps because the process of piecing the story together felt like being lost in a labyrinth. In the myth of the minotaur, virgins are left to wander the labyrinth that serves as the monster’s prison. When they finally reach the center, they are eaten. Game over. This goes on and on, the myth consuming its own protagonists, consuming itself, until a masculine hero (Theseus) arrives and slays the minotaur, who’s a dangerous but rather pathetic figure. I once wrote a modern magical-realist story about the minotaur’s mother, whose punishment was birthing a human-animal aberration. But I envisioned the true punishment as having her baby taken from her, imprisoned, and turned into a monster through solitary confinement. I am less interested in the hero’s triumph and more concerned with the suffering left in his wake. 

One of The Gold Persimmon’s mysteries is whose story this is, and why. Divided into three parts, each section sheds light on what came before, thereby continually altering the reader’s understanding of the story. This defiance of linear storytelling — a kind of queering of the narrative — is discombobulating to some readers, though I see it as part of the overall effect of the novel: It’s not only what’s on the page that’s unsettling, but the story’s architecture itself that creates a sense of unease. 

I love the mythmaking that you’ve taken to a new level. Given her significance in Greek mythology, why did you choose to name one of your main characters Clytemnestra? 

When I fashion a character, I often select the name for its sound and feel, then later consider the symbolic significance of the word itself. Cly’s name arose out of the ether, so to speak. Still, it’s a choice firmly rooted in my love (or obsession, you might say) with mythology. Clytemnestra is a classical “bad” woman, who conspires with her lover to murder her husband upon his return from the Trojan War. In one version, this murder is retribution for Agamemnon making a human sacrifice of their daughter for the sake of favorable winds. Though welcoming then murdering your husband is still a huge sin, payback for a daughter’s gruesome death seems reasonable.

In the other version, there is no human sacrifice, and Clytemnestra’s motivation is portrayed as simply, “She’s a hussy.” Imagine your husband heading off to war to settle his brother’s domestic issues. Imagine he’s gone for a decade, maybe more, while you rule alone, your lover at your side. I can imagine how this time apart would change Clytemnestra and Agamemnon. And I can see why she wouldn’t want to relinquish power to her husband again. But the myth judges her harshly: Her own son is destined to kill her as punishment for her sins. 

The Clytemnestra in The Gold Persimmon is a more-timid figure, saddled with this tremendous name and her parents’ equally hefty expectations. The contrast subverts our expectations as readers. Yet the name itself also lends the character a certain magic. Cly defines herself as a priestess of check-in at the Gold Persimmon. She’s a symbol of the stories that influenced the creation of Western literature. 

There’s a quantum-ness to your book that I love: dual realities being acted out on similar but different stages in different hotels across a dream city separated by a veil of threatening fog. At one point, you write, “The hotel was a vessel.” What was the driving impulse that led you to the idea for this novel?

Around 10 years ago, I moved to San Francisco. I’d spent four years in Ecuador, during which time I wrote a novel about witches and volcanoes, which I later abandoned. In SF, I got a job as a live-in cook/personal assistant for a rather eccentric, boundary-challenged couple who had converted to a raw-food lifestyle. I had a tiny, unheated room off the garage, through which I’d come and go, bringing in men and forbidden foods, like dumplings and non-organic produce. My employers didn’t care who I slept with, but they didn’t want my gluten and pesticides in their fridge. A long-term relationship had ended with my move to California, then a new love relationship that seemed too good to be true proved to be so. I made a lot of new friends [and] learned to go to bars alone, where I often met interesting women who were also brave enough to sit at a bar alone. But I was plagued by loneliness. And then, one day, in my cold little room in someone’s garage, an idea popped into my mind: a hotel to cry in. That was all I had to work with. I couldn’t let it go. I started drafting characters and stories, many of which I discarded in the end. But once I was in the labyrinth, following the trail of this story, I couldn’t stop until it was done. 

Your sense of humor shines in sentences like “I’d lost my pronoun swagger” and “Callie was strapped to the table like an S&M version of Jane Eyre.” But the sentence that slayed me is: “To possess a body is to endure.” Tell me more…

Having a body is a kind of exercise in absurdity. It’s a vessel for the self, yet it also is the self. This disassociation is not organic; it happens through the rigid insistence of gender norms and unattainable beauty standards that cause us to view ourselves as a collection of parts. Being nonbinary, Jaime experiences a certain disconnect from their physical self. They’re acutely aware of the contrast between who they are and how others see them, which puts them at risk. Therefore, they have to remain vigilant and anticipate the responses of others, which is a lot of work. In part II, we watch Jaime assess each character they meet, some of whom are oblivious. Others, like Zosiah, send big signals — wink, wink — that they see Jaime. And then there’s Jason, who is openly hostile. In the face of absurdity, I will choose humor every time. 

There is so much erotic tension in the book, along with BDSM, identity, and queer sex. Can you let us in on how you succeeded in writing about sex without pandering or performing?

I think writing about sex comes naturally to me. (Frankly, I don’t see why we wouldn’t write about our characters in their most intimate moments.) It has a great deal to do with being a queer writer, where sexual proclivities and sexual differences are perceived as a huge part of who you are in a way that doesn’t apply to straight people. No one obsesses over heteronormativity as a signifier that you like this or that in the bedroom, but if you say you’re queer, or bi, or gay, or pansexual, your identity is sexualized in that moment. Everyone wants to know what toys you use. So, early on, I began asserting my identity by writing about queer characters and their bodies. I put those bodies in sexual situations in unabashed ways. I set out to reveal more than titillate, but if you are titillated, that’s great, too. In grad school, a professor told me I wrote lesbian sex scenes very well, and I was extremely pleased with myself. 

Near the end, you write: “Nothing: An Absence. A space awaiting fulfillment, like a bowl or a womb — female. What was the opposite of nothing? Everything.” This evokes the power of women and female-identified persons in supporting each other despite the horrors perpetrated against our gender and our bodies, but it’s also a state of in-between and waiting. What are we waiting for?

I see this passage as a commentary on the limitations of gender binary. The womb — and, by extension, the body of the biologically female — has been defined as empty, expectant, a passive thing. Except, as a locus of creation, it contains every possible reality, every possible narrative. This is not vacancy or passivity but power. Of course, the uterus here is a metaphoric one. I am not talking about the power to create human life, which many people possess in different forms. I am focused on the power to create period: to narrate, invent. I think we are still waiting for the world to catch on to our power. 

Megan Culhane Galbraith is a writer, visual artist, and adoptee. She is the author of The Guild of the Infant Saviour: An Adopted Child’s Memory Book (Mad Creek Books/Ohio State University Press, May 2021), a hybrid memoir-in-essays that pairs narrative with images to weave a personal and cultural history of adoption as it relates to guilt, shame, grief, identity, and memory itself. She connects her experiences to those of generations of adoptees, to the larger stories America tells about sex and motherhood, and to the shadows those stories cast on us all. Her work was Notable in Best American Essays 2021 and 2017, and her writing and art have been featured in BOMB, HYPERALLERGIC!, the Believer, Tupelo Quarterly, ZZYZYVA, Hobart, Longreads, Hotel Amerika, Catapult, Redivider, and elsewhere. She is a graduate of, and the associate director at, the Bennington Writing Seminars and the founding director of the Governor’s Institutes of Vermont Young Writers Institute. Find her on Facebook, Twitter, and Instagram.

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