Tuesday, April 20, 2021

Laura Maylene Walter

© Eric Mull Photography
Laura Maylene Walter is a writer and editor in Cleveland. Her writing has appeared in Poets & Writers, Kenyon Review, The Sun, Ninth Letter, The Masters Review, and many other publications. She has been a Tin House Scholar, a recipient of the Ohioana Library Association’s Walter Rumsey Marvin Grant, and a writer‑in‑residence at Yaddo, the Chautauqua Institution, and Art Omi: Writers. Body of Stars is her debut novel.

My Q&A with the author:
How much work does your title do to take readers into the story?

A few years ago, I made lists of potential titles to find a replacement for the working title I’d long been using for my in-progress novel. I scrawled ideas in my writing notebook early in the morning, jotted down more possibilities on my lunch break at work, and emailed my writing friends long strings of (mostly terrible) titles for their feedback. Throughout this process, Body of Stars eventually found its way onto one of those lists, but it took a few days to sink in as the perfect choice.

Now, I can’t imagine any other title for this novel, which is set in a world where the freckles, birthmarks, and moles on the bodies of women and girls predict the future. These markings are arranged into patterns or “constellations,” so celestial bodies serve as a metaphor in the novel. The protagonist, Celeste, views her own markings as both a privilege and a burden. When she discovers a catastrophic prediction about her older brother, she wishes she could erase her markings and live without the weight of knowing what is to come.

The title therefore has a dual meaning: it can refer to literal bodies of stars, but mostly, it speaks to the overarching depiction of women’s bodies as mystical and capable of relaying fate and magic.

What's in a name?

I named many of the characters in this novel in rapid succession early in the process. The narrator’s name, Celeste, speaks to the celestial metaphor I mentioned above, while her friend, Cassandra, is partly named for the prophet in Greek mythology (and partly just because I’ve always liked the sound of Cassandra). I also named Celeste’s brother, Miles, who’s a central figure in the novel, quickly—on the spot, in fact, when I first dreamed up this book while embarking on a writing exercise at a conference.

Since Body of Stars is set in a world where predicting the future is possible, naming at least one character after a prophet seemed like an easy choice at the time. As the years passed and I became more deeply entrenched in the novel, however, I felt less of a need to have the characters’ names highlight the themes so literally—but by then, Celeste was Celeste and Cassandra was Cassandra, so I didn’t consider making any changes.

How surprised would your teenage reader self be by your new novel?

This question takes me back to my shy, awkward, hopeful teenage self, the girl who wrote stories alone in her room and dreamed of one day writing novels. In many ways, I don’t think that past self would be surprised by this novel at all. Its themes of women’s autonomy, the magic of considering the future, and sibling relationships are all elements that would ring true to me then.

I do think my younger self would be surprised by the layers in this novel, the artwork, the book-within-a-book element of the fictional guidebook Mapping the Future, and the sheer amount of work and imagination it took to bring it to life. Surely my past self would be surprised that it took years beyond what I anticipated to publish my first novel. Ultimately, I think I’d just be proud of myself for never, ever giving up even in an endeavor that is as difficult and unpredictable as writing and publishing a novel.

Do you find it harder to write beginnings or endings? Which do you change more?

It’s always hardest to begin, isn’t it? The blank page can be a terrifying beast, especially when you bring to it all your hopes, fears, expectations, and dreams. By the time I approach the end, I usually have a better sense of the world of the story and can find my way through—with the understanding that I will certainly need to revise, of course.

Some minor edits aside, the first few paragraphs and the last few paragraphs of Body of Stars remained largely unchanged from the first draft to the published version. I like to say that it was just the entire rest of the manuscript that needed to be revised time and time again!

Do you see much of yourself in your characters? Do they have any connection to your personality, or are they a world apart?

I share many qualities with Celeste: her way of observing the world, her insecurities, her anger, her sense of justice, and her slow realization that she has a lot to learn about how the world works and her place in it, to name a few. But in the end, she’s not me. Celeste is of a different world, one where the magic of predicting the future is possible. Even though this fictional world is a mirror of our own, Celeste endures tragedies that I haven’t, and she has to grapple with problems as expansive as the whole of the future. Regardless, she’s meant a lot to me over the years, and I hope I can say I’ve grown and changed with her throughout the writing and revision process.

What non-literary inspirations have influenced your writing?

So much. Everything, really. Long, solitary walks. The frustration of never knowing how the future will turn out. Any time I’ve felt intrigued by a psychic, palm reader, or medium, even though I don’t believe in such things. When I was a child, the films The Last Unicorn, The Mosquito Coast, and The Shining. The landscape of my hometown. A mountaintop observatory. The anxiety of moving to a new place and not knowing anyone. The friends I’ve been closest to at various stages of my life, and the friends I’ve lost along the way. Planetariums. Art museums, natural history museums, medical museums, and witchcraft museums.

Lastly, something I only thought of this very moment as I typed this up: the night I was fifteen, when I camped out under the stars for the first time. I stared at the sky for ages and it was the most glorious sight I had ever absorbed. Everything was vast, and I felt so small, and meanwhile the stars were way out there, ancient and massive and unreachable.
Visit Laura Maylene Walter's website.

--Marshal Zeringue