Emily Schultz’s Blondes spawn fear
Emily Schultz fulfilled her blond ambition in 2005. A natural brunette who frequently experimented with lengths and colours, the author was celebrating her 31st birthday and decided to go for gold on a whim. “People who knew me very well suddenly seemed like they didn’t know me,” she says of the surprising results. “But at the same time, it was really eye-catching, and I got a lot of attention from people when I didn’t always want it.”
Beauty and its elicited reactions are concepts informing The Blondes, Schultz’s dystopian satire about a menacing disease afflicting fair-haired women and the draconian regulations implemented to contain it. Reached by the Straight at her publisher’s Toronto office, she graciously discusses the convoluted issue of allure and how she executed this high-wire act of brainy entertainment.
The author of several acclaimed books, including 2002’s Danuta Gleed Literary Award–nominated Black Coffee Night and 2009’s Trillium Book Award–nominated Heaven Is Small, Schultz writes with a nod to pop culture, possessing a talent for unexpected images and extended metaphors. “I really wanted to do an action book for women,” she says, mentioning the influences of David Cronenberg’s zombie film Rabid and Don DeLillo’s novel White Noise.
Compelled to explore womanhood after portraying small towns, romantic foibles, and dissatisfied men in her earlier volumes, Schultz employed a first-person female voice in these pages to impart the authority necessary to “carry us through the fantastical element that we might otherwise stop and question”.
Hazel Hayes, a Canadian graduate student in New York, is researching aesthetology, “the study of looking”, which provides a critical lens for her canny narration of the unfolding events. Learning she’s pregnant on the same day that a mysterious illness begins turning blonds berserk, the redheaded expatriate soon leaves for Toronto, where the married professor who fathered the unborn child resides.
Siphonaptera Human Virus, the “Blonde Fury”, affects real and bottle blonds alike, and towheaded women around the world become harbingers of terror. This camp conceit disguises notions about female perception and oppression dancing beneath the story’s surface wit. “We usually think of beauty as being an appealing thing,” Schultz says, “and I liked the idea of thinking of beauty as the opposite—something that was repulsive and frightening, terrifying and violent.” Tresses, she remarks, can seem initially symbolic, yet they’re eventually rendered meaningless, and “as the book goes by, we find that all women are being affected by the same issues.”
Crossing the border back into Canada, Hazel suffers the extreme steps taken to control the outbreak, and finally arrives at her lover’s cabin in the Ontario woods, where she encounters his wife, Grace. Here, the viper’s waltz between mistress and mate supplies the work’s principal relationship, a touchstone amid The Blondes’ prismatic examinations of appearance and isolation, maternal anxiety, sisterhood, and subjugation.
“We are not like men; men shake hands with hate between them all the time and have public arguments that are an obvious jostling for power and position,” Hazel observes. “They are clearly in a competition for dominance, if not over money then over mating. They know this, each and every one. But women are civilized animals. We have something to prove too, but we’ll swirl our anger with straws in the bottom of our drinks, and suck it up, leaving behind a lipstick stain.”
Much of the original draft was completed in the Mojave Desert, where Schultz stayed in a remote cabin. Over the next three years, she polished subsequent versions in Toronto and New York, an approach yielding a new narrative energy. “I wrote it straight through, and had the whole plot and all of that done within a very concentrated amount of time,” the Brooklyn-based author says of a period lasting some six months. “I think that’s why it reads differently. It was a different writing style for me. Instead of working at it piecemeal, it was bulk.”
Composing fiction presents intellectual obstacles, and Schultz admits that reading literature is difficult while pursuing her creative endeavours. Among the writers she favours are those “who are challenging and unafraid and asking questions. Or making the reader ask questions in some way, but not unemotional”—words that could well describe the author herself.
The Blondes is an ambitious novel that considers the female psyche and depicts a world where a once-desirable trait is now the root of an epidemic. “I don’t want to write something instructive or preachy in any way. I prefer to raise questions for the reader and to let the reader bring to the book, or take out of the book, what they will,” Schultz says. “And I think that’s one of the reasons why I’m more comfortable in satire. With that said, even though there are serious issues in the book, I also wanted it to be a lot of fun to read.”
Emily Schultz appears at this year’s Vancouver Writers Fest as part of three events: Humour With a Bite, at Performance Works on October 19; Beyond Survival, at the Granville Island Stage on October 20; and Due South, at the Improv Centre on October 20. See writersfest.bc.ca/ for details.