Chelsea Laine Wells’s difficult and haunting The Breathing Dead appears in the April issue. She talks to us about writing unsettling stories, her uncontrollable urges, and canned pasta.
1. What uncontrollable urges do you have? How dangerous are they?
Most of my uncontrollable urges have to do with eating junk food like I’m involved in some kind of dare, which I am not. The eating urge is only dangerous in the sense of future cholesterol issues. I think my urges more come out as morbid obsessions with death and pain and lust and all the things that twist us out of shape and cause a loss of control, and that surfaces in my writing. Rape, necrophilia, sexual cannibalism, children murdering children, infanticide, Munchausen by proxy, suicide, addiction – these are all subjects of my stories, all of which are love stories about regular people gone off the rails. So: as a person I’m not dangerous, but the inside of my head is, and as a result my poor characters are constantly in danger.
2. “The Breathing Dead” is one of the most unsettling stories I’ve ever read in PANK, if not ever. How did you bring yourself into this dark place to write Richard? How much time did you need between edits to recover?
Thank you, first of all, for the high praise. My motivation in writing Richard was to create a character that was contemptible in his actions but pure in his motives. He loves Kyle dearly – in fact he takes great and constant care not to hurt or scare him. He sees this kidnapping as a rescue from his neglectful mother and a world that does not understand how special Kyle is. With all of my characters I try to capture what is warped or corrupt in them and present it in a way that is at least somewhat understandable – if not excusable – to the reader, and hopefully help the reader consider a motivation that is foreign to them. Specifically I find myself going back again and again to the ways that love – yearning for it, vying for it, aching from it – compels us to do destructive and hurtful things. That’s the motivation for Richard. I feel sorry for him, even as monstrous as his actions are, and I tried to do right by him. My major literary gods in this vein are A.M. Homes, Joyce Carol Oates, writers like this who are constantly, as I see it, turning up the soil and exposing the underbelly. That’s what I strive for. Kyle, incidentally, is quasi-real. When I was in high school my family went out to dinner and engaged our waiter, Kyle, in conversation and somehow extracted from him the information that when he was six years old he was pulled into a car but managed to escape at the last minute. I squirelled this away and eight years later wrote the story of what might have happened.
I don’t generally edit as I write – the story just kind of pours out all at once and I edit later. When I edit I always take on the whole story and it’s fully immersive, like going underwater or going to sleep. The last hard edit before I submitted it to PANK was eight solid hours of not coming up for air and I felt shocky for the whole night after that because the material is so intense. When I was done, I said to my soon-to-be husband, Jesus I feel so horrible for that little boy’s body, I’ve been doing things to it all day.
3. How would you kidnap someone?
I come across as totally harmless, and I am highly persuasive. I would convince someone to come with me of their own accord and by then it would be too late. As far as what happens next – well, that would depend on why I was kidnapping them. Different wants require different measures.
4. Which canned pasta is your favorite?
I’m caught between Spaghetti-Os and Ravioli. Mixing them together would be pretty great.
5. What is the creepiest thing you do today to your fiance? How does he react?
I think the creepiest thing I am currently doing to Nick is locking him into the traditional American mainstream by marrying him and starting a family. What’s creepier than that? He is amenable, or so he claims. I also pick stuff out of his ear when I see it in there, but I think that more falls under the category of gross. He is definitely not amenable to the ear-picking.
6. Why is it easier to give into darkness than fight it?
It’s easier to give in because that’s what we really want to do, and humans as a rule do exactly what they want, regardless of anything. Everyone has a dark, skewed dimension to them, and that’s what I try to access in my characters – the part of us that we don’t want to admit exists: it exists.