So19 talks with SCOTT WILBANKS

Imagine an antique door that does something much more powerful than keep the rain out. A magician with a handle—literally—on the secrets of time and space. A San Francisco yard that opens onto a Kansas wheat field. A correspondence between two women living one century apart. A probe into a murder that hasn’t exactly happened—or has it? A book that is at once mystery, historical novel, fantasy, science fiction, and love story. If you imagine all this, you’ll begin to imagine something like Scott WilbanksThe Lemoncholy Life of Annie Aster. But only if you also imagine a quintet of characters, each at once memorable and marginalized, who begin to find the most magical thing of all: others who connect with their most authentic and, previously, under-appreciated selves. Whimsical, inventive, and unique, the novel offers all the fun of an intellectual puzzle, but also the rewards of a tale that touches the heart. Born and raised in the U.S. but now living in New Zealand, Scott Wilbanks is a former U.S. gymnastics champion; The Lemoncholy Life of Annie Aster, which appeared this month from Sourcebooks, is his first novel but clearly not his last (more on that below). For more on Scott and the book, visit his website or find him on Facebook and Twitter, where you can also glimpse his visual art (done, appropriately enough, with Magic Markers). Society Nineteen is delighted to cover its first time-travel story and to talk with Scott Wilbanks about creativity, connection, chance, characters…and century 19. —SF

So19: The novel is so rich with elements: time and time travel, magic, friendship, family, and healing to name just a few. Did it have a single “seed” or point of inspiration? How and when in your process did its core elements arise? How did your original conceptions of the book change as you drafted and revise?

SW: Prepare yourself for the worst, Suzanne, but Lemoncholy was actually inspired by a botched first date.

We were having coffee, and I thought everything was going swimmingly; that is, until my date said, “I think we’re destined to be great friends.” The conversation took a cataclysmic decline at that point, and I drove home with my tail tucked between my legs. It was during that drive that I decided outcomes are only inevitable if you accept them as such, and immediately conjured up Annie, a contemporary San Franciscan obsessed with Victorian clothes, and Elsbeth, a cantankerous Victorian schoolmarm with an arsenal of curse words to make a sailor blush and a take-no-prisoners attitude. (There’s no accounting for my hyperactive imagination.) When I got home, I had Annie write a letter to El, asking for advice regarding her love-struck friend—me—and fired it off to my failed date’s email address.The next day, I received a call… from him… at work. Apparently, my email had done the rounds at his office and was a bit of a hit.

“Annie needs to write more,” he said.

“Sadly, she can’t,” I responded.

“Why not?”

“El has to write back,” I answered, as if nothing could be more obvious.

That snippy little retort got me an email in return (from Elsbeth), and a second date. And a third, which led to a regular correspondence in which I acted as the director, and which, ultimately, cemented the personalities of my two leading ladies.

So, the epistolary roots of the novel were there from the onset, as well as the antique door Annie installs at the back of her house, not knowing that it is a time-travel conduit. The murder of the stage magician who created the door entered the picture on the second draft, and I was off and running.

So19: I loved the word “lemoncholy”—it’s so whimsical and of course so apt for this story. Perhaps you could tell readers a bit about when you thought of it or how it connects to the novel’s themes.

SW: It was all a bit of a happy accident, really. Sourcebooks (my publisher) wasn’t too keen on my original working title—Abbott's Door—and sent me on something of a fishing expedition. Every title I came up with was politely nixed, however, and I found myself resorting to Google out of desperation, doing searches using random word combinations for lack of a better method.

Since a good portion of my novel takes place in turn-of-the-century Kansas, I knew I wanted the title to evoke that vibe, and included the term Victorian in each search. That’s when I stumbled across the word lemoncholy in an online compendium of Victorian slang. The word was too delicious to pass up. I knew I had to incorporate it in the title in some way.

According to the dictionary, it was simply a synonym for melancholy, but I decided to co-opt it by combining the definition of melancholy with the phrase “if life gives you lemons…” to, ultimately, be defined as the habitual state in which one makes the best of a bad situation. Because that’s Annie to the core. She’s… indefatigable.

The unfortunate thing was that it didn’t roll off the tongue when combined with her original name—Anastasia Biddleton—so she got a bit of a makeover in that department, and voilĂ ! The Lemoncholy Life of Annie Aster was born.

So19: The novel juxtaposes characters living exactly a century apart, in 1895 and 1995. Was there a reason that you settled on those particular years—something they allowed you to do fictionally, for example, that some other dates might not?

SW: Well, I wanted Annie to be a modern woman who possessed a Victorian vibe, while flipping the script to make Elsbeth a turn-of-the-century woman with a contemporary sensibility, and I liked the elegance of a hundred-year divide that separates them. The only way to squeeze the Victorian period into the manuscript, however, was to push back the “contemporary” time line two decades to 1995.

So19: The 19th-century part of the narrative focuses on Kansas. What made you choose that particular setting for this aspect of the story? Did L. Frank Baum’s iconic use of that state in the Wizard of Oz books play any part in your thinking, even if a minor one? Or did you have some other reason to use that state in particular up your sleeve?

SW: To be honest, I landed Annie’s house on Elsbeth’s back forty simply because I couldn’t pass up on the Wizard of Oz reference. It was a gag that simultaneously tickled my funny bone and inclination to be ironic.

So19: As the novel begins, each of the major characters exists in some state of emotional isolation; through the magic of time and space, chance and choice, they find others who authentically “see” and appreciate them. Another way of stating that, perhaps, is that they find not just their blood families but also soul “tribes.” Was dealing with those themes your conscious intent from the start of the writing process, or something that arose as you wrote?

SW: Oh, yeah, I definitely had an agenda when I wrote the book. I wanted to focus a lens on society’s marginalization of misfits. We can be pretty unforgiving of those who fall outside the bell curve, so to speak, and I wanted anyone reading Lemoncholy to experience the breadth of it. Each of my protagonists is an outlier who seeks a little enlightenment and understanding in a world that is more comfortable pretending her or she doesn’t really exist. The message isn’t overtly political, or preachy. Its purpose is simply to make the reader conscious of how ready and willing we are to ostracize people who make us uncomfortable, either because they are sick (Annie), old (Elsbeth), gay (Christian), a drug addict (Edmond), or homeless (Cap’n).

So19: The character of Cap’n and the way she operates in the world are so rich, at once fun and very poignant. Anything you want to share about where this aspect of the book came from or why you used it?

SW: Oh, wow, you are getting right to the heart of it. And to do so, I have to preface my response.

I wrote a book about the marginalization of misfits, because, as a gay man growing up in Texas, that’s an experience I understand all too well. I was gay bashed for the first time when I was twelve—in the parking lot of a Taco bell, of all places. Let me repeat. I… was… twelve. It was a pivotal moment for me that was, unfortunately, repeated many times over, and I went from being a happy, outgoing kid, to a withdrawn, fearful, and socially maladapted young man.

Cap’n is my antidote, one I created to be a cathartic response to the bullying I endured. She embodies the fearlessness I lacked, and would never shrink from bullies, giving as good as she’d get—but never with the violence I encountered. More than that, she understands what it’s like to be marginalized, and takes it upon herself to look after other misfits, despite all the obstacles life throws in her way.

So19: Were there any parts of the story that were particularly tricky or challenging to write? Any that came faster or more easily than you’d expected?

SW: Well, I can’t say that anything came easily, but breathing life into Christian was a particular challenge, and for a simple reason. He’s me. I’m him. I had to raise some long-buried demons while rubbing myself raw to get that young man onto the page.

So19: Can you talk a bit about what you’re working on now? A novel, we hope, perhaps with more of the magic realism you used in this book?

SW: My current work-in-progress is titled Easy Pickens. It tells the story of a young man burdened with the world’s only documented case of chronic, incurable naivetĂ©—the result of a curious subtype of ADD and a lightning strike at the age of four. When it becomes painfully clear early on in life that he’s a sucker for any con artist that crosses his path, Easy compensates by becoming a shut-in and a night owl who only ventures out of his house at 3:00 a.m. when the rest of the world is asleep and safely out of reach.

He rides around the city of San Francisco on his tandem bicycle with banana seats and a wicker basket resting between the front handlebars that contains a bag of Cheetos, a diet soda, an individually wrapped slice of bologna and an urn containing his mother’s ashes.

The reason he rides a tandem bicycle? His mother’s ghost joins him on his nightly rides, regaling him with stories of his childhood.

How Vincent would paint Elsbeth's cabin in the wheat field
if he had magic markers
by Scott Wilbanks;