Debut author Lindsay Merbaum released The Gold Persimmon, her queer feminist horror novel, just in time for Halloween. Paul Goat Allen wrote that the book is “a nightmarish vision quest through alternate New York City hotels that ultimately leads both characters and readers to enlightenment,” and it landed on a list in Harper’s Bazaar as one of The 20 Best Halloween Reads to Mark the Start of Spooky Season. Other work of hers has been featured in Gingerbread House, Anomalous Press, PANK, Day One, Electric Literature, Bustle, and more. And when she’s not writing, she’s been supporting authors by mixing up cocktails and mocktails to pair with their books. In fact, she just recently shared this news: “I’ve begun accepting commissions from publishers, book clubs, and book subscriptions. So I’m putting it out there into the literary multiverse that I’m officially a freelance mixologist for hire!” How cool is that? Amid a book launch, and everything else on her full plate, Lindsay recently moved, so I’m grateful she found the time to thoughtfully answer some questions.
Christina: The Gold Persimmon is described as “feminist horror” and “experimental.” What do those terms mean to you? Did you set out to write a book to fill those terms, or did the story arise organically?
Lindsay: A lot of readers are a bit confused by the term “feminist horror.” Fans of books like Beloved, The Handmaid’s Tale, or Her Bodies and Other Parties may not realize they’re already reading feminist horror, it’s just that no one’s applied that term. It’s not a label on the shelf at your local bookstore, though it should be!
At its core, feminist horror is an exploration of feminist stories through the tropes of horror. This was something that arose organically in my work, a process I’ve started to write about in my non-fiction, such as this essay, “How to Become a Feminist Horror Writer,” published in Survivor Lit. The experience of being female bodied lends itself to all kinds of terrors that are all too “real.” Yet I had no idea I was writing feminist horror until other people took a look at my book and identified it as such. Once that happened, something clicked. It gave me a new framework with which to talk about my writing.
At the same time, the structure of my book is what makes it “experimental”: there are two distinct narratives whose realities do not unite in a traditional way. Again, I didn’t think this structure was all that strange until I began to observe readers’ experience with the story and the way it defied—or subverted—their expectations. The unease the experimental nature of the structure may induce in some readers contributes to the overall “horror” of the novel, in my opinion.
Christina: Helen Phillips wrote of the book: “Once you check into The Gold Persimmon, I guarantee you’ll want to stay till the end.” What inspired the setting and The Gold Persimmon (the hotel) in particular? Did you ever second guess yourself for centralizing a story around a hotel?
Lindsay: Many years ago, this idea popped into my head: a hotel to cry in. I love the way hotels share and guard secrets. They’re liminal spaces, in between worlds, and that fascinates me. But I questioned my commitment to this idea many times. Starting with a setting rather than a specific character left me adrift for a while. Who was in the hotel and how could I get them to interact if they were all isolated? I wrote individual narratives for various guests that never made it into the book. I contemplated a fire or natural disaster bringing them all together, but I didn’t want to pull them out of the hotel, or force an interaction just at the very end.
Clytemnestra, the Check-In girl and gatekeeper at The Gold Persimmon hotel, was the key to unlocking the story, which felt like a puzzle to me for many years. Ultimately, there is a fire and an inexplicable climatological event surrounding a second hotel, but these things might not happen the way you expect them to.
Christina: The book has so many layers, but one of the themes that resonated most with me was that of grief. Grief can be so profound and paralyzing, and humans work through grief in very different ways. What are some tips that you might have to offer someone who might be experiencing grief?
Lindsay: I recently read this gorgeous, thoughtful, and moving memoir called Flesh and Blood by N. West Moss. She writes: “I get that mourning isn’t something you move through, that it’s more like something you come back to over and over and over again. It’s recursive, and I’m old enough now to suspect that no one ever really gets over anything. Each person’s grief is an ocean wide, forced into a thimble.”
That passage resonates with me. Our culture fixates on “getting over” and “moving past” things, but we carry our grief with us. We touch it now and then, like a stone in our pocket. We’re never without its weight. The structure of The Gold Persimmon is designed to reveal how a writer’s experience of trauma and grief is reconstituted into fiction. This is why the “real” narrative within the novel is also the most far-fetched: nothing is more absurdly horrifying than the truth.
Christina: Another theme that drew me in was connection. How do you view connection? Is it easy or difficult for you? How do you connect with others and what is it that calls to you? What do you hope your readers come away with regarding connection after reading The Gold Persimmon?
Lindsay: As my debut, The Gold Persimmon is the vestibule of my imagination. I’m inviting a host of new readers to (hopefully) open the door, come in, and look around, get a feel for what I am capable of, what it’s like to inhabit the worlds I create. It’s an incredibly vulnerable thing to do—publishing anything is an act of vulnerability. I will not be there to explain myself or provide a narrative for the reader’s experience. So I look forward to questions. I read reviews with interest and curiosity.
Ultimately, I wrote this book because it was the kind of story I wanted to see in the world and would’ve appreciated as a young queer person. I’m interested in connecting with any and all readers. If the book is interesting to them, or thought-provoking in any way, then I have accomplished something, even if they didn’t like it per se. But my most fervent hope is that readers in the LBGTQIA community will get excited about whose story this is and how the novel “queers” the narrative.
Christina: You describe yourself on your website as the “high priestess of home mixology,” and to help promote your book, you offered up a “compendium of cocktails based on the moods and themes of the book, each with a corresponding mocktail.” Since then, you’ve offered your services to other authors and have created cocktails or mocktails to go with requested books. What does that process entail?
Lindsay: The process of turning a book into a drink is a lot like writing in that it involves research, inspiration, and intuition. When a writer asks me to do a booktail, or I offer to make one, I spend a lot of time just reading their book carefully. I’m looking for important symbols, color schemes, and references I can use to build a flavor palate. For example, when I made a booktail for Helen Phillips’ novel The Need, a speculative novel about mothering and fractured identities, I decided the drink should resemble mother’s milk. Not many flavors are mentioned in the novel, but apples crop up throughout. Apples are a staple of childhood, so I combined milky, sweet RumChata with fresh green apple juice. And gin, because mothers need gin.
As I read, I take copious, nonsensical notes, which gradually turn into ingredient lists. By the time I’m 100 pages in, I usually have a rough draft of the cocktail recipe, and an idea of how to present it. The way I photograph the drinks is meant to tell a story about my experience with the book—what I think it’s about, what seemed important about it to me. I create a composition, rife with references, based on what I have available. Despite my vast collection of booze and glassware, I do have limited resources and tools. Improvising with coffee grounds, sugar, food coloring, marzipan, leaves and boughs from the yard, etc. is a fun challenge.
Christina: Piggybacking on the previous question, do you have a favorite drink? Favorite ingredients to use when crafting a cocktail or mocktail?
Lindsay: Choosing a favorite drink is like choosing a favorite book for me: impossible. Categorically, I can say that of the classic cocktails, I am fond of Manhattans, Sazeracs, and Old Fashioneds. I have many favorites among my own creations but it depends on the season, and my mood. I just created a cocktail inspired by Baklava and I’ll probably be craving that one for a while.
There are some ingredients, however, that I have to stop myself from overusing, like hibiscus. This edible flower dries into a tea, which is tart and bright red. Add sugar to make a syrup and all kinds of options open up. Hibiscus pairs well with pomegranate juice, which I’m a huge fan of for its tartness and bitter finish, not to mention its mythological significance. Bourbon, pomegranate juice, a little hibiscus syrup, and ginger shrub is a fantastic mix. It’s even better when you add chocolate bitters, another item I find deliciously versatile. Ditto coffee bitters. Classic bitters are aromatic but there are all kinds of other flavors that can complement an existing flavor in a drink, or add another element altogether. Fennel bitters are fun for that reason.
Other favorites: Strawberry vodka is delicious and wonderful with lemon, elderflower, or saffron, basil, and mint. Amaretto is known for those sticky sweet amaretto sours. I prefer to use it to complement whiskey and rum, or as an orgeat substitute in various tiki drinks. If you’re curious about my recipes, the best way to find them is in my newsletter, The Cauldron. Bubble bubble.
Christina: What is your writing kryptonite?
Lindsay: All the things that are not actually writing, which is to say most of what I spend my life doing. But posting cocktails and mocktails to Instagram is so fun!
Thanks to Lindsay for agreeing to this interview! If you know of an author who’d like to be featured in an interview (or you are an author who would like to be featured), feel free to leave a comment or email me via my contact page.