Aspen Times Weekly Q&A: ‘The Misfortune of Marion Palm’ author Emily Culliton
304 pages, hardcover; $24.95
Knopf, August 2017
IN THE OPENING PAGES of Emily Culliton’s wickedly funny debut novel, “The Misfortune of Marion Palm,” the title character stuffs a backpack full of stolen cash and goes on the lam. What follows is a dark, cleverly written caper and screwball social satire from an exciting new voice out of Colorado.
Marion has quietly been embezzling funds from her private Brooklyn school where she works, spending it on home renovations and vacations. When an audit looms, she packs a bag and hits the road, leaving her poet husband and two daughters to pick up the pieces.
Culliton, a Brooklyn native and PhD candidate in Denver University’s creative writing department, wrote the novel during her three years of course work in Colorado, where she studied with Laird Hunt, Brian Kiteley and Selah Saterstrom. She’s since headed back to New York, where I recently reached her on the phone to chat about her novel. These are excerpts of our conversation.
ANDREW TRAVERS: How was writing the novel in Denver? Did you find a creative community and inspiration here?
EMILY CULLITON: Definitely. I wrote most of the book when I was in school and I found that sometimes the Denver community felt more welcoming than the Brooklyn community. It was a great place to write.
AT: Did “The Misfortune of Marion Palm” result directly from the program? Was it your thesis?
EC: I had been working on it for two years before I got there. But I hadn’t been working on it full time and it wasn’t something I felt strongly about until I arrived at DU and realized that I had to throw away most of what I had and start over again. So much of it was created talking to my professors and friends in the program. It was more of an outside project. My next book will be part of my dissertation.
AT: What can you tell me about that project?
EC: It’s still early days, but I’m looking at novellas.
AT: One of the things that’s so refreshing about the book is that Marion isn’t a textbook likable protagonist. She can be hard to root for and you don’t seem worried about readers identifying with her. What were the challenges or the fun of writing a character like that?
EC: Part of why she’s unlikable is that she does unlikable things. Focusing on the act was exciting for me as a writer, asking, “What would a person do if they weren’t concerned about likability or if they’d given up on that part of their lives?” It was fun.
AT: Style-wise, you chose to write the novel in the present tense. What about the story drew you there? Its not a perspective readers often see.
EC: I had been writing short stories and it took a while for me to wrap my head around a novel. Keeping it active and moving forward was something I struggled with in the beginning. I tried out the present tense voice with the third person, and when I started doing that — rotating between each character — it gave me the pacing that I wanted with the story, but it also allowed me to not set it in a particular time. It allowed me freedom and it kept me going.
AT: And the embezzlement plotline was inspired by an experience you had in high school?
EC: Not my high school. Actually I don’t even know what high school it was, but there had been a rumor at Brooklyn High School that a principal had embezzled $20,000 from his school and that he had used the money to furnish his apartment. What he had chosen to spend the money on was really interesting to me. It was vain but it was also kind of practical. But then, obviously, I was like, “Well, didn’t he know he would be caught?” And that was fascinating to me.
AT: So you hung on to that story and filed it away for a novel to write later in life?
EC: Embezzlement is one of those things that you start seeing everywhere once you’re interested. And then people started sending me a lot of articles about small-time embezzlements. My sister told me about a couple that embezzled from the pharmacy they worked at, to start their own pharmacy on the same block.
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