Around the time Fifty Shades of Grey became a worrisome phenomenon, a quieter novel, one without bondage porn or roots in Twilight fan fiction, was released by an author once described as “the fairy godmother of Austin writers.”
Six months later, Fifty Shades still dominates bestseller lists, while Amelia Gray’s THREATS has been removed without ceremony from the New Fiction shelf. Such is life for a writer of literary fiction: Pour three years of toil into a novel and watch it outsold 1,000 to 1 by a fad.
Still, Gray gets her shots in where she can. In a blurb for Amber Sparks’ forthcoming May We Shed These Human Bodies, Gray writes, “This book is amazing. Makes Fifty Shades of Grey look like Twilight fan fiction.”
If this sounds like sour grapes you haven’t spent much time with Gray, who is well known for owning a comedian’s sense of timing and misdirection. She doesn’t labor under naïve misconceptions about the proclivities of the reading public. “It was always clear to me that THREATS would never become a bestseller,” she told me.
Gray set more modest goals for the novel, and recently she hit one: In July, THREATS was nominated for the prestigious Dylan Thomas Prize, an award of £30,000 (nearly $47,000) given annually to a writer between the ages of 18 and 30. The winner will be announced in November.
Plenty of Austinites will be rooting for Gray, but if she wins they’ll have to celebrate without her—Gray now does her fairy godmothering in Los Angeles, where she moved in late 2011.
“My move to L.A. was less about Austin or L.A. and more about time,” she says. “I did seven years in Texas between San Marcos and Austin, I met some of the greatest people in the world, but there was a moment when I just felt in my body that I’d done my time.”
She left a mark on Austin’s literary landscape that might never wash away.
Originally from Tucson, Gray came to Central Texas to earn an MFA at Texas State University, then spent the next several years in Austin. Working by day as a marketing copywriter, in her free time she knocked out enough short stories to fill two collections: AM/PM in 2009 and 2010’s prize-winning Museum of the Weird.
She also founded the popular (and ongoing) storytelling series Five Things, a mix of oral, audio/visual and musical performance art that has since spawned several local imitations.
“The work [Gray] was doing and the string of shows that seemed to follow illuminated the shift in the story economy,” says Lesley Clayton, who took over Five Things when Gray left. Rather than the traditional focus on the publishing side of storytelling, “the local, live show has taken over that role,” Clayton says. “At least in Austin. I haven’t submitted a story to a lit journal in years, but I’m on stage somewhere at least once a month.”
Gray continues to take the stage herself, both in L.A. and on book tour for THREATS.
Written mostly in Austin, THREATS is an eerie, moody, atmospheric book about the mental unraveling that often accompanies grief. It’s also a mystery novel, but one in which the mystery goes almost entirely unsolved—no surprise to any reader familiar with Gray’s work. “I often have weird goals,” she says. “One of the first here was to write a compelling mystery that would make the reader feel satisfied, but where nothing is revealed.”
THREATS opens with a bleeding woman named Franny asking her paranoiac husband David to call the fire department; instead, David plants himself next to Franny on the stairs for three days as she bleeds out and (maybe) dies. “They leaned against each other and created a powerful odor,” Gray writes. “In that way, it was like growing old together.”
In the ensuing 70-plus rapid-fire chapters, David becomes the focus of a police and media investigation, and begins to find bizarre typewritten threats hidden around his house.
“I WILL LOCK YOU IN A ROOM MUCH LIKE YOUR OWN,” one threat reads, “UNTIL IT BEGINS TO FILL WITH WATER.”
As David’s fears mount, he has trouble distinguishing reality from fantasy. Meanwhile, Franny, or her doppelganger, is spotted around town. Is Franny really dead? Who is writing these threats? How much of David’s life is hallucination?
Gray goes out of her way not to answer these questions, but attendees of next month’s Texas Book Festival should get the chance to prod her for more details. This will be Gray’s second return to Austin since she moved; if all goes well, on her third visit she’ll be almost $47,000 richer.
Unless she spends the Dylan Thomas money as soon as it comes in. She’s already done so in her mind, and in characteristic Amelia Gray fashion. How? “I think the obvious answer here,” she says, “is the world’s biggest ice cream cake.”
Observer Fiction Editor David Duhr is co-founder of WriteByNight, a writing center in Austin.