A Writer’s Insight: Molly Gott

Molly Gott’s story, “Napa Valley Inn and Spa”, appears in the autumn 2023 issue of The Southern Review. Here she discusses how the story evolved to its current state and how tragedy makes the bitterest of friends.

Emilie Rodriguez, Editorial Assistant: I was fascinated by how you pit Elissa’s many selves against each other; who she was with Maya, with Sam, before death and after death. How did this help you explore the tension between Maya and Sam and the Elissa they each thought they knew?

Molly Gott: One of the first parts of the story that I wrote was the paragraph about Maya and Sam doing the receiving line at Elissa’s funeral together. That paragraph helped me begin to understand their relationship and I came back to it while drafting the story. I had the image of the two of them uncomfortably side-by-side in a church in mind—they’re left behind together. The person through whom they related is gone and now they have to figure out who they are to one another without her. But her presence is still felt because why else would they be together? That dynamic felt interesting to me and so the story became a way for me to play it out.

ER: Wealth and class and privilege simmer amidst Maya and Sam’s stay in the Inn; what compelled you to write the story with this background?

MG: The setting was the first thing I figured out about this story. The Inn is partially based on a hotel I stayed at with some friends right before the pandemic. In real life, we all got sick and spent three days throwing up in the most beautiful hotel room I have ever seen. But we had gone to the salt room before that and it stuck in my head. When I initially started writing this story, it was about two couples at the hotel and I think I was writing towards this image of the four of them stuck inside their cottage, looking out at this beautiful winery, but then I became more interested in the relationship between one of the women and her best friend’s husband. To get them alone together in the story, I got rid of both of their wives.

ER: Maya and Sam have a unique tension with each other, where they don’t always like each other, but they do need each other to survive Elissa’s death. How did you balance the antagonizing line that they keep crossing back and forth?

MG: I really struggled with this when revising the story, so I’m glad that you felt it was balanced (and agonizing)! At one point I was literally trying to make a chart of all the different micro-emotional moments between the two of them but trying to apply some fixed logic to their relationship didn’t work and just annoyed me. So I ended up writing a lot more history about each of them that I eventually cut from the story. Once I did that, I felt like I better understood how they would act with one another and I was less tortured about making a perfectly cohesive portrayal of their relationship. They could act in paradoxical/illogical/conflicting ways with one another! We do it all the time!

ER: There’s something so tender about doing your friend’s makeup, and as Maya does Sam’s, there’s an interesting inversion of that feeling. Why choose applying makeup for this scene?

MG: At some point while writing I came to an image of Maya standing over Sam in a kind of threatening way. I wanted her to be towering over him while his eyes were closed and then worked backwards to figure out what activity could get her into that position with him. Part of what interested me about their relationship is that they have known each other for a long time and know a lot about one another but Maya doesn’t necessarily think of Sam as her friend. I was drawn to the idea of them doing something that they had done together when they were younger to try to capture/re-capture their connection but it not really working or feeling more fraught than they remembered, in part because Elissa isn’t there to complete their dynamic.

ER: What inspired the giveaway ritual?

MG: My thesis advisor read an earlier draft of this story that didn’t have that scene. They gave me some feedback that the setting was compelling but could be put to even more use in the story. I think they actually directly suggested that Sam and Maya do some kind of hotel activity together. That idea was exciting to me, so then I googled “grief rituals” and picked the one that seemed the most interesting to me! I like the idea that the giveaway scene has some resonance with the last scene in the water ritual room—the giveaway gets truncated by Maya walking out, but in that last scene they go through with the water ritual and work through something they couldn’t quite work out earlier in front of an audience.

ER: Maya makes a big concession at the end of the story when she tells Sam that Elissa “could be mean sometimes.” What pushes her to admit this?

MG: Concession is a great word for that moment. Maya is offering up a criticism of Elissa as a way to feel connected to or closer to Sam. I think it does feel partially true to her that Elissa could be mean sometimes, but she is also using that admission strategically. She is coming to the understanding that Elissa is gone, Sam is who she is left with, and so she has to figure out how to relate to him. But she is still relating to him through Elissa. She just can’t quite figure out if it’s possible for them to have a dynamic independent of her.

ER: Elissa inserted herself a lot into Maya’s life: she acted as an art agent, made her shed into an art studio for Maya. Does Maya resent this economic power imbalance, or does she ignore it?

MG: I think Maya is resentful and also a little baffled by (what feels to her like) Elissa and Sam’s more legible success. It feels so inaccessible to her, but she has witnessed it closely. I wrote the first draft of this story a couple of years ago, at a time when I very much felt I didn’t have enough of a lot of things, and I think that feeling leaked into this story in a way that I feel a little horrified by now! When I was writing it, I didn’t think of Maya as resentful, but I see her that way now.

ER: Do you think Maya and Sam will continue to be in each other’s lives after this?

MG: When I first wrote this story, I imagined they absolutely would continue to be in each other’s lives after this, but now I am not so sure. They’ve had a temporary coming together, but I don’t know if it can be sustained.

ER: What projects do you have coming up?

MG: I’m working on the first draft of a novel that is about a relationship between a thirty-year-old woman and a seventy-year-old woman (and hopefully some other things! We shall see!).

Molly Gott is a writer living in Ann Arbor, Michigan. She is a graduate of the MFA program at the University of Michigan, where she won the Frederick Busch Prize in Fiction. “Napa Valley Inn and Spa” was her first publication.

Emilie Rodriguez is a Latinx writer, originally from San Diego. She is the editorial assistant for The Southern Review, an MFA candidate in Fiction at Louisiana State University, and the former editor-in-chief of the New Delta Review. Her work has been supported by the Sundress Academy of the Arts Residency. Rodriguez won the 2023 Patty Friedman Writing Competition in the short story category. Her work is forthcoming in the Peauxdunque Review.

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