In her second novel, All the Beautiful Girls, Elizabeth J. Church wanted to explore women's bodies, "how in our culture they've been abused, reviled, dishonored, glorified, objectified … all of those things," she told Spine. "The best vehicle I could think of was a Vegas showgirl."
Church's heroine Lily Decker — intelligent, orphaned, talented, beautiful, lonely, ambitious — travels from the Midwest to Las Vegas in the 1960s. As Lily transforms into showgirl Ruby Wilde, Vegas teaches her that her body is a tool, a visual and profitable signifier of forbidden desire. As Ruby learns, she earns more money than she'd ever dreamed of during her bleak childhood.
Early in the creative process, Church found herself writing Ruby as the embodiment of what Vegas wanted her to be. "I started out to make her a little shallower, to make her more about her superficial appearance." But Church ultimately wanted Ruby not only to represent the commodification of women's bodies, but also to actively seek to understand and ultimately subvert them. Also, she just didn't like early Ruby.
"I couldn't stomach living with a character for that long who didn't have more curiosity about life and death, and someone who couldn't look outside her own beauty."
As Church's view of Ruby shifted, so too did her view of Las Vegas. To situate herself, and Ruby, Church dove headfirst into Vegas history, lore, facts, figures, mythologies. "I have notebooks full of research with little dividers. I have big index cards, and I did one for each casino because I had to try and keep track of which casinos were there then. I had to make a map." And the dance routines! And the costumes! "I could have spent decades swimming around in that stuff," Church said.
She eventually stopped swimming, and realized her concept of Vegas had changed. Originally, Sin City seemed a flashy playground, a contrast to Lily's unhappy and colorless childhood and a glitzy backdrop to Ruby's transformation. But after her research, Church came to view Vegas as a place actively seeking to avoid reality; dedicated to apolitical, blame-free hedonism during the turbulent, nation-changing, world-altering events of the 1960s. "Look what else was going on in the world, and here was Vegas loping along and ignoring everything."
Many writers will discuss the joys and pitfalls of diving headfirst down research holes, but Church's background made her particularly well suited to gathering and winnowing; to identifying the best materials for creating her final version of Las Vegas. Before publishing her first novel, The Atomic Weight of Love, at 60, Church spent years writing for a radiology journal. "That was a huge amount of research, and that helped me in terms of how you gather research," she said.
Also helpful: her pre-novel, pre-radiology journal career as a lawyer. "I had to gather facts for cases. I had to make them fit the evidence I had, and the argument I wanted to make. That really helps me write. I have a sense of how to build a case."
Like a good lawyer, Church holds tight to her case — her story drafts — until she's mastered the key points. "I sit on this little mountaintop in New Mexico by myself writing, and I don't show it to anyone else." The first person to read any version of All the Beautiful Girls was Church's agent, Emma Sweeney.
Sweeney, who Church described as a "phenomenal editor on top of being an agent," helped Church flesh out Ruby's arc with a troublesome love interest. They took the book to Ballantine, where Church's editor Andra Miller encouraged her to mellow — ever so slightly — Ruby's hard Aunt Tate, a shift that allowed Church to feel more sympathy for that character, which in turn led to new directions for Ruby. "It was softening Aunt Tate that gave me an epiphany that I might not have had otherwise."
Now that the book has arrived on shelves in America and, more recently, the UK, Church is doing publicity … on her own terms. She's joined ("been hauled kicking and screaming onto") Twitter and Facebook, and hired someone to handle her Goodreads account. And she's politely declined a book tour, and the chaos that often attends.
"I had the experience with my first book, I'd travel all day, check into the hotel, not have time to eat, run to the event, perform, perform, not sleep, get up the next day, and do the next thing. It seemed insufficient bang for the buck." Not this time. "My ego does not require a book tour," she said.
Instead, she'll attend a few select events in person, engage via social media (working hard to ignore the trolls), and enjoy the praise coming at her, like this excerpt from Kirkus Reviews: "A beautifully rendered tale of personal redemption filled with friendship, loss, extravagant furs, and feathery headdresses."
Church is grateful for the appreciation. "It's balm to hear good words about something that took a long time, and took a lot out of me."
Find Elizabeth J. Church on Twitter @ElizJChurch.
Spine Authors Editor Susanna Baird grew up inhaling paperbacks in Central Massachusetts, and now lives and works in Salem. Her writing has appeared in a variety of publications, including Boston Magazine, BANG!, Failbetter, and Publishers Weekly. She's the founder of the Salem Longform Writers' Group, and serves on the Salem Literary Festival committee. When not wrangling words, she spends time with her family, mostly trying to pry the cat's head out of the dog's mouth, and helps lead The Clothing Connection, a small Salem-based nonprofit dedicated to getting clothes to kids who need them. Online, you can find her at susannabaird.com and on Twitter @SusannaBaird.