This week’s installment of Ten Questions features Isle McElroy, whose new novel, People Collide, is out today from HarperVia. In this surreal tale, a man named Eli finds that his consciousness has somehow been transferred to the body of his wife, Elizabeth. The couple had been living in Bulgaria, where Elizabeth was sent to teach through an elite fellowship program administered by the U.S. government. Living as his wife awakens Eli to the fact that perhaps he did not know Elizabeth as well as he thought he did, and he comes to see both her—and himself—in a new light during this strange interlude: “I occupied a space where neither she nor I seemed to exist, free from the expectations of our personalities,” McElroy writes in Eli’s voice. But where is Elizabeth? When a credit card transaction in Paris alerts Eli to her possible whereabouts, he embarks on an international mission to find his wife, presumably living in his skin. Along the way he must prepare for a future in which this body-swap remains permanent and for the changes that will ensue in his marriage and other relationships. Publishers Weekly calls People Collide “engrossing.... It’s an impressive twist on the familiar trope of marital ennui.” Isle McElroy is a nonbinary author based in New York. Their first novel, The Atmospherians, was named an editor’s choice by the New York Times and a book of the year by Esquire, Electric Literature, Debutiful, and other outlets.
1. How long did it take you to write People Collide?
I had the idea for the book in 2015, but I didn’t begin writing it until late 2020. After all those years thinking about the novel, the draft came out fairly quickly, in only a couple of months. I don’t think I’ll ever write a novel draft as quickly as I wrote this one.
2. What was the most challenging thing about writing the book?
Keeping track of when to use male and female pronouns for Eli-as-Elizabeth, and when to intentionally blur those lines, was difficult on a technical level. In revision I had to make a lot of decisions and changes about how he referred to himself, but it was exciting to consider how his self-understanding changed throughout the book.
3. Where, when, and how often do you write?
I normally write at my desk in my apartment. I’ve been living here for about three years, and I wrote most of People Collide at my current desk, gazing out the same window. I prefer to start writing early in the morning, before the sun comes up, normally for only a few hours. Though I used to write every day, I’ve settled into a five-day schedule, to preserve the weekend mornings for sleep and time with loved ones.
4. What are you reading right now?
I’m finally reading Annie Ernaux! I’m in the middle of The Years and loving it.
5. Which author or authors have been influential for you, in your writing of this book in particular or as a writer in general?
For this book, Katie Kitamura’s A Separation was a huge influence. And I love everything that she’s published. Catherine Lacey has been a major figure for my work overall, as have writers like Helen DeWitt, Renee Gladman, and Donald Barthelme. Something about the joy and bounce of their sentences really appeals to me, on both an aesthetic and intellectual level, and I try to bring that to my prose.
6. What is one thing that surprised you during the writing of People Collide?
I was surprised by the process of physically writing the book. Though I wrote a lot of my first novel by hand, much of it was drafted on my laptop. But I wrote the entire first draft of People Collide across four composition notebooks, and I was able to discover a process for writing I hadn’t done before—writing on the right side of the notebook, leaving the left page blank for notes. I feel like I stumbled on a process I’ll use for a long time.
7. What is the earliest memory that you associate with the book?
I began the book at a cabin in Maine I had rented with two writer friends. One day we all split off to write, and I took a desk looking out at the woods. My current bedroom at home did not have a window, and for the first time in months I felt like I could write freely and toward something. I wrote the entire first chapter of People Collide in one sitting, often looking up into the woods. I attribute this book to that window!
8. If you could go back in time and talk to the earlier you, before you started People Collide, what would you say?
I wouldn’t tell them anything! I started writing this novel because I was supposed to be working on a memoir project I found impossible. I began People Collide to avoid writing that more difficult book. This took a ton of pressure off the writing process. I don’t want to even insinuate to my earlier you that they might stumble into a novel.
9. What forms of work, other than writing, did you have to do to complete this book?
I think that I needed to spend a lot of time on my bike. I love biking in Brooklyn, and though it doesn’t look anything like writing, biking has become a perfect way to both decompress and leave the house after a long day of writing. I don’t remember having many ideas on my bike, but it frequently served as a transition outside of the writing space to a more public space, off to see friends. It served as a kind of bridge between my social life and my writing life, insulating the latter.
10. What’s the best piece of writing advice you’ve ever received?
Celebrate the small victories! There is too much grief and disappointment in a writing career to overlook any single moment for joy. Grab drinks with friends when you publish a story. Buy yourself flowers to commemorate a great review. Text your partner the best sentence you wrote that day. Nothing is too small.