Peyote Trip is an office drone on the Fifth Floor of Hell, which resembles a particularly soul-crushing corporation. But a promotion is within Peyote’s grasp, and all he has to do is snag a fifth soul from the wealthy Harrison family. Peyote sets out with Calamity, his potential new workplace bestie, to snare his final Harrison and escape the doldrums of the Fifth Floor, but complications both logistic and ethical soon arise. We talked to author Claudia Lux about finding humanity in an infernal bureaucracy.
Have you ever worked in a corporate environment? If so, are there any specific memories that inspired the idiosyncrasies of Hell’s office spaces? What were some of your other inspirations for Hell-as-bureaucracy?
I’ve worked in the social work version of a corporate environment, which is like a normal corporate environment with less money and loftier aspirations. But the initial scene in the Fifth Floor’s kitchen before the morning meeting was based largely on the kitchen in that office, in which the coffee machine never worked and people hoarded plastic silverware like we were preparing (poorly) for the apocalypse.
The first kernel of the idea started when I was streaming TV shows on a work trip and the same insurance commercial started for the millionth time. Without thinking, I yelled, “THIS IS HELL.” Of course, it was not. It was a nice hotel room. But I started noticing it more: How quick we are to compare our momentary discomfort to eternal damnation; how low the colloquial bar has gone for suffering. I began asking people for their most recent “Hell” moments, and, unsurprisingly, a lot of them took place at work. The conversations were so fun and unifying, and soon I had a world to explore and a character to explore it.
Sign Here is told from several different perspectives. How did you decide how much time each character would spend narrating the story? Did any of them take over the plot more than you initially expected?
I wish that I had an answer to this that made me sound like a put-together writing mastermind, but honestly, I didn’t really decide, I wrote it as it came, switching perspectives when it felt like the previous section was complete. Besides the broad strokes, I was in the dark about what would happen until I got there. That being said, the character who took over the plot more than I could’ve possibly anticipated was Calamity.
One night, after a long bout of writing, I got this kind of cheeky, mischievous feeling, like right before you challenge someone to eat a pepper you know is super hot, and I typed: “Calamity Gannon, human name redacted, got her taste for blood the first time one of her brothers beat another to death in front of her.” Before that moment, I didn’t have any plans to go into Cal’s background. And I certainly had no idea how I would explain that sentence the next day. But I found myself really excited to get back to it, to rise to the challenge. Now Cal and her background are some of my favorite content.
Your characters have such realistic (and realistically uncomfortable) tendencies and thoughts. Were any of them based on real people?
Thank you! Realistically uncomfortable is my whole jam. As far as the characters being based on real people, the answer is both yes and no. Yes, in the sense that I mine my daily life for character traits. For example, Silas Harrison’s childhood bedroom in New Hampshire is verbatim my high school friend’s bedroom, down to the Playboy poster and the hidden pot. (Sorry, Mom!) But that’s all. The rest of Silas, and everyone else—as scary as it is to admit—is just me and my wacky, disturbingly curious imagination.
What excites you about digging into a character’s psyche?
Part of my work as a therapist, my profession before transitioning to writing full time, was designing and facilitating group therapy programs. At first, I was super intimidated by the concept. One-on-one therapy was already intense; why add in nine more people? But I wound up completely won over by its therapeutic power: the realization that we’re not alone in our thoughts or feelings, especially the darkest ones; that there is nothing we’ve experienced that no one else could understand, even if no one else lived it exactly. If a writer makes a character real enough, reading can provide the same realization. So that’s what excites me the most about developing a character’s psyche—the catalyst for empathy. The possibility that someone who didn’t yet know that feeling seen was possible might feel seen by a character I write.
What’s your favorite way to work? Do you have any drafting or editing rituals?
Up until recently, I have always worked full time while writing, whether as a social worker or in the gig economy, cobbling five wages into something livable. So out of necessity, I developed the ritual of only writing at night, which has continued even though it’s no longer required. I write for long chunks, five hours at least at a time, and I love the stolen quiet of the night. I also have a specific candle from Paddywax Candles that I used the whole time I was writing/editing Sign Here. Not cheap, but whether placebo or genuine sensory memory tool, it really helped get me in the zone. I need a new one for the next book (it’s a one-scent-per-book kind of deal), so I’m currently on the hunt for that, if anyone has any suggestions!
I also love setting up a specific writing space wherever I live, and I always include a framed copy of “Berryman” by W.S. Merwin on my desk. It is a brilliant take on the writing process that never fails to give me goosebumps and makes me feel so insanely lucky that I get to do this.
What is your favorite piece of media (book, movie, TV show, anything) from the last year, and why?
Oh man, what a big question! Off the top of my head:
I just finished Before Everything by Victoria Redel, and it completely rocked my world. I studied with Victoria at Sarah Lawrence when I was in college, and I have always been in awe of her and her work, but Before Everything had me full on ugly-crying in the middle seat of a transatlantic flight and also cackle-laughing like a maniac. (The people next to me were thrilled!) She writes about grief and friendship with equal parts humor and raw sadness, and that makes every single character feel so real that I keep finding myself missing them. She’s got that writing-as-empathy-catalyst thing down pat.
I’ve also been totally captivated by “Reservation Dogs” on FX. The writing and the acting are incredible, and it’s one of those rare shows that provides both escape and nourishment. It’s hilarious and completely captivating, and at the same time, watching it makes me feel like I am being fed only the best ingredients. Like its quality is improving my own.
Finally, anything Phoebe Robinson does blows me away. I just read her third book of essays, Please Don’t Sit on My Bed in Your Outside Clothes, and I am devouring her new show, “Everything’s Trash.” She’s my Bono.
If you could pick one author from the past or present to have tea with, who would it be?
Honestly, my dad, Thomas Lux. I would give anything to have tea (well, not tea. Coffee? Screwdrivers?) with him again.
What was the biggest thing you learned from this experience? What’s next for you?
I’m just so amazed and grateful; I still can’t quite believe it. I first started writing novels in 2014. Sign Here is my third but the first to get picked up. So it’s been a long process, and I’ve definitely learned a lot. Most profoundly, I’ve learned to listen to myself. Not to the trolls who live in my head and tell me how terrible I am but to the me underneath their noise. The consistent beacon in the chaos, that steady blink. My whole life, no matter where I took my career or how much I loved social work, which was a lot, that beacon was there, telling me to write. But it terrified and intimidated and exhausted the hell out of me. Following it would require complete faith, against all odds, with little to no external validation, likely ever. So I tried to ignore it. I set the trolls loose to berate and mock and admonish it. Until eventually, I started to follow it. Nearly a decade later, I am grateful every single day that I did. Not only because of the publication, which is an absolute dream come true, but because now that I know I can hold the faith through the hard parts, listening to myself—in any area of my life—doesn’t scare me anymore. Now, it excites me.
I am currently working on my second book with Berkley, which will be out in a couple of years. It’s not a sequel, but it will have the same combination of humor, sincerity, darkness and nutty thought experiment!
Photo of Claudia Lux © Sarah Moore.