Susan Beckham Zurenda’s novel Bells for Eli, now available in paperback, is set in South Carolina in the 1960s and 1970s. It follows the story of Eli and his cousin, Delia, and the bond they forge after Eli ingests Red Devil Lye as a child and experiences a lifetime of disability after the accident. The novel was inspired by the story of Zurenda’s cousin Danny, who lived through a similar accident as a child. Zurenda describes it as a Southern novel, saying, “I’m very influenced by Southern writers, particularly women of the mid-twentieth century.” But her motivation was writing an imagining of what might have influenced a person who lived through an accident similar to Danny’s. She explores that theme in this interview.
How did the idea for Bells for Eli come about?
It’s actually inspired by a similar accident that happened to my first cousin, Danny, when he was two years old. He swallowed Red Devil Lye his father left in a Coca-Cola bottle to blow up balloons for his second birthday. It always seemed so far-fetched to me, because I thought only helium blew up balloons, but Red Devil Lye blows them up. He and his family were living in New Jersey and I was in South Carolina, so not only would I have been too young to remember, but also, I wasn’t living in the same state. What I’ve learned of Danny’s struggles as a child came to me secondhand. His sisters have told me that Danny was tormented as a child for his physical disfigurements.
What texts and traditions influenced you as you wrote?
I started out life as a music major. I think that was my mother’s great dream. I took a course in Southern literature as an elective the beginning of my sophomore year, and we studied four female writers: Flannery O’Connor, Katherine Anne Porter, Eudora Welty, and Carson McCullers. And it was really different. This was 1974, and it was all women writers, taught by a male professor, but it changed the trajectory. I knew that’s what I wanted to do, and I’m very influenced by those writers, and by a lot of Southern writers.
Now, the point of view in Bells for Eli, and this sounds absurdly pompous, but I don’t mean it to at all, but the point of view in Gatsby is first person, and Nick Carraway is not the main character. And Jay Gatsby is on the path he’s on. Nothing changes him, and I saw it that way for Eli from the start. He’s on the path he’s on. He’s maybe the most dramatic character, just like Gatsby’s the most dramatic character. I challenged myself, and I’m not trying to compare myself to that at all, but the point of view in The Great Gatsby is the one that I wanted for Bells for Eli. I wanted Eli’s life to affect Delia.
How did you choose which medical details to describe?
I’ve had people ask me why I didn’t give the book from Eli’s point of view, and the main reason is children who suffer the consequences of childhood trauma do everything they can not to go back there. They do what Eli does. They take risks, they escape; they do anything not to go back there. And so, it wouldn’t make any sense to try to tell it from Eli’s point of view, because he’s not going to think about both the physical torment and the emotional torment. In a lot of ways, it’s what Delia can be aware of when she observes Eli and when she looks at his reactions and sees what other children do to him.
As far as the immediate aftermath of the accident itself, I interviewed two gastroenterologists. One is about my age, so he wasn’t practicing in the sixties, but one is older than I, and he was practicing in the sixties. Even though I recall seeing my cousin Danny when he’d come for family visits, I recall the string through the nose and the trache, but I didn’t know anything about how it all worked. I never knew what the string through his nose was for until the gastroenterologists told me that was to pull the dilator up and down through his esophagus. I did know that Danny had to swallow a dilator when he got older. I wanted to get all those medical details exactly right. When I first sent the book to my agent, it was she who said, ‘Go interview not one, but two gastroenterologists.’
The plot is imagined. The relationship between those two cousins is imagined, but the situation is very real. I sent [the book] to Danny’s two sisters because I didn’t want to write something they thought would be false to his life. And Jeannie, one of Danny’s sisters, who works in behavioral psychology at Duke University, told me, “You know, you’ve created a classic case of childhood trauma.” She said, “My brother went off the rails because he wanted to escape everything from his childhood.”
I wanted to think about how an accident that happens to you when you’re very young can set the trajectory of life. Now, I’m not saying that happened, but that’s what I wanted to explore in the novel. I think children who have disabilities and who are treated badly because of that, that lives with them forever.
How did you avoid inspiration porn while writing this book?
He’s a pretty stoic kid. He’s also challenged by this dysfunctional father to be a man, in this dysfunctional father’s definition of what it means to be a man, and his father, because he’s indirectly responsible for the accident, carries a great deal of guilt and he wants to solve that guilt by proving to himself that Eli can be like anybody else. I concentrated on these people as human beings. I tried to let them live inside my head and be who they needed to be, and who they wanted to be, and who they could be.
I’ve had interviewers ask me why I decided to write about a taboo relationship, when the cousins have romantic feelings for each other. I said, “I didn’t decide to do that.” As crazy as that sounds, I did not. I set out to develop a kind of unconditional love, an unbreakable bond between two children. And that scene, when they stop in the car on the way home from the dance, when he’s trying to help her get over a destructive relationship with her boyfriend, Rad, and of course, he’s three sheets to the wind, but I had them parked in that car, and I was sitting at the computer, and the scene just kind of started writing itself. The next day, I read it, and I said, ‘Well, I guess that’s that.’ It was inevitable for them, and therefore, it became inevitable to me.
When I first started out, I knew the penultimate scene, and I knew how it would start, with the accident, and I tried making this outline, because I was a teacher for thirty-three years. We teachers, we like to have a plan. So, I made this outline thinking what I would do, and then after the third chapter, I never looked at it again. If I avoid [inspiration porn], it is because those characters really did come alive in my mind.
When Eli and Delia are children, what techniques did you use to accurately portray the way American parents explain differences to their children?
Even though I didn’t grow up with Danny, I certainly saw him on holidays. I remember one time when we were eight or ten years old, we were out in our backyard, and it was my brother and me and him and his sisters and a friend of mine who lived in the neighborhood. She kept asking him, “What’s wrong with you? What’s wrong with you? Why do you have that thing in your throat? Why is your throat running like your nose?” And finally, Danny just climbed up to the top of the sliding board and sat there.
And my friend wasn’t trying to harass him; she’d just never seen anything like that and she was trying to understand it. She was a little girl. She wasn’t trying to bully him, but the way he was perceiving it was that he was being singled out.
I thought about what it would have been like in the sixties. I grew up in a small town, and you didn’t go to counseling. There was a stigma associated with it. You kept a lot of things under the carpet. Children were shielded to a great degree, and yet, obviously, Delia can see Eli’s not normal. They had to tell her a certain amount, but they let her get old enough to figure it out. I was told a certain amount, but the rest of it, I just had to figure out as I aged into it, not only about disabilities, necessarily; about everything.
I have a seven-year-old granddaughter who was born with malformation overgrowth. Last year, some little boy on the playground wanted to know what’s wrong with her. It’s really brought it home to me. Thankfully, she’s a very aggressive child and she seems to have a good bit of self-confidence, so I kind of feel sorry for the little boy who asked her, because she’s liable to clobber him. I think about it a lot now, having written Eli’s story and watching her as she comes along.
This is a complicated love story in which, despite everything, the readers root for Eli and Delia. Why do you think that is?
I don’t know, but I think part of it is they fight it. They know it’s a taboo relationship and they know they’re having to resist their natural feelings. To go with what they feel, they understand that in the long run, it would be extremely difficult for them. They do give in to those feelings on some occasions, but they’re always aware it’s taboo.
And also, the fact that they develop this close bond when they’re children. They’re innocents. And we can’t blame them, because they’re innocent of feeling these romantic feelings, so that when they do become sexual beings, what are they supposed to do with that? They’ve been thrown together their whole lives. She’s taken care of him, and he’s taken care of her.
My husband asked me when he first read the book, ‘What are you going to say if somebody asks you if you were in love with your first cousin?’ I said, ‘Well, I’ll just tell the truth; that I was not, but hey, if it makes them buy books, fine with me.’
At one point, Delia says she both wants to know what Eli feels and yet doesn’t want to know. Do you think this thought process is common as we consider the disability experience?
I think when you’re a teenager, that’s a very selfish time. We’re pretty self-centered as children and teenagers. We haven’t yet developed. We haven’t lived enough life to really be fully empathetic, although some people are just naturally compassionate and sympathetic, and then they develop empathy, but I think she loved him so much that it would just make it hard for her if she knew everything, to endure that pain herself, that whatever he felt, she felt. She loves him, and because she’s been with him all her life, she has developed an empathy. If she knows too much about that pain, she’s going to hurt.
Why do you think fiction is a constructive way to talk about the themes you explore in this book?
We all know the cliché that fiction is truer than life. When you’re creating a fictional world, you can go deep into the subconscious in a way that I don’t think anybody can in real life. We don’t want to go into our deepest, darkest places, because it hurts. When you create it in fiction, you can do that. You can go wherever you want to go, because you’ve created a character and you get to go inside the depths of that character’s psyche in a way that I’m not sure we can do in real life.
There are many themes explored in Bells for Eli, from disability, to relationships, to abuse, to bullying, to race relations and the counterculture. How did you keep it from feeling crowded?
I think because I didn’t think about themes when I was writing. It was coming from the characters and what they were experiencing. I set it in the sixties and seventies, and that was my era, so I understand that period of time very well, and I grew up in a small town, and it just made sense. The counterculture’s encroaching, and Eli is a risk-taker, so why wouldn’t he embrace that? It’s hand-in-glove.
When I was writing it, I didn’t consciously know that I was touching on so many things. I put the characters in their time and place and I let them go. And those were the things that were happening in that time and place. One thing I was aware of as I was writing is that I was writing in a time and place that was still a very protected environment for children, but not if you were Eli. And yet, only up to a certain point can you keep a world like that insular.
Zurenda closed the interview by noting that “in the face of pain and cruelty, love still has the ability to overcome.” This is as true for her readers as it is her main characters.
Bells for Eli
By Susan Beckham Zurenda
Mercer University Press
Published March 2, 2020