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Courtenay Stallings On Laura’s Ghost: Women Speak About Twin Peaks

Laura’s Ghost: Women Speak about Twin Peaks was a dream project for author, Courtenay Stallings. The book deals with how influential the character, Laura Palmer, has been for both the women behind her creation and female members of the artistic fan community of Twin Peaks. Courtenay is not only a true fan from the original run of the series, but she is also Managing Editor/Writer (along with Scott Ryan and John Thorne) of The Blue Rose Magazine.

Joyce Picker: In your introduction, you call your book a ghost story. The title clearly references that concept, but will you elaborate on why you use that as your thesis?

Courtenay Stallings: Sure! So, the idea of Laura’s Ghost came to me in 2016 when I was developing this book. I wanted to write about what women think about Twin Peaks and what women think about Laura Palmer. The image and idea of Laura’s ghost emerged because Laura is dead so she is a literal ghost and she seems to haunt us. She seems to be a haunting presence in the series, even in Season 3. Also she haunts us, the viewers, too. So I wanted to look at the book through that metaphor of a ghost story and the ways she haunts us in good ways and the terrible ways and the ways we confront her abuse.

JP: So the idea began percolating in your head about 2016. Did this book take any inspiration from the Me Too movement?

CS: I actually came up with this book before the Me Too movement so there was something happening in the zeitgeist in 2016. Maybe it was because of the presidential election that was coming up. This is before the Weinstein story broke. I knew I really wanted to highlight women’s voices and that was very important to me because women are not always heard. They’re not always heard in the world and nationally, and even in the Twin Peaks community.

JP: Were you already planning this book when you were producing the Woman of Lynch issue of The Blue Rose Magazine? Did that change your process or help you form the shape of Laura’s Ghost?

CS: Yeah, we did the Women of Lynch issue in 2018. So, I had come up with the idea for Laura’s Ghost in 2016 and had started on a couple of interviews, but had not really worked on it that much. I had put it aside a little bit. And when we did the Women of Lynch issue, it did make me realize how important it is to get women to speak and have a voice about everything, of course, but especially about Twin Peaks. I loved working with the women writers, I loved hearing the diverse opinions about Twin Peaks that they had. I love that The Blue Rose Magazine and Scott, in particular, was willing to give a platform and venue for women to share what they thought about the characters and share a little bit about themselves.

Courtenay Stallings- Author
Courtenay Stallings

JP: You explain in the book that you were influenced by one of your favorite authors, Roxane Gay. Can you tell us how she not only influenced you, but came to advise you on Laura’s Ghost?

CS: Yes! So, Roxane Gay is my absolute favorite writer and she has crossed genres. She has done nonfiction, she’s done fiction, she’s done just about everything. She wrote a book called Bad Feminist that came out in 2014 and that was the book that made me really love her as a writer and as a voice. The book talked about how you can still be a feminist and call for equal rights, but you don’t have to be perfect. There’s this idea that feminists had to be perfect in all ways and we can’t wear lipstick or high heels or like The Bachelor. We can do those things, but we can also fight for equality for all people. That’s the book that made me really adore her as a writer and respect her and made me want to read all of her work. She wrote a book called Hunger. It was about her experience with her body. She’s a larger woman and she has talked about her issues with her weight and her issues with body image. This was all grounded in an experience that happened to her when she was a child. She was brutally gang raped in the woods and it changed her life forever. She wrote about that experience and her body so it was a very personal, honest look at herself, the way she decided to pad herself and defend herself with food and her weight. It was incredibly honest and powerful. The exploration of her attack was so difficult to read but it was necessary to understand who she was. She led some workshops for writers on trauma right before Laura’s Ghost was published. I took one the workshops because I was working for something on my book and I wanted to kind of feel her out about writing about trauma. She would read a piece of your writing and give you some great feedback about it. It was really, really helpful for me to solidify what I wanted to do and didn’t want to do in this book.

JP: Sheryl Lee (actress, Laura Palmer) not only contributed poetry and the Foreword of your book, but you also interview her extensively. How did you approach her about your idea and how did you inspire her to contribute so much?

CS: I approached her in 2016 with the idea and she liked the idea of giving women voices, One of the things I wanted to do was explore—of course not every women was going to have a story—but I wanted to explore women who have been survivors of sexual abuse and assault and what their stories are in connection to Laura Palmer. That really resonated with her because she has been to so many Twin Peaks conventions and many people see her as Laura Palmer. She’s heard many of these stories, many from women, some from men, too, about being a survivor. She knows what people have gone through. She was really, really on board from the very beginning about giving a platform in terms of a book for people to share their stories. Her support meant the world to me. She gave me that support from the very beginning and was willing to sit down and talk to me on several occasions and also share her poetry, too. It meant a lot to have her voice in that book.

JP: I can completely see that. Sheryl watched Twin Peaks: Fire Walk WIth Me for the first time in about thirty years to answer your questions with a fresh perception and honesty. She thanked you for what you’re doing with this book and people have thanked her for decades for her portrayal of Laura. Does it feel like your path with the character has come full circle by inspiring the women who inspired you?

CS: I don’t know about full circle. That’s a big compliment, but I don’t know if I feel like it’s become full circle. I see my role in this as a facilitator of giving a platform for women to discuss these things. One of the things I did want to do is to give Sheryl space, of course, to talk about Laura Palmer. You know she’s very gracious and very open to being seen as Laura Palmer at conventions, but I know it has to have taken a toll on her. I was really grateful that she talked about how grateful she was for this experience that really put her on the map, but also it was a difficult role to play and it’s difficult to live and be seen as that character over and over again, especially when she’s done so much other work. I’m grateful for her sharing that honesty and complexity, but I don’t see it coming full circle that way. That’s giving me a lot more credit than I deserve.

JP: Well I say you deserve more credit than you’re accepting. You also interviewed Grace Zabriskie (actress, Sarah Palmer), Jennifer Lynch (author The Secret Diary of Laura Palmer), and Sabrina S. Sutherland (producer, Twin Peaks) for your book. How did you get them involved with Laura’s Ghost?

CS: When I first came up with the idea of women speak about Twin Peaks, I thought, okay, I definitely want to get women from the fan community, and once I got Sheryl Lee onboard, I thought, let’s get as many women from the show as possible. Then it started getting really overwhelming because of the idea, well who am I going to interview? Am I going to interview cast, crew? I really just wanted to interview so many women from the show. Eventually, I had to narrow it down and focus the book or else it would’ve been thousands of pages and really unapproachable at that point. So I decided to interview the women around the character, Laura Palmer. For me, that was, of course, Sheryl Lee, and then Grace Zabriskie who plays Sarah Palmer, her mother. And of course, Jennifer Lynch who wrote The Secret Diary of Laura Palmer. I wanted to interview Sabrina Sutherland, too, because she has been with the show since the original series. Even though, I wasn’t interviewing all of the cast and crew, she is, in some ways, the voice of David Lynch for the fan community. She spent so much time with Sheryl Lee and David Lynch, and Mark Frost, too. I wanted to have her voice in there, too, as a sort of interior person in the show, Twin Peaks, but also an observational aspect from the production side. I think there’s very few female producers who are doing the kind of work she’s doing and so I found that very empowering and interesting.

Sarah, Laura, and Leland Palmer
The Palmers are not what they seem. Sarah (Grace Zabriskie), Laura (Sheryl Lee), Leland (Ray Wise)

JP: Grace contributed a short essay on how she felt about playing Sarah Palmer and a mother’s guilt. Then when you interview her, things take a fantastic dramatic turn when you challenge each other in a contretemps. How did this come about?

CS: That’s maybe one of my favorite things in the book because of the way it evolved. After I interviewed Grace Zabriskie, I spent a long time at her house and then we chatted a bit about art and other things. She said, “Would you like it if I wrote an essay about Sarah Palmer?” And I said, “Yeah, of course! I’m not gonna turn that down. I’d be grateful.” So she said, “Let me come up with something. I want it to fit into the thesis of your book, so let me write something where I’m exploring the character.” And she likes to do a lot of her work using her voice so she called me and said, “Can I read this piece to you? It’s better if I can read it out loud.” So she read it out loud and I thought it was incredibly powerful and there was a lot of nuance. She really wanted to get into the mindset of where is Sarah Palmer, not based on Mark Frost books or David Lynch, just based on her own mind. After she was done, she was asking me, “What are you looking for for the book? Do you think this fits in with your thesis or do you want me to go in a different direction, explore this character in different ways?” She was kind of open to how she wanted to explore the character based on what I was writing. And that’s when this conversation happened and this was all being recorded. We were talking after we had this discussion and we both said to each other, “I think this discussion should be included with what I wrote.” She’s writing about Sarah Palmer and her character and then we have a discussion about Sarah Palmer’s complicity, her guilt and her daughter being abused. I felt the conversation was really interesting because it’s one of those things where how much is she guilty and who’s to blame in this sort of situation? I thought it was a really powerful conversation and it went in some interesting ways, interesting directions.

JP: Yes, it did. It was really unexpected and a really cool way to read about it. When you were talking to Jennifer Lynch about The Secret Diary of Laura Palmer, she explains that she believes that Laura created BOB’s face while she was being attacked because the pain of it being her father was too much to handle. In the television show, it seems that BOB is an inhabitant from another plane of existence, yet in the book and Fire Walk With Me it seems more like Leland was completely the one to blame. Even Sheryl goes back and forth on this. Do you think that BOB was real and has your own interpretation changed over the years as we got more of an expanded story with Twin Peaks: The Return?

CS: Yeah, I think this is a great question and it’s one that Twin Peaks fans have debated for years and years and years. I don’t think there’s a clear-cut answer. I think, I believe in good and evil and I know that not everybody believes in a sort of binary dynamic. I think we do have bits of it both in us, but I think that there’s certain people who invite evil in or open themselves up to it and the possibility of it. I think that’s what happened with Leland. In some ways he was innocent as a child, but invited evil in and allowed it to stay and to fester. And that was BOB. Laura knew that evil was knocking on her door and was trying to come inside her, and she fought it off and eventually sacrificed her life so that evil would not come in and use her that way. So, that’s how I see it. I think it’s interesting to look at BOB as a metaphor and it’s more frightening to think that this all Leland, but in reality, the person who’s the perpetrator is the one doing the perpetrating. There’s evil, but there’s not necessarily BOB out there. I think that BOB is almost a safer way of looking at evil in the terms of sexual abuse in this way. I think it’s very shocking in Fire Walk With Me when we see BOB’s face turn into Leland’s face because you’re confronted with the reality that this is her father and this is the action he’s doing. I think that’s the moment that for me is one of the most powerful and frightening and terrifying moments in Fire Walk With Me- when we see that realization.

JP:  I agree. That scene has completely haunted me and I’m sure just about every fan of Twin Peaks forever. And Sheryl, I’m sure, too.

CS: Yeah.

JP: You interview 26 women in the fan community about their backgrounds and their relationship to Twin Peaks. All of these women are creative souls: visual artists, writers, performers, and so on. What was your criteria on choosing which members of the fan community to interview?

CS: This was so difficult because I really had to cut myself off from interviewing people because there’s so many incredible women in the fan community and I could’ve kept on going. When I started thinking about this book. I thought I want to interview women who are members of the fan community, some of them are prominent members who are also creative in some way. So the first person I interviewed was Mya McBriar who runs the Twin Peaks Fanatic blog. Mya has a big voice in the community and she was one of the few women that had their own platforms with using her own voice. And then from there I went looking for people who were doing things creative, whether it was burlesque dancers or creating art or writing about the show and the film…they’re just people who have sort of a prominent name in the community but also were doing things creative around the community.

JP: What is it about Twin Peaks that inspires so many people to create their art from it?

CS: Well I think Twin Peaks is art, and I mean art in the sense that it’s not formulaic, it doesn’t give you all the answers, it allows some room for you to dream and for you interpret things in the way that you see the world so that everyone brings their own background and ideas and mindset. That’s why we all see it differently. We may all love things or read things similarly, but we all have our own take on what Twin Peaks means to us. Because it’s art, itself, it allows that room for interpretation to dream. It encourage people to make art. Visually, it’s stunning, but the storytelling is incredible, too. I think it just inspires people to want to create.

JP: Some of the fan interviews deal directly with personal trauma. You, yourself, are very honest in this book about your own history, How did you make this book a safe space for survivors?

CS: That’s a great question. So, I knew I was going to be writing about trauma in this book because of Laura Palmer’s story, but I also didn’t want to go to these women and say, “Have you been abused? Have you experienced trauma?” I didn’t want to put them on the spot and feel like they were compelled to share. I let them share what they wanted to share. I never pushed it, I never asked unless I knew that they had spoken about it before or written about it before, I didn’t bring it up unless they had mentioned it previously. It was amazing and interesting how many women were forthcoming without me prodding or pushing it about their stories. I knew some stories would emerge. I figured they would, but I had no idea what and with whom and in what way. I was just blown away by people’s honesty and power telling these stories. Also, I don’t blame at all any women who maybe have experienced these things but did not feel comfortable sharing. If you want to share your story, that has to be on your time and the way you want to do it and it doesn’t have to be for my book or for anybody else.

JP: Thank you for that and for the people who shared. Do you feel that the character, Laura Palmer, has become a guardian angel like she, herself, sees in the end of Fire Walk With Me for those in the Twin Peaks community with a history of trauma?

CS: I mean, absolutely, I think she has. In some ways you see it, kind of, in Season 3 with her image in the gold ball. She’s become this icon, an image for people to look to. She was this incredibly powerful and complex woman who was abused and no matter how much good she did and how wonderful, complex, and beautiful she was, the abuse took a toll on her. But, she didn’t let BOB inside her. She sacrificed her life so that he would not possess her and use her to do more damage to other people. I think that’s a powerful image of self-sacrifice that people have looked to and looked to her strength in that.

JP: These interviews were revelations to me and as a part of the fan community, myself, as well as one of the women honored to be included in your book, I learned so much about these beautiful, creative souls. Now, do you think there is an explanation within those interviews about how we have evolved a spiritual connection to both Laura’s story and each other?

CS: Yeah, I mean Twin Peaks is a spiritual story. I mention this in the introduction. I think the process of me writing this book was certainly spiritually transformative for me. I can’t speak for every woman I interview in the book, but I think there is something spiritual about these women coming together and telling their stories that’s really powerful and transformative. I have felt it. I know other women I have interviewed have felt it. I don’t know if all of them have felt it. I think there’s something spiritually transformative that’s happening in this book with these women talking.

JP: That was a great answer. Thank you. Each of us were asked our own takes on Laura Palmer and what the character means to us. Why do you think she resonates with so many people?

CS: I think it’s because she’s a complex person and we can relate to that. She’ll be one way with Bobby Briggs, she’ll be another way with James Hurley, she’ll be another way with Donna, or her parents. I think a lot of us can relate to maybe going through things in life where you have to be different people to different people and putting on a smile the whole time while you’re really hurting inside. Even if you haven’t gone through abuse, you can relate to that, and I think that’s why she resonates with women. She resonates with a lot of people, including men, And you know she’s a good person. She’s done a lot of good in her community, She was tutoring and doing Meals on Wheels, but she was also in pain. There’s an experimentation that could happen in sexuality and drugs when you’re young, but there is also masking and trying to cover up the pain through that acting out, too. I think a lot of people can relate to that.

Courtenay Stallings- Author
The good Courtenay is in the lodge

JP: You asked those that you interviewed, not only the fans, but also Sheryl Lee, Jennifer Lynch, and Sabrina S. Sutherland, how it is to be a woman in their respective fields that are often dominated by men. Do you think there was a consensus among all of them?

CS: I don’t know if there’s a consensus. Being a woman, and depending on a different time, too, particularly in the entertainment industry is and has been a very difficult thing, particularly when you’re a performer because you’re judged on your looks, you’re harassed, you’re hit on, you’re encouraged to do things to your body to change it to look more beautiful, whatever this idyllic idea of beauty is. You’re not taken as seriously as men. I think these are some of the things that came up again and again, too. You’re seen differently. Jennifer Lynch says she’s always referred to as a ‘female’ director and not just a director and she’s like, “You know I’m a director.” That’ll be when we get to equality. It’s about equal pay and equal rights, but also the language that we use to describe people. Jennifer Lynch is just a director. She’s not just a female director, she’s a director.

JP: You included a beautiful essay by writer/film critic, Willow Catelyn Maclay. Her life’s story and connection to Laura Palmer is quite profound. How did you come into contact with her?

CS: I’ve known Willow three or four years through social media. She’s an incredible writer. She’s also really funny, too. If you follow her on Twitter, she’s hilarious. She shared with me in 2017 a version of Northern Star. She tweaked it a little bit for the book with me. I was blown away by her writing and her very personal experience. I had already decided to write Laura’s Ghost but I was thinking this is who I’m writing it for. Also, Willow is the kind of person who needs to share her story. She is Laura Palmer. She experienced what Laura Palmer did and I think, more than anything, she’s a story of hope. She got away from the abuse. She got away from her family. She created a new life for herself. She’s thriving as a writer and a film critic. Not that she doesn’t struggle, she certainly does, but I think her story is a real story of hope. It was really important for me to not only include her essay, but to talk to her about her connection to Laura Palmer, her process, and explore the creativity of her as a woman in the world.

JP: Unfortunately, as we all know, some stories end in tragedy. Amie Harwick was a fan of Twin Peaks. Her death made national headlines when her ex-boyfriend killed her earlier this year. Samantha Weisberg wrote a heartbreaking essay about the life and death of her friend that you included in Laura’s Ghost. Can you tell me about how Amie’s story is a part of the legacy of Laura Palmer?

CS: Amie was killed on Valentine’s Day, 2020. When I found out she was killed, I was finishing up my first full draft of the book. I was working on editing it and trying to finalize some things. Her death hit me hard. I didn’t know her personally but she had gone to the U.S. Twin Peaks Fest. A lot of the people in the Twin Peaks community knew her and interacted with her. Samantha Weisberg, who I knew from the Twin Peaks community, was one of her best friends. Her death was so tragic. She was this beautiful, intelligent, articulate woman with a voice and a platform. She was struck down way too soon in a terribly violent way. So, I’m finishing this draft of Laura’s Ghost and thinking about healing and hope, and then I see her story. I’m like, when is this gonna end? When is it going to be over? Her family and friends have really advocated, on behalf of her, for domestic violence and stalking victims. There’s a hashtag you can follow called #JusticeForAmie where they’re trying to change the laws because she had taken every action to get restraining orders and prevent from being stalked and being pursued in that way. And still this violence happens. Women are often not believed when they speak out or they’re not supported by their friends, by their family, by law enforcement, so sometimes domestic violence ends in death. Her story really, really spoke to me so even thought I finished the draft of the book and I couldn’t really add anything else, I felt really compelled to include Amie’s story in there. So I reached out to Samantha Weisberg and I said feel free if you don’t want to do anything with this book because you’re mourning and this is your friend. She wanted to contribute so she wrote this incredible essay about her friend and what her friend meant to her and the shared love of Twin Peaks and, of course, the way she found out her friend had died. I hope when people read the book, even though it doesn’t end on this happy, hopeful note necessarily, I hope that they understand that this is not just a one time thing. Women face violence every single day and they’re not protected and they’re not believed. It was very important for me to share not only the sexual assault and the sexual abuse, but also the domestic violence because it’s all violence, no matter how you characterize it. It’s all violence.

JP: In the Jennifer Lynch interview earlier in the book, you give your reason for discussing your own abuse. You explained that writing about it could be healing. She was proud of you for sharing your experience and presenting the topic. I love it when she said, “It’s a nice superhero cape you have on.” I think she is right. In discussing your story of survival and encouraging other women to share theirs, I believe that Laura’s Ghost could help in healing a lot of readers. But, in my opinion, it’s not only about that. I feel that this is a provocative, necessary, and entertaining book for all Twin Peaks fans to read.

Laura’s Ghost is available at Fayetteville Mafia Press and wherever fine books are sold. Portions of the proceeds go to RAINN.

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Written by Joyce Picker

Joyce Picker is a film, television, and classic rock fanatic. She has worked as a film critic, a late night talk show columnist, a comedy writer, and an occasional contributor to The Blue Rose Magazine. She also worked in five different independent video stores and takes pride that most of her film knowledge is self taught. Her two favorite TV shows of all time, "Twin Peaks" and "SCTV", profoundly changed her life in very positive ways.

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