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Interview: Lindsay Merbaum

Lindsay Merbaum's story "A Name" appears in our December 2009 issue. She studied her MFA at Brooklyn College, where she was a recipient of the Himan Brown Award. Her work has appeared in Best of the Web 2009, Our Stories, and Sojourn, among others. Currently, she lives in Quito, Ecuador and is at work on a collection of stories.

1. Can you talk about the inspiration for "A Name"? What was on your mind while you were writing this story?

Inspiration for me happens in two ways: either I have an idea which I then let ferment for a while before trying to write it out, or a line comes to me that I write down and then follow, as more take shape and lead me somewhere. This story came from the latter. The plum woman was inspired by a friend of mine, a strikingly beautiful woman who often attracts the interest of unworthy men.

2. This piece is remarkably spare. We don’t know who these people are, how they know each other, what they’ve done to make themselves this way. Yet they do come across as rounded, real people in the sense that I can feel the way those details could exist around them—it’s obviously very meditated, the way information is kept from or dealt to the reader. I wonder how much you had to know about these people before writing them, or how much was based on some kind of instinct about them?

It was very instinctual. The image of the narrator that came to me was whole, in a sense. I saw her house, what she did there. Yet I don’t know exactly where she lives or when. I don’t know how she met the plum woman, though it didn’t seem to matter. The voice the piece came out in sounded very different from most of my narrators. It clearly belonged to this character and it was choosy. It’s as if the narrator made a choice about how much she wanted to be known about herself. I wrote the entire piece in one sitting and then changed very little after that.

2a. I also can’t help asking—did you have a name in mind while writing?

I did, but I won’t say what it is. That might spoil a reader’s idea. Or offend someone with that name!

3. So much of this story is about damageable things—egg shells, plum flesh, human flesh, the sense of self. The narrator holds herself above these delicate issues, including love: “men are not for loving. Men are for other things, the way a shovel is for digging and a lamp for light to see yourself by.” But this woman’s lamp is obviously casting a shadow on some essential information, and I’m not sure whether this makes me feel sad for her or not. Could you talk a little bit about this—the way a narrator who seems to hide things from herself should color the rest of these character judgments?

The narrator has created a certain image of herself as infallible and the reader can see cracks there. Certainly, you can’t rely on her version of the plum woman, her portrayal of her weakness. Therefore, she may be hiding information from us as well about her friend and especially the man with the name. She tells us what is convenient for us to know. That he implies that he loves her, for example, but not that she’s filled with loneliness or longing while waiting for him. She portrays her lover and her friend as both needing something from her while she seems to believe that she requires nothing from them.

4. You live in Quito, Ecuador, teaching English. This intrigues me, especially in regard to a piece like this that has so much to do with identity and how others regard us based on certain descriptors. Do you think the bilingual environment affected your ideas about the way we present ourselves to our worlds or—perhaps more pointedly for this story—worlds we collide with unexpectedly?

Naturally living in another culture for a long period of time—more than three years in my case—has an effect on your perspective, even in ways that may be imperceptible to you. Yet I do not think the phrase “bilingual environment” accurately describes my experience. Though I am bilingual, the languages I speak are clearly divided by place and circumstance. For the environment itself to be bilingual, I think there would have to be a mixing there, a fluid back-and-forth.

5. What other writing projects are you currently working on?

I’ve put together a collection of stories, which I will continue adding to or subtracting from. I have a couple stories in the works as well that take place in Ecuador, involving neighborhood witches, erupting volcanoes and such. It’s taken me years to feel somewhat comfortable with using this country as a setting.

6. What great books have you read recently? Are there any upcoming releases you're excited about?

I think one of the most interesting and surprising books I’ve read recently is The Wind Up-Bird Chronicles by Haruki Murakami. I just picked up Lorrie Moore’s latest novel, A Gate at the Stairs, which has been well-received, though I’m such a Moore fan that I’d read it even if the critics said it was mediocre.

[Interview by Liana Imam]

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