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"Aging, Death, and Daily Routine": An Interview with Meghan Lamb

Meghan Lamb lives with her husband in St. Louis. Her novella Sacramentowas recently released on Solar Luxuriance. Her book, Silk Flowers, is forthcoming in early 2016 from Birds of Lace. Her work can also be found in Necessary Fiction, Spork, wigleaf, and other places.

Her story, "Afraid of the Rain," appeared in Issue Seventy-Nine of The Collagist.

Here, Meghan Lamb talks with interviewer William Hoffacker about lists, diurnal routines, and writing toward absences.

What can you tell us about the origins of your story “Afraid of the Rain”? What sparked the initial idea and caused you to start writing the first draft?

The story began as a creative discussion between myself and my husband (who is not a writer, but a filmmaker and photographer, and incidentally, I think that makes him more aesthetically simpatico with me than most writers). It started as a conversation about aging, death, and daily ritual.

This conversation emerged from a particular elder couple we encountered. We bought a sofa from them—an impeccable mid-century sofa—and when we went into their house to pick up the sofa, we were both struck by the loveliness of their living environment. Everything in their house was 40, 50, 60 years old, but it looked almost new. So many layers of time, so much accumulation. Swept and dusted from the furniture, but I couldn’t help but feel they were absorbed by something else.

I thought, they must treat their lives very delicately—very deliberately—to maintain them in such a way. They told us they were selling their belongings to move into a nursing facility, and I think we both felt a bit odd about that, imagining this quiet, fastidious couple in a world of materials that didn’t belong to them.

That was how (and why) we started imagining this story of a couple who resisted the oddness of that decision with their suicide. From the beginning, I knew I wanted this underlying story—their motivation, their dread, their anxiety, their plan itself—to be absorbed into the fabric of their day-to-day rituals.

In the process of writing this story, I realized that I couldn’t write the narrative I wanted to write if I openly addressed the couples’ plan to commit suicide. The minute the suicide was mentioned, it completely took over the action, demanding an explanation, a discussion of their intentionality. I didn’t want this to be a story about that discussion; I wanted to generate the sensation that this couple had made up their minds (about something) and were therefore shutting off their environment to any voice, any conversation that might interfere with (or deter them from) that decision.

This story contains a few lists, as well as many brief paragraphs consisting of only one or two short sentences. How did you decide this concise, somewhat choppy style was right for this story? Did this choice come about through revision, or was it present from the outset?

While some degree of that concision can just be attributed to my general style, I was especially interested in lists (particularly crossed-off lists) for the particular kind of mundanity they represent. Their opacity. Their clean decisiveness. The sensation of building toward completion generated by crossing off each individual line.

As an anxious person who makes multiple lists each day—sometimes dozens when I’m on the precipice of a major event or decision that’s generating conflicted lines of thought—this felt like a vital process to gesture toward.

A list generates a strong, visible feeling of accumulation without the obligation of performing the source (let alone the outcome) of that accumulation. A list doesn’t argue or ask questions. It simply moves toward its objective, one line at a time.

A lot is left ambiguous throughout this story—e.g., just what is the main characters relationship to John, why does the husband not want the wife to speak to John, etc. Of what remains a mystery to the reader, how much do you need to know as the author in order to create the characters and narrative, and how much is unclear even to you?

This is the most satisfying phrasing I’ve seen for what is probably an incipient (but occasionally quite frustrating) question about the story’s construction.

I try to curate my imagination of a story around the absences I’m writing toward. I don’t want to know too much beyond what feels absolutely essential to a story’s telling, namely because I don’t want that telling to feel false or inhuman (i.e. too inhumanly lucid or epiphantic, too writerly). As I write this, though, I recognize that my distanced 3rd person perspective probably generates a kind of “writerly” expectation in some people. My hope is that this framing doesn’t register as a “writerly” pose so much as an implacable observance, like the nonjudgemental gaze of a camera.

I have a strong interpretation of who John is and what his significance is, but only as it directly pertains to the story. I don’t have a very developed perception of who he might be off the page (beyond the camera’s gaze). John is John. I don’t know what he does for a living. I don’t know what he’s up to, that day or the next or the previous. I don’t know what his favorite food is. I don’t know what he looks like.

Most of the action in this story is mundane, everyday stuff: grocery shopping, paying bills, a drive around the neighborhood, and so on. And yet, theres a tension behind all of it that holds the readers attention and give the story momentum and menace. How did you pull off this palpable suspense in a narrative steeped in normalcy?

At some point in my contemplation of this suicide as a narrative problem, my husband and I watched the Chantal Akerman film Jeanne Dielman, which (similarly to my story) explores the atmosphere of a woman’s diurnal routines, allowing a slow accumulation of tension to trickle through (via small moments such as Jeanne’s polite but firm refusal of a social invitation, the split second where she almost spills the milk for her coffee). The explosion of this tension doesn’t arrive until the very ending of the film, and while it registers as a bit of a shock, it also feels inevitable (at least to me). There’s the sensation that you’ve always known (without really knowing) that it was coming, even though (and in a strange way, even because) this explosion can’t be mapped neatly onto the narrative’s progression.

This is all to say: just as it felt impossible not to focus on the suicide once it entered into the narrative, it felt impossible not to sense the build toward this culmination when I decided to delay it until the last possible moment. The suspense feels like a very natural undertone of (what I imagine to be) the reader’s process as they continually question the significance of these superficially mundane details and are continually denied an explanation.

What writing projects are you working on now?

Way too many. I had to make a list!

  • I’m in the finishing-up stages with my short novel, Silk Flowers, which is coming out this summer through Birds of Lace. It revolves around a woman’s undiagnosable (and more importantly, inarticulable) illness and the ways both she and her husband construct the story of that illness (in the absence of its explanation).
  • I’m also finishing up a short novella called All of Your Most Private Places that is pending as a book form publication (that doesn’t feel quite definite enough to announce yet). That one orbits around a desert, a couple, a call girl, an atomic museum. Darkness. Loneliness. Vast empty spaces and secret explosions.
  • I’m really close to finishing up a story collection called Significant Others. It’s about significant others.
  • In the pretty nearish future, Dancing Girl Press is publishing a chapbook that functions as a sort of “letter” to my beautiful grandmother, Theresa, who passed away last year.
  • In the realm of more long-con projects, I’m currently working on a monograph of the playwright Sarah Kane, a play (heavily Kane-inspired) called White City, a novella with a Jean Rhysesque flaneur-type character who goes to Berlin to have a bunch of sex and drink her-self to death (kind of like a feminine/Euro Leaving Las Vegas), and a novel (which may even become triptych of novels) called Failure To Thrive which revolves around families dealing with disability-related issues in a once industrial/now dead mountain town.
  • Beyond that, I’m always working on various odds and ends. Performance pieces. Book reviews. Etc. I’m currently working on a review of Black Wings Has My Angel, a weirdly beautiful noir novel by Elliot Chaze.

What have you read recently that youd like to recommend?

This is always a good question, but it’s unfortunately always the hardest question for me to answer. I read so much and I love such specific things (and by “things,” I mean moments within texts moreso than whole bodies of texts, if that makes any sense). I enjoy writing reviews because they give me an opportunity to speak to these specific things—and their thinginess—as my way of recommending (and also, possibly, deterring any readers who aren’t interested in those things).

I’ll be interning with Danielle Dutton’s Dorothy Project this fall, so I recently read and re-read my way through their catalogue. Every single book they’ve published is an absolute diamond, but I especially loved their recently released text by Marianne Fritz, The Weight of Things. You can read my (terribly inadequate) review here. I’ve also been reading a lot of Barbara Comyns lately (in part thanks to the recommendation of Kathryn Davis), and Dorothy’s collection of her stories—Who Was Changed and Who Was Dead—is my favorite.

I also highly recommend Dao Strom’s elegantly fragmented/ghostly/hybrid memoir, We Were Meant to Be a Gentle People.

I recently had the pleasure of meeting and reading with Mark Gluth. I recommend everything he’s written, especially No Other. Everything else from Sator Press is also wonderful, of course, including Sonya Vatomsky’s Salt is For Curing.

I’m also recently read Merce Rodoreda’s Death in Spring and Josefine Klougart’s One of Us is Sleeping, both from Open Letter, both amazing…

And this is the point where my mind starts spiraling. My whole world is reading and writing. To recommend one thing I love is, in some way, to recommend everything.

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