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Thursday
Aug252016

"The Many Holes in the Borders": An Interview with Lee Conell

Lee Conell's fiction has appeared or is forthcoming in the Chicago Tribune's literary supplement Printers Row, Kenyon Review online, Indiana Review, Guernica, American Short Fiction, and elsewhere. She recently won the Nelson Algren Short Story Award from the Chicago Tribune, and was a fiction fellow at Vanderbilt University where she won the Guy Goffe Means Prize for Fiction. Currently she lives in Nashville, leading writing workshops in hospitals, libraries, and high schools.

Her story, "Guardian," appeared in Issue Eight-Four of The Collagist.

Here, Lee Conell talks with interviewer William Hoffacker about imaginary friends, television shows, and revision.

 

What can you tell us about the origins of your story, “Guardian”? What sparked the initial idea that caused you to start writing the first draft?

My best friend in elementary school and I used to make up stories together all the time, acting the stories out as we went. We called them the Infinite Stories: worlds we would enter again and again, using recess to pick up wherever the story had left off. One story we co-told took place in a jungle and kind of ripped-off Fern Gully. In another we were witches/warlocks trying to collection a certain number of crystals to save the world. In another we were orphans adopted by a phoenix(?). From about age five to age eight, we returned to these worlds again and again, and then we stopped. As I began to work on my own fiction, I started wondering: What if characters from those worlds began to reappear in my stories, began to barge into my fiction without my realizing it? From there came the concept of imaginary creatures from childhood popping up again, sort of flinging themselves onto an adult life.

The character of Cind comes out of the protagonist’s childhood fixation with The Brady Bunch. Can you speak about the relationship between your writing and television or other forms of popular culture? What do you see as the potential uses or roles in literary fiction for references to TV, movies, etc.?

Days of Our Lives was probably my first childhood experience with seriously long-form storytelling. And today I consume my share of not-great reality television. I’m interested in the way those stories I watch—even if I’m rarely watching them with my full attention—affect the stories I’m trying to tell with as much of my full attention as possible. If part of my experience of the world occurs through pop culture, it would seem disingenuous to erase that stuff, rather than to critically engage with, to question, and to reconsider the ways pop culture’s myths and symbols shape my daily life and narratives—in the same way I’d critically engage with ideas of family, gender, education, class, etc.

I’m also interested in characters with an obsession, which lends itself to pop culture and fan culture, which are fueled by obsession. I wanted to use “Guardian” in part to explore what happens when a childhood fandom that is used as an escape follows an adult into a potential tragic loss from which there is no escaping.

Your story ends in such a small, quiet moment with a relatively plain (though lasting) image, especially for a fabulist story where an imaginary friend appears to cross into reality. How did you decide that the ending should be so subdued and grounded? What goal(s) do you have for the ending of a story such as this?

That’s a really good question. In a story like this, my main interest was in exploring the many holes in the borders we put up between memory and imagination, reality and fantasy, the grounded and the fantastic. I needed an image that didn’t emphasize the strangeness of Cind’s appearance, but that hinted instead at its inevitability. I don’t think I ever consciously decided that the ending should be subdued and grounded—I wanted to show, rather, that things we dismiss as mundane (Cindy Brady, a passing headlight) have huge potential to suddenly shift into something that seems wilder, stranger, less obedient. I believe those subdued and grounded images in our lives are generally made of the same mind-stuff as the weirder and flightier fantasies.

Please tell us about your revision process, with this story as an example. How many drafts do you typically take a story of this length through? How do you decide when it’s time to start submitting a story?

I wrote a draft of this story maybe three years ago, but I wasn’t sure what the story really wanted to be about, besides imaginary children coming back without asking permission of their original imaginer. It took me a few drafts to realize I didn’t know what I was doing. I put the story aside for a little while and when I stumbled across it again a couple months ago, I knew what it wanted to be. This version went through only one or two drafts (although maybe that’s because I was subconsciously revising it for three years). In terms of how many drafts a story of this length takes, for me, it varies widely from story to story. Which is too bad. I wish I had a set number so I’d know when to stop.

What writing projects are you working on now?

I’m working on a novel about a lot of things, including ghosts, self-published romance novels, birds, and building superintendents. I’m also finishing my story collection, which deals with some (but not all) of those subjects too.

What have you read recently that you’d like to recommend?

Silvina Ocampo’s Thus Were Their Faces: Selected Short Stories, which contains one of my new favorite lines: “Surviving childhood is a severe test on the faculty of reasoning.” Also, W.G. Sebald’s The Emigrants and Hisaye Yamamoto’s story collection, Seventeen Syllables.

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