Mary South is a graduate of the MFA program in fiction at Columbia University. Her writing has appeared in Electric Literature, The New Yorker’s Book Bench, NOON, VICE, and Words Without Borders.
Her story, "Vogue la Galère," appeared in Issue Seventy-Five of The Collagist.
Here, she speaks with interviewer Dana Diehl about department stores, beautifully crafted sentences, and gathering language from the world around us.
What first inspired you to write this story?
Sometimes, as I’m going about my day—getting coffee, riding the subway, buying groceries, etc.—I’ll get snippets of language that will pop up in my head. If I like those bits and pieces enough, I’ll take a moment to write them down in my phone or a notebook so that I won’t forget them. In this case, the story started with me buying a birthday gift in a department store. I tend to feel strange in department stores. There are so many people and so much stuff, I might even wonder if I’m actually really present there at all. It’s similar to the experience of Kate Zambreno’s narrator from Green Girl, except with a lot less existential angst. The story started from that experience and grew with more written-down remembered language fragments over a period of a few months.
“Vogue la Galere” doesn’t follow a chronological movement, but instead is propelled by memory and association. What are the challenges of writing in this mode? What was your driving force while drafting this story?
A few years ago, I studied with Gordon Lish. He teaches a writing style called consecution. Gary Lutz best described it in a talk entitled “The Sentence Is a Lonely Place,” which he gave to Columbia University and that was later reprinted in The Believer. At the time of writing this story, I was also working with Diane Williams quite closely on her journal NOON and reading/editing a lot of wonderful shorter fiction. Writing shorter short stories isn’t my typical mode; I tend to veer long, on the side of 18 – 20 pages. I really love fiction in that mode, though, and sometimes try it myself, too. When I go short, the driving impulse is mostly sound: starting a sentence with a certain set of sounds and then both carrying it forward as well as subtly altering those initial sounds. There’s nothing quite like an extraordinary sentence. I think of sentences by Lutz himself, such as this one: “There is no use in hearing the term ‘apartment complex’ unless it is taken immediately to mean a syndrome, a fiesta of symptoms.” I’ll sometimes be going about my day and then, for no apparent reason, I’ll think of that sentence. It doesn’t display any obvious pyrotechnics, but it is one of the most beautifully crafted sentences I’ve ever read. If you examine how Lutz carries the “m” and “t” sounds forward through that sentence, it accumulates a kind of infectious rhythm. The m sounds are particularly effective, as they’re nasal consonants and he even manages to end the sentence on a nasal consonant with the m in the word “symptoms.”
The speaker in this story learns something about a person based on what article of clothing they’re shopping for. If this story were represented by something you could buy in the menswear, what would it be?
I’m going to go with a men’s wallet. It’s something you buy for someone because you can’t really think of what else to get him as a present. It’s also an item that a man handles with great frequency and something that rests very close to a man’s body—in his back pants pocket or in the breast pocket of a jacket. But wallets are also pretty impersonal—because of their function, it’s hard to make them distinctive the way you can make other men’s accessories distinctive, such as ties or cufflinks. When you buy them, they also come empty, of course, which I think is a good visual for how the narrator of this story feels about her grief and her day-to-day life working in the store.
What is a book you love right now?
At the end of last year, I read Affinity Konar’s Mischling and was extremely impressed by both its harrowing story (it follows two twins, Stasha and Pearl, who are among the subjects of human experimentation by Mengele in Auschwitz) as well as Konar’s language that is gorgeous and manages both to not flinch at the horrors it is describing or overly lyricize suffering.
Do you have any other projects in the works?
I’m finishing a collection of short stories. The stories share a theme in that they explore how technology affects our relationships. For example, one story is about a mother who loses a daughter tragically, then clones that daughter and tries to restage the memories they experienced together so that she can have back the same daughter she lost. Obviously, things don’t go quite according to her plan. Another story is about a woman obsessed with online stalking her rapist—so much so that she starts stalking him in real life. Another is about a summer rehabilitation camp on Martha’s Vineyard for kids who have been discovered to be particularly toxic Internet trolls. I’ve been working on the collection for at least a good five years, and I think—I hope—it’s close to being done.