"My Spicy Mysteries": An Interview with Michael Jeffrey Lee

Michael Jeffrey Lee first book, Something in My Eye, won the Mary McCarthy Prize and was published by Sarabande. New work has appeared or is forthcoming in BOMB, DIAGRAM, and Parcel. He lives in New Orleans.

His story, "The Burned-out House," appeared in Issue Seventy of The Collagist.

Here, he speaks with interviewer Dana Diehl about productive ambiguities, colorful neighbors, and the house as a metaphor.

Please tell us where this story began for you.

This story began with the rather absurd first line: I was about 35 when I moved into the burned-out house. “Right, then,” I thought, “Time to figure out who said this.” It’s interesting because the early drafts had a much more plaintive tone—the narrator seemed on the verge of tears the whole time. It droned on rather sadly and prettily for about 10 pages—the structure was more or less the same. However, during some conversations with (patient) friends, it was suggested that I might try to be a bit more violent with the voice, try making him more of a brute, someone who would put up a tougher front. And these suggestions, to use a phrase the narrator might employ, blew it wide open. It helped that around that time there was this interesting fellow in my neighborhood, who, when he wasn’t performing random acts of kindness for his neighbors, was screaming racial and homophobic slurs at the top of his lungs, usually in the middle of the night. A complex individual, to say the least. I thought about him while re-writing.      

In The Poetics of Space, Gaston Bachelard claims, “[t]he house shelters day-dreaming, the house protects the dreamer, the house allows one to dream in peace.” How do you think the speaker in this story would respond to this?

I think he’d say, “With all due respect, Doctor, it sounds to me like that guy spent most of his childhood pulling his pud in a quiet corner, counting sheep. I’ll bet good money he never spent one night in a burned-out house, not that I’d particularly recommend it.”

Mysteries are peppered throughout this story. There’s the mystery of the speaker’s history, the mystery of the previous tenants buried in the backyard. How do you choose which mysteries to resolve in a story and which to leave unanswered?

I really like the idea of the mysteries peppering the story. My spicy mysteries. But your point’s well taken. These ambiguities are always at the center of my work. I’m going to talk about my first drafts again, forgive me, but one of the ways in which they’re always lacking is in the inelegance of these ambiguities—they’re too vague in their suggestions, they open up too many interpretive possibilities, so the work feels intentionally obscure and self-indulgent and shuts the reader out. Or often the opposite is true, and I’m spending too much time explaining things better left alluded to. But to answer your question it’s usually just a process of trial and error. I’ll have a conversation with myself along the lines of, “Well if the narrator says this then it will suggest this, and this and this, and do I want that? Is that a productive ambiguity?” In the first draft, the narrator spoke of a distant family, but that did something I didn’t like to the story—it kind of steered it sentimental, so I cut it. I thought it would be better, more pleasantly vexing, as a question mark.

Why is the house “burned-out” as opposed to run down or abandoned?

Without playing my own critic too much, I’ll say it’s obviously connected to his inner state (although he’d vehemently deny it—he even tries to shoot down the house-as metaphor reading). But why “burned-out?” Well, he’s a bit charred by life, you know, a bit ashed-on, a little run down but not abandoned. But don’t count him out. He’s made some bad decisions but he’s still got that dirty smirk, don’t you worry. He’s been through the fire, and now he’s peeling right before your eyes. I also liked the way “burned-out” reflected his relationship to narrative itself, perhaps my relationship too. Exhausted, wore out, nothing but dregs, adios.             

What projects are you working on now?

I’m working on something longer, a novella probably, nothing too ambitious. I’m in the mixing stages of an album I sang on. I’m slowly attempting to become a legitimate musician—been practicing a lot of piano. Bard of the Burned-Out House, that’s what they’ll call me. Thanks for this interview. These were great questions.


"Bilingual, Multicultural, and Variously-Housed-and-Homed": An Interview with Ilana Masad

Ilana Masad is an Israeli-American writer living in New York. Her work has appeared in The New Yorker, Tin House, McSweeney's, Printer's Row, Joyland Magazine, Split Lip Magazine, Hypertext Magazine, Hobart, and more. She is also the founder and host of The Other Stories, a podcast featuring the work and voices of new, emerging, and struggling fiction writers. She tweets a lot: @ilanaslightly.

Her story, "In Re", appeared in Issue Eighty-One of The Collagist.

Here, Ilana Masad talks with interviewer William Hoffacker about metafiction, revising flash, and being an Israeli-American.

Although your story “In Re” is published as fiction, it reads much like nonfiction, written in first person with a sometimes anecdotal voice. Is any part of this story based on real events? How much does your work blend fiction and nonfiction?

“In Re” is one of my weirdest stories, and yes, it’s very much based on a real and inconsequential evening during which I was chatting to a friend at a real place called Re:Bar and the same man seemed to be going up (or down) the escalator nearby several times. But this was an absolute outlier for me. I rarely blend nonfiction into my fiction work, though the first “proper” short story I wrote was apparently so convincing that my creative writing teacher at the time (this was in college) thought that it was entirely autobiographical. I wasn’t sure at the time whether to be insulted or flattered, but I think I’ve decided that it was flattering. I had an editor later accuse me of the same thing, saying that it was an interesting blend of fiction and non-fiction. I had to tell the editor that it was 100% fictional, and I never heard back from him.

But back to “In Re,” the point is that it was a weird thing for me to do. But I was trying out metafiction for the first time and taking the idea quite literally, and this was the result.

This story contains a few parenthetical, observational digressions, two of which showcase wordplay. In the first of these, you write, “It would have made us look so witty, inserting puns into our conversations so casually. I don't want you to think we aren't funny girls, because we are. We just didn't think of it at the time.” Why devote these moments to the narrator’s esprit d'escalier? How much of your writing process involves play with language?

There are two questions here, and both are fascinating, but let me answer them in order. As to the first—why devote these moments etc.—it was, I think, my attempt at creating what I thought metafiction was all about. It was me trying to observe a moment from the outside, in hindsight, and create a story out of it that was also social commentary, because when it comes to the country I spent most of my life in (I’ll be able to say that until I’m in my mid-30s), it’s impossible to discuss it or anything about it without addressing the problematic nature of its whole existence, from the fact that it gets so much money from Christian fundamentalists who are waiting for the Second Coming (which I’ve always found a strangely dirty phrase) to the fact that there are occupied territories that are contested on a daily basis, to the fact that the Holocaust happened and Jews really did need a place to go and feel safe in after that. There is so much to talk about there that keeping those parentheticals as short as they are was a struggle. But I was trying to be somewhat glib and definitely concise, so that’s how I managed to address Israeli-ness and Israel-ness and Hebrew-speaking; through (parentheticals).

The second part—about language—is so interesting to think about, because at the time that I first wrote this, language play was not on my radar at all. It happened here because of the literal language play—writing a story in English about an event that was transpiring in Hebrew, in a Hebrew-speaking country. The interplay of the two languages themselves were what led to the language (inter)play. See, there I go again. Language is very much in my lexicon, so to speak, nowadays. But it’s strange; some of my work has absolutely nothing to do with language and everything to do with character and attempts at plot, whereas some of my stories and one of my novels are consumed with language to the point where some people see them as “avant-garde” (this was the very obviously unflattering phrase an agent used about that novel).

Israel is discussed in two paragraphs of this story, both times as a seeming non sequitur, especially toward the beginning, when the reader has been introduced to a man holding a briefcase and two characters sitting at a nearby bar, when suddenly: “Israel reinstated itself after millennia of persecution,” a jarring transition apparently fitting into the proceedings only by virtue of the “re” in “reinstated.” How did you decide this story would follow such associative thinking rather than a more chronological approach? Why make statements about Israel and a pink, fruity drink share the stage in such a brief story?

Because as someone bilingual, multicultural, and variously-housed-and-homed, there is no way for me to think about anything that happens in Israel without thinking about what it means that it happened there. As I mentioned before, I spent most of my life in Israel, and while I lived there, I could still think about it simply, just as home, even if it was a home that did terrible things to people, even if it was a home where I feared for my father’s life when he took buses every day but also didn’t entirely fault the people blowing up those buses because of the circumstances they came from and the way violence and persecution begets more violence. I didn’t have words for all this at the time, but it was very much felt and understood.

Going to college in the United States though—well, that opened up a whole big can of worms, because suddenly I was the Israeli girl and that meant that I was either an overzealous Zionist nut-job (and the word Zionism is far more complicated than I’m making it seem here) or I was a self-hating Arab-lover. There seemed no room for nuance in the public perception of what I was. But nuance is there. Just recently, I had a dear friend call me out on language I used regarding the West Bank, and I was extremely offended and pissed off because she spent all of ten days there while I spent my life in the country that has occupied the Palestinian territories, and disregarding any nuance on either side of the conflict is impossible if there is to be any sort of understanding, ever (a prospect which I have very little belief in, by the by; I’m a bit of a nihilist when it comes to both my home countries in that sense).

SO. To answer the original question. Why bring Israel into it? Because anything that happened to me in Israel or that I wanted to write about Israel after I’d begun to see myself for the first time as a minority (an atheist Jew) and a stereotype (of one of the kinds of Israeli stereotypes above) had to include something involving the complexities and mind-bending one has to endure living there as a left-wing individual.

Plus, the point is partially that even in such a complex, nuanced place things like pink fruity drinks exist. Frivolity exists everywhere, in some ways, and especially in a country that is as Americanized as Israel is. Normal life goes on, even as atrocities and terrible things (and men with brown briefcases) keep on going in an endless loop.

Can you describe your revision process for this story and others like it? How many drafts does a story of this length go through? How much addition and subtraction must you perform from the first draft to the final?

The revision process for this story is particular and different than any other story because the revision became part of the story itself—the question I ask my friend about which word to use? That was real. I called her up while typing the story and asked her about it. So in that way, I folded revision into the very nature of this story.

In general, though… well, there isn’t an “in general,” I guess. I taught a class on Skillshare about flash fiction recently where I think I talked quite a bit about how different stories of this length come about. Some are flash fiction in the sense that they truly come out in a flash of inspiration and barely anything changes between the original draft and when I’m finished with the story. In general, though, I’m a rather impatient writer when it comes to editing my shortest stories, and I’ll often send them out before they’re ready, almost as if I need the rejections to tell me that I need to revise them. And maybe I do.

More recently I’ve become far more concerned with editing though, and so maybe now my process is a little different with such short work. I often put pieces away after I write the first draft, which I usually think is utter crap, and then open it up a week or two months or a year later and realize that there’s maybe something here, that there’s something I can work on here. And then I take the metaphorical fine-toothed comb to the sentences and tweak a word here or delete a sentence or phrase there until I feel like I’ve tinkered enough.

What writing projects are you working on now?

So, so, so many. I have a new writing group where I’m responding to prompts, which is excellent for me. But otherwise, I have one project that’s my main focus—editing a novel I wrote about five years ago—and everything else is on hold. The on hold includes a novel I need to complete, another novel I need to heavily revise, a novel/collection of interlinked short stories (not sure how to classify that quite yet) that also needs revision but very carefully because all the stories are the same exact length (including title) and I want to keep that going, and short story ideas constantly running through my head as sentences. There’s also a historical novel that I will write one day because I know who and what it’s about and they haven’t been written about yet in their own novel and they deserve to be.

Plus, I’m a freelance writer so I’m constantly working on articles, book reviews, blog posts, etc. I’m a bit of a workhorse.

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

Almost everything I’ve read recently I’d like to recommend. Sarah-Jane Stratford’s Radio Girls; Iain Reid’s I’m Thinking of Ending Things; Hanya Yanagihara’s A Little Life; Garth Greenwell’s What Belongs to You; Alexander Chee’s The Queen of the Night; Helen Oyeyemi’s What Is Not Yours Is Not Yours… The list could go on and on and on.


"How Bad Habits Work": An Interview with Rochelle Hurt

Rochelle Hurt is the author of two poetry collections: In Which I Play the Runaway (2016), winner of the Barrow Street Book Prize, and The Rusted City, published in the Marie Alexander Series from White Pine Press (2014). She is the recipient of awards from Crab Orchard Review, Arts & Letters, Hunger Mountain, Phoebe, Poetry International, the Dorothy Sargent Rosenberg Fund, as well as fellowships from Vermont Studio Center and the Jentel Artist Residency Program. Her work has appeared in Best New Poets, Crazyhorse, Black Warrior Review, Mid-American Review, and elsewhere. She is a PhD candidate at the University of Cincinnati.

Her story, "Blood Loop," appeared in Issue Eighty of The Collagist.

Here, she speaks with interviewer William Hoffacker about about flash fiction, metaphor, and feedback loops.

What can you tell us about the origins of your story “Blood Loop”? What inspired the initial idea and caused you to start writing the first draft?

I became fascinated with the idea of a positive feedback loop, in which cause and effect (in very unscientific terms) essentially feed each other. I first read about this phenomenon in a scientific context, but I immediately started thinking about it as a metaphor: how shame works, how bad habits work, how family relationships often mimic feedback loops.

The maternal and pregnant body is endlessly fascinating to me as well. In popular culture it’s often depicted as soft and vulnerable, and mothers are depicted as sweet and selfless creatures (unless they’re being demonized). That always strikes me as false and fairly boring. The pregnant body doesn’t simply house another body; it’s part of a complex system in which two bodies respond to one another.

The entire story contains fewer than 500 words. How do you achieve such an economy of language? Does it require a lot of restraint and/or chaff-cutting to write so concisely? (Did you have to make any tough decisions during the revision process?)

I didn’t cut much—maybe a few sentences, but they were mostly extra modifiers or layered metaphors. Mostly I rearranged. Mechanically, I write flash prose in much the same way I write poems, focusing on description and metaphor. I think some of the economy is a habit developed out of writing poetry—you start to think in dramatic, condensed phrases. So it’s really just a series of figurative descriptions that move the story forward. In this mode, restraint is actually counterproductive, since it might limit those figurative descriptions.

For me, “condensed” prose is not necessarily the same as “economic” prose—it just means that phrases are highly concentrated. Sometimes they’re of little consequence for the plot, but they accomplish other things that are just as pleasurable and important. I remember encountering the term “muscular prose” in college and being initially offended at the thinly veiled gendering of a valued writing style. Then I realized “muscular prose” was likely something I didn’t want to write anyway.

Your story ends in a pivotal moment with both mother and daughter caught red-handed, each in the act of stealing from the other. The two characters are described as “stuck” and “blushing,” but the narrative cuts off before either of them can react in any active way. How did you decide that the story should end in this scene and go no further despite the reader’s natural curiosity about what would happen next?

The mother and daughter are stuck in a permanent feedback loop, so I felt I couldn’t allow them out of that moment. This is another reason I like to write flash: in order to focus on a metaphor or a single moment, to get inside it and make a reader understand it—but then to leave it, rather than pursue it beyond that understanding. That last scene was in my mind from the start, and the rest was really a way of climbing inside that scene and teasing out its symbolic significance through context.

In addition to writing fiction and creative nonfiction, you have published two books of poetry. How does working in multiple genres inform your writing? What lessons have you learned from poetry that you’ve applied to how you write prose, or vice versa?

In addition to the things I’ve mentioned, I think having multiple genres on the table when I get an idea helps me to hone that idea down to something artful. When I have to ask myself whether a metaphor about maternal feedback loops should be a poem, a story, or an essay, I begin to understand more precisely what it is about that idea that appeals to me, what aspect of it I really want to convey. While these categories sometimes help me at the start of a project, they always become blurry in the end, which is freeing.

What writing projects are you working on now?

I’m working on a couple of nonfiction essays, along with a third book of poems that address sexuality and gender politics. I’m trying to envision this third book as a larger narrative built through individual poems and characters, so there are some fictional elements there, but for the most part, (flash) fiction is sort of my little escape on the side. If I were secretly trying to write a novel, I don’t think I’d talk about it until it was finished.

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

I recently re-read Mary Gaitskill’s Two Girls, Fat and Thin, which is fantastic. To me, the writing seems somehow no-nonsense and hallucinatory at once. I was also amazed by Claudia Rankine’s Citizen, which is genre-bending, hypnotic, eye-opening, heart-wrenching, and infuriating. Right now I’m reading poetry: Cate Marvin’s Oracle, Diane Seuss’s Four-Legged Girl, and francine j. harris’s play dead, all great.


"The Entire Experience Seemed Like an Invitation": An Interview with James M. Chesbro

James M. Chesbro’s work has appeared in The Writer’s Chronicle, The Washington Post, Brain, Child Magazine, Assay: A Journal of Nonfiction Studies, Under the Gum Tree, Connecticut Review, The Huffington Post,, The Good Men Project, Superstition Review, Pilgrim, Weston Magazine, The Connecticut Post, and Spiritus. You can follow him on Twitter @Jamie_Chesbro.

His essay, "Green Mazes," appeared in Issue Eighty of The Collagist.

Here, James M. Chesbro talks with interviewer William Hoffacker about feelingful thoughts, memory gaps, and mowing the lawn.

What can you tell us about the origins of your essay “Green Mazes”? What sparked the initial idea and caused you to start writing the first draft?

Unlike all my other roles, mowing the lawn brings me immediate satisfaction. I like drawing stripes into the yard, of cutting all the blades the same length, of bringing order to the unkempt. The results are immediate, unlike writing, teaching high school students, or freshman undergraduates, and fathering three young children.

One particular time, as I write in the essay, “the gasoline fumes and the cooing mourning dove made me think of my father,” and my childhood backyard. These thoughts and feelings wouldn’t leave me alone long after I finished the lawn. In Phillip Lopate’s “The Personal Essay and First-Person Character” he writes, “In my own essays, I try to convey thought infused with feeling—a feelingful thought as well as a thoughtful feeling. I try to merge heart and mind.” I began to give the material a try because this seemed like what I had—lots of “feelingful thought[s]” to work with. From inside, I could still hear that mourning dove, cooing, cooing, cooing, and the entire experience seemed like an invitation.

Your essay contains several phrases that imply uncertainty about certain details: e.g., “I bet when I asked him,” “he must have given me some instruction,” etc. How much leeway do you give yourself when filling in the gaps of memory? Do you have an obligation to the reader to make it clear when you’re embellishing or making an assumption about how an event probably happened?

Sure, but I think the reader intuits that I’m working with memory, rather than anything verifiable and I suppose these somewhat self-conscious asides remind them of that as I move along. I like how Tobias Wolff addresses writing about memory in his brief preface for This Boy’s Life. “I have been corrected on some points, mostly of chronology. Also my mother thinks that a dog I describe as ugly was actually quite handsome. I’ve allowed some of these points to stand, because this is a book of memory, and memory has its own story to tell. But I have done my best to make it tell a truthful story.”

That’s the goal for all literary nonfiction writers, right?—to do one’s best in telling a truthful story. We research what is researchable, look at pictures, ask family members if they remember an event (sometimes). We speculate another’s perspective, their internal workings, their motivations. 

As I mention in “Green Mazes,” my father was an artist. He completed his BFA at the University of the Arts. At night or on the weekends he often took classes at the Pennsylvania Academy of Fine Arts and the Philadelphia Sketch Club, where his favorite artist, Thomas Eakins once belonged. The Sketch Club chose to display his work once (and they misspelled his name). I think his figure drawings were attempts to sketch the human body with as much honesty as his ability and skill would allow, which is what I think writers try to do in words with human experience. Your question prompts me to think about the correlations and overlapping considerations visual and literary artists have about how to approach assumptions, embellishments, and portraying the truthfulness of memory.

The second-to-last line asks, “What kind of father am I becoming, and what do the memories of my dad have to teach me as flashes of his figure walk over the lines we’ve drawn?” I’m interested in this turn because the rest of the essay hardly mentions your own children. Were you at all tempted to focus on your own family and attempt to answer this question within the essay, or was this piece always more concerned with your relationship with your father?

This essay was always about the reconciliations I never made with my father, it just took me a long time to see that larger subject. I hope “Green Mazes” causes the reader to ask themselves these questions, about their own parents, which is one reason I’m comfortable letting them linger. The essay can stand alone, as it does in The Collagist, but it also serves my linked collection well as the first essay, as a launching off point for the rest of the manuscript which is mostly about fathering and looking at my deceased father from the new vantage point of being one.

One of the essay’s more profound moments comes when you write that your father’s death “has become an extension of the reconciliations we never made.” How do you approach a topic as universal and sentimental as grief for a family member in a work of nonfiction? And why broach the subject in the context of recalling something as seemingly trivial as mowing the lawn?

Writing about mowing the lawn gives me the occasion to ponder the other matters you mention. How to avoid sentimentality when writing about grief, about family? I have several quotes nailed to the exposed stud above my computer in an unfinished section of our basement where I write. One of my favorites, and one that can address this question more eloquently than I can is from Adam Gopnik’s Through the Children’s Gate: A Home in New York, when he writes: “We can write about the world only by writing about a world, and that world the one we think, at least, we really know. Journalism is made from the outside in; but writing is made from the inside out. Applicable metaphors, not all-over views, are what writers and readers trade in. The metaphors of experience each writer finds in his own backyard, or air shaft, or palace gardens, have, of necessity, different colors—some are gold and some are green and some merely gray—but in the end, the shapes we know are all the same: the arc of desire and disappointment, the rising half circle of hope, the descending crescent of aging, the scribble of the city or the oval of the park, or just the long, falling tunnel of life. Each of these shapes is to be found in any life lucky enough to have any shape at all. (The cosmic-sentimental essay is, in any case, a kind of antimemoir, a nonconfession confession, whose point is not to strip experience bare but to use experience for some other purpose: to draw a moral or construct an argument, make a case, or just tell a joke.)”

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

Of the books I picked up at AWP, the two that have been winning my attention are: B.J. Hollars’s This Is Only a Test, and Patrick Madden’s Sublime Physick: Essays.


"A Spread of Phosphorus": An Interview with E.C. Belli

E.C. Belli’s work has appeared or is forthcoming in VERSE, AGNI, Colorado Review, Guernica, Gulf Coast, Caketrain, DIAGRAM, Forklift, and FIELD, among others. Her translation of I, Little Asylum, a short novel by Emmanuelle Guattari, was published by Semiotext(e) as part of an exhibit for the 2014 Whitney Biennial, and a selected volume of her translations of French poet Pierre Peuchmaurd, The Nothing Bird, was released by Oberlin College Press (2013).

Her story, "Breathing," appeared in Issue of The Collagist.

Here she speaks with interviewer Dana Diehl about homonyms, transitioning between poetry and prose, and finding new paths.

Please describe where this story began for you.

It began as failed poetry. (I only moonlight as a fiction writer.) I was reflecting on a few isolated things that ended up pivoting in tension: lifelong learning, domesticity, mothers. The usual things. I had a few lonely lines, but nothing with the tensile strength for the type of short poem I’ve been interested in writing lately; they did have the elasticity required for a short story though. One line led me to the next, and the story ended up building itself like that. I’ve started many, but I’ve only ever finished four or five stories.

This story has a pivot point. I feel it when the older woman in the girl’s memory begins to speak, and suddenly I’m transported. Do you have any advice for short fiction writers trying to achieve a similar shift or movement in such a small space?

Process is a hard thing to discuss because for me it’s adaptive; it morphs to fit whatever the poem or piece requires. I have to uncover a new path each time. In this case, I reached a point in the conversation that the class is having and thought, This is boring! I need a lift off. Something or someone to stand in contrast to whatever is going on. The old woman came—actually, her hair came: a spread of phosphorus—and I immediately knew her.  

I’m interested in the many ways writers choose to depict dialogue. Could you explain why you chose to omit traditional quotation marks and paragraph breaks for your characters’ dialogue?

The overall form of this story was difficult to settle on because it’s actually quite ugly and stifling. I’ve always loved a nice airy poem: the kind with the windows open and the laundry flapping in the wind. The topic of the story, however—“breathing,” and all of its discontents—necessitated a breathless environment in order to maximize impact. I wanted the end to come as a great release. Which is why even the dialogue got swallowed by that hideous magma of text. What an eyesore. I almost couldn’t do it. I’m sure it will discourage some readers initially, but I think the aesthetic integrity of the piece benefits overall. I hope.

You also work as a translator. How does a knowledge of more than one language affect the first stages of your writing process, when you’re first putting ideas to paper?

I was thinking about connections between words the other day. For instance, take the homonyms “LARME/L’ARME” in French (“TEAR/WEAPON” in English). Then take “TEAR/TEAR” in English. In both French and English, the homonym for a tear can be something with violence at its core. I think, as a translator, being forced to reflect deeply on the various dimensions of meaning of a single word, or of a small group of words, you come upon these little gateways that are so generative. Stories and poems can arise from them.

What projects are you working on now?

I’ve just finished revising my poetry manuscript. Went at it with a scythe, really. I’m also working on the translation of a book by the Franco-Swiss poet Brigitte Gyr and a science-fiction book from the early ’60s by a French writer. I have a few little stories in the works, but I’m very slow.  


"From Outside Me": An Interview with Cynthia Arrieu-King

Cynthia Arrieu-King teaches creative writing at Stockton University and is a former Kundiman fellow. Her poems appeared in Fence this year and a creative non-fiction piece will appear in The Volta later this summer. Her poetry collaboration with the late Hillary Gravendyk, Unlikely Conditions, came out from 1913 Press this past spring.

Her story, "Boxes," appaered in Issue Sixty-Nine of The Collagist.

Here, she speaks with interviewer Dana Diehl about secret skulls, haunted beds, and quilting.

Please tell us where this story began for you.

When I was sixteen, a neighbor showed me that she had kept a skull someone in her family had given her. She’d received it under circumstances similar to the one in the story. Told me not to tell my mom. She thought it might be haunting her. That afternoon stuck with me. Then, one day in graduate school, I had a dream from a particular side of my bed that I started to think was haunted. The dream seemed to be coming from outside me: skeletons walking in robes. This dream was pretty vivid and ghastly and I actually made my boyfriend at the time sleep in that spot without telling him about the dream, and he woke up complaining of terrible nightmares on that side of the bed. These two things came together and seemed to allow in many mini-narratives and details I knew from my growing up in Kentucky.

The objects in this story are so vivid and physical. I can feel the shapes they make on the page. For example:

“Clink. One medal. One handkerchief. Smelling of cedar. He heard what he knew were a few baby teeth skitter across the table: his mothers, his. He crushed one accidently simply by trying to pick it up.”

Can you speak to the power of objects in fiction? Why do you think some objects feel flat on the page, while others come alive?

I was just talking to the poet Joel Dias-Porter: He had read that concrete objects make a more measurable reaction in the brain that abstract language. They did a study! But I think some objects feel incidental and some objects operate in a system of icons that the reader perceives as relevant emotionally. Whether to their own emotions or to the character, I think it can be a diffuse system. I don’t know if it matters if an author intends for objects to be world-building.  I think the medal and the teeth in this little passage you’ve kindly excerpted make me think I probably wanted to create as well a symmetry between the American story and the Japanese story collaged together in “Boxes.” Someone told me once my poems don’t have symbols but icons and I think maybe this means that the object doesn’t have a preordained abstract meaning; the icon means as much as possible both the actual object and all it means plus something about attention and reverence, but in a private or idiosyncratic way. So without really consciously thinking about it, I probably wrote that the Japanese people have their cold hard metal (in the medal, military) and their bones (the baby teeth) that no one knows what to do with as a way of gesturing to the American story which is where, ironically, the missing Japanese skull ended up. The objects help me lay out a kind of algebra that says we may be playing out in our emotions a kind of law of conservation of mass both with ourselves and with our cultural counterparts. This also works on the level of trauma, comeuppance, and the quotidian. I also think objects are a good way of making chaos or order specific to a story.

You are doing some interesting things with the movement of time. We flow so quickly, so seamlessly, from Frank’s toddlerhood to his adulthood. What are the challenges and joys of writing a short story that spans such a large amount of time?

Thank you! Great question. I honestly think I have trouble sticking to a short amount of time in a short story. I’ve taught for so long that a short story can be an important moment or an important single day in someone’s life. That way the student doesn’t bite off more than they can chew. But it’s hard to follow suit and even feels weirdly eighties to me. I feel the whole world trying to cram its way into a narrative once I get going, so it’s almost like I feel obliged to show that largeness and experience, people getting old. I’m big on the elderly and all they have seen. I recently saw a photo of the woman in Italy who is 116 and the last person to live in the 1800’s and I was totally overwhelmed and tearful. To me it is a joy to show how time is passing and doing so through detail. It is a challenge to say exactly what is the outcome—in wisdom, in acceptance--of that passage of time.

Are there any other forms of art (music, visual art, etc.) that inform or inspire your writing?

Oh dear, I think about paintings, color, and photographs obsessively. I’ve quilted since I was a teen and the other night I dreamt a whole color scheme for a quilt made out of my clothes and each kind of square represented a season. Give it a rest prefrontal cortex! Probably this informs my poems in the sense that quilts and poems tend to ask you to see why two things are together and to be okay with the pattern and the breaking of that same pattern. I grew up in a house full of books of paintings. I’m terrible at remembering exactly what someone said, only retain the value of it, but can almost always recall how something looked or what someone wore. Movies are a big deal to me: RAN by Kurosawa informs a very long poem in my third book manuscript. I think a lot of people use music now to change gears and prepare to write. Jazz and songs like “You Drink a Lot of Coffee for a Teenager” by Don Caballero shape I think both my prosody and my Main Idea. I probably wouldn’t know how to articulate my Main Idea except that my friend Jesseca Cornelson, awesome poet, once said she could see that my idea of order is faith in and through and beyond the heartbreaking disorder. So jazz in its way helps me see that and those great old quilts that shatter and reconstitute and vary the given pattern also do that.

What projects are you working on now?

I’m just finishing up a long issue of dusie for Susana Gardner dedicated to Asian Anglophone poetry. I think of it as a really really long mixtape of my favorite poems people sent me. Susana told me “the sky’s the limit” and I’m really grateful for that. Hope to see many more collections out there gathered by others!

Also working on short stories with an eye towards a collection, including “Boxes”. My friend the poet Emari DiGiorgio said she could see my short stories were about someone struggling to be a caretaker. I believe these will revolve about how women, especially elderly women deal with coming to terms with the way things are rather than prefabricated ideas of marriage, lifestyle, career, etc., all that shit they try to sell you: I want to show what those negotiations look like.

I have a third manuscript of poetry about war and the idea of order versus chaos in the aftermath of war, Continuity. I think it might have another couple major poems heading its way before it’s really complete.

This coming fall, I’m also slated to work on the late Hillary Gravendyk’s last collection of poems, a chapbook that’s coming out from Omnidawn in the fall of 2017. I’ve been working to make sure that gets its proper reception and publicity. We collaborated seriously and had a book of our collaborations come out this past March: I can say that American poetry should always remember her, her contributions to lyric, to California poetry, to illness studies. It breaks my heart to say it, but I think everyone who knows her poems knows she was at the beginning of the career that would have shown her to be one of our most major poets. You know, ever. So get Harm, everybody. (I’ll send you one if you e-mail me.)

I’m aghast, in love with, feel totally at home in Lily Hoang’s The Bestiary and she and I are supposed to have a conversation about that on paper and about a collaborative book of poems I did with Hillary called Unlikely Conditions. That should come out in the summer from The Conversant.

There are always collaborative poems lurking in my e-mail between myself and Sophia Kartsonis.


"Not Enough Is Sometimes Enough": An Interview with Dolan Morgan

Dolan Morgan lives in Greenpoint, Brooklyn. He is the author of two books: That's When the Knives Come Down (A|P, 2014) and INSIGNIFICANA (CCM, 2016). His writing has appeared in The Believer, Electric Literature's Recommended Reading, The Collagist, Selected Shorts, and the trash.

His story, "Celebrity Training, Mon Amour: Christian Bale," appeared in Issue Seventy-Four of The Collagist.

Here, Dolan Morgan talks with interviewer William Hoffacker about failure, Yahoo! News, and the nonexistence of nonfiction.

Looking at your publication history, it appears that this Christian Bale piece is part of a series of stories partially titled “Celebrity Training, Mon Amour.” So what can you tell us about the origins of this series and this piece in particular?

Yes! That Christian Bale piece is one of five super short investigations into how celebrities train for their roles. The others (which appear together in a new story collection called Insignificana, woohoo!) are Tom Selleck, Audrey Hepburn, David Bowie, and the Titanic. All of them are inspired by Yahoo!’s front page news portal, which is among the most popular news outlets in the world. Somehow, more Americans receive current event info from this site than almost any other platform around. One glance at what the page has to offer, too, will make that fact superbly sad. I just stopped by and was prompted with the following choices: “Man kills dad, then naps before calling police,” “10 delicious things to do with broccoli,” “2 huskies have a very dramatic argument over a chew toy,” “Bahati Prinsloo just bought her first pair of maternity jeans ‘and it feels so good,’” and “5 Things Olivia Munn Did to Get Her 'X-Men' Body.” I read it every day.

A super common topic on the Yahoo! news feed is celebrity body image articles. How much weight this person lost for a particular movie. How much another person gained. The workout schedule an actor followed in the months prior to filming. How we can, in just a few weeks, be like Dwayne “The Rock” Johnson in mind/body/spirit. The “insane” schedule. The “unbelievable transformation.” So and so is “unrecognizable.”

My first inclination when seeing these types of articles is to dismiss them, or to think of them as terribly unimportant. I want to begrudge the significance ascribed to them by a major media outlet when so many more relevant and urgent things demand our attention. And, at surface level, the “Celebrity Training, Mon Amour” pieces affirm that dismissal—they are named after two extremely powerful and gorgeous works, “Hiroshima, Mon Amour,” and “HIV, Mon Amour,” both of which tackle far more urgent topics than celebrity weight gain (and both of which I adore); and so the title is a nod to the utter absurdity and uselessness of tabloid journalism in the face of everything else the world lays down upon us. However, I’m not satisfied by the act of simply mocking something. Ridicule is easy. And often empty. And so, the “Celebrity Training, Mon Amour” pieces are also an attempt to move past my own inclinations to be dismissive. To get past my own sense of what is inherently valuable. In fact, most of the stories in my new collection are attempts to find some kind of value or meaning or magic in seemingly insignificant things. Tabloid-style celebrity body articles might feel useless and trivial, and in fact they probably are (inasmuch as most things are), but I’ve set myself the goal of taking the useless and insignificant as a starting point in the movement toward meaning. And, if you think about it, at the heart of every puff piece on some celebrity’s physical transformation is in fact a single person struggling with their place in the world. A person in a body in a sea of choices. Whether they’re famous or not, that circumstance is still weird and horrifying (being here, in a body). And at the edge, too, of every one of those articles is a mass of onlooking people also struggling with their presence in the world—their physical shape, yes, but also their sense of willpower and agency. When we talk about transforming our bodies, we mean controlling what we do and don’t do (eating, exercising, committing, breathing, etc., and gaining dominion over our thoughts and time), and coming to terms with the ways in which we fail to be what we imagine ourselves to be, often and almost exclusively by our own hands. Astonishing celebrity transformation articles are almost always fueled by a shared sense of our own personal and ongoing self-destruction and futility. The Christian Bale piece in particular hinges on the extreme weight loss that actors undertake for roles. I rarely see men struggling with body image issues represented in fiction, and so I wanted that here. In my own life, certainly, I have struggled with how I understand and know my body—its shape, and its weight, and its limits. Beyond physical shape, however, that struggle is more often about the ability, or inability, to exact influence over my own life. Which can be scary and humiliating—because, at the very least, we are supposed to have influence over ourselves. Celebrity training journalism whispers to us (or shouts, really) the secret that sometimes we don’t. That often our actions fall short of our intentions. And, of course, this all sounds a little fatalistic, but I think these pieces are also somewhat joyful and irreverent. They follow a certain line of thinking to a hyperbolic end, which (for me at least) can help render small the scary things that usually loom so large. A little giggle in the face of our own uselessness is sometimes all we can offer. It’s not enough, of course, but luckily, at the moment when you’re giggling, not enough is sometimes enough.

What’s the appeal for you of engaging celebrity and pop culture in your writing? Do you see your work as part of a contemporary trend or subgenre? What do you think accounts for this trend of literary writers inserting famous people into their fiction (e.g., Salvatore Pane’s “Kanye West Saved from Drowning,” Sam Martone’s “Gho$t in the Machine,” etc.)?

I don’t think the use of celebrity in writing is a contemporary trend or subgenre. Rather, popular culture is simply part of the landscape now. It constitutes a significant portion of the environment, like trees. We are surrounded by mountains, sidewalks, TV shows, pop-up ads, birds, and celebrities. In fact, on certain days, a lot of people probably encounter more popular media than plants. It’s mundane, not kitschy or clever. Some might like to bemoan or chide the idea of celebrity or popular culture in art and writing. Those people are delusional and in denial about where they live. Like someone who doesn’t think that ponds are part of the real world. Which is fine, of course. Ponds don’t have to be real.

Your story contains several quotes and attributions to people and publications. What was important to you about dropping in these “outside sources” (e.g., Bale’s personal trainer, his girlfriend, TMZ, etc.)? Were you trying to emulate (and/or elevate) tabloid journalism, or any other specific genre?

Many of my stories incorporate structures taken from nonfiction texts. It’s a habit. Or obsession. For example, in addition to tabloid journalism, Insignificana includes stories in the form of textbook entries, a series of film synopses, business reviews, food criticism, self help, and consumer warnings. This is a product of desperation mostly. I am not a naturally organized person. I think of myself as innately undisciplined. And I am bad at making decisions. These pre-existing structures stolen from nonfiction texts offer a box to be filled. A machinery that automates decision making. A computer in the form of language. Basically, I endeavor to be a robot, or to not exist, and these forms help me to enter autopilot or get out of my own way just long enough to make something else be there or come to life. There’s a somewhat awful video online of a person pouring liquid metal into a very large ant hill. When it cools, the person scrapes away the dirt and reveals a beautiful metal sculpture underneath. Or: I don’t know if it’s actually beautiful. It might be horrible. That’s a good confusion to engender probably. At any rate, the hot metal flows into the ant hill, and out comes some new thing in the world. That feels a little bit like life in general (something close to formless dropped into and shaped by preexisting and unrelated circumstances), but it’s also comparable to how the structures of nonfiction can be used to create surprising fiction. Take the outline of a mail order catalog, for example, and dump the unformed elements of a fictional world into it. Scrape away the dirt and out pops an unexpected hunk of gleaming metal.

Also, there are six pieces in Insignificana that not only employ some structural elements of nonfiction, but are actually just plain nonfiction. Not like memoir or autobiography (my life is not nearly interesting enough for that), but researched essays on the obscure history of early airplane hijackings. They probably don’t belong in a book of short stories. But there they are. The sources are real. With articles cited in a bibliography. Facts, quotes, etc. One of the hijacking pieces is itself referenced in a recent academic paper on contemporary airplane security protocols. So these pieces have seeped into the broader network of things that constitute some kind of mutually agreed upon sense of the world. I’ve presented these hijacking pieces as fiction, though, because, well, why not. Or, to be blunt, I’ve positioned them as fiction because I don’t believe that nonfiction exists. It’s all made up and pretty tenuous out there. Everything, that is. The news. Academic journals. Professional reports. People. All a kind of speculative fiction and mostly magic. I recently watched the film Concussion starring Will Smith, a film ostensibly about the discovery of brain injuries in football players, but which is really about the prevalence of magical thinking in football and everywhere else. In the film, numerous scientific bodies disseminate reports to govern people’s lives. Authority, research, and data coalesce to help everyone in the film form an understanding of the world around them, along with the rules that create it. Will Smith discovers information that conflicts with the ideas put forth by those scientific bodies, and as such conflicts with the rules governing our lives. To Will Smith’s chagrin, the notion that these established reports and findings are in fact untrue hardly matters at all to anybody; the football players, fans, and officials have already lived, and can continue to live, in a real world undergirded by unreal things. Everyone is fine with it. I mean, what else is there. They can live in a magical landscape, supported by some data (not all the data, of course, but some of it anyway, and what else can we ask for—we’ll never have all of the data, don’t be silly. All data and research is undercut by what is omitted, and as a matter of percentages, roughly everything is always omitted). In this way, nonfiction (at its heart) is perhaps even more fictional than fiction—because nonfiction starts from the premise that it is somehow real or factual. Which is a much grander bluff or lie than fiction can ever hope to offer us. (At least fiction tells us the truth by admitting that it doesn’t. Which is itself a lie.) To begin from the notion that you’re telling the truth is the most bald-faced lie one can make. Nobody is telling the truth, not even Will Smith; anything parading as such is really just the purest kind of myth making. And that’s why I’m fine including nonfiction in a collection of stories.

As for whether or not I’m aiming to elevate these genres? No. I wouldn’t presume to be able elevate anything. More likely: they elevate my work in ways that I could never hope to alone.

This story is only one paragraph consisting of only a little over 400 words. Did it require a lot of revision and/or restraint to be so concise? How do you achieve this economy of language?

There are maybe two answers to this question. One is simpler than the other. First, the ratio of writing to editing for this was probably 1:4. I think I wrote this story in about an hour. Then I edited it off and on for a few more hours, cutting and revising and tinkering. That makes it seem relatively simple, and I suppose it is. The broader answer, and the one that I think is more accurate, is that writing (for me at least) includes a lot of a) not writing at all, and b) writing a lot of crap. So, the particular words in this specific piece took a few hours to render, sure, but they wouldn’t exist if I didn’t also spend just as many hours writing and then abandoning other things, and even more hours (days? months? years?) wasting time and staring into space and wondering what I’m doing with my life, and failing at one thing and then another (and another and another). In fact, failure is probably the most accurate well-spring to pin the Christian Bale story to, as well as most of the shorter pieces I’ve written. I often belabor the act of writing—I plan, and I conspire, and I outline and I draft and make notes—and then everything collapses and I’m left with a breathtaking pile of nothing. In that moment of complete failure, feeling out of sorts and a little unhinged, I usually start writing a lot of smaller things in short bursts. Things that specifically seem not worth pursuing. It offers a kind of contrast to what I’ve wanted so desperately, and have strived for uselessly. But it’s only by first chasing something that seems “important” to me that I’m then able to fail and commit to something trivial. It’s almost always more rewarding. And, so, yeah, I wrote these particular 400 words pretty quickly, but I arrived at the moment in which I would write them only through a humbling jumble of missteps, futility, ill-conceived nonsense, and delusion. I mean, these 400 words are also a humbling jumble of missteps and delusion, but they are set of mistakes that are at the very least complete.  

What writing projects are you working on now?

I’m writing something about giants, another thing about airports, something else about board games, and also trying out a collaboration with the wonderful composer Will Aronson. Also, a lot of notes about one thing or another that I think are important at the time but that I will probably never look at again.

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

Recently, I read The Mersault Investigation by Kamel Daoud. It’s fantastic and offers a great, necessary response to The Stranger. I think The New Jim Crow by Michelle Alexander should probably be required reading for anyone living in the U.S.. Melissa Broder’s new essay collection, So Sad Today, is absolutely amazing; super funny, smart, gorgeous, and, yes, sad. The Story of My Teeth by Valeria Luiselli makes me dance because anything is possible. Signs Preceding the End of the World is so unbelievably precise and calculated and still manages to be both contemporary and mythic all at once. There are just too many things to mention. It’s a good time for books.


"I Read as Male in Language": An Interview with Tyler Mills

Tyler Mills is the author of Tongue Lyre, winner of the 2011 Crab Orchard Series in Poetry First Book Award (SIU Press 2013). Her poems have appeared in The New Yorker, Poetry, Boston Review, The Believer, Georgia Review, and Blackbird, and her creative nonfiction won the Copper Nickel Editor’s Prize in Prose. She is editor-in-chief of The Account and an Assistant Professor of English at New Mexico Highlands University in Las Vegas, New Mexico.

Her essay, "Mr. / Signifier," appeared in Issue Seventy-Nine of The Collagist.

Here, Tyler Mills talks with interviewer William Hoffacker about gender, being funny, and writing an essay as dialogue.

What can you tell us about the origins of your essay “Mr. / Signifier”? What sparked the initial idea and caused you to start the first draft?

This essay started as a riff off of the idea of naming in a larger manuscript I’m working on right now, which is a mess of essays about nuclear testing and ways of seeing and being seen. I’ve been thinking a lot about gender, the environment, and the effects of military operations. This essay started out as a meditation on names. I started to think about how I’m read in language: often as a man. The essay then morphed into “Mr. / Signifier.” During most of my childhood, I had no idea why people were often confused when they met me. I didn’t know that I read as male in language. It never occurred to me.

Although this piece is an essay, it is written in a form that resembles free verse. What made you decide that what best suited this material was a structure closer to poetry than the paragraphs of traditional prose?

I was thinking of this essay in the form of a dialogue. I wanted both voices to engage with each other on different lines. When I put the essay in “the paragraphs of traditional prose,” as you’ve said, I lost that energy that happens when I split the voices. In separating them onto different lines, I was kind of thinking about theatre—how the voices of characters appear in a script. I also thought that doing this would help me think about what each voice could do. I wanted to record things that were really said to me, as well as my responses, and I wanted to recreate them in a work that functions—and looks like—a dialogue.

I want to ask about this section:

Mr. Mills, pending your revisions, we would like to publish your fine article.

Thank you. But I’m female. You may call me Tyler.

[No address] As submitted, the syntax of most sentences despite the revisions did not

                recommend publication.

The implication, in my reading, is that this publication venue chose not to publish your work when (i.e., because) they learned you are a woman. How do you see your gender identity affecting your interests as a writer and your publishing career?

This was in response to an article I wrote (and I don’t want to say more than this because I don’t want to call anyone out) where the work was praised up and down when I was “Mr. Mills,” and then the response significantly changed (as you can see) when I clarified things. That’s all I want to say about that in particular. But I can say this: I didn’t want to be called “Mr. Mills” in email after email, so I said something to the editor. What I quickly realized was that “Mr. Mills” could write a “fine article.” But when I “became” a woman, the article lost its value. Basically, I was being told I was incomprehensible, which is something women get all the time. It’s a form of gatekeeping. Could the article have been clearer? Sure, and it became clearer. That’s what editing does for a text. Anyone’s writing can become clearer through the editing process. As much as it would be nice to pretend that sexism doesn’t exist in literary publishing, or other institutions, guess what? It does.

This essay also has its share of lighter, amusing moments, from Urban Dictionary quotes to whispered-about breasts. How often do you prioritize having a sense of humor in your work? Is it a challenge to make your writing funny, or does it happen naturally?

I don’t try to be funny in my work. But it happens sometimes. I don’t think you can make your writing funny. In my life, I like to try to think of things to say to my friends that are really off guard—pushing the envelope, saying something outlandish. I used to love making my mother laugh in church (I’m a terrible human). I like making my sister laugh on the phone. I like trying to make colleagues laugh in meetings. (Basically, I’m the worst.) In the car or at the airport, I like to make my husband/partner laugh. If I get a good snort out of him, I feel like my work is done. It’s sort of a point of pride. I can be kind of quiet, though, so when people see this side of me, they’re surprised sometimes. As for writing, I think the sound of words as they relate to the sense of words is what can make something funny. You can’t force it, though. It’s a form of play, maybe. It just…happens. (Or it doesn’t!)

What writing projects are you working on now?

I’ve finished my second manuscript of poems and am looking for a home for it. Those poems are a companion to the essay project I’ve been writing. And I’ve recently finished a chapbook that engages with Siegfried Kracauer’s Salaried Masses (poems that engage with wage labor between the wars, but in a way that can speak to the present, I hope). And I’ve been writing some other poems aimlessly about theatre and the body (I think). And I’m also revising an article. But I’m trying not to think about that right now because then I feel guilty that I’m not working on it. For instance, I should be working on that right now…

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

I just finished Suzanne Buffam’s A Pillow Book the other evening and recommend it highly. The past few months have also brought me Dana Levin’s Sky Burial, Cate Marvin’s Oracle, and Gary Moody’s Occoquan. And Diane Seuss’s Four Legged Girl. Aaron Rudolph’s work is wonderful: funny and beautiful. I recommend Sacred Things. And just yesterday, I started re-reading Srikanth (Chicu) Reddy’s Readings in World Literature. I’m also slowly reading Sandra Beasley’s Count the Waves with Ocean Vuong’s Night Sky with Exit Wounds. Before I start writing, I’ve been reading a poem from each collection, and then I get to work for a half hour or an hour (whatever time I have). It’s a really great way to set my intention, clear my mind—and fill it with beauty—and begin.



Laurie Stone


In junior high, I would see a girl people whispered about. Her name was Sophia, a heavy, dark-haired girl whose father was a mobster, an Italian mobster, a member of the mafia, Papa Bonfiglio. She lived in a house I used to ride past on my bike, a big house in Lido Beach flanked by Lincoln Continentals that sat humming on the curved driveway like restless sharks. I wondered what went on in that house. I imagined crumbs, a suitcase, cards, and droplets of blood. Sophia had a tough, sad face, and boys made fun of her. It was a time when boys called girls cows and sluts and easy. I did not know Sophia's world, only that it was tinged the color of a dead tooth. Paulo Bonfoglio was a capo in the Lucchese crime family, involved in large-scale narcotic trafficking. Maybe Sophia knew. Does anyone really know what their fathers do? The year I entered 7th grade, my sister returned from college under mysterious circumstances. She was seeing a shrink, and it was supposed to be a secret. She had stolen a wallet from a girl in her dorm. Sophia ate lunch with greasers and punks, and I do not know if we ever spoke. She was a different kind of girl: her hair teased up high, her eyes circled with black. Soon I would look that way.



"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.