An Interview with Lucy Corin
By Collin Berry and Kimberly Papa
Lucy Corin is the author of the short story collection The Entire Predicament (Tin House Books) and the novel Everyday Psychokillers: A History for Girls (Fiction Collective 2).Stories have appeared in American Short Fiction, Conjunctions, Ploughshares, Tin House Magazine, New Stories from the South: The Year's Best and a lot of other places. She's been a fellow at Brea Loaf and Sewanee, and a resident at Yaddo and the Radar Lab. She's currently working on a book of a hundred very small apocalypses and a novel about the brain. Lucy Corin holds a BA from Duke University and an MFA from Brown. She's an Associate Professor at University of California, Davis where she teaches in the English Department and Creative Writing Program along with fiction writers Pam Houston, Lynn Freed, and Yiyun Li, and poets Joshua Clover, Joe Wenderoth, and Alan Williamson. Fiction by Corin appeared in West Branch 64, Spring/Summer 2009.
West Branch: In Everyday Psychokillers: A History for Girls, the main character comments on her friendships throughout the novel, saying, "Each time I took a girl to heart I could feel aspects of myself uncoiling from my personality, from the mass tangle of my little history. I heard her speak and watched her behave and I placed myself in her terms, so she might comprehend me..." As an author, do you share a similar relationship to your characters? To what extent are their voices independent of your voice in the narrative?
Lucy Corin: Yes, I think I do have this relationship with characters, though I don't think I ever thought of that line like that before. When I wrote that book, I don't remember thinking very metafictionally at all, but I certainly find myself reading for relationships like that. Just yesterday I was trying to think about the ways Clarissa in Mrs. Dalloway is like a writer. She's "the perfect hostess" (a title Clarissa herself doesn't like), bringing people together and hoping they'll "talk" to each other. That seems very writerly to me, in a post-nineteenth-century/modern way. I think Peter, another character in the book, says something like, "One of the nice things about getting older is you can hold people up and turn them around in the light." That sense of perspective is also very writerly, but in a much more traditionally authoritative way. This idea of thinking of the world in "terms" of characters is very dear to me, and I sometimes think that all a character is is a more or less closed set of terms. As for voice, I have a hard time pretending that characters are anything outside of me, that there is any meaningful difference between my voice and a character's voice. It's all writing, and I'm the one writing it. I never say anything like "then the characters just took over." It's not that I think I control the narrative; I just don't think I'm a mother or a god when I write. I think more in terms of the uncontainability of words, how much they bring with them that has nothing to do with me at all. In writing, the element that's outside of me isn't so much character as language.
WB: Given that you write about mass murder in Everyday Psychokillers and physical deformity, mental illness and homosexuality in The Entire Predicament, we're curious about the research that enabled you to create those characters and narrative voices.
LC: So, just to clarify, because I think this is a really interesting and complicated question, in EPK, while I do write about some mass killings (I think of mass murder as a bunch of people killed at once (either by an individual, like when someone "goes postal" and shoots into a crowd, or when the killing is done by something like an institutional force, as in war or genocide), I was mostly interested in serial killers—in particular, those who kill in a systemized, patterned, and often encoded one-after-another sort of way. So I did literal research. I read newspapers, popular accounts, and scholarly books. (Mark Seltzer's book Serial Killers: Death and Life in America's Wound Culture was really important to me as I went from early drafts to later drafts of the book.) But I connected to what I was learning about what serial killers do, or are said to do, through the idea of seriality, pattern-making, of things repeated, of ritualization, of the conscious production of a narrative. In other words, to the way that reading, writing, thinking—fantasizing and making my fantasies concrete—things I do every day—were related to what the psychokillers in my research were said to be doing. And what I think you really need to do when you write about something is to connect to it—and connecting to something isn't a given just because you experience it. It's always a deeply imaginative thing to do—to really connect to something.
It's interesting that you mention mental illness in the stories, because I am only now, in the stuff I'm working on, taking on the idea of "mental illness" in a direct way in my fiction. There are a lot of "unstable" people in my stories, but I think interesting things happen when people are feeling unstable (which I don't think is the same as being "mentally ill"—it's a complicated question and a fraught term, the meaning of which is under a lot of debate). I'm interested in emotional intensity, and almost always bored to pieces when I read anything that thinks it's depicting something "everyday" or "relatable" (possibly my least favorite word ever—if it even is a word!). First, I think lives are usually extreme and intense, at least to the people living them, and the idea of some "typical" way of life or kind of person is a total construct anyway, not to mention a culturally deadening/dehumanizing one. When it comes to people who are violent, I tend to write about them in a way that is focalized through an observer, often a female observer, but so far always a non-violent observer, a person who is wondering at what they are seeing, trying to access an understanding of it: it's mysterious behavior, but it's everywhere, and it affects me, so I need to contend with that in some way. And that's the way I think I depict it.
But different subjects demand different kinds of relationships because of the limits of what I know or have been able to learn or bothered to pay close attention to. I write about gay people, for instance, just because there are gay people in the world and in my life, so I think they should be in my stories. Plus I personally identify as gay. Or queer, actually, is the word I usually use. So I do feel like I have a different kind of access to the perspective of a queer person because I've spent a lot of time thinking about that perspective, from living my individual version of it, and from being interested in queer perspectives when I encounter them in my life or my reading. I don't want to give the impression that you can only take on the perspective of a person who is literally "like you" in some broad demographic way. But I do think that if you are going to represent someone who is "other" for you or that you expect will be "other" for your reader, you need to do it with integrity; you need to be intently tuned in to the social and political complexities of the world you're fooling with. I think integrity can be accomplished in any number of ways, and I do my best in each individual story, according to the narrative perspective of that story.
It was really fun for me to write from the perspective of a baby in a body cast, though, because it was entirely imaginary. No one gets to know what that's "really like," so I can just go for it, imaginatively, and work to be really true to the reality within the story. Anyhow, different conditions require different work for me to make the necessary connection. The important thing, and probably the hard thing, is to know what kind of work you have to do and be willing to do it.
WB: To borrow a phrase from the narrator of Everyday Psychokillers, you often close the "safe distance" people place between themselves and those who are "other." The absence of that distance often made us, as readers, uncomfortable. For example, certain depictions of violence in both your novel and the short story "The Entire Predicament" were difficult for us to read. Yet, experiencing discomfort—and feeling, to some extent, implicated—eventually led us to a deeper understanding of these works and, perhaps, of the human "predicament."
LC: There have been times when I've been reading and thought violence, especially to animals, was an easy route to manipulating a reader's visceral response without taking responsibility for it. What that entails (and I really don't like the word "responsibility"—it's used so often to mean something like puritanical morality, which is not at all what I am after at here) is hard to put a finger on, but I think about it a lot. A mean thing to do to someone is to inflict something on her, or dare her to inflict it herself. I've sometimes reread my own stuff and wondered if I did something like that—depicting something awful just because I could or to revel in it or something. Though I think there's a place for titillation, too. I think titillation is an important and complex human experience. I'm really interested in atrocity and my ability to live safe from it. I find it astonishing that something can exist in the world and not affect me or, depending on your world view—like if you believe that everything is connected—not "seem" to affect me. I think of the imagination, guided by art or other media, as the link between distant or separated entities. Something like empathy, but with more tentacles. So I think my job as a writer, and what I am doing as I perform the act of writing, is to travel those distances as intently as possible, to track and record the vicissitudes along the way. Honestly, I'm sure I don't always maintain in my own work the integrity I ask of the things I read, but I am always striving for it. Certainly that delicate balance depends on who's reading at what moment in his life, too. So I do my best when I work on something to ask myself and my reader to take in difficult and complicated things, but I try to do it in a way that is about the complexities of making connections across difference. And yes, as you say, I think that's the human predicament. I think we are part of the things we witness, know, and imagine.
WB: What writers have influenced your work? Do you find yourself frequently revisiting particular authors or stories?
LC: The first book that got me thinking about narrative shape in an abstract way was Günter Grass's Cat and Mouse, which I read when I was young, maybe twelve or thirteen. I'm only realizing now that so much of the way I write comes from there, particularly its opening pages. The short story that taught me most about writing short stories is O'Connor's "A Good Man Is Hard To Find." That, and Donald Barthelme's "The School." Robert Coover's Pricksongs and Descants changed everything for me with those square shapes on the page. Dostoyevsky's Notes from Underground was very important, and led to a lot of my interest in the first person and various intense romps I love, like Invisible Man. I think of Lolita as a perfect novel. I think of Bolaño's 2666 as a book that isn't interested in being perfect and blows my mind in a million ways that make being perfect irrelevant. Rebecca Brown's The Dogs taught me that a fantasy doesn't have to be anything other than a person's fantasy in order to be profound and moving. Lydia Davis taught me that I can make a story out of anything and that to try to do it as quickly as possible is interesting. They both helped me understand why I love Kafka. I also got a lot of my sense of what it is to be a writer by reading the letters of Ezra Pound and the letters of Jane Bowles.
WB: Your mention of Coover's "square shapes on the page" makes us think of your "Small Apocalypses," some of which appeared in West Branch 64. How does experimenting with structure and visual presentation of text change things for you?
LC: Well, I don't to a ton with visual shape, not the way poets do and not the way some fiction writers breaking down the edges of the genre do. (I'm thinking of, say, Carole Maso or Thalia Field.) I do think about the shape of the traditional physical form of fiction: sentences, paragraphs, scenes / space breaks, chapters. I was first drawn to the short story because of the way it tries to crystallize the world, the tidiness of it, the satisfying symmetries, the nothing-out-of-place. The story is a magical place where meaning is visible. I think a lot in terms of simple math and equations when I write. I'll make up rules for myself, like "if it comes up once it has to come up in two different ways by the end of the story (or paragraph, or sentence)" and if not I have to cut it. I think of compositional weight, like in a painting, but with the things in my stories—the characters, the settings, the number of scenes, the kinds of scenes, how dialogue is distributed, things like that. In the same way, I think of visual aspects of the text. If I don't want anything to jump out, I try to make the paragraphing "natural," that is, not anything you'd really notice. But making something look like something can have all kinds of effects—on pacing, for instance, or on tone. I even think of it on the level of words. For instance, it bothers me a lot that some magazines' usage standards call for numbers to be like 1000 instead of the words one thousand. It feels totally different to read a number than to read a word. They're like different words. I write practically no nonfiction, but I did write a little article called "Material" in The Writer's Notebook, a collection of craft essays at Tin House, about visual aspects of fiction.
WB: What are you working on now? Will you continue to work in both short fiction and the novel?
LC: Yes—stories and novel. I recently finished a project called A Hundred Apocalypses, which is a hundred microfictions about the apocalypse and apocalyptic thinking. It's kind of my good-bye to American, or maybe particularly hipster American, self-importance. That's under submission to book publishers but parts of it are scattered around the web and in magazines like West Branch. I'm also working on a novel, which, formally, is very long and fluid, with hardly any paragraphs. It's about the brain. And I have a few stories that seem to be on their way to being part of another collection, down the road.