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Interview: Lucas Southworth

Lucas Southworth's story "The Glass Coffin" appears in the February 2010 issue of The Collagist. He has stories forthcoming from Mid-American Review and Wigleaf. Other fiction has recently appeared in  CutBank, Harpur Palate, Willow Springs, and Web Conjunctions. "The Glass Coffin" is an excerpt of a novel-in-progress.

1. Can you talk about the inspiration for "The Glass Coffin”? What was on your mind while you were writing this story?

“The Glass Coffin” is part of a novel I’m working on. Recently, a friend of mine read the first draft and suggested I take some of the elements further. As a joke, she mentioned sci-fi. I thought it was a weird idea and decided to try it.

When I began writing Lady Monroe’s story, I was thinking about imagination. Thematically the novel explores areas between memory, imagination, and speculation; how murder can cause those areas to grow, shift, and distort. So I was trying to come up with a character who is more comfortable inventing others than thinking about herself. Lady Monroe is locked up. She might even have done something horrible—possibly she’s a murderer herself—but whatever it is, she cannot or does not want to remember. In a way, I think of Lady Monroe as incomplete. All parts of her have faded until only her imagination remains. In “The Glass Coffin,” we see an instance where she is conscious of herself—she looks at her reflection, she observes her surroundings, she eats—but this is unusual. Really, she’s arrived at the point where she has no connection to her body anymore; she has no memory and no reason to speculate. She’s been whittled down to her imagination, and it’s the only way she can survive.

2. Perhaps the most striking aspect about this story is the fact that although it implies a lot of questions—is this some alternate reality, who are Lady Monroe’s captors, what has she done to deserve such a punishment, what was she before it—the story doesn’t beg those questions. That is, it doesn’t feel incomplete or poorly crafted because readers don’t know that information. What goes into creating a balance like this of details known to the author but withheld from the reader?

I think much of it comes down to descriptive authority. I’ve learned a lot from reading fairy tales and studying the blunt and simple ways they often state the magical or surreal or strange. In a fairy tale, someone drops a comb and it grows into a forest. Readers don’t question it. It’s partly because we’ve come to expect that anything can happen in a fairy tale, but it also works because the descriptions are so simple and straightforward. In a fairy tale, the prose is direct. It doesn’t leave any holes. There’s nothing to question.

Even though everything in the “The Glass Coffin” isn’t explained, I tried to make descriptions of the coffin and its surroundings as exact and authoritative as possible. The descriptions create a setting that doesn’t quite make sense but still seems real. From leading workshops, I’ve seen a lot of writers have trouble with descriptions that are too vague or indirect. There is often the feeling that the writer isn’t exactly sure what images he is trying to describe. I hoped to avoid this as much as possible.

Also, I think readers might be satisfied without all the answers because the main character is satisfied without them. She isn’t really seeking any answers anymore. To Lady Monroe, this information is no longer central to her life. She isn’t interested, and therefore readers aren’t overly interested either.

3. The final paragraph about the boy is so wrenching, especially the way Lady Monroe “envies the boy. She likes how he can take things from others. How he suffers no guilt, or any feelings at all. In this way, she hopes, he is like her. He is like the people who built this coffin and locked her here.” That he is both like her and like them—whoever they might be—seems to be a lovely comment on the way imprisonment works; something about locking away the things we are afraid of in ourselves. What particular fears and desires might we draw out of a piece as spare as this?

Readers get the sense, I hope, that Lady Monroe isn’t a complete victim here. She’s been locked up, probably because she committed a very real crime. I understand why Lady Monroe would want to stop remembering. There are reasons why she should fear memory—it’s inconsistent, its unreliable, it sometimes covers up trauma, and it often allows people to recall their transgressions as viable choices.

When Lady Monroe thinks about memory, there’s a distinct violence to it. Similarly, there’s violence in the way she imagines the boy—he has long, sharp fingers, he’s pursued by nightmares, he has crooked teeth. The violence in that last paragraph comes from inside Lady Monroe. It is trapped within her just as she is trapped within the coffin. This violence has always been there for her, but the she imagines it because of her punishment and isolation. Plus she’s in such a strange stasis. She’s dead but alive. They’ve killed her but she continues to live. She fights yet submits. Much of the novel looks at how we all have a kind of latent violence within. This scares us, and we tend to try to forget that we have the freedom to act on it. Locked up alone, Lady Monroe’s realized she doesn’t even have that option anymore.

4. This story is actually part of a novel in progress, which seems to complicate the issue of information withheld—or perhaps ‘complicate isn’t as accurate a word as ‘agitate.’ Can you speak specifically to your process of excerpting, of making something which, although you know will eventually need to function in longer form, must also stand strongly alone?

Excerpting this novel is easy because I’m writing it in short sections, most of which I hope can stand alone. I try to give each section a kind of arc, although it isn’t always conventional. It does help that this is the first time we see Lady Monroe. Later sections about her probably won’t work by themselves. She’s a new character and I’m still figuring her out, but I think by the end of the book we’ll learn more about the boy and begin to get hints about what Lady Monroe’s done and why she was put in the coffin.

5. What other writing projects are you currently working on?

I’m finishing up a collection of short stories, but it’s one of those projects where I’ve thought it was done quite a few times before. I keep thinking it’s complete and then I’ll write a new story, revise one, or take another one out. Right now, I’m writing what I hope will be a pretty twisted ghost story, which will probably fit in if I want it to. I also just started a website project with a friend, and contribute to another friend’s website, 300reviews.com

6. What great books have you read recently? Are there any upcoming releases you're excited about?

The best book I’ve read recently is David Foster Wallace’s A Supposedly Fun Thing I’ll Never Do Again. Also Mark Leyner’s I Smell Esther Williams is pretty interesting.

I’m not really a reader who anticipates new releases. I usually come to books long after they’ve been released. So I’m not sure I can think of one.

[Interview by Liana Imam]

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