Lynn Lurie is the author of Corner of the Dead, winner of the 2007 Juniper Prize for Fiction, University of Massachusetts Press (2008) and Quick Kills, Etruscan Press. We recently had a delightful conversation about her writing, which I am happy to share with you.
I’m sure you’re asked to talk about the framing of Quick Kills often, so I apologize if it’s become tedious, but the use of vignettes and the ordering of the vignettes is so vital to the book, how did the crafting take place for you? The choices are so clearly deeply intentional, I could imagine the book being utterly different with slightly different ordering.
Pieces of the story emerge and I don’t know if it’s a story or a jumble of sentences. Many times it is the latter. I heard Michael Ondaatje speak years ago and he said something like, “I could throw the chapters in the air and how they land would be the book.” I think he was making the point that no book can be ordered that way, irrespective of how it is written. For me, the ordering of memory differs from how I would order a story that doesn’t rely on the emotional content to move the narrative forward. This was the most difficult part of writing QK. It was important to be true to the emotion evoked by the remembering, which often meant not following a logical trajectory of events.
This is a horrifying book, by which I mean a book which concerns itself with horrors: being hunted, being pursed, being victimized, helplessness. And Corner of the Dead, your first novel, is obviously also concerned with violence and the people who commit it. I don’t want this to be a pat “why do you write about such awful things?” but I would love to know more about your thoughts on suffering.
QK is a difficult book for me as much of the narrator’s shame and hopelessness is familiar. The facts are different but the emotional weight, which is what is most important for me, feels very close to truth. Walking unprotected through childhood, where adults were aware but did not respond, happened.
I would love to write something comical. Sometimes I give myself a prompt that in any one else’s hands would likely produce humor, but not in mine. I have to make a concerted effort to see the beauty in the world and where I most want to find it is in human interaction.
My daughter was reading through the manuscript of QK and I heard her laugh. I was momentarily excited. Maybe, I hoped, QK is funny. She was reading the part where the narrator and her sister are in synagogue and are laughing when it is totally inappropriate and the narrator says, “Every time I try to think of something to make me stop, Father dying, Mother leaving, I only laugh louder.” This sort of tragic humor is what I am capable of.
I find that beautifully candid, and I’m wondering where you DO want to go next, with your work, in terms of themes or projects or styles?
I am working on short stories. I have a few out there but I find it extremely difficult. The precision and compression, yet swiftness, of the short story is daunting. Legal writing, which I did for many years, requires accuracy and economy. This skill gets in the way when I try to write a short story as I revert to a highly structured form, which interrupts imagination.
I don’t have an interest in writing a longer novel. Corner of the Dead and QK are probably closer to novellas. A longer novel would, I think, require a writer of a sounder mind. I can’t imagine having a plot line or an outline or a list of characters and then actually following a guide of this sort. Writing for me is very much about ending up somewhere new. I have this image of Alice falling down the rabbit hole, if she had somehow stopped her fall with a plot line, we would have no Alice.
Quick Kills brought home to me how many novels I read are “New York novels,” or written with that sensibility, and that your work seems far more influenced by your time in South America, can you talk a little about what impact your work and travel has had on your writing?
In the early 1980s I joined the Peace Corps. I lived in a remote highland indigenous village, a five-hour bus ride from Quito. While a place of incredible natural beauty—at the foothills of the great snow capped Chimborazo Mountain– life was terribly difficult and there was little hope it would improve. Yet the people were resolute, valiant and had an unparalleled dignity, from where it derived I still cannot say. Their ‘owner’ had ‘sold’ them what was their land long before the conquest and the mortgages were so great they and their children would remain enslaved. Land reform was the new name for a very old system.
Quechua was the language and the women had a rudimentary knowledge of Spanish. The men spoke a broken Spanish, which subjected them to ridicule outside the village. I sat with them in the back of buses. I waited with them at the end of lines at government ministries, listened to how they were addressed, felt their response to racism and prejudice. I, too, had felt the weight of being less than, of being the other and learned from them as they moved through demeaning situations and emerged determined. The narrator of QK is so aware of her outsider status it is what fuels her destructive tendencies.
Corner of the Dead was initially about illness. I rewrote the story because I didn’t want to read about a sick child. Political terror and illness share certain traits. You do not know who will be dead in the morning. You have no control. There is no one to protect you. The enemy is everywhere. Those who are supposed to know make wrong calls that cost lives and the rules are always changing. Similarly, the narrator of QK is not protected, has relinquished any control she might have had, and is confronted with dangers she is ill equipped to negotiate.
I did not experience the political terror described in Corner of the Dead. It was occurring in Peru when I was in Ecuador. I had been briefly to the zones where the Shining Path was operational. Yet it remained distant. It wasn’t until I revised Corner of the Dead that I returned to Peru and read the testimonies of the survivors and re-visited communities destroyed by violence.
I feel like I am a writer from New York, though. I listen to the language and the noise of the street. That which sustains me is New York’s accessible energy and its pulse. It is a city of grit and beauty. I love being able to listen and watch. I never feel alone here– someone’s lights are always on. I am pretty reclusive. I have a dog to take me out.
Part II can be found here.
Nicole is an Editor of The Toast.