April Ayers Lawson’s first book Virgin and Other Stories was published by FSG on November 1st. The stories in Virgin blew me away with their strange sexy intelligence and overall aliveness. Lawson’s characters felt both familiar and otherworldly and I did not want the book to end because I did not want to stop inhabiting their worlds even when those worlds were rife with pain. In a recent interview with Vice Lawson spoke of society’s notions of “good” and “bad” and she said “At, say, a conservative Christian college, you can walk in and catch someone drinking or in the act of fornicating, but you can’t walk in and catch the condition of someone’s heart,” it seems to me though that this is precisely what Lawson herself has managed do in Virgin and Other Stories, she has caught the condition of the human heart and it is a wild and beautiful thing.
Mesha Maren: I want to ask you about the role of discomfort in your writing, discomfort in terms of your characters’ discomfort and unease but also discomfort in terms of your readers and yourself as the writer. The characters in almost all of your stories ebb and flow in and out of moments of extreme mental, physical and emotional discomfort and even danger and as a reader I was likewise very often uncomfortable, sometimes even physically uncomfortable while reading these pieces. Some short stories can feel like they are arcing towards a place of comfort and reassurance but these pieces did not let me off the hook quite that easily; you made me sit in that sort exhilaratingly uncomfortable place where a child who interacts sexually with an adult man can both call her relationship to him “love” and also run out of the room crying when she is told that what he did to her was wrong. I got the distinct feeling while reading Virgin that you, the writer, were perhaps at times yourself uncomfortable with your characters and their choices. These stories did not feel entirely controlled by the writer, in fact they felt at times as if the characters were taking over in ways that were a little out of control.
April Ayers Lawson: I’m glad they came across that way to you. I don’t get into writing them unless I get to a place where what’s coming out seems both surprising and inevitable; and getting to that place is so hard because a part of me doesn’t want to let go. I need to write into being upset, to tap into that energy (which could be what helps me lose it a little and have to let go); and I don’t understand why I need that in a way some other writers don’t. The other day my roommate, who works at a bookstore, was talking about how some people come in and tell him they want a good book that isn’t upsetting in any way, and I said something mocking like, “Yes, here is a story for you in which John has a fine day that then gets better.” But then I have to confront that not everyone when they’re upset reaches for a Lars Von Trier film for comfort, for example, and that it makes sense they don’t; I mean that’s what I wanted the other day when I got upset about something; I think a part of me finds confronting the dark side of things more comforting than avoiding it, though typically only when the vision of it is coming to me by way of someone with a strong and complex moral consciousness; and when that is not there I do feel repelled; to me it doesn’t matter if the stuff happening is technically upsetting stuff; what matters is the artist’s vision of the world and of behavior that I’m picking up on by the tension and sense of significance that’s coming off of whatever is happening. Some contemporary stuff that I don’t connect to—well it’s usually because there’s no complex moral sense underlying it. To have substance in art you have to get into some disturbing territory.
MM: Bodies play a big role in Virgin and Other Stories—female bodies, male bodies, transgender bodies, children’s bodies. You really inhabit the bodies that you write (I was particularly struck by the narrator from “Vulnerability”’s comment, “I wore a pink lace mini skirt that had been designed for a shorter woman” and all that that tiny description tells us about her) and your characters all really focus on each others’ bodies (the whole book begins with the line “Jack hadn’t meant to stare at her breasts, but there they were, absurdly beautiful”). While reading these close on-the-body narratives I couldn’t help but wonder how it felt for you as a cis-gendered woman to write from the point of view of cis-gendered men. I know that in a past interview you said that you achieved this POV through close observation but I’m curious if it feels different to you to write men or teenage boys than to write women or girls and if there were any technical challenges that you ran up against.
AAL: I’ve never thought about this. I’m worried about saying something totally obvious for a lot of people that I don’t realize is totally obvious, but—I don’t go around feeling like a woman when I’m alone. When I’m alone, I don’t feel gendered. Aren’t a lot of people like that? Or not? I mean, I assumed, but maybe I’m wrong. How do you feel? I’ve never asked anyone. When in the presence of men I do feel like a woman. Men make me feel like a woman. But when they’re not around I don’t feel particularly gendered. When they’re not around I feel unisex. When I write from the perspective of a man I think the actual physical vibe of it comes from my accumulated experience around men I’ve been close to—like absorbing it from them. While I have not had the urge to have actual sex with a woman I feel like from looking at magazines and movies and absorbing what I get from being around guys I can (and do) shift into a mode in which I see a woman sexually. Like if I’m close to a guy and realize what kind of ass he most prefers I can then see it as if through him. As if I myself desire what he does and am attracted to it. I don’t know if & how much other women have this experience. I have sometimes thought I absorb more than what’s average to absorb around other people.
MM: Huh, that’s really interesting, I’ve never considered my own gender in exactly those terms (how I feel when I’m by myself versus around men) although I definitely relate to what you are saying in terms of my gender being augmented by certain circumstances. I think gender is a lot more fluid than we pretend that it is and that makes a lot of sense to me that you would feel differently in the presence of other people because it also seems to me that gender is constructed at least partially through other people’s perceptions of our physical selves and what those other people reflect back to us. Which reminds me of something else I wanted to ask you about perspective and Point of View. I read in your interview with Lorin Stein where you said that “when a story is about women, it makes more sense to me to feel them from the perspective of a man.” I’m wondering if you can elaborate on this and I am also curious to know if your stories were always narrated by the voices that narrate them now, that is to say, did you ever consider telling them from a different POV before landing on the POV in the published versions?
AAL: I think it may have to do with the whole thing of me as a person feeling more like a woman around men? And then feeling I suppose what you could call androgynous when alone. But also I really love contrast—artistically I mean—and there’s a high level of contrast that comes from viewing one gender through the perspective of a different gender. Sometimes I switch around POV a lot. I have many false starts before I hit the right POV and tone with something. It can be deeply frustrating to find what finally feels right.
MM: As I read your stories I found myself wondering what aspect of the stories came to you first—was it a character’s voice, an image or the idea of, say a woman who paints men who look like her abuser? At least two of your stories (I’m thinking of “Virgin” and “The Negative Effects of Homeschooling”) have a structure that goes something like this: present scene—loop into flashback—end back in original present scene, and I am particularly curious where your thoughts and imagination began with those pieces.
AAL: Hmm, I don’t know. What happens is that something I hit on acts as a trigger in sending me into the writing trance (which I often have a hard time giving myself to). And whatever it is—well it may not even be something I use. Then at that point something else takes over and does it in a way I could never do in a state of normal consciousness. And afterwards there’s the feeling of, How did that happen? In regards to what gave me the idea for particular stories, the seeds—I don’t tell people because that leads into the question of, How much of the story is autobiographical and I think it’s better for the stories that people don’t know where they came from, what they grew from. I think it is a great question though. Structurally . . . well I think I kind of used to try to copy Alice Munro. Because the loops into flashback—well it’s not just one linear chunk of flashback; I move around the pieces until they feel right to me compositionally. They’re probably demented imitations of Alice Munro structures I admired during my most developmental years in writing. I love how she structures stories. I identify with her in multiple ways. Maybe this does or doesn’t have anything to do with it, but I don’t have the typical literary pedigree and neither does she. I did do a low-residency program that I think allowed me to escape the kind of cookie-cutter thing that can happen at some MFA programs, to some students. I think MFA programs can be great—I’m so glad I did one. Fortunately I had mentors who knew how to give me constructive criticism without attempting to extinguish what made me different as a writer (because sometimes what makes you different as a writer looks to other people like a problem). But with programs in general there’s always some potential danger in approach; there’s a fine line between it being a nurturing thing for a writer and a thing that stamps and confines; and then in some cases maybe it’s both. Imagine how at one point Munro might have been workshopped by the more rigidly prescriptive types of teachers. Anyway, I’m aware that how I make stories would be a no-no in workshops led by certain kinds of writers.
MM: Your stories are extremely precise, no flab. Their sharpness made me wonder what your revision process is like. I know some writers who don’t begin until they know the whole story in their heads and then they basically write it down and are done and I know others (myself included) who draft and redraft and redraft for years. I read somewhere that you tape pages of your stories to the wall, is this part of your revision process?
AAL: Yes. When I get to a certain point with a draft I need to see it flat on the wall. I had a visual art background before I started writing stories. Did you do any other form of art before you became a writer that affects approach, you think? For a long time I was more like a visual art person who wished she could write a story. I’m like you in needing redraft. Which also I never want to do. It takes such a big push. I’ll hit a point and realize, Have to start over again. Once I’m in, it’s okay. But before I’m in—well it reminds me of jumping in the pool at the Y during winter. I mean, I used to go to this YMCA where there was an outside break between the locker room and the pool entrance. So getting there you’d be freezing from the shower you have to take before entering the pool, and in the pool area the water would be cool also—they heated it just enough for it to not freeze you--and I would know that once I jumped in it and got moving it would be fine but that there would be this moment in which I’d feel so cold and wet and jarred and would think, Why do I even do this to myself? And then I’d be swimming and glad I was swimming. I feel like that about redrafting. Like dread; then a pep talk to myself about how it’ll be when I break past the dread, past that shock of resistance to the state of being immersed and in flow. In most cases, I revise quite a lot. I think it would be nice to be able to know the whole thing in my head and then write it down but it won’t work that way for me.
MM: In reference to your question about other forms of art, I’ve never really been serious about any other form of art besides writing, although now that I think about it I did become kind of obsessed with photography when I was in high school. I’m not sure if it affects my writing now, but maybe, yeah, I do feel like I approach writing from an image-based standpoint instead of starting with a plot idea or a character even, sometimes a story will start with nothing more than an image of blue curtain or something and then I have to tease out the rest of what surrounds that image.
It makes sense to me that you put your stories up on the wall and look at them that way because in reading your pieces I got the sense that you were always very aware of how the parts fit together to make a whole. There is a great, very satisfying sense of movement between the various stories in Virgin, a sort of thematic conversation between the stories that is to me much more impactive than the kind of overt connections that exist in many so called “linked” short story collections (with repeated characters or settings). Can you talk about your process of turning your singular stories into a whole book. How did you decide on the order? Were there other stories that you wrote that didn’t fit into this collection that you chose to cut or pieces that you wrote specifically for the collection? How did they come together?
AAL: Thank you very much for saying that. By not being happy with what I write until I hit into a deep place I end up getting into what really concerns me. Concerns me in a way that is not fleeting. For a long time I was fascinated by the idea of painting other people and of being painted/drawn. I have experience with both. As anyone who reads my stuff probably guesses I’ve gone through some serious trauma and so know how to write about those states in an emotionally true way. Some people get upset about other people saying writing is therapy. For me—maybe sometimes it is, I don’t know for sure; I actually don’t care; all I ultimately care about is if the story works, if it feels like it’s alive, like something significant is happening in the process, and any spiritual and psychological benefit that’s included, Well great; I’m happy to get as much out of it as I can. I didn’t throw out anything. I knew Vulnerability would be last because of the gravity and darkness there. After Vulnerability, Virgin is the darkest. So in my mind it was moving from darker to lighter and lighter and then for a long period, through Vulnerability, getting darker and darker. But then ending suddenly with light.
MM: Ekphrasis plays a fairly large role in Virgin. Your characters value art (the Wyeth paintings, the piano, the bat paintings) very highly and in general it seems that in this book art becomes a sort of measuring stick, something to weigh the rest of the world against and again and again your characters choose art: the narrator in “Negative Effects of Homeschooling” prefers the Helga paintings over almost all of the real live women in his life, Miss Grant chose the piano over her fiancé, the narrator in “Vulnerability” follows her intense feelings for the bat paintings and in the process moves further away from her husband. Most of your characters are also themselves artists (cellists, pianists, sculptors, writers, painters). You mentioned above that you have a background in visual art and I wondered how you see the role of art—music, visual art, writing— in your life?
AAL: While I did play piano for a long time growing up, as an adult I don’t play it very much, though I’d like to have one again at some point. The bigger question here, I think—well I did go through a period where I worried I was an art monster. Maybe that sounds hilarious. But I heard that term thrown around somewhere about something else, and got to worrying about it in regards to myself. Then though I decided something about the term in itself seemed off to me. There’s this Leonard Cohen quote the poet Yahi Lababidi brought to my attention: “He can love the shape of human beings, the fine and twisted shapes of the heart. It is good to have among us such men, such balancing monsters of love.” And I thought, that’s what I want to be as an artist; I want to be a monster of love, in the sense of I’m looking to write about human beings and types of intimacy in a way that feels true to me, which means disturbing and tender stuff, and it’s an act of love. In “The Negative Effects Of Homeschooling” I don’t think he prefers Helga so much as gets off on looking at the pictures. The girl in his life he likes—well he’s way more into her than she is into him; maybe Helga is like a temporary escape from the pain of that. While in “Vulnerability” the protagonist does move towards the bats she then finds herself attached to a human being in a disturbingly intense, flawed way. What I’m going for ultimately with these stories is connection. I don’t think of audience in a general way (though certainly some of these stories have been written with a few particular readers at the edges of my consciousness) and yet I also know I am seeking connection. And the way this book moves—I see it stumbling towards human connection.
MM: Monsters of love, that’s amazing! And yes, human connection, I definitely get a strong sense of that from your writing. I want to ask you a little about your path as a writer. You dedicated Virgin to your grandmother Francis who you said “in other circumstances might’ve had a lot more schooling and written in the professional sense.” I’m curious about the circumstances that led you to become a fiction writer.
AAL: I was in a graduate program to certify as a high school art teacher. I didn’t like it though; it didn’t seem right for me. In a bookstore I picked up “Portrait Of A Lady” by Henry James. I started thinking, if I switch to an English MA I can basically get a master’s degree for reading and thinking about stuff I like to read anyway for two years. Then after I switched to that I saw I could take a story-writing class as an elective. While before that writing a story would’ve seemed impossible I had by that time too in a bookstore read a story called “Solid Objects” by Virginia Woolf that caused something to click in my head about story writing. To make it seem possible. I read it there in the store aisle, standing. I thought, “Oh” and put it back on the shelf. Then when I saw the opportunity to take the class, I signed up. My teacher, the writer Scott Ely, at the end of the class talked me into doing an MFA program. (Which for my life at that time had to be low-residency). He has passed on since. I will be forever grateful he gave me the permission to do it. Caused me to think I could do this thing that to a lot of people would sound nuts to invest in. I think at that time I had the idea literary fiction writers came from an elite class of people—like they had to go to Ivy League schools and then live in NYC. They couldn’t be first-generation college students from Greenville, SC.
MM: Your short stories are, to me, very political (you write about a lot of “hot button” topics: sexual abuse, sexual assault, transgender issues) but in a subversive and complicated way; you never hold the reader’s hand to make sure that we “get it,” in fact you leave a whole lot of moral gray area. The stories are highly charged without being polemic and they are to me all the more powerful because they refute the categories of “right” and “wrong” and show human beings in all their messy in-betweenness. However, you do begin the final story, “Vulnerability” with the rather pointed Margaret Atwood quote “Men are afraid that women will laugh at them. Women are afraid that men will kill them.” I’m wondering what your process was like in regards to the political nature of your work. As a reader when I came to the place in the book where the Atwood quote is I thought “Aha! yes, here is a tiny overt moment that contextualizes all of the covert, slippery observations that I have been seeing throughout this book.” I also know that you’ve said that while writing “Vulnerability” you questioned yourself and asked “shouldn’t I write something with a more obviously positive message for women who’ve been abused or are still going through it?” I feel strongly that it is not the role of art to provide “positive messages” or good role models but rather to show the super complicated realities of being human but I’m curious to know your thought process in choosing the Atwood quote and in choosing to not turn “Vulnerability” into a “positive message” story.
AAL: About the Atwood quote—well I’ve had a few moments with men in which I’ve become very aware of the physical power dynamic. About contrived positive messages—I remember at one point on the phone with my agent Rebecca Nagel saying something like, “maybe at the end of this book I need to add a story about a healthy relationship, with a happy ending.” And she said something like, “What you need to do is write like yourself.” Which cracked me up because it was so true; what I was suggesting did not sound like me. I think what was going on was I was worried over people getting upset with me about it. It’s like my writer self knows I want to write about the super complicated realities of being human but my more surface self is like, Why are you so dark? Because I have much more positive relationships with people than most of my characters do. The artistic self does what it does and the more social self is sometimes like, Well look what you’ve done now. As in an, Now I have to deal with people reacting to this and it may be quite awkward sense. Even as in a, People might get upset with me sense. Which some people have. Someone who interviewed me—she was quite direct about how much that story had upset her and I don’t think it was a compliment like it is in this case; it was just a fact. The question implied seemed, Why would you want to do this to a reader? And I respected that, respected her, because she was super insightful about the book, missed nothing. So I couldn’t dismiss that perspective. Had to just be like, “Well . . .”
I guess they [the stories] are political in a sense because something else I worried about after finishing the book was that I’d committed some act of political incorrectness; whenever I’m really honest I worry as much about self-righteous liberal people attacking me as I worry about self-righteous conservative Christian people attacking me. Also though I realize that’s just an artist thing—like how you need to think maybe someone is going to get mad at you for writing this, as a kind of energy. If no one hates it, or if no one reacts strongly enough to go out of her way to say something insulting about it, it’s probably not real art.
MM: Yes, I agree entirely and your stories very much have that kind of energy to them, that electric aliveness that comes from a raw emotional and intellectual honesty which sometimes does transgress across lines of political correctness. There is a kind of bracing vibrancy to your work that I imagine comes from the fact that, while you might later wonder if the pieces are politically correct, in the moment it seems that you let the characters really go and open up to their darkest, wildest, strangest selves.
One last thing that I’m curious about is the relationship between your Christian faith and your intellectualism. I feel like the literary/intellectual culture in America tells us that one can’t both go to church on Sunday and read Goethe and write literature. I’ll admit that I myself was surprised/confused when I first heard you described as a “Christian writer.” I suppose that I assumed that while you came from a deeply religious background that you must have left that behind, but I gather that that is not true and the more that I think about it the more that I wonder why we believe that there is or ought to be such a chasm between literary writing and the active practice of religion.
AAL: That’s a wonderful question. All of these are. Thank you. For a while, I had a very hard time with reconciling the parts of myself that when I was younger . . . well that I was by various influences led to think didn’t/couldn’t fit together. I’m a very analytical and logical person. But I’m also spiritual and intuitive. At some point though, in reading CS Lewis and Huston Smith I found what I guess you could call role models of a type. People who are intellectually rigorous and also religious. Who have a zillion questions and aren’t afraid to dive into them. Huston Smith writes, “There is within us—in even the blithest, most lighthearted among us—a fundamental dis-ease. It acts like an unquenchable fire that renders the vast majority of us incapable in this life of ever coming to full peace. This desire lies in the marrow of our bones and the deep regions of our souls. All great literature, poetry, art, philosophy, psychology, and religion tries to name and analyze this longing. We are seldom in direct touch with it, and indeed the modern world seems set on preventing us from getting in touch with it by covering it with an unending phantasmagoria of entertainments, obsessions, addictions, and distractions of every sort. But the longing is there, built into us like a jack-in-the-box that presses for release . . . Whether we realize it or not, simply to be human is to long for release from mundane existence, with its confining walls of finitude and morality.” At this point in my life, for me personally, the question doesn’t seem to be How can I be both intellectual and believe in God, but rather how can I not be?