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When asked to describe Lucy Corin’s writing, renowned poet Louise Gluck said “Lucy Corin sounds like no one.” In a world where it seems most writing is derivative of an author or work that came before them, this is the highest praise. And it is well-deserved. Combining aspects of myths, speculative fiction, and narrative collage, Corin’s newest collection One Hundred Apocalypses and Other Apocalypses (McSweeney’s) resists categorization. These apocalypses are not your typical zombie movie fodder. From eating the last piece of cake at a dinner party to watching the state of California burn to a crisp, each story carries it’s own sense of irreversible loss and tragedy, and each character is finely wrought and wholly original. Lucy Corin spoke to Lambda Literary from Rome where, as the winner of the distinguished Academy of Arts and Letters Rome Prize, she is finishing a year-long writing fellowship. Armed with a deep awareness of her strengths and limitations as a writer, she discussed the nearly decade-long construction of this book, America’s secret love of apocalypses, and of course Mad Max.
What was your entry point for this book and how did it differ from your past works?
I was not planning to write another story collection. I was working on a novel, so Apocalypses was my side project. It started when I was driving across the country from a job I had in Virginia to the job I have now in California. It was me and my dog in my car, I had just quit smoking and this trip was like, “Into the future!” I took secondary highways the whole way and tried to aim the car towards as many dramatic landscapes as I could, and then I started writing. A lot of my notes during that trip were about “unpeopled landscapes.” I was interested in how, when you go to tourist spots like the Grand Canyon and you are waiting for people to get out of the way so that you can take a picture of the landscape—that “peoplelessness” is part of the iconic feeling of freedom that is so core to America’s mythology. I started writing about and thinking about that desire for solitude and thinking about what a powerful fantasy that is, that “It’s just me and I’m starting over and I’m wiping the slate clean.” And it strikes me that it’s a really irresponsible fantasy but it’s also this “blank page,” so it has a “political” ring for me and it also has a “narrative form” ring for me.
When I started this job in California and I couldn’t write the novel and I only had tiny little bits of time, I gave myself a challenge, which was to see if I could take any little sentence from my notebook and turn it into a story about the apocalypse as quickly as possible. I worked on those little pieces for seven or eight years.
In an earlier interview you said, [in regards to the short pieces in One Hundred Apocalypses] “It was really integral to the process of writing them to see which pieces editors selected and then to arrange and rearrange the order of the pieces variously for years, a real course for me in something like plotting.” Can you talk a little bit about that?
There are 100 pieces now, but some of them used to be even smaller pieces that I merged and some of the pieces that I published along the way didn’t make it to the book. The way I was raised as a writer was that every single word you write is perfect and the goal of short fiction is this crystalline, “it had to be this way” feeling, and I still cherish that mode of approaching writing. But the sense of freedom that [some people have said they felt] when reading those stories might be the result of me trying really hard to be less precious with my own style. I tried to send things off when I wasn’t ready.
At first I only sent the stories to editors who had published me before, who I could write a non-formal letter to and say, “If you don’t like any of these don’t pick them, but if you like any of them, pick them and I’ll try to make them into something.” Part of what was really great is, based on what the editors picked, I was able to look at the stories very differently in relation to each other and think, “if this one comes first, and this one comes next and this one comes next,” then the point of them is very different—versus if the editors had chosen different stories. As soon as someone else’s stated, or unstated, logic is affecting the order in which you take in information, something really interesting happens with plotting.
How did you decide on the structure for “Eyes of Dogs”? I loved that there were two simultaneous stories, one on the main part of the page and one in the margin.
My friend was doing an anthology of contemporary writers doing their own takes on fairytales and I was invited to contribute. So without going back to the fairytale books I just did a brainstorm of the images that I remembered most strongly and it turned out they were all from Hans Christian Anderson stories, so then I went and picked a story from his collection.
I thought instead of doing just one retelling I would do a double retelling and each narrative would double helix and twist into each other. And then I thought, how would I tell the original story in the first person, in my voice? So the part that is in the margins is essentially my contemporary voice telling the original plot with a much more modern sensibility—that’s really different from a historical sensibility. I like the idea of those two stories, (the main one and the one in the margin) crossing [and] the reader having to make these choices about how to read them.
How did you come up with the concept for “Madmen” [a story that takes place in a society where, upon getting their periods, girls must pick a “mad” person out of an asylum to take care of for the rest of their lives]?
I care a lot about what you might call “the issue of mental illness.” Wrestling with the complexities of a person experiencing reality radically different from yours has been a big part of my life. I’ve felt really alienated my whole life from the depictions of mentally ill people. So I had this one little thought, which was, “What if it was a standard part of our culture to make people have to face it?” Instead of giving them a thousand ways to isolate themselves physically and emotionally from mental illness—even though, depending on which edition of the DSM-V you read, a huge percentage of people are crazy. It’s a lot of us!
I was raised by a Jew and a Catholic who had both had been raised deeply immersed in the rituals of these cultures but had rejected them as adults. I was not raised with any sense of a coming-of-age ritual that came from a history. I thought, “What would it be like if that coming-of-age ritual was, oh you have to face mental illness and bring it into your home and that was a standard part of growing up?”
In this book, the characters generally respond to upheaval and violence and change by clinging to normalcy and pretending that everything is okay, or they really focus on the details of the moment. Do you think that’s how we function as a society in general?
I think that’s how I understand responding to high drama. If I were to speculate psychologically about the role of “detail” in a person’s life, I think when someone says, “Time slows down,” the effect may be that time slows down, but I suspect that the cognitive thing that happens that makes time slow down is that you are paying a lot of attention. When drama happens you are in a heightened state. You are drugged out. Your neurons are alive and you are taking in a lot of information, and so details are [recognizable] in a way that they’re not when you aren’t so engaged.
The way that I think “details” function in terms of drama on the page, and the reason I think it rings true to have concrete detail in certain moments and not others, is that there’s an emotional stake in how we notice things…
Do you have an “apocalypse story” that you love the most?
I definitely have phases where I like some more than others. Sometimes I’ll be able to appreciate one after someone else likes it. I’ll be like, “Oh that’s one that you liked?” And I’ll go back to it and think, “Oh! That’s a nice apocalypse!” I guess the one I have a special place for is one that I really loved and no one else seemed to love as much as I thought they should and it’s “The Lonely Shard.” I just think it’s hilarious and I think it’s so sad!
I love reading from this book because I’ve never had these kind of responses to anything I’ve written. I think it’s because everyone has an apocalyptic fantasy life. People will initially say, “I don’t even like that stuff.” Then you ask them four more questions and find out they absolutely have an apocalyptic fantasy life! And it often connects right to things that are really important to them.
There are a lot dinner party scenes in A Hundred Apocalypses. Are they a form of apocalypse for you?
(Laughs) Seems like it! I think the dinner party is great because it’s a microculture. It’s on a stage—people who host the dinner party have staged it to begin with because they’ve selected the people and made the mood. It’s like people are orchestrating a theater of their lives. You go to a dinner party and either the theater happens or it’s a failed dinner party. I also think there is a certain coming-of-age element to a dinner party. People are acting out what they think it means to be an adult.
You said in an interview recently, “It seems to me that people are mostly at war and there are only moments of peace. So I’ve been thinking that it’s actually strange that novels supposedly begin and end with stasis.” It seems like you were really able to subvert the idea of stasis in this book, there don’t seem to be any endings. Do you feel like you had that idea in mind when you were writing this?
It’s funny because when I wrote the answer to that interview, I was speaking about the novel I’m trying to write right now. But I don’t think it’s an accident that I said that right after writing Apocalypses. It’s funny that you said “there don’t seem to be any endings,” because of course there’s over a hundred.
Of course but you are sort of dropped into these moments and then you’re pulled back out. There’s no winding down. It felt so real, it didn’t feel like a contrived scene even though you wrote it and planned it and plotted it to feel that way.
I like the idea that if there’s stasis in this book…it’s in the space breaks.
While working on your current novel, do you feel like you’ve taken inspiration from the other fellows who are in Rome for your writing or does it feel like their projects are so different that it’s not applicable?
The thing I struggle with in a novel after working in short stories for so long is character. Because in a short story, you can write four things and you’ve got a character and in a novel if you don’t do more than that it’s going to be really boring. I’ve definitely tried to use the fact that in Rome, I’m in a dorm room with grownups, where you see people while they are going through their days and you see them when they are in a good mood and you see them in a bad mood and you see them at their very best and you see them when they are about to lose it, and that’s great. So that better help me! But I can’t say “Oh there’s a person in my book who’s modeled after so and so.” That didn’t happen.
If you could chose your own apocalypse, what would you choose?
What’s my actual post-apocalyptic fantasy? It’s always some all-girl version of Mad Max. The original Mad Max, not the Tina Turner Mad Max.
Would you be the head of the gang?
I’m usually the second in command. You know, there’s the hot head leader and I’m the only one that the hot head can really be true with. I’m the wise quiet voice.
Well, you’re kind of the secret number one in that situation, but you don’t have the responsibility of being out in front.
Right, very feminine.