Memory, Grief, Hope: A Conversation with Mary South

Mary South is a graduate of Northwestern University and the MFA program in fiction at Columbia University. For many years, she has worked with Diane Williams as an editor at the literary journal NOON. She is also the recipient of a Bread Loaf work-study fellowship and residences at VCCA and Jentel. Her writing has appeared in American Short Fiction, The Baffler, The Believer, BOMB, The Collagist, Conjunctions, Electric Literature, Guernica, LARB Quarterly, The New Yorker, NOON, The Offing, The White Review, and Words Without Borders. Maile Meloy awarded her story “Not Setsuko” an honorable mention in the Zoetrope: All Story fiction contest.

Krys Malcom Belc: I love this book. Congratulations. It has really strong thematic threads that I picked up and that I know other readers and interviewers have picked up on, but it also has this variety of story forms, so it feels thematically connected, but also a lot is changing throughout the text, which I found super exciting. I noticed that some of the stories were published online, and my introduction to your work was your reading of “You Will Never Be Forgotten” for The Writer’s Voice in The New Yorker. I’m wondering how having your book in its physical manifestation feels as someone who writes so much about our digital lives and how we’re connected over the Internet.

Mary South: I really love having an actual physical paper version of my book. It makes it feel really real to me. Having some of the stories online, that feels very appropriate also, like the story “Frequently Asked Questions about Your Craniotomy,” which is formatted as an online questions and answers page from a hospital’s web page. It felt like it should be online, since the form of it was mimicking online content. I like having it both online and in print, but as a writer, there’s just no comparison, ever, to seeing your book as a physical object. It’s something you’ve worked on for so many years, and it just feels so good.

Something I’ve been thinking about as the book’s come out, too, is that we’re so bombarded by content all the time, by tweets and articles and stuff we come across through Google searches, whether it is a hospital’s website page or what-have-you, that I really love making that fast content into really slow content, turning it into art that’s meant to be ingested slowly. In that sense, I think it’s really fitting that my book is in paper form, because then it slows you down and forces you to read it, because even though some of it is talking about online culture and mimicking that experience formally or thematically, I’m still trying to make art out of it that hopefully should be savored.

KMB: I have marked passages that relate to this idea of making slow art out of online content. In “Realtor to the Damned,” one of the characters is performing Internet searches, and you structure this list of things the character searches for:

How to avoid rectal prolapse. Names for fruit in foreign languages. Words in which the word “wild” is contained. How to hire a clown. Trauma and brain chemistry. The most famous great ape. Guilt from lying to a dementia patient. If you are in an airplane and it crashes, will you feel pain at impact.

I’d love to hear about the artistry of crafting sentences that make the reader pay attention when you’re dealing with this sort of artless, Internet brain-clogging type of content. 

MS: That’s really cool to think about. Part of those searches, they’re just articles I had open on my computer, the million tabs we all do these days, you know? Not the rectal prolapse one, but the others. There was an article I read about people’s experiences with their loved ones who are going through Alzheimer’s and dementia—how they deal with telling them the truth or telling them difficult emotional things. Is it sometimes kinder to lie to people, or not? You know how it is with Twitter, you see something and you click and get that tab. I love turning that detritus into a meaningful thing instead of a random collection that we all accumulate.

Part of why that happened is that I used to write SEO copy, optimizing websites for Google, essentially. There’s a trick to it, but there’s no artistry to it. It’s peppering certain words in at certain points in order to maximize the Google hit algorithm. I was freelancing and doing a lot of that kind of work and also writing for Google, like Google Offers, which was at the time their version of Groupon. Like, “Spend $100 and get a $200 spa treatment!” Or something like that. At the same time, I was working with Diane Williams at Noon, and she has such a hyper-sensitivity to the sound of sentences. She reads everything that comes across the transom, the submissions, and she reads them aloud often. We’d be working with her, and she’d have one of us start reading a story aloud to her, and she’d be following along with her eyes closed, just following the sounds of the words. There was such a sensitivity to language there that I wanted to put into my prose. And at the same time, I was doing all this random stuff. I was thinking, how can I bring these in conversation? How can I make art out of the Internet? I think our lives are so online now that there’s a lot of interesting work to be done discussing the Internet. Jia Tolentino comes to mind. I could get into more nitty-gritty stuff about sentences. I also studied with Gordon Lish and other highly language-focused people at Columbia. There are things that are talked about, like trying to end a sentence on the strongest or most interesting word, because that’s what the reader will remember most, or carrying sounds forward through a sentence. So if you’re using a lot of K sounds, continue to follow that sound through the sentence to make it compelling and beautiful. There’s something interesting to me in the juxtaposition of online content, which is non-beautiful and banal, with creating beautiful sentences.

KMB: I love it, because I feel like so much of the beautiful prose I read is people turning away from that part of modern life. You chose to integrate that non-artful language into this art, and I loved it and felt it worked very beautifully. I think a lot of other artists are grappling with this, too: How do we incorporate it into television? How do we incorporate it into film? But, in prose, I can’t think of many stories that are actually looking at this Internet pile of stuff and trying to pick the beauty out of it.

I’m interested in how your stories are concerned with caregiving—that’s something a lot of your characters are engaged in. You are exploring caretaker and patient relationships with precision and complication: there’s a nurse, there’s a neurosurgeon, there are nursing home caretakers, there are camp counselors. What about those relationships interests you? How did it become something that was emerging in multiple stories?

MS: It’s funny, the next book I’m set to work on also involves nursing and caretaking. It’s about a hospice for the 1%, where women are turning into household objects, and the narrator is a nurse who’s helping them as they go through this Kafka-esque metamorphosis into toasters and microwaves and vacuum cleaners and stuff. There are a lot of jobs, specifically caretaking jobs, in the collection, and I do think a lot of it has to do with living in late capitalism. I grew up comfortably middle class, but I’ve worked waitressing, writing ad copy, handing out flyers, temping, and doing these odd jobs to make money and pay my rent and get by, especially in New York City. So I think about all the supporting work and jobs, things that are done in order to make life possible, and they’re often invisible. I’ve never worked as a content moderator, but I see this reflected in this job—this curating, caretaking, behind-the-scenes work that we all benefit from that is made invisible; it’s required by capitalism. And then it’s also literal in some of the caretaking jobs, like taking care of the elderly or taking care of the Keiths. I’ve had many friends who worked as nannies to make ends meet in New York City.

The Keiths” is probably the foremost example of “capitalism meets caretaking.” It was inspired by Amazon and how they treat their warehouse employees. It’s all of this backbreaking work; they walk miles and miles a day. They’re optimized. It’s tracked, how long it takes them to do each task, and they hardly have any time to pee, and we don’t see any of that. We just see the product when it’s delivered to our door. The way we regard people in those jobs as disposable and dispensable, I find it highly disturbing. I think that’s why I invented the Keiths. And I also really love novels of caretaking, that explore issues of visibility and invisibility, like Never Let Me Go is one of my favorites. It’s so good, seeing who’s valuable and who’s not and why.

KMB: There’s an interesting sense with “The Keiths” and also with “You Will Never Be Forgotten” with the replacability of someone. Like, the office is closing down person by person, and you could just be filled in by anyone who could do this content moderation. On the other hand, in “Camp Jabberwocky for Recovering Internet Trolls,” there’s this pivot away from the replacability of people. A lot of that story is about competitiveness over intimacy among the camp counselors, these people who believe that they have the most intimate relationship with someone, that there’s some way that they could quantify that. I’m interested in, I don’t know, just that story. It felt like an anchor piece to me, because of where it falls in the collection and because of its length. It has multiple narrators and multiple focal characters, so I’m interested in your perspective on what it’s saying about caretaking and intimacy.

MS: It was really important to me that in a story about Internet trolls and these teens who have clearly done some horrible things on the Internet, that it not become dismissive and about laughing at them. I thought it was important to showcase each character’s essential humanity. For that reason, it’s really relationship-focused. I picked one troll, in the form of Rex Hasselback, and the story could really reveal that even though he had done these terrible things, it had come from a real place of vulnerability and trauma. It didn’t come from him wanting to hurt other people for no reason; it was to be protective of something in himself. It helps that other characters can see that, can see his humanity and the good parts of him, and then they want to engage with him. It reinforces the notion that he has value, even though he’s ostracized—not only from his family but also from this summer camp for Internet trolls. He doesn’t even fit in there. But that doesn’t matter because he still has a lot of value. I hope the stories in general do that, that they show that people have value even if they are really unseen. I’m glad that you think that one does it particularly because it’s one of my favorite stories in the book, and I wanted there to be a lot of tenderness there, a lot of empathizing with people and what they go through. Everyone has a history, but that makes them more fully human.

KMB: I think I might have been drawn to it because I was, at one time, a high school teacher, and I think that when a high school-aged child does something wrong, they’re seen as an adult, and their “childness” gets removed from them by their caretakers or teachers. I think that you really captured his humanity but also his “childness,” that he’s just like a little boy in the story. I appreciated that dynamic between him and the adults who are supposed to be finding him. 

MS: Maybe that comes from the fact that both of my parents used to be teachers, and they cared so much about their students and about nurturing them. And then, of course, the students move on and go to college and move on with their lives, and sometimes they would hear back from them. My dad used to coach sports, as well, and would sometimes hear back from his students, sometimes years later. “Your coaching meant so much to me at the time.” So yeah, there is an intimacy there, in that teacher-student relationship. It’s obviously a caretaking one. But then you have to remember that with these teens: they are teens! Their brains are not fully developed. I think I remember reading somewhere that your brain isn’t fully, solidly developed until you’re twenty-five or something. I read a lot about neuroscience at one point, because I was writing a story about neurosurgery, so I have a lot of random facts about brain surgery that I could just, you know, bring out at cocktail parties at totally appropriate moments.

KMB: As someone who’s writing a lot about the Internet, which is something that’s everywhere and nowhere, how do you think about writing setting? Some of your stories have a very dreamlike, not-a-specific-place setting, and others are set very narrowly, in a specific city or part of a city. When you’re crafting a story, how are you thinking about where you’re putting it? 

MS: I haven’t thought about that much before. Setting is obviously really important to me. Sometimes it just occurs organically. “Jabberwocky,” for example: I knew the setting immediately, because it was inspired by the setting. I had a friend from my MFA who had a family house on Martha’s Vineyard, and he asked a few of us who were in the MFA program if we wanted to come spend a weekend with him, and I was like, “Of course! When else am I going to get to go to Martha’s Vineyard?” He took us on a tour, and you can go all around the island in one day, and a lot of [the story] is from these real places that are there, or were there. I thought it would be funny to contrast this very elegant, affluent, high-brow setting with something as low-brow and depraved as Internet trolling. Because we were able to get toured around the island in a day, I thought, this would make a great setting for a caper or a chase story. So for that one, the setting was the immediate inspiration.

With “Keith Prime,” it was really inspired by Amazon and warehouses, and even though that’s more nebulous—it’s never specified what city it takes place in—the setting was strongly in my mind for that. I was envisioning someone in the claustrophobic environment of the warehouse.

Then with the title story, the setting is really key, because it’s contrasting Silicon Valley culture, and the toxicity in a lot of that, with personal experience of devastation. I knew the setting for that one immediately, too.

I guess I figure it out the same time as the story. It’s interwoven with where the characters are emotionally at the time and what their jobs involve. The artifact in “Architecture for Monsters” wouldn’t be anywhere else in the world, even though there are architects in London and in Chicago and in Los Angeles. For some reason, she very strongly had a New York City firm; there was no other way. When I conceived of the character, I fixed her in time and place. It’s inextricable from where the character is emotionally and from their employment, from the actual facts of their life at the time.

KMB: Yeah, the job and the person, melding. 

MS: That’s true. You kind of become entwined with a time and a place and a moment. I kind of hope the woman in the title story would be able to leave San Francisco at some point, you know, just remove herself from the toxicity of the job and the environment, get away from what happened to her. That would help, with everything she’s experiencing. Emotionally, it’s so tied to place.

KMB: Right, and that office could be an office anywhere, but because it’s what it is, it reinforces everything else happening in the story. 

MS: Yeah, those offices are elsewhere in the world. They are trying to put them in the Philippines, and I heard about companies putting them in the Midwest, in Florida, out of sight in a building. It doesn’t have to be in San Francisco, although many of those jobs are still in the Bay Area. But, yes, it’s so inextricably tied, it makes what she’s experienced hyper-experienced.

KMB: I want to talk a little bit about humor and funny parts of your writing. There’s this really beautiful passage in “The Age of Love.” You’re writing about a research study the protagonist has read, in which older adults talk to stuffed unicorns about their lives and fears: “They hypothesized that people in that late stage of life found it safer to reveal their deepest selves to an object, as it would never abandon them, never judge. Perhaps, they reasoned, the elderly would feel safer being attended by machines.” As I was reading deeper into the book, I kept coming back to that passage. There are parts of that story that are so funny. There are parts that are funny writing, and there are parts in which characters are perceiving other people’s behavior as funny. I’m wondering how you see humor as part of your writing practice and as part of the collection. How do you make decisions about where to put it and how to time it in your writing?

MS: First of all, that’s a real study that I read about, but it was done with dolphins, and I had dolphins later in the collection, so I had to change it to stuffed unicorns instead of stuffed dolphins. What’s interesting to me is that we all contain so many voices. People talk about “the writer’s voice” and “finding your voice,” and I think that’s all very useful. But for me, we all contain so many voices, and sometimes more than one at the same time. You can be intensely grieving and think something absurd, or remember something humorous about a loved one who has passed away, and it can almost seem like a betrayal of the grief, but it’s actually how we start to heal and move on.

The woman in the title story has experienced this devastating sexual assault that’s really messed with her identity. It’s really traumatizing. Sometimes she has thoughts that are very, very funny, and it lets some of the pressure out. It lets a little of this devastating feeling go away. I’m interested in how we can have all of these voices at the same time.

Same with the “FAQ” story, where the neurosurgeon is getting over her husband’s suicide, but sometimes she says these really quippy, funny, witty things. Partially because that’s probably the person she was before she experienced this trauma—a fun, witty, social person—and that’s not going to change just because she’s grieving. All of these things are mixed together. I really want to have some verisimilitude that way, with my writing, and to make it feel how life feels, or how our brains think sometimes.

It can be really hard to get the right balance: is this the right time for a joke? Should I be humorous here, tender here? Sometimes it’s really just a matter of feeling, in terms of where to do it in the story. I think maybe the most challenging story to write was “The Age of Love” for that reason, in trying to make sure that some of these conversations that the elderly men are having with phone sex operators aren’t too over the top. I didn’t want to laugh at them, either. It’s totally normal that they want to talk to people and have sexual feelings, even though they are older. That’s totally normal, and human, and fine. I didn’t want the story to feel like I was laughing at them while embracing the comedy of the situation.

I also think sometimes comedy can heighten tender, lonely feelings and make them more palpable, which was what I was trying to do in that story.

KMB: I think the fact that that story does have a high humor ratio is why that image of these adults talking to plushies kept coming back. I feel like it made that moment even more tender, that it’s embedded in a story that has a lot of humor.

MS: I’m glad to hear you think so, because that was really the hope, that some of the more difficult stuff in the story would feel even more emotional because there’s a lot of fun, rompy sex stuff.

KMB: Do you feel like there’s a story you wish you got asked about more that you’d like to talk about a little bit?

MS: It makes sense that I’m asked about the title story a lot, and I love talking about the title story. I appreciate that you asked about “Jabberwocky” because I love talking about that one, too. There’s a lot of interesting material in “Not Setsuko” that hasn’t been talked about as much. A lot about memory and mothering and trauma and grief—not being able to accept grief and move on. Similar to the woman in the title story, there’s an emotion that that character is not really fully willing to go through. She’s not willing to completely go through the grief of mourning her daughter, so she’s very avoidant in a lot of ways. She creates this whole elaborate project to be stuck in the bargaining phase of grief. And then there’s a whole level of performance that’s involved, too. The performance of making her daughter into someone she’s not, so she can avoid her grief, as well as the performance of film making and the artifice of that. The husband who’s using that to avoid his grief. All of that fundamentally changes people anyway, so by the sheer act of having her daughter be an actress in her husband’s film, it changes her into someone who would never be the original Setsuko in the first place.

KMB: I’m interested in what you said about how that story’s talking about memory. I thought your decision to place it at the end of the collection was interesting, because there’s that moment where there’s a meditation on whether someone’s life story is just remembering a story they’ve been told about themselves. I think about that with children, where you tell them, “This one time when we went skiing, this happened to you,” and then that becomes an integral part of who you are.

You’re a story teller, and you tell us a bunch of stories, and then at the end you ask us to think about what a story really is. It was a very interesting end note on the collection.

MS: Thank you. That was really intentional, to talk about how stories are created and crafted and how that affects our perception of memory and reality. I tried to do something very tricky in that way. The penultimate story in the collection, “Realtor to the Damned,” ends with a reflection on memory and loss. This is a real fact that I learned while researching neurosurgery that didn’t end up in the neurosurgery story but showed up in the ghost story: when we remember something, our memory of that event becomes less and less accurate the more we remember it. There’s that meditation at the end of the story where that fact is cited: “The more I remember my wife, the less accurate that memory is, so the more I lose her.” And that’s followed by “Not Setsuko,” which is a mother trying desperately to re-make her daughter’s memories. It’s like “Realtor to the Damned” is already telling the following story: your project is not going to succeed! Because of the very nature of how memory and the mind works. I try to sometimes do that, those mirrors, making stories talk to each other in a collection. The same with the last story, “Not Setsuko,” having doubling in it, like doubled people, and so does the first story, “Keith Prime.” So first and last talk to each other in that way, too. I thought it was really fun to indict memory and storytelling while also simultaneously embracing it.

At the end of “Not Setsuko,” I hope it feels hopeful. It’s saying, even though I’ve made you recite this story and it didn’t go as I’d hoped and I couldn’t control it and I couldn’t make it into this outcome I wanted, I’m here now, and I’m listening to you now. I am here to listen to the story that you have to tell about you and your life.

A lot of these characters get to the end of the story and they’re ready to let go, same with the title story, the ghost story, and that story.

KMB: That is the last question I was going to ask you, whether you think the end of “Not Setsuko” is hopeful. I’m interested to hear that you do. I also saw it in conversation with “Keith Prime,” except that the ending of “Keith Prime” felt a little dreary. I was like, Oh, man, there’s that passage about monks spending months making mandalas out of sand and then destroying them, and it was dark. And at the end of the collection in “Not Setsuko,” it’s kind of a beautiful moment. After being in this project with the mother, having the thought that this is not going to work out, there is this sudden openness that the mother has that I thought was a really interesting way to end the collection. I was like, This is hopeful! It was an emotional upswing that was really nice.

MS: Yeah, I see a lot of the stories as hopeful. “Keith Prime” is probably one of the darker ones. Even in the darkness of that ending—going through what she does and losing her husband to illness and also losing her Keith, since he’s just not able to exist in the world because he’s been kept in a coma for 20 years—there’s something about finally being able to let go of loss and grief and move on. I felt like that act of letting the Keith go was sort of her way of letting her husband go. It’s hopeful in that way, to me.


Krys Malcolm Belc

Krys Malcolm Belc is the author of the memoir The Natural Mother of the Child (Counterpoint) and the flash nonfiction chapbook In Transit (The Cupboard Pamphlet). His work has been featured in Granta, The Rumpus, Black Warrior Review, and elsewhere. Krys lives in Philadelphia with his partner and three children and works as an educator in a pediatric hospital.

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