Trying on Narratives: A Conversation With Emily Temple

Emily Temple has an MFA from the University of Virginia, where she was a Henry Hoyns fellow and the recipient of a Henfield Prize. Her work has appeared in Colorado Review, Electric Literature‘s Recommended ReadingIndiana ReviewFairy Tale ReviewSonora ReviewSycamore ReviewNo TokensTerritory, and elsewhere. She lives in Brooklyn. She is a managing editor at Lit Hub and can be found on Twitter @knownemily. Her debut novel is The Lightness (William Morrow, 2020).


Mia Colleran: I have to say, The Lightness is brilliant. It was nowhere near what I expected, and it was so richly detailed, particularly in relation to Buddhism and the etymological roots of words and concepts. The first question I want to ask you is related to fairy tales. They seem to form a backbone to so many of your stories. Could you talk a bit about your relationship with fairy tales and what it is about them that intrigues you? 

Emily Temple: Well, there’s so much to tell. I always loved fairy tales and fable-like stories and I was always drawn to them as a kid. I remember I had a book of Italo Calvino’s Italian Folktales, which was a book that my Mom loved. And after I read through those tales, I discovered, at a very young age, that the original fairy tales are not what Disney would have you think they were, and so it became my campaign as a youth to tell people the truth about fairy tales. 

One of the things that I really like about fairy tales that you notice if you study them is how even though they’re relegated to being hearth tales—something that women tell children, not “serious literature”—they exist in this special sphere that’s a feminine sphere, that’s a baby sphere, that’s a less-than-serious sphere. But then, once you start picking apart fairy tales and seeing how they work, you see that they’re actually used by everyone, and all of the structures of fairy tales are apparent throughout our literature. It’s like a secular version of the Bible where you see the same narrative played out in all these different ways. It’s one of the several backbones of our storytelling. To me, there’s something that feels very elemental about them. Kate Bernheimer, who does amazing work on fairy tales, wrote an amazing essay called, “Fairy Tale is Form, Form is Fairy Tale.” 

What I really love about them is that they tell you plainly that something insane happened. They say, “This magical thing happened and deal with it. Just accept this truth.” I love that. I think that’s so ballsy and it just works. 

MC: I find fairy tales really good at unlocking this idea of suspended disbelief in my mind, which can be a barrier sometimes when I read fiction, when I feel as though the author hasn’t written enough into the novel for me to believe that it’s plausible. In fairy tales, I love how you get a complete free pass for suspending disbelief, and that actually allows me as a reader to get more quickly to the heart of the emotion.

EM: Sure, because it’s about tapping into a feeling, and when it’s not real or a realistic story, then you can apply that feeling to whatever situation, so if it’s semi-magical, it becomes an archetype. You don’t have to buy into the mundane narrative, you can just feel the beating core of the emotion come through. How very nice. 

MC: I wonder, have you read Clarice Lispector? Or Idra Novey? 

EM: Yes, I was just writing about Clarice Lispector’s first novel Near To The Wild Heart, which I love. I also love Idra Novey’s books. My MFA advisor would have called her work “candy-coated realism,” which I’ve always liked as a phrase. 

MC: I find it hard to label work that falls into their category correctly. Magical realism seems to refer back to this great tradition that belongs to many Latin American authors, and it’s not a descriptor I would use casually. Fairy tales can also, at times, sound demeaning, and fabulism is not a descriptor I would employ often. I tend to describe things as “mythic” if I feel that they’re talking to an old narrative. Do you have a better way of applying these descriptors to your own work and to work you admire? Does the term “fairy tale” mean something different to you? 

ET: You’re right about the inadequacy of all of those terms. I feel the same way about magical realism. I tend to use fabulism in particular to refer to contemporary work that seems to have roots in fairy tales. A good example of fabulism is Helen Oyeyemi’s book Mr. Fox. It’s not magical realism, and it’s not a fantasy novel, and it’s not science-fiction, so I tend to use the term fabulism for that. 

Technically, my book is talking about those stories instead of being one. There is this sense of a heightened experience in The Lightness that’s not necessarily perfectly real. Another term I like to use—and maybe I made this up, I don’t know if this is actually a word—is the term irreal.

MC: I like that! Like areal, existing without relation to reality. 

ET: It’s not quite surreal but it’s not quite real. 

MC: In The Lightness, one of your main characters, Serena, is portrayed as near-mythic, beautiful, daring and wild. I found it really inventive how you dismantled that mythologized idea of her throughout the book and broke the archetype she was constructed around. 

ET: We tell ourselves stories about ourselves, and we tell ourselves stories about other people. We have all of these fairy tales and narratives that we’re given when we’re young and, honestly, we’re just trying to fit ourselves in. We’re saying, “OK, I recognize this situation,” and in part, what I was writing towards, was showing up the cracks in that strategy. We have all these interlocking tales about ourselves and other people, and it’s easy to get lost when you get too hooked into them. That’s when you get trapped by them. You’re right; there is something of this about Serena. Stories like that are their own belief patterns. 

Again, I have to compare fairy tales to all religious stories. They are the stories that we tell ourselves about the way things are and the way they should be. But, important to remember, they’re simplified versions, and people can get lost in them. 

MC: Where did your idea for the main character, Olivia, come from? The initial draft of The Lightness was in fact your thesis for your MFA, and it’s really prevalent in the book that Olivia is a character whose voice is very finely tuned and nuanced in her thought process. You can really feel the way that Olivia thinks. 

ET: Yes, you’re right. She originated from a short story I wrote in my first year at the MFA in the spring of 2014. One of the many instructions we were told to try on the MFA was to “write a story only you can tell.” When I was a kid, my parents and I used to go to the Shambhala Meditation Center every summer, and I figured not many people had spent so much time at these kinds of places, so I started with that as a setting. 

I wrote a story set there. When I met with my supervisor at the end of the first semester, I told her that I was going to try to write a novel. I didn’t know what I wanted to write a novel about, but when I looked at my stories from the first semester, I knew I wanted to keep writing in the world of that particular short story because it was the one I was most interested in, and I thought there was more to say. I also thought the short story wasn’t very successful, except for the black sand scene, which is in the novel almost exactly the same as it was in the original short story.

MC: It’s a really therapeutic scene in the book. 

ET:  It’s true! It really works, too. I’ve basically been with Olivia for almost six years. It didn’t really start with the character; it started with the place. It’s a place that I thought about, and then Olivia grew out of it. I wondered who would be there questing and thinking and wondering. Her voice came from this urge to create someone who didn’t know what had happened to them and how they might then look at what their memories were, how they might research other stories and how they might bring in other things to try to figure out what their own memories meant. That’s how Olivia evolved.

MC: That ties in with what we were saying earlier about the narratives we tell ourselves. Olivia is someone who has a lost narrative and is trying to find her “true” narrative and work out the architecture of it. 

ET: Right. She has to overlay all these different stories instead. She’s trying on different narratives and seeing that nothing fits entirely. Instead, she sees that it has to be a patchwork … which is how I feel about life. 

MC: Is the finished novel very different from your first draft six years ago? 

ET: Yes, it’s very different. Except for the black sand scene, there’s almost nothing that made it wholesale from the first draft to this one. It’s funny, because it’s the same book, though I changed every sentence eventually. 

When I draft I keep a “Graveyard File.” Anytime I cut anything, I put it in the Graveyard File, and I keep a different Graveyard File for every draft. Altogether, the amount that I have cut from the book is three times the length of the novel. So, I basically wrote the book four times.

MC: It makes sense that you would always want to rework the beating heart of the novel, wondering what would happen depending on which way you prodded it. You’ve written and published so many short stories, and, I wonder, do you tend to see scenes, or do you see entire lives when you write? 

ET: I usually start with a concept. For example, in The Lightness, the concept was “Levitation Center.” That seems fun. Now, what are we going to do with that? I usually start with a little spark of, “This would be interesting”. But a lot of them die out and I can’t do anything with them. It’s hard to talk about because I’ve been so enmeshed in this particular world for so long now that I don’t even remember having other thoughts. 

I tend to start with a “What if?”

In one of my favorite short stories that I have written called “Better Homes, ”published on Electric Literature,  the main question is “What if there was a sandcastle competition and one of the contestants tries to live in the sandcastle forever?”

MC: I love it! That’s brilliant. There’s a real sense of foreboding and foreshadowing in your writing as a whole. It’s something I noticed when reading your short story, “Heart of Hearts” (published in issue twenty-two of The Adroit Journal) and, of course, your novel. It reminded me of Donna Tartt, which led me to the close analysis you wrote on the prologue of The Secret History in an article on Lit Hub. Is that sense of foreshadowing something you consciously incorporate when you write? 

ET: My advisor on the MFA, the novelist Jane Alison, would have us re-read the first paragraph of whatever book we had been assigned after we had all finished the book. She told us, “In all the greatest books, the first paragraph is basically the whole book in miniature. It tells you something you need to know, though you may not even recognise it until you’ve read everything.” That’s how I feel about Donna Tartt’s prologue. If you try this reading with your favorite books, you can see it in action. I wrote about We Have Always Lived In The Castle on Lit Hub, and that does exactly the same thing. It gives you a key to reading the rest, but it’s a key that you ingest without knowing that you’re getting the key. It’s not that I consciously think about that when I write, but I do think about books in that way. You need the keys before you get to the door, and I try to weave in the key secretly. 

MC: It’s also great for pacing because as you read The Lightness, there is a mounting sense of foreboding with all the comments Olivia makes. You keep wondering, as a reader, what would happen if she had known? It wouldn’t be the same novel at all without that foreshadowing.

ET: I spent a lot of time thinking about the distance of the narrator from the tale and thinking about where she was going to be when she was done telling the story and—it’s gratifying that you mention it—I took part of The Secret History as a model. Richard’s adult stance from the beginning is how you know that the story he’s telling is going to be monumental. And most of the time you’re just in it, you’re not really thinking about Richard The Adult telling the story, you’re just fixated on the story. I find that to be a very compelling mode because that’s the way so many stories are told to us. We don’t really experience other people’s stories in the moment. We rely on what other people tell us. I think that stance is interesting because it allows for that kind of foreboding.

MC: Yes, you’ve articulated that so well! We’re constantly dealing with a narrative that’s narrated by somebody else, so in that sense, we’re always contending with two narratives. You never actually have a reliable narrator, and The Lightness brings that literary quandary to the forefront by adding in all the quips of foreboding. The Lightness centers around a group of girls in their teens, and, I wonder, what was it that compelled you to write about teenagers as opposed to another age group? 

ET:  Maybe this hasn’t been everyone’s experience, but it’s certainly been my experience that the most intense feelings you have are around that age. Everything is so new. You’re doing everything for the first time, and you’re really considering yourself as a person for the first time. The intensity with which teenagers experience their lives is just not matched with any other period in your life. I wanted to inhabit that time and space where you get to access all of those intense feelings before they’re covered in rationality and a job. 

MC: That makes perfect sense. The girls in The Lightness take on the challenge of learning to levitate, and I feel like it would be harder to convince an older narrator to take this on as a quest. Why did you pick levitating as a central crux in your novel? 

ET: Levitating is something that I noted, over and over again, culturally. Levitation has been so many things and just stands in for power. At least, that’s what it stands in for to me. When I think: what would I have wanted to show my power as a teenager? I think of levitating, and this book is all about how much power we do and do not have. If you think about times when you’ve seen levitation, it’s always to show that someone is powerful or to show that they’re having an orgasm. It’s always to show an extremity of emotion or an enhanced self. 

MC: That fits so beautifully with the structure of the novel. I have one final question. Who are your literary giants whose shoulders you sit on? Who do you feel are your friends when you write?

ET:  I obviously love Donna Tartt. I thought a lot about Maggie Nelson’s Bluets when I was writing this, too.  The Rings of Saturn by W. G. Sebald is another book I loved and really changed my experience of what a novel could be, in any form. I also grew up reading ‘70s science fiction and fantasy novels. Patricia C. Wrede’s Dealing With Dragons novels had a huge effect on me as a child. I remember reading those books and thinking of her writing, “This is magic. I want to do this.”  


Mia Colleran

Mia Colleran is an award-winning Irish writer and bookseller. She reviews books for The Guardian, The Irish Times and The Irish Independent and she is on the founding committee of the Dingle Literary Festival. She can be found @miacolleran

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