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An Interview with Mary South

[Writer]
by Noah Bogdonoff
March 10th, 2020

“There’s a sameness to all the content we consume… I feel like the rapidity and the amount of it, the bombardment of it, has a very numbing effect. How do we exist with genuine feeling amid the chaos?”

Forms Mary South’s Stories Have Taken:
A Hospital Website’s FAQ Page
A Profile Piece Gone Awry in an Architectural Magazine
Interstitial Phone-Sex Transcripts
Text Message Exchanges with a “Ghost”

Mary South and I first met as work-study scholars at the Bread Loaf Writers Conference in 2018. I was at the raw beginning of my career; she had recently sold her debut collection. I quickly came to see Mary as a writer to both admire and emulate—her prose is psychologically labyrinthine, deeply empathetic, and utterly creative. Late in the conference, she read from her story “Architecture for Monsters,” which at first appears to be a magazine-style feature about a famous and intriguing architect and quickly descends into a dizzying exploration of motherhood, violence, and art. I was taken with the story immediately.

One and a half years later, Mary’s collection You Will Never Be Forgotten is available for the rest of the world to read. These stories are filled with the close observation, cutting analysis, and surreal brainspace so characteristic of the work I first encountered at Bread Loaf. In the title story, which was recently published in The New Yorker, a woman works as an internet content moderator by day and stalks the man who raped her by night. In “The Age of Love,” a man who works in a nursing home begins to listen in on his patients as they call a phone sex hotline, only to discover that his girlfriend has developed a deep emotional relationship with one of the men in the home. In “Not Setsuko,” a woman raises her second child to be an exact replica of her first.

These stories are terrifically scary. They dance around the existential questions of our hyper-technologized time. How far across the ideological chasm can empathy extend? When everyone is under surveillance, what does it mean to have a private life? Is love durable under late capitalism? Is sanity?

In January, Mary and I spoke by phone about the collection.

—Noah Bogdonoff

THE BELIEVER: I think the first thing I want to talk about is trauma. This seems like a book that is really concerned with trauma, but it’s different from many books dealing with that subject matter in that it tends to depict people with trauma actually behaving quite badly. How did you decide to approach these complex and sometimes disquieting realities in your stories?

MARY SOUTH: That’s a very interesting question. My view is that everyone sustains a huge loss at some point. And based on multiple factors—our personalities, the way we were trained to deal with negative emotions or upsetting situations—everyone as a matter of course responds to it differently. There’s that old adage that you can’t really judge someone’s character by how they act when life is going well; the real measure of character is how that person acts when confronted with heartbreak or disappointment or misfortune. I’m interested in subverting this notion of judgment entirely, of labeling someone as inherently “good” or “bad.” Such judgment eliminates the possibility of change. Certainly there’s pure evil out there, but what happens when you have a person who would like to be good but is lashing out or sabotaging their chances of connection because of a deep past wound? How does that person come to recognize that they’ve been indoctrinated into a kind of selfish, hurtful coping? You break that character open—make it impossible for them to avoid confronting the damage of their behavior—and see, then, if they’ll use it as an opportunity to reckon with their wound, to become better. “Epiphany” is too tidy a word for what’s happening, because for many of my characters this work will be long and arduous. Epiphany is reductive of the level of commitment that’s required. However, that’s why I’m interested in portraying characters who can come across as unlikable. If we can only write likable characters who always act virtuously, we lose a lot of human range. I think it’s both cathartic and revelatory, as a reader, to observe characters behaving badly and then have that backfire to the point where they have to fully see themselves, too, in the ways that we, the outsiders, can.

I think probably the best example of this character-confronting-themselves phenomenon occurs in the second story, “The Age of Love,” as well as in the ending of “Not Setsuko.” In “The Age of Love,” the protagonist has had a lot of trauma and not a lot of parental guidance. He is resentful and jealous that he can’t connect to his girlfriend—he doesn’t really know how—and someone else who he thinks shouldn’t be a threat to him is able to have that deep emotional connection with her that he craves. It makes him angry, so he reacts by trying to sabotage that other relationship. And we all know it’s not going to work; his behavior is just going to push his girlfriend further away. But he has to go through it, and we have to go through it, so he can be broken open in the end and have the possibility to recognize, “Oh, I’ve actually been pretty mean.” This is his opportunity to really see himself and to improve.

BLVR: One of the things that stands out to me is that although there is so much of what I’ll maybe call “emotional gore” in this book, it doesn’t seem cynical and it doesn’t actually seem geared toward shocking the reader. The book seems very invested in the concept of emotional maturation, which is one of the things that stuck out to me, especially in the title story. It’s not okay to stalk someone, even if they’re a bad person—you’ve written it in a very understandable way, but it’s a really scary thing to watch the character doing. For me the revelation was, “Oh, not only is the path to recovery nonlinear, but it can look really pathetic, or violent, or deeply misguided.” And that’s not what I usually see in writing about pain. I don’t think anyone would describe this book as elegiac.

MS: Sometimes it’s really difficult to empathize with people, even if you want to. Sometimes people try your patience or they behave in ways that aren’t comfortable, or are messy. They don’t behave like the perfect friend or the perfect victim or the perfect spouse. I do ultimately want these characters to be empathetic, but that doesn’t mean they won’t be irritating or unsettling to watch.

BLVR: We can intellectually understand what they’re going through and still be very frustrated with them. One of the things your stories give us the opportunity to do is to stick with them even past the point where in real life we might want to turn away.

MS: Maybe in real life we would turn away. What Rex did, for example, in “Jabberwocky,” taking revenge on an abusive parent by setting up his father to lose his job and his reputation by impersonating him and posting horrible things on social media accounts… that’s a really bad thing to do, no matter that it’s in retaliation. Perhaps after that anyone would disown Rex.

I hope the collection doesn’t come across as negative—in fact, I think there’s a lot of joy and fun and playfulness in these pages. Still, we all contain negative feelings, which I think we very much resist. We don’t want to feel jealous or resentful or angry or bitter; it makes us feel like we are actually bad. But they’re just feelings that we have—that is, the feelings themselves aren’t bad; they’re information. How do we learn to act on them? So the stories are definitely concerned about emotional maturity. Yes, stalking someone is really scary. It’s another kind of violation. She’s stalking her rapist, and it’s weird to feel like he’s right to be upset about that, but I wanted to show that her pain doesn’t necessarily “make sense.” She’s really struggling to get over what happened to her.

BLVR: And the fact he hasn’t really incurred any sort of consequence, that’s one of the things that was really startling to me about that story. He hasn’t experienced any accountability. The story might be easier to handle if he had and she was still stalking him—the moral calculus would be more clear cut. But on some level I excused her behavior because wanted him to get his. And he doesn’t.

MS: No, he doesn’t.

BLVR: Which I guess is realistic to the world we live in.

MS: Sadly, it is. She’s stalking him partly because she’s afraid he’s going do to other women what he did to her. It’s not just anger and pain but also feelings of guilt. Like, “I know this happened to me and so it could very likely be happening to other people, and I’m not stopping it.”

BLVR: Right, yeah. My other life is as a therapist, and that’s actually one of the most common things I’ve noticed. When people come forward or when people do really try for accountability, one of their main concerns is other people. On another note—so much of that behavior takes place digitally, or is mediated through the digital world. All of these stories in some way take us into the bowels of a highly technologized society, and I’m interested in where that fascination came from. Is it something you’re personally concerned with? How did that theme start to emerge?

MS: Is it enough to say that the fascination comes from having to exist inside late capitalism? I feel hyper-attuned to everything that’s going on, but I’m also frequently overwhelmed and enervated by the sheer volume of information, of noise. It’s extremely dissociating to be aware that our planet is irrevocably heating up, species are going extinct, and also to be simultaneously subjected to targeted advertising. It’s rage-inducing and horrifying to watch friends, family, and acquaintances crowdsource the expenses for their medical care while knowing that the ultra-wealthy could wipe out all of those bills without even making a dent in their fortunes. It’s exasperating to learn that a toddler made more than twenty million dollars reviewing toys on YouTube while you’re hustling to make ends meet in your three gig-economy jobs. Logging into social media accounts—Twitter for example—you get bombarded with thing after thing after thing. And it’s all with this… sameness. The frivolous topics are right alongside deeply serious ones. A news item about awful things our president is doing appears alongside a viral thread debating the best chain-restaurant chicken sandwich. And then there’s a cat meme after that.

So there’s a sameness to all of the content we consume, and somebody could argue that’s always been the case with advertisements in newspapers alongside articles and news headlines, but I feel like the rapidity and the amount of it, the bombardment of it, has a very numbing effect. How do we exist with genuine feeling amid the chaos? How do we push past the numbness? Our core human psychology is the same, even though, strangely, the tools at our disposal—more advanced than any we’ve ever had in history—often feel inadequate for meeting our needs of belonging and acceptance.   

BLVR: Technology allows us to elide certain types of pain. And you’re mentioning all of these juxtapositions in such close proximity on, say, Twitter, and I can’t help but wonder if the way we are receiving technology allows us to look past the pain really quickly. If I don’t want to read about prison camps in China or massacres across the world, I can scroll really quickly to the cat meme.

MS: What you’re getting at is very true, we can avoid looking at it. But I also think that bad behavior is just so much easier to engage in online, because there’s less accountability. It’s easier to get upset and insult someone. Over any issue at all.

BLVR: A positive feedback loop of negativity.

MS: I see that with how people are treated in blue-collar jobs. For example: there’s the story about the woman who works in the Keith Fulfillment Center, raising babies to be used in organ harvest. It’s all very detached. So she, as a result, feels very detached. Part of the inspiration for that story was how Amazon treats its warehouse employees. When you work in an Amazon warehouse, your steps are tracked, how long it takes you to do any task is tracked, and then you’re optimized to do it the most efficiently—potentially penalized if you don’t heed that optimization. The result is that there’s no room to just be a person in that job. Those employees are exhausted, depressed. And tech is responsible for that.

All of our habits of course, are logged, too, what we click on, what we look at, what we buy, and they optimize us as well. I feel like the result of that optimization is that everything and everyone seems flatter, online and in real life. It’s easier to just cynically dismiss a lot. I try to use Amazon as little as possible, but still—it’s so easy to click and have something magically appear at your door. You don’t have to see the warehouse employee getting optimized; you just see the backscratcher or whatever you ordered.

BLVR: The word that comes to mind when you’re talking about all of this is claustrophobia.

MS: That first story in particular is claustrophobic. And there’s that story about a neurosurgeon who’s writing about what it’s like to get a craniotomy for her hospital’s website, and that was born from the experience of going on WebMD and being met with this highly clinical language like, “Oh yeah you may very well have cancer, and you’ll have to do this harrowing thing and that harrowing thing and that harrowing thing.” It’s so matter of fact and it’s not even being told to you by a person. I wasn’t reading about a brain operation in particular when I got the idea for the FAQ story, but I think we’ve all had the experience of looking something up and being like, “This is such terrifying information—why am I finding this out from my internet browser?” Who’s writing this? And what happens if the person emerges from the information? Then there’s an opportunity for genuine connection. Like, we all have these squishy bodies and emotions. It’s not this detached thing.

BLVR: You mentioned the neurosurgeon and the Keith warehouse. There are a lot of jobs in these stories, and as I was reading it occurred to me that this is fairly rare, especially in weird fiction. We tend to just get people doing stuff in their outside lives. But this book is really different in that way, and for me it reflects a world in which basically every human interaction is mediated by capitalism. Can you talk a little bit about work in your stories?

MS: I do think about people’s jobs. And I’m happy that there’s a range, that in this collection I have very high-end specialized jobs, like a famous architect or a neurosurgeon, and then there’s the lower wage, more tenuous, gig-economy jobs, like the woman in the title story who is screening content for a search engine. I don’t name it, but…

BLVR: We all know.

MS: [Laughs] Yeah. Which is like, she sort of fell into that job from an initial loss, the illness of her mother and dropping out of school and her mother dying—and then the trauma on top of the loss, being raped. I think some of those jobs are just a trauma in themselves. It’s been shown that people who have these content moderating jobs are suffering from really debilitating PTSD. It has to be so disturbing to view that kind of violence and depravity over and over again. And then how do you go out into the world and shop for groceries? How do you look at people and be like, “I now know that we’re capable of such things” and go about your day like normal?

So much of our lives is work. It takes up so much energy. And the fear as well is engrossing—the fear of not having money and what that means. The fear of being one emergency away from real destitution. We live in a dystopia now; I don’t really have to invent anything. Mostly, we’re living inside it the best we can. That’s something that’s true both of our current era and my fiction—there are those who are speaking out about its evils and toxic biases, but mostly we’re just trying to exist within the system. The nurse who works in the Amazon-inspired Keith Fulfillment Center, for example, she’s not trying to destabilize the system by the end…

BLVR: It’s not the Matrix.

MS: No, it’s not. She’s not destroying the warehouse where they keep the Keiths or figuring out how to restructure capitalism. The system goes on, alas. I think the system indoctrinates us into perpetuating its power hierarchies. And when we observe the character’s unquestioning assumptions, it’s thrilling and revealing of our own. At least that’s my hope. Because these things aren’t actually static—perhaps in that way I find the constant grumpiness and dissatisfaction of social media comforting, too. Social media is not okay with the status quo. It’s both numbing and comforting.

BLVR: Can you talk to me a little bit about genre? Because I can’t figure out what to call this collection aside from “weird.” It’s definitely not all science fiction, although “Keith Prime” is arguably a science fiction story. You’ve earned some comparisons to Saunders, and I see some Kelly Link and Carmen Maria Machado in there. What other work influences you?

MS: I love those writers. I’m really drawn to women with daring voices, or women willing to explore things that are uncomfortable or dark or gross, even. I love Ottessa Moshfegh, I love Alissa Nutting. I love Hanya Yanagihara’s first book, which is harrowing and devastating, The People in the Trees. That book is so good, and what it has to say about how we’re treating our natural world and how that’s reflected in our interpersonal relationships is so important. I loved Susan Choi’s Trust Exercise.

I’m also really drawn to writers who pay very close attention to the sentence. I worked for a long time with Diane Williams, and I love her writing. I love Sam Lipsyte’s writing. Christine Schutt. People who are incredibly sensitive to the sound of their sentences. Oh, and Tom McCarthy is a genius.

BLVR: For you as a writer, what does your practice like? How do you stay sane? How do you get the gumption to do really daring work?

MS: I know my writing friends are really important to me, not only editorially, but also in supporting each other emotionally. I also think it’s okay to take breaks. I think it was Grace Paley who said, “Writing should never be done at the expense of my life.”

BLVR: You’re still a writer even when you’re not writing.

MS: I hate to use a technology metaphor, but there’s always the program running in the background. You have it open but you’re not paying attention to it at the moment, and then suddenly something will click. You’ll be going about your day and you’ll suddenly solve a problem in the story you were working on that you didn’t know how to fix or you’ll have an idea for a new story.

BLVR: I don’t know how to end interviews, so, um, what’s next for you? Where do you go from here?

MS: Well, I’m in the very fortunate position where I’ve also been contracted by my publisher to write a novel. I’ve started to work on that and will continue to do so after the collection comes out. It’s about women who are turning into household objects, such as microwaves, flatscreen televisions, toasters, et cetera. The setting is a hospice for the “one percent.” There’s a woman who works there, and she’s helping all these affluent women who can afford high-level metamorphosis care make that transition into a microwave or whatever object they’re turning into. So it’s another sendup of late capitalism.

Oh—another writer who’s hugely inspirational to me: Kazuo Ishiguro. It’s very Never Let Me Go-inspired. But also J.G. Ballard, the body horror of Cronenberg, Chantal Akerman, particularly her film Jeanne Dielman. So that’s where I’m going next, and I’m excited about it.

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