An Interview with Nina MacLaughlin - Believer Magazine
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An Interview with Nina MacLaughlin

by E.B. Bartels
February 5th, 2020

“These stories have been existing in me all along, like how they exist in all of us, whether we know it or not.”

Three Types of Transformation:
Changing professions from a journalist to a carpenter
Turning into a tree 
Writing

Nina MacLaughlin and I went to the same high school, but not at the same time. She graduated nine years ahead of me—long enough that we didn’t overlap as students, but short enough that we shared many of the same teachers and experiences. Nina and I speak a common language—that of two people who both grew up in the suburbs of Boston, who both attended a New England prep school, who both studied a dead language, who both have spent their adult lives in Cambridge, who both love books and plants and art, who are both working writers.

Up until recently, Nina and I also had in common the fact that we both only write nonfiction—she is the author of Hammer Head: The Making of a Carpenter, a memoir about her decision to leave journalism (Nina wrote for The Boston Phoenix for almost a decade) and pursue carpentry. But I arrive at her Cambridge apartment—located on the first floor of an old brick building, a former Harvard dormitory—to chat with Nina not about writing what she calls “true books,” but about another kind of true writing: fiction.

Nina is the author of Wake, Siren: Ovid Resung, a modern retelling of Ovid’s Metamorphoses, published this fall by FSG Originals. Sure, it’s not nonfiction—but what is this book? A short story collection? A series of vignettes? An epic poem? A historical novel? Fan fiction? I arrive at Nina’s flustered from the extraordinarily hot August day—having walked the fifteen minutes to her apartment from my own, because we are neighbors, too—and also from the fact that talking about fiction is out of my usual comfort zone.

I trip on an uneven floorboard in the vestibule of Nina’s building—the same spot where I tripped entering Nina’s place for a housewarming party several years ago—but I catch myself. Nina and I exchange a sweaty hug, and she welcomes me in, offers a ginger beer, and I take a seat on her couch behind a beautiful wooden coffee table, handmade by Nina from a board from her grandmother’s house. Nina arranges herself in a chair across from me, her legs tucked up under a billowing skirt, and I wonder if we are still part of the same world.

—E.B. Bartels

I. HOT WEATHER, HOT TAKES

NINA MACLAUGHLIN: Summer is not my season.

THE BELIEVER: I can’t focus. I’m sweating too much.

NM: I’m sweating all the time! My brain is slow and sluggish. It’s terrible. But at this point you can start to see the days are getting shorter, the shadows are getting longer, and I can feel my brain switch back on.

BLVR: Good. So, let’s talk about Wake, Siren. I am worried you are going to kill me for asking this, because I feel like everyone is asking you this, but why did you write this book right now? I keep thinking of the story where Tereus cuts out Philomela’s tongue after raping her, after she threatens, “I will tell everyone.” Was this book in response to or inspired by the #MeToo movement?

NM: It was last February, winter 2018, and I had just finished a season of carpentry, which I thought was going to be my last for a variety of reasons—after nine years, it felt like enough. I hadn’t been writing much because I had been renovating kitchens or whatever, but I had been reading Ovid. I realized I needed an exercise to get my brain back into shape, so I thought, okay, I’ll try rewriting one of these stories from a different perspective. It was supposed to just be a a writing exercise, to get my muscles going, and I started with a Callisto story, which began, “I am a bear. I live in the sky.” And when I finished that I thought, fuck, that felt good. So I tried another one. And another. And then I thought, here we go.

Of course, it is influenced by all of my education, my life, the moment. I wasn’t sitting there thinking I was going to make a contribution to the #MeToo movement by rewriting Ovid—that wasn’t the motivation—but the process of writing it that winter felt so different, almost from the first page. It felt like there was something there.

BLVR: Then you think writing it now feels different than if you had tried to write it, say, ten years ago?

NM: Yes. I wrote it very quickly—I wrote the whole thing in three months—

BLVR: You wrote the whole thing in three months?

NM: Yes! I rewrote Hammer Head seven times and it took me three-and-a-half years. Writing Wake, Siren was unlike any writing experience I’ve ever had, and I hope to have it again, but I doubt it. I don’t think I could have written it ten years ago. Definitely not. It was this accumulation. I’ve been trying to distill what are the elements at play that allowed for this. It felt like I was in this trance state! I wrote it, I spell-checked it, and I sent it to my agent. It just came out of me. It was a bodily experience… I will never experience a time like it again, the purity of it, the otherworldly-ness of it.

II. “THIS MAGNIFICENT WILDNESS OF A WOMAN”

BLVR: When did you first get into studying the classics?

NM: I had a kid-interest in the myths—I had that big yellow D’Aulaires myth book…

BLVR: Me too! I loved that book.

NM: And that, in high school, pulled me towards taking Greek and Roman Civ with Leona Cottrell.

BLVR: Oh my god, I loved her. I had her for Latin my sophomore year.

NM: Leona was just this magnificent wildness of a woman. She was so no bullshit, so into all the Roman and Greek sex and wine-drinking and the stories, she just loved a really good story. When I got to college, I knew I loved this material, and I double-majored in English and Classics, and I just immersed myself in it. My English concentration was in Modernism—Woolf, Joyce, Elliot—and there is tons of classical stuff that they are pulling into their work, so it was a really beautiful blending. In college I took a class called “The Odyssey and Its Afterlife” which was looking at modern interpretations of The Odyssey. We read Ulysses, we read Louise Glück’s Meadowlands, some Derek Walcott… it was one of the best classes I took in college, and while I was working on this book, that class was definitely on my mind.

But I feel like these stories have been existing in me all along, like how they exist in all of us, whether we know it or not. There is this foundational Western mythology.

BLVR: I love that idea of stories that are already in us. Like when you watch a movie and the plot feels familiar—the whole Hero’s Journey thing—and you want certain events to happen, to meet certain characters, to have things resolve in a certain way…

NM: Yup, yup.

BLVR: It feels comforting, almost?

NM: Totally.

BLVR: But also reading Wake, Siren, the stories are so familiar, and not in a comforting way. In some ways it’s really depressing—we’ve been telling the same stories, the same things have been happening to women and children and vulnerable people, forever.

NM: Mhm.

BLVR: When did you first read The Metamorphoses?

NM: I think I read it in high school? I think. I only remember that because I can remember what the cover of the book looked like. I have no recollection of actually reading it, though. We definitely didn’t discuss the fact that there is rape on every single page. I would have remembered talking about that.

BLVR: I know that I first read it in high school, in AP Lyric, and I don’t remember talking about rape at all.

NM: And then I wasn’t assigned to read it in any college classes.

BLVR: And you were a Classics major? That’s like how I never read Crime and Punishment as a Russian major.

NM: When I first really read it, with adult eyes, was when I was working on the second draft of Hammer Head, and I wanted to read something that I felt like wouldn’t inform what I was working on. No novels, no memoirs, I was like great, a 12,000-line poem? Perfect, it won’t influence shit at all.

And then it ended up becoming the backbone of the book.

BLVR: I was going to say, I feel like there were lots of references to The Metamorphoses in Hammer Head. Because it is a memoir about transformation.

NM: Totally. Ovid became my guide. It informed the way I thought about going from one thing to another thing. It really helped frame it.

It’s also just fucking beautiful too. The stories, the language. Just beautiful.

III. A NYMPH WALKS INTO A HARVARD BAR

BLVR: I love how you thank different Cambridge places in your acknowledgments, like Shay’s and the Harvard Book Store, and how you have these local references embedded in the actual stories too, which are Easter eggs for any Cambridge resident. Did you write the book while in Cambridge?

NM: Yes. Right where you are sitting.

BLVR: Amazing. But how did you figure out the sense of place for each of the stories? Some of the stories felt like they took place in our world, in the modern era, in contemporary Cambridge. Others felt like Ancient Greece. Others felt like somewhere magical and unreal. How did you figure out where to ground each of the retellings?

NM: How I wrote each one is, first, I would read through the original story twice, taking notes in the margins. It’s funny how they’re all basically the same story—a nymph gets chased by a something, gets raped—but I would try to pay really close attention to the specific details. And then I would go for these long, long runs—these 10, 11, 12-mile runs—and listen to the voice in my mind. Sometimes it was these more ancient voices, and sometimes it was a chatty friend. Each one presented herself in a different way. Some automatically felt like a contemporary of mine, while another would feel like a more magic-y one, but for the ones that ended up in Cambridge… this is the place where I live. This is the place I know well, and have known well for a long time, and in different phases in my life.

IV. “HE ATTAINED HER LOVE”

BLVR: I don’t know if it was like this when you were in high school, but, for me, Latin class was always this boys club. Most people took Spanish, but then it was like all the artsy girls took French, all the nerdy kids took Japanese, and then in Latin were all these jock dudes who thought they could get an easy A. My whole time taking Latin it was me and two other girls, and that was it. Was it like that for you?

NM: Hm, well, what I will say is that one of my biggest regrets in life is not taking a modern language. I feel like that was such a fucking idiotic choice.

BLVR: That’s why I switched to Russian from Latin in college.

NM: Fucking smart you did that. I really regret not taking a modern language in high school. But I do remember my Latin classes being tiny, only six or seven kids in my class. I feel like they were more balanced? But that might have just been less on my radar then.

BLVR: I was wondering only because, for me at least, there was a lot of posturing and joking and locker room talk in class, and I feel like that is probably why we didn’t discuss all the rape in Ovid.

NM: Because the hockey boys couldn’t handle it?

BLVR: Yeah, exactly.

NM: Or the more sinister possibility that all that rape is just so commonplace it doesn’t even warrant discussion. Of course, these powerful men are raping, torturing, defiling these women. We don’t even need to discuss it.

BLVR: I think it depends on the teacher and what they are comfortable talking about in class. I wonder if Leona Cottrell had been my teacher for Ovid, if she would have spent all class yelling about how fucked up all this rape was.

NM: Who teaches it, and also who translates it. There is so much obscuring that can take place, like, instead of saying “rape,” using the phrase, “he attained her love.”

BLVR: Gross.

NM: But this is how it has been translated for generations and generations! Until finally someone is like hey, wait a minute, he didn’t attain her love, he violently attacked her, and how misleading that language is. The Mandelbaum translation I was using does occasionally use the word rape, but it is usually euphemistic. How it is interpreted is such a big part of it.

BLVR: Have you read different translations?

NM: No, just the Mandelbaum.

BLVR: Have you read the new Emily Wilson translation of The Odyssey yet?

NM: Parts of it.

BLVR: I haven’t yet, but I used to teach The Odyssey, and I’ve been wondering if a translator who is a woman would make different word choices than a translation who is a man.

NM: From what I’ve read so far, it seems so, and I think that was one of her aims, and that’s crucial. All these translations though have been primarily been men. And those word choices do matter a lot.

BLVR: Thinking about word choices, and just having the proper language to describe something…. I keep thinking about the line you have in one of the stories: “Is it rape if you don’t realize what has happened until afterward?” Lacy M. Johnson has an essay in The Reckonings about that idea, about how hard it is to talk about an experience if the language just doesn’t exist to describe it. But, with all this talk of language, when you were writing this, how did you settle on your own word choices and language, and how explicit to be, throughout Wake, Siren?

NM: When I say writing this book was a bodily experience, I really mean it in the sense that it was created through a lot of intuition, a lot of just seeing what was coming out. Writing Hammer Head, or writing my [not-yet-published] book about November, those were both coming from a small and snarled coil in my mind. This book was coming from the messy, wet, dark center of me. I wasn’t making these choices when writing it. I only became aware of those things after I sold it, when I started to go back through the book and making edits for the first time. Then I thought, oh, fuck, what have I done. It was a very destabilizing thing to read over.

BLVR: That makes sense. That’s why I love sharing work with friends or a writing workshop. They see things and ask, “Did you mean to do that?” and I think, “Wow! I was thinking that? Who knew? Good for me! I’m so smart!”

NM: Seriously.

V. THE ULTIMATE TRANSFORMATION

BLVR: All your work is about transformation. Hammer Head is about transforming from a journalist into a carpenter, Wake, Siren is about The Metamorphoses which is just a series of transformations, even your November book is about a month that is a transition point in the year, from fall to winter. But the act of writing itself is a type of transformation—words become sentences which become books—and carpentry, too. You can turn a tree into a table or a spoon or a bookshelf. Do you find the acts of writing and building similar at all, in that way?

NM: I am deeply fascinated by that aspect of change. There is a birch tree that came down that had been in my dad’s backyard, and I have been using to carve all these spoons, and it never ceases to amaze me that this thing was once a tree in a yard and now it is a spoon in my hand that is stirring the stew.

BLVR: Right. Like everything is both what it used to be and what it is now at the same time. There is a line at the end of the book that I think captures that: “We are there, and continue to be. The ghosts of ourselves, the ghosts of the children we were, we’re there, compressed in the tight grain of the wood.”

NM: You know, I think by writing about a nymph, a woman, being turned into a tree, what I am trying to get comfortable with, actually, is the ultimate transformation—that we die. I am writing towards making myself more at home with this. A way to reduce the horror that I feel when I really deeply think about it. And, in some ways, I think I helped myself with it by writing this book. It’s a book about time, too, and how we are all being changed within it all the time. The way time can change us as people, the way time spent sanding a spoon can make it smooth, this is all the meat of what it means to exist.

BLVR: That passage at the end of the book, about time, was one of the ones I wrote down, that I loved the most: “And now, tonight, as we sit at the table, it is not just you and me, we are never alone. Time sits with us, too. Time is our host and we are its guests, and it is our constant companion. We inhabit it. We thud through it. We ride the milk river of its flow.” The whole idea, too, we were talking about before, that these are all the same stories that have been repeating forever, just with different specifics, different details, but the plot is the same. It’s almost like parallel universes. People always want to say, oh, this new thing that is happening, all these women just now, coming forward, telling their stories… and it’s like, no, these stories have been happening forever.

NM: Right. It’s interesting, what you said too, about the Lacy M. Johnson essay and not having the language to describe what has happened. It makes you wonder if you are overreacting, if it even occurred at all.

BLVR: There are so many gray areas, too. Like, sure, we know what rape is, but what about almost-rape? Or something deeply traumatic or inappropriate, that wasn’t rape, but it felt like it?

NM: Mhm.

BLVR: The similarity of the stories, both to stories we are experiencing now, but also the similarities within The Metamorphoses themselves. Like you said, they’re all a woman trying to run away and getting changed into something else. So how did you make each story distinctive? How did you distinguish the voices?

NM: I paid very close attention to the text and I let the little details drive the stories. One, for example, was wearing a white headband, and suddenly I could see the whole character, focusing on that.

I also paid close attention to when the women did speak in Ovid, listening—reading—closely to what they said.

BLVR: You didn’t include retellings of all of the Ovid stories, right?

NM: No.

BLVR: So how did you choose which to include?

NM: Again, it was an intuitive process. If I read through a story and wasn’t immediately responding to and hearing a voice, I would leave it. Usually it was because it was too similar to two or three others I had already done. For example, there are a lot about jealousy, about which I don’t have as much to say.

Part of me wishes I could have done them all.

VI. “A FORM OF PROFOUND POWER”

BLVR: I read a quote recently by a famous woman tattoo artist, Vyvyn Lazonga, who said, “Women are masters of illusion.”  Do you feel that any of the characters in The Metamorphoses had agency over their transformations, that their changes were an act of taking ownership and power? Or were the transformations always something terrible happening to them?

NM: I feel like the act of putting the words in their voices was a way to give them agency. Yes, these terrible things are happening to them, but now there is the force of their story behind them. Being able to tell, being able to say, is a form of profound power. It’s terrifying to say those words out loud. It requires an enormous amount of bravery. Allowing them to do this felt like depositing some control.

The story of Thetis was my favorite one to write, and I only realized later when editing it was because she was the one woman who changes her own shape. The idea that all of this exists inside of us, we have so much deep within, and we don’t always know what it will take to access it. Sometimes good and sometimes terrible.

BLVR: That’s interesting. I feel like that is what so many memoirs are about, a time when we gained access to something inside we didn’t know was there. Which, actually, reminds me, I wanted to ask: what is this? A short story collection? Historical fiction?

NM: It feels like a collection of monologues. That feels right.

BLVR: Because, even though it is fiction, it felt like it had a memoir-y, confessional tone to it. These women reclaiming and telling the stories of their own lives, before they got transformed into a tree or a river or a cow or whatever. Did writing memoir influence the writing of this?

NM: You know, I wrote a true book about my life, but, in some ways, this feels more personal and more revealing of my mind, and, in that way, more terrifying. Writing Hammer Head was a totally different process, and the place where it was coming from felt really different, too. Some of Wake, Siren is just so gross, violent, there’s incest, some of it is just fucking bizarre. But I felt like I was tapping into a universal psyche. These are stories that are in so many different cultures, different eras, and I am translating them through myself… This felt much more like mucking around in the darker, murkier depths of our collective unconscious.

VII. INK

BLVR: I wanted to ask about the cover, because I remember you saying you had a whole battle over the cover of Hammer Head, that they wanted to put a pink gardening glove on the book, and you hated that. How did this cover come about?

NM: FSG actually has you do a whole questionnaire about what you’re interested in, artists and covers you like.

BLVR: Ooh.

NM: The artist who did this cover is actually a tattoo artist in New York. The original version was much more snake-heavy, a more obvious Medusa reference, but we went back and forth a bit and were able to figure out how to incorporate more of the other animals at the moment of transformation.

BLVR: So, are you going to get the cover as a full back tat?

NM: No.

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