“Female Writers Aren’t Supposed To”: An Interview with April Ayers Lawson
I read April Ayers Lawson’s Virgin and Other Stories in the bathtub. My intention was to read a single story, and then switch back to the poetry book I was already reading. But the title story, the first in the collection, got its hooks in me, and I sat there reading and reading until the water was no longer warm. The experience was pleasant so the next night I repeated it. There is something appropriate about reading her stories in the bath: the stories are ones that take their time to build, lingering over fine detail. They are stories about bodies: sex, discomfort, abuse, a disconnect between the mind and the limbs it controls.
A review I read for the collection said her stories are ‘meaty,’ and they are. Long, but also rich, each paragraph there because it needs to be, each section further complicating the ending it builds to. Lawson has a precision to her language, deftly alternating the musical with the succinct, the concrete with the ethereal. There is also a gossipy quality to her writing, a feeling of voyeurism, that made me feel as if by reading them I was complicit in something salacious. But unlike juicy gossip, there is nothing frivolous or superficial about her work. Again: meaty.
April and I discussed religion, politics, online attacks, writing while female, and more, over a Google doc and a series of emails.
Juliet Escoria: A lot of your stories have to do with Christianity and also the frustration and awkwardness that comes from having a body. I guess I’m always curious about writers’ spiritual beliefs because the act of writing and reading can be tied to the divine, but I was especially curious about yours. Did Jesus die for our sins? Is the soul only temporarily tethered to the body? Do we even have a soul?
April Ayers Lawson: It seems to me someone who’d say, “Father, forgive them for they do not know what they are doing” about the people who persuaded Pilate to have him crucified–as he was dying on a cross—would have to be both human and more than human. He sounded like someone quite sure of who he was and what he was here for, and he wasn’t insane. I think we do have souls. I know people who don’t believe in the soul and yet have had moments where they’re scared they’re losing theirs, which is interesting.
Last night I was reading Disgrace by Jim Coetzee and was struck by the part of the story where the father has a vision–it comes in sleep but he distinguishes it is different from a dream–in which his daughter who’s recently been raped and is staying in the next room says to him, ‘Come to me, save me!’ He gets up, goes to the daughter’s room, checks to see if she was calling him, but she says she wasn’t, tells him to go back to sleep. So he tries to go back to sleep, but he can’t. He goes back into her room, sits in a chair by the bed. He senses she’s been awake all this time. She doesn’t acknowledge his presence but after a long while he senses her relaxing; then hears her snore. He wonders if some part of her was calling out to him for comfort, another part of her unaware. Coetzee writes, “Is it possible that Lucy’s soul did indeed leave her body and come to him? May people who do not believe in souls yet have them, and may their souls lead an independent life?”
There’s a similar idea in a Mary Gaitskill story called “Mirror Ball”—this idea that our souls can be in communication with other souls without our being aware of it, and that our soul may be trying to communicate things to others that we’re not consciously aware of. I’m not saying I believe this is the case—I haven’t decided I disbelieve it either—but that it interests me lately. I mean, obviously there’s something mysterious and of value in us that is also us, yet somehow feels distinctive from the surface-level us, and we’re all in one way or another, at some point in our lives, aware of it.
JE: Now that we’ve covered religion, let’s go onto the other taboo of polite conversation: politics. Obviously we’re going through a contentious political time that has a lot of progressive-minded people (justifiably) upset. Do you think writers have a responsibility to be political? If so, how can a writer best integrate their politics into their work?
AAL: Yes, we should definitely follow religion with politics. Hmm…nah, I don’t think writers have a responsibility to be political. Though I think those who are apt observers of human nature usually at some point end up writing about stuff that involves power, power dynamic, use and abuse of power. If by a certain age you’re not noticing power dynamics, you’re not paying enough attention to what’s happening around you or to your relations with other people and entities run by people.
Artists of all mediums have a responsibility to be true to their vision. The other day someone told me writing honestly is political; we were talking about gender relations and I think he meant writing honestly about gender relations is political. So in that way you could say a writer could best integrate their politics into their work by being as true as possible to what they observe about their world and human nature. Your political beliefs—even if you don’t come out and clearly state them, even if you don’t intend to write something that involves politics—have a presence in your writing at some level, because they affect how you see the world.
JE: In “Vulnerability,” the longest story in your collection (which is technically a novella, right?), you shift from first person to third to first again. This is a pretty bold move, but I really like the way you pulled it off and the effect it creates for the reader. Was this switch something you thought about a lot, or was it more intuitive?
AAL: Yes, a novella. I did it intuitively, without understanding why. But after, I understood it made sense because it’s a trauma narrative (in which shifts like that often occur). She’s looking back on this life-altering event, analyzing what led up to it, desperate to see the full reality of it, which in memory is composed of pieces, fragments contradictions. The interesting thing about serious trauma is that it becomes so important in your memory because you remember most what happens in states of charged emotion, emotional arousal–when you’re afraid, you often remember what happens then the very most–and so events can take on what seems like undue significance; you don’t decide This Is One Of The Most Important Things That Happened To Me–which is what we would like to think, that we decide what’s important in our lives, that we’re always choosing what to give significance to in our narrative, but isn’t totally possible when you have a body. What happens with trauma is that sometimes our physiology decides This Is A Huge Deal and then we play catch up. We assemble the pieces of reality that led up to it, trying to understand. Then we are in a sense building our narrative, our reality, but it’s a faceted reality that we can’t see in the way we’re used to seeing; it’s almost like the truth of what happened is more than we can handle–it’s like we’re trying to see more than what we’re equipped to see while maintaining sanity. I wanted it to have that essence to it–her describing what happened with an air of I am still trying to understand what happened to me, what this means, why it altered me, and I can’t completely.
I read Fear Of Flying by Erica Jong after I’d done it and noticed she went into third person in a part of it too. The different POVs create different levels of distance and intimacy, I think, too, and in a story like “Vulnerability” that is particularly useful.
JE: The Lover does the POV switch too, I think for many of the reasons you explained.
AAL: I have actually not read that but I have the book on my shelf. You’re the third person to mention it to me so I guess I really need to read it.
JE: Oh, you should definitely read it. I think you’d love it.
The majority of the stories in Virgin are written from the point of view of a woman, which is, of course, expected from female writers, but a couple of them are written from the perspective of a man. Is there something inherently feminist or anti-feminist about a woman inhabiting the mind of a man in her fiction?
AAL: That question makes sense to me–that it’s something people would wonder, I mean. But I don’t think it’s either. I think a woman should (like a man) have the freedom to write from the perspective of either gender without it necessarily being a political statement. For people to consider a story of mine either feminist or anti-feminist for the sole reason it is from the perspective of a man is–at least to me–an unfair limitation thrown at me as an artist that I would actually view as being sexist.
The first time I set out to write from the perspective of a man it was an experiment. I’d been asking my then-partner about growing up as a man–just out of curiosity, wanting to know what he’d tell me about being male, wanting to understand. And the curiosity fed my art. Pretending to be a boy was highly entertaining, also, because I think guys are funny; I mean the ways in which they differ from women are funny to me; and also it’s entertaining to try to imagine being a man finding a woman funny.
I will say I’ve occasionally wondered if writing from an adult male third-person perspective is (initially) what got me taken seriously by critics. That I had to do that to get my other stories taken seriously in the critical sense. But of course I don’t know; once I start thinking about it I can come up with examples of women who immediately got attention for writing that was from the point of view of a female.
What do you think about a woman writing from a man’s perspective?
JE: I think I’d agree with you–that we should have the freedom to write about whatever we want. I feel like a lot of men, when writing from the POV of a women, do it in a very silly way, and I think I’d be afraid of doing something equally silly. Which seems silly of me to be concerned about. I guess I haven’t written much fiction (maybe anything?) that wasn’t filtered through some version of myself, though. Sometimes I wonder if this might be why my stories aren’t taken more seriously. I remember feeling in grad school like people value made-up stories more than thinly-veiled autobiographical writing.
AAL: People who don’t take your stories seriously are not reading very well. I have for the past two weeks had the feeling my book is getting taken more seriously in the UK and have been wondering why.
About more made-up stuff versus thinly-veiled autobiography–well had Harold Brodkey been a woman…I can imagine the female version of him in workshop and people being like, “This is obviously autobiographical Haroldina”–and meaning it as a criticism. “There are too many observations and perceptions and analyses here, stick to the real story.” What I theorize those criticisms boil down to is: female writers aren’t supposed to assume that what happens to them and their perception of it at an intellectual level has the same significance that a male writer may without question assume in his narrative.
JE: I wanted to ask you about winning the George Plimpton Prize in 2011 for “Virgin,” and what the process was like and how it felt to win and if you feel like it ‘opened any doors’ for you. But then when I was Googling to make sure I got the story and year right, I came across this, which seems really insane and nasty but also like, naive or something. As though The Paris Review is supposed to pull from the slush pile rather than querying writers they already like, and giving priority to agented submissions. As though The Paris Review must have a slush pile of just a handful of stories, and a huge, well-paid slush pile reading staff. (The anonymous author of the site also seems to think autobiographical fiction lacks merit.) How did it feel to be so pettily attacked so early on in your writing career?
AAL: Yeah, that’s hilarious. When I saw that I wondered who’d pretended to be nice to me on FB to get me to friend them and then wrote that because my page was not public when that happened. Highly creepy. I mean this person–who is too cowardly to put a name to what they write–harshly attacks all these people but seems to think it is okay to under false pretenses go onto a (then) young woman’s FB page, gather what he perceives to be “evidence” and then slander her in public online in an argument attacking other people’s ethics and perspectives. He criticizes people using other people while obviously using me. He also asserts photos of me–in which I am obviously very happy (and also not on my honeymoon)–in London (where I spent a semester abroad actually) prove his slanderous and ridiculous accusations. I think I could sue him for defamation. What it doesn’t say is that the year before, I was published in Crazyhorse, which is a very well respected and difficult-to-get-into place, and I did it through the slush pile, after submitting that story (“The Way You Must Play Always”)–which some people like the most of those in my collection–to dozens of other places.
Probably it goes without saying–but just in case, for anyone who doesn’t understand this–if a powerful agent is sending out your work it’s because that agent thinks it’s very good; you as a writer don’t pay the agent to do this. It’s not like you’ve hired some henchman to go around forcing your work on people. It’s that someone believes in what you wrote enough to send it under their name without even knowing if they’ll get paid for their effort. They take a percentage if they’re able to sell it.
Oh, and initially it made me paranoid about people on my FB page. I was under a lot of stress at that point in my life and unwell and even my FB page suddenly seemed unsafe because, like I said, someone had under false pretenses gotten me to “friend” them and then slandered my name on the Internet because they didn’t get into Paris Review and needed to feel powerful.
And this thing about very made-up fiction versus thinly-veiled autobiography–it doesn’t matter! I have trouble understanding these people who make it into a huge thing, like one is right and one is wrong. There’s a spectrum. Sometimes I write at one end of it, sometimes another, sometimes more in the middle. They’re all valid. If some people can’t do one of them well then they declare what they can’t do isn’t as valid. If they can’t do both well, then they write angry anonymous blogs attacking strangers for kicks. People are particularly interested in knowing if what women write is autobiographical, I think, most especially if it involves fucking. It’s down now, but this one dude had my photo on his blog with a kind of flashing Christmas-light sort of frame, calling me a literary princess and insinuating that was why I got published, as if the photo itself–because I was an okay-looking young woman not wearing a pair of huge eyeglasses rather than a big formidable-yet-sensitive-looking male who hadn’t bathed in a while–proved I did not deserve to get published in a good place.
JE: Jesus Christ! That’s insane. This was all from winning the Plimpton Prize, or were they pissed about something else? It seems like the world hates smart women, but they really hate smart, attractive women.
AAL: Just the Plimpton Prize. At the time it was quite a shock–that a single short story for which I won an award could arouse the hatred of two creeps who’d never even met me. There was a third guy, too, who wrote some amateurish review shaming Paris Review for publishing me and it felt so hatred-generated that another stranger wrote in to shame him for writing about me that way. Also though, what’s so interesting and horrible about it—well in every one of these the ultimate target was the editor of Paris Review. They were using me to try to challenge the authority of another male because I as a (at that time) young unknown female author seemed to be the most apparent area of vulnerability. In other words, I was the girl. I didn’t really count as a complete human being. Notice when a male author is attacked it is typically after he’s published several books and received widespread critical acclaim; he’s like the biggest guy in the room and people want to prove themselves by taking him down. But the female author—she might be attacked just for her career even beginning. Anyway, I think it’s better now than it was when this happened to me. There are so many talented female authors in what you could call high lit getting acclaim.
JE: I’m curious what works influenced you when you were writing this book. Other books, of course, but I’m especially curious about movies, music, fine art, and even simple daily interactions that influenced you to view certain things a certain way, or shaped the emotions or themes you wanted to touch on, or changed the way certain themes were presented.
AAL: While I can’t remember everything, I do remember that when I wrote the first draft of “Vulnerability”…well I was walking around a Barnes and Noble with my closest friend in the evening and while I’m usually a morning writer I suddenly felt this weird flood of electric energy, knew I was going to stay up all night adding to a page I’d written at a coffee shop that morning (that at the time I thought wasn’t going anywhere), and so I drank a bunch of coffee, went home and stayed up all night writing, finished the draft at sunrise. And so in that sense I very much consider the night–the surrounding dark outside my room that was in the country, next to woods–itself to be a primary influence. But to prevent any misassumption, I should add that the story as it is in the book took much longer than one night, before the night I speak of involved many failed attempts for more than a year, and after then involved lots of rewriting and expansion and revision and editing, a lot of work to fully express what needed to be there; but the very first draft was only about 22 pages. The whole time I kept playing “The Sound Of Silence” by Simon & Garfunkel and “I’ll Stop The World And Melt With You” by Modern English. Like over and over and over and over and over and over again.
With “Three Friends In A Hammock”–well being in a hammock, as you might imagine. I felt inspired to write “The Way You Must Play Always” after reading the work of Marjorie Sandor, Eudora Welty, and Kate Chopin (all of whom have written stories about piano players/teachers). Haruki Murakami, JD Salinger, Alice Munro, Flannery O’Connor, “A Widow For One Year” by John Irving, and Harold Brodkey were also influences in a general way during a good bit of the writing of the book. With “The Negative Effects Of Homeschooling,” some of the inspiration was the aforementioned conversations with my former partner about boys and, as may be apparent from the story, Andrew Wyeth paintings. “Virgin”…the color blue, white dresses (the idea of a white dress), and a conversation about flirting.
I watch some movies over and over in the same way I listen to songs over and over and some of the movies I watched a lot when I was writing some of these stories are Blue (the Kieslowski film), The Squid And The Whale, Closer, 21 Grams, The Royal Tenenbaums, Lost In Translation, Donnie Darko, and The Skin I Live In.
All photos by Jason Ayers