An Interview with Mary South

Wednesday, July 22, 2020

Mary South’s debut story collection, You Will Never Be Forgotten, is a book for the moment but also for the long haul. With surgical detail but also humanistic nuance, she unpacks the chaotic digital present. The collection is populated by internet trolls, content moderators, and unhinged fandoms, and in the stories, she brings online and real-life spaces face to face, leaving her characters to reckon with the buffer that was supposed to exist between them. Reading South in 2020 feels like reading Don DeLillo in 1985—a clear-eyed distillation of the place where we are now, of all its contradictions and the human core still there under accreting layers of irony.

South has published stories in the New Yorker, Conjunctions, American Short Fiction, Guernica, and many other magazines. For this interview, she answered questions about the themes in her collection, the aims of her writing, and her process.

TQ: There are many intersections in the book between digital and physical spaces, such as a real-world camp where anonymous internet trolls are sent for rehabilitation and a workplace where web content is screened out of existence. There’s also a tension between public and private spaces. What did you want to explore at those intersections?

MS: One of my main goals for the collection was exploring the public vs. private self, because I feel strikingly confronted with the ways in which the internet has really collapsed—or at least made very porous—such distinctions. We’ve always been fixated with how we present ourselves to the world, with the notion that we can control how we are perceived and cultivate a kind of persona by which we’re proud to be known. At the same time, everyone is aware this is an illusion, that we express certain opinions or judgments of others only to a trusted few, which is why we have always been fascinated by gossip, despite ourselves. So the internet isn’t doing anything new in that regard. However, it is providing us with a new illusion of unprecedented access—to information, to institutions, to celebrities. Especially when it comes to people and institutions, I believe this a false and often toxic façade. Yes, you can now tweet your favorite actor, there’s the appearance of engagement. We love people who seem “real” online, as though we’re getting the actual them, because we’re transfixed by the deconstruction of an age-old boundary. But all of it is insidiously empty to me.

This sort of appearance of access is hypervisible as a façade right now, with all of us confined to our homes due to COVID-19. Because we have to manage everything in our lives via videoconferencing, we’re seeing everyone’s pets and children, their bookshelves and kitchens and furniture. We’re seeing celebrities sing songs in their bathrooms and drink wine in their bathrobes and putter about their mansions. There’s the sense of, “Oh, we’re getting the rare peek into who everyone is in private.” But again, this is false; it’s still artifice and presentation of one form of self.

Underneath it all is the search for identity and community. Curating a self is just a desire for acceptance. This is a book that’s interested in loneliness because the illusion of access, of hierarchies of perfect lives, makes us even lonelier than if we didn’t have it. And who are we, when the boundary of the public vs. private is so conflated? That fosters a feeling of extraordinary lassitude, of dissociation. When your rapist behaves like he’s a virtuous “good guy” online, but you know differently, you yearn to see the veil ripped apart. It’s alienating. Therefore, I want to explore how we use these spaces to present and dissemble but also to channel emotion.

I’m also just thrilled by literally collapsing space. Actual physical troll camps do exist in Russia. They spread disinformation and hate. I thought it would be delightful fun to play on the notion of encampment, to put a bunch of trolls in a literal summer camp with arts and crafts. It’s the same way the woman in the title story begins stalking her rapist in real life after stalking him online—it’s cathartic. It’s reorienting in a strange way.

TQ: Your collection does such a wonderful job portraying the oversaturated noisiness of the present and the uneasy moral swamps of the near future. That’s a difficult tightrope to walk. What was that balancing act like for you? What pitfalls did you work to avoid?

MS: I’m so glad to hear I successfully walked that tightrope; when drafting the collection, one of my greatest fears was that the stories would seem “all premise.” I didn’t want them to feel reductive and thus flat—that is, “Here’s a story about how social media kills empathy” or “This is a story about how we don’t really have privacy anymore.” Nor did I want them to feel like they were wallowing and dismally, menacingly indulgent for the sake of it, just sort of rolling around in dystopia. I did want to really capture what it feels like to live in a hyperconnected and dissociated present (and near future), which would entail not looking away from some unsavory aspects of our technological interactions and late-capitalist milieu. I hope I captured a truthfulness in our screen and gig lives while also not sort of licking my chops about it. Because I did read a lot about various topics—bots, troll farms, phone companies reassigning numbers after a customer has died, content moderation, doxxing, digital surveillance, and so on.—I was also concerned about the stories coming across as gimmicky or “pulled from the headlines.” You want your book to feel relevant to the current culture for a long while as well as always timelessly relevant in a deep thematic sense. How I worked to avoid those pitfalls was to ground each story as much as possible in character emotions. Ultimately, even though we have access to the same technology, we all use it or respond to it in our own ways. How you might respond to cyberbullying, for example, would be different than how I might respond to it. A story should always feel like it’s about a specific character’s response to technology rather than an “everyman” response. I trusted that if I approached drafting these stories with that mindset, they would feel fresh and genuine.

TQ: One of the things that makes your stories feel so bracing and new is the keen sense of the dysfunctional bleeding-edge present, not just in the ideas and premises but also in the granular details. What sort of inputs—observed, researched, discovered—went into developing that sense?

MS: As mentioned, I did a lot of research and read many articles about current technological troubles and encroaching anxieties. But I also did my best, research-wise, to get fully into the mind of each story’s protagonist. For example, in “Frequently Asked Questions about Your Craniotomy,” told from the point of view of a grieving neurosurgeon, I really wanted to capture her voice—the kind of slang or jargon she would use with ease after her many years of experience in her profession, her gallows humor and sarcasm, but also her compassion, how deeply invested she is in the well-being of her family and her patients. To that end, I read through countless forum posts from survivors about what it’s like to go through brain surgery and the aftermath of recovery; I read memoirs penned by doctors, watched videos of surgeries, did my best to familiarize myself with the anatomy of the brain and the exigencies of various procedures. I didn’t know if any of this would end up in the story, but I felt it necessary to ground myself in that reality. Similarly, in “Architecture for Monsters,” I wanted to convincingly adopt the tone of a high-profile piece about a famous “starchitect.” That would entail mimicking the kind of embellished and contradictorily cool prose of such writing. In order to do so, I read many architecture blogs and glossy magazines, in addition to heavy tomes about the field, such as The Future of Architecture since 1889 by Jean-Louis Cohen, Delirious New York by Rem Koolhaas, The Eyes of the Skin by Juhani Pallasma, and more. This is a lot of effort spent just to write a single, twenty- to twenty-five-page short story—that’s partly why this collection took about a decade to draft—but my hope is that the stories are then almost hyperreal in specificity, which allows me to more easily get away with occasional near-futuristic or dystopian elements, as well as more formal and linguistic feats and gambles.

TQ: Your collection features a lot of highly intelligent characters. Some characters, like the architect in “Architecture for Monsters” and the surgeon in “Frequently Asked Questions about Your Craniotomy,” have careers making use of that intelligence. Others are stuck in low-level, unfulfilling jobs. In both cases, the characters’ intelligence seems as much a curse as an asset—a force in the way of emotional progress. What draws you to writing those types of characters? And is it the nature of intelligence to be at odds with happiness?

MS: One thing that was important to me with these stories was to portray women in positions of power—as famous architects and neurosurgeons—as well as those sidelined into lower paying gig economy jobs, some of which are deeply traumatic and exploitative. Part of this has to do with exploring those notions of the public vs. private self—who gets to be seen and why and how—but also I just wanted to place women in those roles. When I first drafted “Frequently Asked Questions about Your Craniotomy,” it was almost entirely in that removed “you” voice, “This is what you can expect on the day of your operation, etc.” (even though it isn’t a second-person POV story, actually). Nearly everyone who read it assumed the neurosurgeon was a man, though she was always a woman in my mind. I revised it, made her more explicit, had her reveal more of herself. I wanted there to be no doubt about who she is. Regardless, many of these characters, most of whom are women, are in caretaking roles because that kind of work has traditionally been delegated to women and has been compensated less, rewarded less, and seen less. If the house is perfectly clean, the children perfectly behaved, the patient uncomplaining and compliant and on the mend, then the work frequently becomes invisible. It’s only when the work goes “wrong,” so to speak, that it is then noticed, and not positively.

I don’t think intelligence is at odds with happiness, though I’m fascinated with that question and pleased you observed that all the characters, no matter their jobs, their relative invisibility or visibility, share that quality. I do think that we use intelligence to develop fear-based coping strategies to protect us in response to trauma, but those strategies can later become unconscious and harmful, lead us to put up barriers to intimacy, to sabotage careers, relationships, or other possibilities for connection. Ultimately, the patterns we used to keep us safe, shutting off our emotions in the presence of an unstable and unreliable parent or while being bullied, for example, can inhibit true feeling and growth. Intimacy requires vulnerability and trust. This is what “The Age of Love” is about, the story about the night nurse in an assisted-living facility who sees a particular patient able to form emotional bonds with others whereas he himself cannot, so he becomes deeply jealous and resentful of his patient. He has to relearn how to be, heal the deep wounds from his past, so he doesn’t keep losing people—his girlfriend in particular, in this story. What I hope for that character in the end, and what readers discern, is that just as his intelligence has kept him at arm’s length from others because of a childhood of loss, living with a terminally ill single parent, his intelligence can free him, allow him to solve problems of relating to others, to undo the walls of the self, if he’ll allow it to work on his behalf.

TQ: There’s a lot of humor in the book. The humor is often dark, bleak, sharp. In what ways does that tie in to the intelligence of the characters? Beyond making readers laugh, what else do you want to accomplish by foregrounding that kind of humor?

MS: Humor is a great example of what I meant by how we can use intelligence to relieve pain or act as a shield in response to trauma. Humor, in the middle of grief, can be a necessary part of moving on, remembering the funny, tender moments in a now-deceased loved one’s life or a dissolving marriage. But humor can also be an anodyne that prevents real feeling; it can disconnect us from others. It can reduce other people to jokes and sources of cruel amusement; it can be used to position the self, via one’s intelligence, more powerfully in relation to others; it can be put in the service of abuse. The elderly men in “The Age of Love” crave connection and sex and simple empathy—that the staff are secretly laughing at them is a form of clandestine mistreatment, which most of the staff recognize by the end. And the woman obsessed with monitoring her rapist in the title story often has very darkly humorous thoughts about him, about how he deserves a poorly behaved dog instead of an obedient one, about his appearance and tastes and friends. This riffing on him helps take some of the air out of her trauma so she doesn’t implode with it, but it also prevents her from fully moving on. In order to do that, she’ll have to step out from behind the fallacious protection of humor and perform the deep emotional work of reckoning with her PTSD and self-esteem and deep woundedness.

TQ: In particular, there’s a focus in the collection on female intelligence in male-dominated spaces. Some of those spaces have been around forever, but this is basically the first generation inhabiting those online spaces. What are the similarities and the differences between the toll of internet culture on women and the toll of the general culture?

MS: I don’t see that much difference between online space and physical space in terms of how women are treated. Women are similarly bullied out of online spaces, their bodies are seen as commodities for public commentary and critique, their DMs fill up with dick pics and harassment or idle negging. Sensitivity about this kind of belittling is often regarded as ridiculous and overreactive rather than as the mind’s warning system functioning properly to keep toxic people at bay. At worst, women’s lives are threatened, their work and home addresses exposed for potential violence. Online space is an alternatingly fascinating and disturbing mirror of the real, which is partly why I’m so interested in exploring it fictionally.

Fandoms become rabid; the fans act like they have ownership over multimillion-dollar franchises and spew hatred at the creators and actors and writers involved if they dislike certain installments or plot developments, no matter how small a part an individual may have had in decisions made about these products. Women are particularly blamed as sources of corruption for films and television series, formerly beloved, that are judged to have taken a turn for the worse.

We’re all indoctrinated into reality, and unfortunately that still includes toxic masculinity for many. I think the ways in which a particular type of man wants to exclude women from online spaces makes more apparent how he wants to exclude them from physical spaces, too. Perhaps there’s even a feedback effect, where the more consequence-free arena of online space emboldens some to act even more reprehensibly offline. But I do believe if it is seen, then it can be overcome; when it’s hidden, it’s much more difficult to counter.

TQ: I’ve seen you mention writers like Ottessa Moshfegh, Alissa Nutting, Sam Lipsyte, and Kazuo Ishiguro as influences on the collection. I can see those writers in there, but I think it also has plenty of its own DNA. It feels new and unique. What things were you aiming to do in this collection that you haven’t seen done before?

MS: Thank you so much! One of the things I tried to do with this collection was to have formal experimentation mimic the fractured way we experience modern life but also make it feel new, defamiliarized, and also restorative, in some way. To take a hospital’s frequently asked questions page, which can feel so cold and frightening, and turn it into art, deeply felt. Or to impart through the eyes of a traumatized character, simply through choice of POV (close third-person where she refers to herself only as “the woman”), how she feels unseen and lost—and, in giving her space, to challenge and invigorate the reader. There’s that notion in therapy that you’re incorporating fractured selves into a whole, and I think I was interested in incorporating fractured forms into a kind of whole. I’m not fond of the idea of epiphany in the general sense, but I am interested in portraying emotional growth or how emotional growth becomes possible, how a character can have a moment of becoming a witness to their life that was previously conducted mostly unconsciously.

I greatly admire language-focused writers and have been fortunate to study with some masterful ones, including Sam Lipsyte, and also Ben Marcus, Gordon Lish, and Diane Williams through working with her at NOON. I want to write rich, sonically inventive sentences within narratives that are also often highly conceptual or intensely plotted. I want not only to find “my” voice but to be able to ventriloquize many different character voices, sometimes more than one within a single story, to enter into any consciousness that I like. I hope to find stories anywhere and everywhere, from headlines, from snippets of text, or from a random image. I want to be able to do anything. I’m not sure I’m unique in these aspirations, but I hope I find ways of accomplishing them in a style that feels very much mine.