Laurie Stone is the author of My Life as an Animal, Stories, the novel Starting with Serge, and the essay collection Laughing in the Dark. She is editor of and contributor to the memoir anthology Close to the Bone. A longtime writer for the Village Voice (1974-1999), she has been theater critic for The Nation and critic-at-large on Fresh Air.
To read an exercise on using backstory to create drama in the present based on My Life as an Animal, click here.
In this interview, Stone discusses her approach to truth and fiction in “stories,” jump cuts, and why talk of therapeutic writing sends her to the bar.
My Life as an Animal is subtitled stories, and I’m curious about that. The narrator has your name, and Richard and Andre Glaz (two of the most important characters in these stories) both appear in “Tangled,” an essay you published in Joyland, (I found that essay because, in the book, you tell the reader to google André Glaz, and so I did!) So, I’m assuming that the book, which is fiction, is based in large part on your own life. I’m not interested so much in what is true and what has been invented. Instead, I’m curious about the decision to fictionalize. It’s one that I think a lot of essayists and memoirists face. What made you decide to write these as stories instead of essays? What was your approach?
I am delighted you read the piece in Joyland. First, I’d like to speak about the way I view literary genres in relationship to my work. Pretty much everything I write these days is a story. The pieces in this book and elsewhere are dramatic narratives. I would say this of much of my criticism as well, such as a long appreciation I wrote about Spalding Gray published in American Theatre. The piece is a monologue about Gray, a story. It’s not about me, and yet it reflects the elements in Gray’s work and life that quickened my thoughts. That is what I am interested in communicating. What I find sexy, scary, surprising, strangely ordinary or ordinarily strange. My work incorporates elements of fiction (scenes, dialogue, the build-up of dramatic revelations, etc.), memoir (some of the stuff described happened in some form or other), criticism (my narrators enjoy thinking about art and politics), and nonfiction (some of the reporting is journalistically verifiable).
I do not consciously “fictionalize” events. In literature, I am not especially interested in things that happened because they happened. I am interested in whatever I find dramatic. It might be the relationship I had with André Glaz, a psychoanalyst I saw in treatment who, during my teenage years, took me into his bed. Or it might be driving in Scottsdale’s soul-crushing heat to buy a $5 Ikea rug from a woman about to return to Kolkata. The term “essay” does not apply to my work generally. I don’t seek to convey meaning or understandings. I hope I am staging little provocations for the reader to react to anyway the reader wishes.
I do not believe circumstances are intrinsically interesting or uninteresting. Narrators create interest by their passionate investment in the story they are telling. They do this by layering in two time frames. Something happens, the narrator reports a response at the time it happened, and the narrator also looks back and weighs in on the incident now—at the time of the telling—whether the look back is five minutes later or 20 years later. The reader attaches to a story the reader can enter as if the story is about the reader. The less the narrator asks for something from the reader, i.e. feel my feelings, share my understandings, love my friends, hate my enemies, sentence my parents or siblings or lover to death, etc., the more room readers have to feel their own emotions.
The stories are constructed through language, not memory. I write at the level of the sentence. I sit there, looking at the doors and windows a sentence has opened for the sentence that can follow, and so on. I do not write with a plan. I do not know where a story is going ahead of time. There is no prewriting. It all happens in the moment of looking at the words. To get back to your interest in André, I return to him over and over because he stirs contradictions that can’t be resolved. Those are the stories I want to read and write.
You play with chronology quite a bit. The first story takes place after many of the stories that follow it. In “Leaving Gardner,” the chronology is continually scrambled, with the narrator describing Gardner’s death and them jumping to a time before it and then after it. What was your sense for when to use straight chronology and when some other element made it less important?
I start with a dramatic moment and look at it from as many perspectives as I can. I do not know of a story worth its salt that proceeds chronologically. We think associatively. If I am listening to a person tell a story, and they start with getting up and listing what they had for breakfast before getting on the bus where they found themselves next to a lost child who could not speak, I move away for a drink long before learning there was a diamond clasped in the child’s grimy paw.
On a similar note, one of the things I love about your stories is your ability to jump from one topic to another seemingly unrelated topic with incredible speed and while maintaining a clear sense of direction. I was particularly struck by a passage in “Toby Dead” that jumped from Nebraska City to Gertrude Stein and William James and then to the narrator’s family. How many of these asides and jumps were trimmed or cut from the manuscript? What’s your measure for how far you can stray or jump from the main thread of a story?
I am glad you commented on the jump cuts in the texts. I use a number of techniques shared with film and visual art, among them montage, fades, collage, bricollage, etc. The sections you refer to are not “asides.” For there to be “asides,” there would need to be a central intention. Nothing was cut or edited out because it was extraneous. I cut when a sentence is repetitious, obvious, or clichéd. If you feel there is a dramatic build-up in the stories, and I hope you do, it comes from adding complexity or switching from direction A (melancholy in separateness) to direction B (ecstasy in solitude). I hope connections for the reader will jump across the border between one thing placed beside another thing . . . the way we understand what is happening from montage in film . . . a shot of a cat in an open door, the next shot of a mouse behind the leg of a chair. I wonder what you felt reading the example you gave. Having put those bits together experimentally, I can offer this reading now: the narrator of “Toby Dead,” who is caring for a mother she does not actively love, expresses her ease with abjection in two anecdotes of disappointment and entrapment. The juxtapositions are also funny, I hope. As often as possible, I am looking to find comedy in weird, cruel, and sad moments.
The story “André” is about a difficult, awful subject: the narrator’s sexual assault by the psychoanalyst André Glaz. The trauma is clear in how the piece is written. For example, the narrator tries to describe the way that Glaz has stayed with her for years and says, “He formed me. Not really.” Then she tries out a few other descriptions that don’t quite seem to capture what she feels. And yet I was also struck by how sympathetic your portrayal of Glaz was. For example, you write that the narrator read two articles Glaz had written and was “surprised by their sensitivity.” What was your approach to the character of Glaz? It would be easy and justified in portraying him as a monster, but he comes off as something more complex. Was that difficult to achieve?
There would be no story unless André was complex, and I think readers would lose interest in a one-dimensional character. He must have had something compelling in his personality to seduce so many people, albeit naïve and striving ones. It is not emotionally difficult for me to write complexity into a character. If trauma gives you a subject over and over, let’s raise a glass to trauma. When people speak of writing as cathartic or therapeutic, I am off to the bar for another drink. Mel Brooks says, “Comedy equals tragedy plus time,” and I’ll go with that. When I’m working, I think, “Okay, if there are no heroes and no victims . . . what does that leave?” I have to be on guard against flashing and showing off—asking the reader to look at me and like me. For me the hard thing to re-experience over and over is Gardner’s death. That section is clinical and listy, and yet for me the most wrenching. The rest of this book, honestly, is a bunch of sentences.