Stay for the Festive Rage: The Millions Interviews Lee Conell

Lee Conell’s story collection Subcortical is notable for a number of reasons: elegant plotting, beguiling sentence-work, intriguing premises, and surprising humor. But it may stand out most because of the ways its stories engage with the topic of moral failure. Conell treads nimbly around the many hazards of moral writing, giving the reader a collection that doesn’t reserve moral judgment but still manages to remain hypnotic, entertaining, and fun to read.

Subcortical won the 2018 Story Prize Spotlight Award, and Conell has published stories in Glimmer Train, American Short Fiction, Guernica, and other journals. She was kind enough to answer my questions about managing morality in fiction and other topics related to her collection and her forthcoming novel, The Party Upstairs.

The Millions: Writers are often instructed to write toward moral ambiguity, if writing about moral issues at all. I’m very interested in the way some of the stories in Subcortical work around that dictum. What do you think is the value of moral ambiguity in fiction, and what do you think are its limits?

Lee Conell: I’m wary of the whole “write toward moral ambiguity” thing, in part because such a statement seems freighted with—but not upfront about—its own moral agenda. I get that the message is to avoid writing boring and polemical morality plays, but I worry that the dictum itself tends to encourage narratives that have a veneer of convention-defying edginess but that don’t actually grapple with the complexities of a character’s own sense of ethics. And that in itself can be kind of boring, too. My characters often seem to act badly, which can be interesting, but more interesting to me is how they then wrangle with those actions—how do they think about the people they hurt, the people they might have exploited, the people they might have projected on in self-serving ways?

Of course, I want that sense of ethics to come from the character’s own particular experiences, rather than an outside authorial imposition. And in many cases, the conflict in the story will challenge the protagonist’s own sense of morality, sometimes their own self-righteousness. But I don’t think that means the morality itself needs to be ambiguous to the character or the reader.

TM: What is its relation to moral judgment? Your characters are not monsters, but many do have moral failings, and I don’t think the book reserves judgment of them. How do you balance the two? How do you write these moral examinations of your characters without tipping into moralizing territory?

LC: A character always comes to me before I’m totally aware of that character’s moral failings. I don’t go into a story thinking about how I will enact judgment. I’m simply curious about a character or a conceit or a conflict. That being said, I think reserving all judgment of a character isn’t possible. That’s something else I feel like you hear said a lot in writing workshops—that you shouldn’t be judgmental of your characters, or that if you’re judgmental of them, you don’t care about them the way you’re supposed to. But I think we’re always judging ourselves and the people around us to some extent, even (or especially!) the people we most care for or most empathize with. If our characters feel real to us, how could we not judge them? So, I try not to worry too much if some of that judgment comes through. It just means the character is vivid to me. I think the problem occurs if the authorial judgment is the guiding force—or if the author is overly steering the reader’s judgment. Then the story can feel like a lecture more than a narrative.

TM: A number of the stories in Subcortical are set between the 1940s and 1970s, or are informed by that era in one way or another. Is that era of particular interest to you? Is there a connection between writing about that time period and writing about morality?

LC: I feel like when I’m writing about another time period, I’m really just finding a roundabout way to write about some anxiety or weird feeling I have around the time period we’re in now. A lot of those 1940s to 1970s stories that you mentioned are also tethered in some way to the present. There are connections with daughters, grandchildren, etc. So, while I’m definitely fascinated with that time period, I think its presence in Subcortical speaks more to my obsession with how we frame or tell stories from time periods outside our own—how we reframe both our personal past as well as a broader past outside our lifetimes. And how we reframe or narrate those pasts also has a moral weight, right? A lot of those 1940s to 1970s pieces are trying to grapple with how we can tell stories about our past while also acknowledging all the ways an historical account is informed by a narrator’s agenda, whether that agenda be moral, political, self-serving, etc.

TM: Many characters in Subcortical have particular jobs—assembling combination locks at a factory, administrative support at a uranium-enriching facility, impersonating Elmo, running ghost tours at an island resort. Where do these peculiar jobs come from? Why the focus on characters’ work lives?

LC: The absurdities of capitalism make for great short story muses, I guess! I’m interested in the way the jobs we do shape our perceptions of socioeconomic class, the way they change our understanding of our own agency in the world, or the way our perceptions shape those jobs, and fiction is a great place for me to explore that interest. And I feel like stories about work aren’t always easy to come by, which maybe also drew me to writing about work lives. I was frustrated with stories that briefly mention a character’s soul-killing middle-management office job only as an offhanded metaphor for their bleak personal relationships, or stories in which a working-class job is just a quick detail to convey an atmosphere of “grit” or whatever. I wanted to write stories in which daily work itself was present on the page and a real part of the texture of the narrative.

TM: I’ve seen many writers admonish against knowing too much about their themes while they’re writing a story. Do you find that’s true for you?

LC: I think more dangerous than themes, for me, is the first part of your sentence—knowing too much. If I go into a story confident I know everything that will happen, or that I know a character inside or out, nothing really happens. When I go into a story, I can’t think that I already know more than the story itself can teach me. If I’m not open to learning something when I’m writing something, it’s not interesting to write.

Still, I think whatever excites you going into a story, whether it’s some deeply intellectual theme or a difficult character or the way a sentence sounds—it’s important to use that energy to just get into the rhythms of that piece of fiction. But it’s also important to let go of what brought you into a story. So if your thematic concern is getting in the way of what a character wants to do or think, it’s important to let that concern go, to let the story evolve beyond your initial impulse in writing it.

One thing I love about the writing process—which certainly isn’t the most lovable of processes, by the way—is the way it consistently teaches me to let go of whatever I’m overly attached to, whatever I feel overly smug about. This applies to everything, by the way, not just theme. Sometimes a beautiful sentence will get me started with a story and that sentence will need to be cut in revision. Or I’ll follow an initial infatuation with a character who winds up feeling like window dressing and has to go.

TM: I have a craft question—I think you have a particular talent for last lines that sort of reverberate back onto the story and expand it at the same time. At what point in your drafting process do you find those lines? Are you writing toward them as you go, or figuring them out in revision?

LC: Sounding the right final note is key for my own understanding of what I’m trying for, emotionally, in a story. It’s the only way I know the story’s maybe possibly really finished. So I do pay a lot of attention to that last line—and I’m so happy to hear some of those closing lines reverberated back for you.

I often have an idea for a last paragraph or a final line that will come to me somewhere in the middle of the story. That idea will provide me with some much needed momentum and focus—it feels like I just have to get to this one line, and I’ll be done! (Which is never the case, there’s always a lot of revision left to do, but the false hope can be helpful.) Also, I have to be totally willing to change the last line when I reach it because what I’ve actually wound up writing might be different from the story I originally anticipated writing when I came up with that closing moment. Actually, in a more recent story, I found I had written about five or six different closing lines, and I’m not totally sure I used any of them in the actual final draft. So, this part of my process might be a colossal waste of time. But it’s kind of fun.

TM: And a biographical question: the narrator of “Hart Island” is a student at an intense magnet school with some eccentric teachers. You had some fun, I suspect, with your depictions of the school. But affectionate fun. Was your school experience something like the one in the story? Are some of those details taken from your own high school years?

LC: Yes and yes. I did attend an intense magnet school with some eccentric teachers. Probably in some ways it was more absurd than what was depicted in the story, to be honest. However, unlike the narrator in the story, I had some great and supportive teachers in high school (including English teachers), and none of them ever made me do an image cluster chart.

TM: Do you have any favorite stories in the collection? Any that are closest to your heart?

LC: I don’t know if I have a favorite story, but I think “The Lock Factory” might be closest to my heart, in part because of the complicated and loving mother-daughter relationship at its core. I also have a strange secret soft spot for “The Sextrology Woman,” maybe because writing about socialist mold ghosts was so much fun.

TM: You have a novel forthcoming in 2020 from Penguin Press titled The Party Upstairs. What is it about? Is it a good party? A disastrous party?

LC: The party is definitely complicated. The novel revolves around a building superintendent in Manhattan and his 24-year-old daughter, Ruby, who has just moved back into the rent-free basement apartment that comes with her father’s job. All sorts of simmering socioeconomic tensions/weird power dynamics with the much wealthier tenants in the building become explosive when Ruby, upon her return to the basement, makes some questionable decisions. I’d say that the novel is not only about the class tensions that emerge in this apartment building, but also about different forms of debt, and meditation, and dioramas at the Museum of Natural History, and relationships that need to evolve to survive.

TM: Is some of that premise drawn from your own life? You grew up as the daughter of a building superintendent in Manhattan, if I’m remembering right. In what ways does the novel plumb your personal experiences and in what ways does it depart from them?

LC: I definitely drew from some of the power dynamics I witnessed growing up. The novel plumbs a lot of the weirdness I felt as a kid in a space that somehow simultaneously felt like home and like a place I could never entirely belong. And quite a bit of the most ridiculous tenant behaviors in the novel are, sadly, true. That said, the actual events of the novel are (thankfully) pretty much entirely fiction. I also think there are ways the main characters are significantly different from myself/people I know, but it feels weird to talk about in an interview because I’ll probably inaccurately psychoanalyze myself, which nobody needs to witness.

TM: With The Party Upstairs do you feel like you’re working in a similar thematic realm to Subcortical, or is it embarking into more of a new territory?

LC: Some parts of it are similar thematically, especially in terms of thinking about the layered history of places as well as the way socioeconomic tensions spill out in family and educational spheres. The most notable thematic similarity actually has its seed in my story “The Rent-Controlled Ghost,” in which a little boy imagines himself haunted by the former tenant of his apartment. I really loved the idea of the spirit of former tenants lurking around and while I wanted the ghost to speak in that story, it didn’t really make sense in the context of the story in Subcortical. So I got my pent-up ghost frustration out in The Party Upstairs—an actual rent-controlled tenant ghost voice rages throughout the novel, which was very fun to write.

TM: Last question—let’s make it a fill in the blank about The Party Upstairs: “Come for the ______. Stay for the _____.”

LC: Come for the free wine and cheese. Stay for the festive rage.

When the Wreckage Is in the Writer: On Creating Death and Disaster

Although David Means is one of our best writers of sentences, one would be hard-pressed to commit any of those sentences to memory. His lines unfold and refold upon themselves like animate origami, offering lush visual imagery and word choice as pointed as an awl. Take this fragment of description from “The Tree Line, Kansas, 1934”: “The way the road spread out of the vanishing point, exposing its mouth to the farm while, at the same time, tapering back into the quivers of heat in a manner that made it hard, and at times impossible, to watch.” That’s not some lyrical outburst in the stream of his stories. It’s closer to the median. The complexity of his sentences makes them virtually unmemorizable. They flit around you like the mating dance of a bird whose movements you’ll never afterward be able to retrace.

But the one David Means sentence I’ve never been able to forget comes midway through his collection Assorted Fire Events: “I don’t want anyone to die in my stories anymore.” By the time it arrives, Means’s stories have given us a distraught widower beaten and left to die in a train tunnel, a brother who drowns in an capsized canoe, a toddler plunging through her back lawn into a creek concealed by a shady construction company. A high school misfit has suffocated in a sandslide. The collection is a register of deaths that are exotic and pedestrian at once, arising from small miscalculations and unseen hazards. And it’s a bit grisly.

This line from Means shows up right in the middle of the collection, in a brief, lyric story—almost more of a prose poem—called “What I Hope For.” The first time I read it I dismissed it as a metafictional gimmick. I rushed past it in my hunt for more of the high-grade sentence work that makes his writing singular. But after finishing the collection, and in the years since, it’s hung onto me as one of the sincerest lines in literature.

I don’t want anyone to die in my stories anymore. The statement is an intention, but also a hope. It has the potential for failure. It acknowledges that Means, whose stories leap so acrobatically in time and point of view, may be powerless to realize that hope. The line is probably more heartbreaking for writers than for readers. We are the ones who have imagined our characters into existence, and their plights as well. Shouldn’t we be able to do better by them? I’ve wondered this as I try to write stories that don’t end with a character dying, or shaming himself, or giving up hope, or giving up art. What does it mean when I have a wholesome evening reading my kids Horton Hears a Who before bed, then retreat to the living room to write a story about the purposeful destruction of biodiversity?

One school of thought says the author is the master of the story. Nabokov likened his characters to galley slaves. A more popular school says the story is the master of the author. As Mario Vargas Llosa says, “It becomes apparent that the author cannot mold characters as he pleases, that they have a certain autonomy.” The line from “What I Hope For” posits an act of creation almost in line with Michelangelo’s predestined work of art: a work that cannot be changed at will but that might, with enough heart, be influenced.

“From here on out it has to be glorious life,” Means continues in “What I Hope For.” And what does it mean if it isn’t? Is that why those two lines ring with something like anguish? Why the fourth wall is ripped open so briefly but so bracingly? As dangerous as it is to psychoanalyze an author by his work, I do theorize that an author sometimes has to grapple with what it means when his imaginings all lead to those railroad incidents and drownings and sandslides. If he can’t prevent all that wreckage, maybe the wreckage is inside him.

Perhaps it is just a metafictional trick, of course. Means is adept at so many levels it’s hard to put anything past him. But I’ll choose to believe that he’s honestly contending with the direction of his art. That says more about me than it does about him, but I find myself asking sometimes as I walk down a supermarket aisle: Why, when I live a conventional and largely satisfied suburban life, do my stories tend toward dread and disaster? I ask myself the question my wife asks me—why can’t I write something with a happy ending?

I can only say that I’ve tried to nudge the rolling boulder out of the path of the character, but it is too heavy. Whatever the splinter is in me that drives my work to dark places, I have not been able to pluck it out. But I would not say that I’ve stopped trying.

In the years since I first read Assorted Fire Events, I forgot whether Means was able to accomplish his goal. Whether he had kept them alive. I reread it recently, hoping with the author that no one would die in the coming stories.

Here’s what I rediscovered in the second half of the collection: A homeless man is beaten to death after interrupting a wedding; a mean-spirited truck driver in a critical care unit dies of a heart attack a few days after yelling at the family of a young Israeli girl, who also dies; a man reflecting on the premature death of his son drives into a movie set, killing the director; a woodcutter takes his own life; and in the title story, the “Assorted Fire Events” include a man setting a live dog on fire and the narrator’s aunt immolating herself in her car.

So reading this collection can induce a certain amount of despair. A cynic might ask what the point is in adding to sum total despair in the world. A certain answer would be that those of us with that splinter of hopelessness lodged in our brains are helpless to do anything but share it. One could even say that immersing ourselves in such tragedies has its own logic. “The plot of fire is nebulous and serene,” Means writes in the title story, “wildly fanatic and calm at the same time, trailing up curtains and along the undersides of carpet padding, taking its own sweet time and then conversely becoming diametric, logarithmic.”

But I’ve come to believe there is a less cynical answer, and it comes from source of the despair in these stories, which is not the tragedies but the lives that precede them. The boy suffocated by a sandslide in “Sleeping Bear Lament” is remembered by a narrator who, in a moment of random adolescent cruelty, knocked out the boy’s front teeth with a trumpet mouthpiece. That’s a shame memory that won’t let the narrator go. Years later it becomes a lament, after the brief disappearance and reappearance of a friend, for the better person he could have been, the friend he wasn’t. Not exactly hopeful, I know, but it does something to keep the random death by sandslide from falling into the mouth of time. In “The Gesture Hunter,” the narrator’s ramming of the movie set could be comically absurd. The director dies as a result and the narrator, presumably from jail, does not have much ahead of him in life.

But he has the past, the parts of his life that did mean something—a gesture, a memory trigger, of his son fly fishing. And much, much further back, even this perfect memory of his baby son in the bath: “It seized me and sent me reeling, knowing full well that what I was seeing would never repeat itself and was certainly the most beautiful sight in the world. The water boiled up around his fist. The slick oily light slid off his skin. His smiling face looked up at me, and his tiny fleck of hair lay pasted to his scalp while my wife, behind me in the hall, softly folded a towel over her arm and outside the summer air moved, tainted with lavender.” That is where the story ends, though in the realm of emotional cause and effect, it’s more where the story begins.

Say we agree that these stories could not be otherwise. In that case, all the gymnastics Means does with time and memory and consciousness show us how attempting to make sense of them opens up all the beauty of the world. Tragedy exists in the world, but it is surrounded by meaning. Characters in our stories will die, even when we don’t want them to. Yet there is glorious life—even if sometimes, we have to look back in time to see it.

Image: Flickr/Quinn Dombrowski