Louise Marburg had been in my orbit for years—she was close with my aunt and uncle, my cousins, and even, as it turned out, one of my friends from college—but our paths didn’t cross until four years ago, when we both attended the Sewanee Writers’ Conference. I was there as a twenty-four-year-old, still learning to call myself a writer, while Marburg was there as an experienced writer, with desk-drawer novels and stories published in journals.
Although we never managed to grab a cup of coffee and properly talk, we did have a chance to sit down together… with Marburg’s Tarot. I was nervous as we sat at the white iron table on a humid Tennessee day. The only time I’d had my Tarot read before was on the street in New Orleans; the woman hadn’t charged me because what she told me made me cry. Marburg was different, though. That New Orleans Tarot reader had, I now believe, been reading my body language, not the cards. Louise reads the cards.
Marburg predicted I would get into the Iowa Writers’ Workshop if I applied and even bet me “a million dollars” I would meet the man I would marry there. Reader, I met and married him within a few months at Iowa.
In September, WTAW Press published Marburg’s debut short story collection, The Truth About Me. The stories, like Marburg herself, are insightful, witty, to the point, and told with her wonderfully dry sense of humor. I won’t say much more though since, as she said in our conversation, “If someone says something definitive about your writing, it’s very jarring, and you wonder about its truth.”
We spoke by phone in August.
Rumpus: The majority of the stories in The Truth About Me center around a character suffering from mental illness—either temporarily, because of a shocking life event, or as an ongoing condition managed through a combination of meds and therapy. What draws you to write about characters with mental illness? What possibilities does it open or close in your stories?
Marburg: I love writing about psychiatrists because they can be really inept, and that can be fun to explore. I’m mentally ill—I have bipolar disease—and I’ve run the gamut with psychiatrists and medications and all that. The way people are about mental illness—they’re afraid of it, the stigma is huge. But I’m not writing about mental illness in my next collection; I think I’m done with that, for the moment.
I don’t know how many psychiatrists I have in the book, and none of them really emerge unscathed. When I gave the book to my current psychiatrist, I had to say, “None of these are you!” The truth he is all of them.
I write a lot of stories, about a story a month, but there are only twelve stories in the collection. In the time between starting and finishing the book, I probably wrote thirty stories. The ones that made it into the book are successful, I think, because I felt I really inhabited the characters.
Rumpus: Most of your characters are not just unlikeable but actually mean—judgmental, selfish, not empathetic, in ways that, in your smart and deadpan prose, are frequently deliciously funny. Can you talk about writing “unlikeable” characters?
Marburg: Many people have told me that my characters are unsympathetic. I like an unsympathetic character. In the collection I’m writing now, everyone is awful as well. It might just be because I grew up with a lot of really terrible people. [Laughter] My parents were alcoholics, so there was a lot of negative behavior, to put it lightly. But there are so many people who are selfish—I certainly have encountered a lot of them—and I find them interesting. I like writing about people’s flaws.
Certainly, I’ve written unsympathetic characters that are over the top, and they ended up in the trash. But it’s just as much fun—more fun, maybe—to create a nasty character than it is to create someone who’s sweet. I think the kinds of things nasty people do are more intriguing than the kinds of things nice people do.
In workshops, though, I’ve often been told “people aren’t like that, people aren’t that bad.” But they can be. They are. Not always, but at times. And besides, think about it: people are so self-absorbed. I think, as writers, we can’t afford to be as self-absorbed because we have to listen and watch other people—it’s our material. I look closely at people, at their desires, how they behave, what they’re saying. I read people’s Tarot cards, as well; the cards reveal much about human nature.
Rumpus: What’s the connection between reading the Tarot and writing?
Marburg: Reading the Tarot is really important to me—if I couldn’t do it, I think everything creative in me would dry up. It’s so completely connected to being creative; I can’t describe why, but the ability to read the cards is as much a part of me as the ability to write. The cards are not going to reveal much unless you add a psychic element. I am very specific when I read. In my experience, the more esoteric a Tarot card reader is, the less psychic they are. If they can’t tell you something concrete, they’re just guessing.
Rumpus: Seemingly random acts of violence crop up in a few of these stories—there’s a shooter, a suicide, an accidental death, a fantasy of abuse. How would you describe the role of violence in your work?
Marburg: I am often surprised by what my characters do. I would say, obviously, suicide is very personal because I have been suicidal in my life. But the drug addict who wants to knock the head off of his fuck buddy? The shooter? I have no idea where those characters came from. I do think people have violent impulses, you can see it in them. Is that a weird thing to say? People have violent feelings and behave violently. Those people are the underbelly. Or not even the underbelly—the overbelly, the side belly.
Rumpus: The muffin top.
Marburg: [Laughter] If you think about somebody you know vaguely—not a friend, just a person you know from college or somewhere—and imagine their most negative side, it’s easy to imagine violence in them. Though I don’t see it in the people I love. If someone told me a friend of mine had just beaten up someone, I’d say, Shut up, no way!
Rumpus: What’s your writing process—are you slow or fast?
Marburg: I don’t ever say, “I’m going to write a story about a guy who witnesses a suicide and is depressed.” In that story, “Myrna Athena,” I had a vision of Myrna in her sweater set, and it went from there. I write a sentence, read it, and think, “What does that sentence say, what is it telling me, what am I telling myself?” It’s a very intuitive process. I never plan out anything in advance, and only make notes when I’m in the middle of writing a story. When I drive a story, I drive it into the ground. That’s really true for me. I wish I could have more control. So many of my stories I just dump immediately after I finish them. That’s okay because I write so many, but the vast majority are just not right in some way. The ones that are more intuitive, that come out of my unconscious, are the successful ones. There’s a tug or a pull. It’s like, Yes, that’s the image the story’s giving me.
Then I always reach a point where I think, Shit. I don’t know where I’m going.
Rumpus: What do you do then?
Marburg: I just keep writing. I write very slowly, going up and then, at the top of the arc, I think, Oh, what? Where am I? And then I see it, and I write much faster on the way down.
Rumpus: Almost half of the stories are written from the perspective of a man, or with a male protagonist. Can you talk about writing across the gender divide?
Marburg: I wonder about that myself. “What Brings You Down” is written in the voice of a gay man—like what the hell do I know about that? But human nature is human nature. Men and women are different in a number of ways, and but in many ways they’re the same. I just become the character. It’s almost like acting. I don’t think I misrepresent manhood here, though it’s odd, too, because I went to an all-girls’ school from kindergarten through high school. In college, I was in class, and a guy behind me spoke, and I was so shocked that a guy would have anything to say of importance.
Rumpus: You said in an interview elsewhere: “I’ve written novels, but I vastly prefer stories.” Why? What is it about the form?
Marburg: Novels are a slog. They’re like marital life. It’s a relationship that is interesting sometimes and boring other times—whereas stories are like having a fling. And the form is completely different. There’s the blah-blah thing going on with the novel. You can just write your head off in a novel.
With a story, everything you write must be germane. You can’t just go on and on with a description, like “Emma has blonde hair, and she’s in a running outfit…” You have to choose what you’re going to write based on what is going to bring a particular moment or character to life in relatively few words. It’s like a jigsaw puzzle, I think: every piece must fit.
Another aspect of story-writing is the validation is swift: you send it out, and if you’re lucky a journal takes it, and you feel like a champ, whereas with a novel you’re writing it for years and nobody gives a damn.
Rumpus: The endings of your stories felt particularly distinctive to me: almost every story closes with a striking image and ends much sooner than I thought it would—almost abruptly. We never really get to see whether the characters get what they want, or think they want.
Marburg: I do end abruptly. I don’t think “BOOM” abruptly, but, yes, compared to a lot of other writers. I have a reader who calls my abrupt endings “Marburg endings.” I just get to a point where I think, that’s all I have to say about that. I don’t know if that’s the right way to do it or not.
Antonya Nelson called my writing spare. I’ve always wondered if that’s true. If someone says something definitive about your writing, it’s very jarring, and you wonder about its truth. It’s almost like a personal comment.
Rumpus: In workshop at Iowa, I was always being told that my poetry was “cold,” and I took it very personally.
Marburg: It might not even be something that’s bad, but you may not think your poetry’s cold, and then you’re constantly assessing: is this cold? But you just have to write the way you write. Every story I write, I think, Yup, that’s the way I write. Nothing is going to change the way I write—much to my dismay! I mean, I would like to write like Alice Munro, but that’s never going to happen.
My characters are unsympathetic, yes. They are pragmatic. I guess you would call my stories realist literary fiction; there is nothing experimental about them. The experiment is in trying to get at the nut of why people are doing what they’re doing.
Rumpus: I did notice a link between wealth and character in this collection—like, the wealthier the character, the worse he was.
Marburg: My characters are usually “bad” because they’re unhappy. I think being unhappy is everybody’s issue, wealthy or poor. Wealthy people are supposed to be happier, though, so it’s interesting when they’re not.
I don’t think I’ll ever write anything but unsympathetic characters. I think that is really my thing.
Author photograph © Sandi Fellman.