People might know Laurie Stone from her novel Starting with Serge, her essay collection about comedy, Laughing in the Dark, or her many years as a writer and critic at The Village Voice, The Nation, and on Fresh Air, work for which she received a citation from the National Book Critics Circle.
But they still might not be prepared for her recent short story collection, My Life as an Animal. The book is a departure for Stone in many ways, and as she makes clear, it’s the result of a change in how she approached writing. The result is a book of autobiographical fiction, or autofiction, as Stone put it. The main character has a lot in common with Stone; the same rough outline of her life, including growing up in New York and a romance with Richard, a professor living in Arizona. The book moves between New York and the Southwest, the present and past.
Recently, I talked with Stone about writing about death, how the reader doesn’t care about you, and the Third Iago.
The Rumpus: Where did this book start?
Laurie Stone: I met Mike Levine at a party thrown by the National Book Critics Circle. I saw from his tag he was a book editor, and I said, “Are you interested in seeing stories?” He said, “Absolutely,” so I asked, “Who do you like?” He mentioned Julie Hecht, who published stories in the New Yorker. A really funny, quirky writer. So when I started sending work to Mike, I searched my pile for stories with a Julie Hecht feel. [Laughs] I’ll try to make this guy like me. I so wanted this book to be published. I had published many of the stories in journals, but a book is different.
Rumpus: The book’s structure is associative. How did you arrange and organize it?
Stone: When I wrote “Yard Sale,” I knew it needed to be the first story. I don’t know how I knew. It’s about arrival in a new place. And it ended with “Happiness,” which is about returning to where you started physically, but not emotionally. [Then the order of almost everything in the middle didn’t really matter. The book has one narrator and characters that recur. That lends it some coherence. I thought of the book as a novel that you dropped on the floor, and then you picked up the shards and told the story through that seemingly random order. It gives the reader a lot of room to fill in whatever the reader wants to fill in.
I was willing to suspend the notion of plot in a conventional sense, but I still needed to keep the reader interested in seeing what would happen next. I substitute speculation for plot. I am telling the reader about the many things that are kicked up inside the narrator from moment to moment, hoping to interest the reader in the sentences as little stories in themselves. Sentence A produces Sentence B. There’s no advance thinking about a story arc.
Anything is potentially a subject, very small and seemingly trivial things. You don’t have to climb Mt. Everest. You have to make the contemplation of a paper cut feel as exciting as climbing Mt. Everest. I draw techniques from collage and film. I do cut-ups. I use jump cuts and fades. I like dialogue so the reader can hear characters speak in their own voices.
Rumpus: It’s like meeting another person, and the accumulation of stories and information coheres into a character and a sort of narrative of their life.
Stone: Exactly. Other people draw conclusions about us. We can’t control their conclusions. More and more, I am patching together small sections and combining genres. People are calling this hybrid writing, where the writer freely moves between memoir, fictional techniques, criticism, travel writing, lists, letters, photographs, etc. Sebald is a good representative.
Rumpus: This is a very different book from your first novel, Starting with Serge. Has this change in your writing been gradual? Was there something that prompted this change in approach?
Stone: I think it was really gradual, and some of it has come from teaching writing and studying the techniques at a concrete level of writers such as Lydia Davis and Édouard Levé. I think a turning point was working with Richard.
Rumpus: Richard being your real-life partner, the British professor who lives in Arizona.
Stone: He’s the Richard character. When we met eleven years ago, the first thing we did was to start writing together. And he is a great reader. He would bring other writers to my attention. We were giving ourselves this mini-workshop together, and I think my writing hugely changed and got better.
Rumpus: Had you written a lot of short stories before then?
Stone: Yes but not the way I write them now. Not in that technical way of thinking about other peoples’ work: How do they do that, and why do I like it, and how do they make that thing work? Taking it apart, finding maybe two or three principles that you think are in play, being able to extract them, then trying to imitate those things in your own voice.
Rumpus: You mentioned when you first started working with Mike you sent him all kinds of work, that building the book was deciding which stories to use.
Stone: I let him say, This, but not that. At the same time, he was very open, and I wasn’t resistant. It’s almost like making a house out of buying things at yard sales. You’ve got a bunch of stuff; what beautiful designs can you build with it?
Rumpus: Before that, though, when you were writing them, did you have a sense that they were connected?
Stone: Sure. A lot is autobiographical; I was looking for stories in my experience. Stories about ambivalent feelings that could not be resolved. If I felt no ambivalence, it was not fit to be a story. The narrator of stories that happened to me is not necessarily me. The André story is a good example. My real emotions about André Glaz, the psychoanalyst who molested me, would obscure him from the reader. I’m not writing to get things off my chest. I’m writing to excite the reader’s interest. The writer can’t need love or understanding from the reader. The reader is going to say, “Feh, I don’t want any part of this.” And rightly so.
Rumpus: You write about your father’s death, your mother’s death, Gardner’s death—and those scenes really resonated with me. My grandmother died recently, so the almost clinical detachment with which you describe certain aspects and the way everyone is in their own heads rang very true.
Stone: If you’re going to talk about pain, I think you can’t say ouch. You have to create the clinical moment of the cut opening—how fast did it take for the blood to move down the legs; what did it look like when you peered inside the open flesh. That’s what creates pain for the reader. I try to let you imagine what it would be like to see someone you really love and feel responsible for, be someone you can’t do anything for.
Richard has Type I diabetes. It’s incurable, it’s chronic, and eventually it’s going to kill him. It’s a big part of our life. Not just the technicalities of it but the presence of illness, of things being imperfect at all times. I would say imperfection is inherently comic. Tragedy deals with transcendence. Comedy deals with limits. There is no transcendence in my writing. Ever. I wrote a book about comedy called Laughing in the Dark, so I really tried to think about what the comic form is. Not just the issues of what makes a good standup routine, but what is it in a larger sense? What kind of sensibility is a comic sensibility as it inserts itself into the cultural conversation? What is comedy asking us to think about or feel? It encompasses everything that tragedy includes, but it also includes time.
I came up with a notion about this called Meeting Your Third Iago. That is possible only If you don’t kill everybody and yourself after meeting your first Iago. The first time, you are going to be pretty upset. The second time you might think it’s about you. You are an Iago magnet. The third time you will come to see that every so often you are just going to cross paths with a person who for no understandable reason wants to destroy you.
It’s not you, and you can’t control it. You also can no longer be shocked by it. That’s where comedy comes in. The Third Iago sensibility drives my work. The narrator may be unhappy and scared, but she can’t be shocked. The last part of the concept is meeting the third Iago in yourself. Every so often you are going to repeat the exact stupid thing that has always fucked up your life.
Rumpus: What’s the old saying, history repeats itself, first time as tragedy, second time as farce? Though you said that your narrator isn’t shocked, but I think she surprises herself.
Stone: That’s interesting. Where were those moments for you?
Rumpus: Before meeting Richard I think she would have said, “There’s nothing left to shock or surprise me anymore,” but then she falls in love and she moves from New York to Arizona and she surprises herself in the process.
Stone: That’s a good point. It’s hard for me to use the word flexible about myself, even in yoga, but I guess the evidence is in having performed the experiment, which is how Richard and I understood our relationship. Or at least he pretends he does because he’s English and how do you know what they think about anything? [Laughs] I guess you could say I’m willing to experiment in my life. Do you know the movie The Defiant Ones with Sidney Poitier and Tony Curtis? They’re escapees from a chain gang, and they’re handcuffed together, and they have to learn to get along. I think that’s Richard and me. [Laughs] It’s not an easy match, but it’s good. It’s exciting. It makes us feel young.
Rumpus: How did you decide on the title, My Life as an Animal?
Stone: I feel like an animal, and I love our evolutionary past. I feel a kinship with Lucy, our primate ancestor. I reference her a couple of times in the book. By coincidence, Richard’s program, which is Museum Studies at Arizona State University, is housed in a school called the School of Human Evolution and Social Change. He’s around all these bio-archeologists. The other part of this school is The Institute for Human Origins, which was founded by Don Johanson, who discovered Lucy! So this swirl of origins people, and bio-archeologists, and anthropologists surrounds us. I feel that sex is the deepest part of our animal nature and that we are sex all the way up and sex all the way down. I don’t mean that it’s always expressed in sexual activity, but that aliveness is erotic. Pain is erotic.
I remember feeling sexual when I was really little. Some kind of pre-erotic but sexual movement was going through me. I came from a family that didn’t restrict the animal parts of life. Whatever you can say about Toby and Murray, my parents, they wanted you to enjoy life. When I got together with Richard and I said he was beautiful, he said, “I don’t know that anyone’s ever said that to me before.” He’s adorable. How is it possible?
I feel like a wolf. Being a wolf has hurt me in my life because you sometimes eat other people, and they don’t so much like that. Or you take more than your share. If there’s a pie that’s been cut up and I have a chance to take the biggest piece, I will take the biggest piece. I might try to talk myself out of it for social reasons, but my impulse is to take the biggest piece. Isn’t everyone really like that? I don’t know. Maybe some people don’t want the biggest piece, not because they’re afraid of disapproval but because they don’t really want the biggest piece. I would rather have the biggest piece and not eat all of it. [Laughs]