Peering in at Life: A Conversation with Mary South

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Early this year, when the weather was cold and the virus a faraway news item I mostly glazed over, Mary South read her provocative title story, “You Will Never Be Forgotten,” on the New Yorker podcast. The story follows a woman who moderates violent content “for the world’s most popular search engine” by day, and stalks her rapist, a Silicon Valley venture capitalist, by night. I first listened to it while pushing my son in a stroller around the neighborhood, and about a third of the way in, I jerked to a stop. I couldn’t believe the risks the protagonist was taking, and I hadn’t even arrived at the climax of the story. I gripped the stroller bar and gawked my head around, wishing someone else was hearing what I was hearing, but alas, the baby was asleep and, even though social distancing was still weeks away, I was alone.

And yet, as South’s calm voice continued through my headphones, I realized I was not. The stories in her incisive debut collection, though expansive and ambitious in their subject matter, create a sense of intimacy with her characters as they act out their deepest grief and traumas. Ultimately, this is a book about people, and how, no matter what capitalism may try to grind us into, we will never be machines.

After all that the pandemic has laid bare about who is seen and who is not, who is deemed essential, and worthy of basic rights, and who is not, You Will Never Be Forgotten feels even more urgent. South’s stories are daring, cautionary, emotionally precise, and ultimately, profound. Through email exchanges back and forth, we spoke about the impact of technology on human relationships, risk-taking in writing, and where inspiration strikes.

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The Rumpus: Your collection engages with some of the most pressing issues of our time: technology, healthcare, female bodies, and capitalism. Yet, the stories still feel rooted in concrete characters—they never simply exist at the service of theme. What typically sparks a story idea for you, and how does this idea evolve into a final draft? When writing, how do you find the balance between character and theme?

Mary South: I think the risk in writing about technology in particular is allowing the premise to dominate the story. We all experience the world and its technologies in our own ways. A good story involving tech—or any other theme, really—should feel as though it couldn’t be written in another way. Or it could, but that would require an entirely different character, a new point of view with a unique, idiosyncratic language through which it’s filtered.

For that reason, I often get my inspiration for stories from a strong emotion around which I develop a character. “Not Setsuko” has its origins in this question: What if a character experienced a loss so devastating that she refused to move on? That she became stuck in the “bargaining” stage of grief? Soon thereafter, the image came to mind of a mother who has suddenly and tragically experienced the death of a child. She can’t bear the pain, so she clones that child and tries to remake all her memories in order to live in the illusion her daughter didn’t really die; her daughter was just “absent” for a time. I could have gone deep into describing that reality, how celebrity couples started a fad of cloning children (the story is set in Los Angeles and that tidbit is briefly mentioned), but I chose not to because the story isn’t about cloning. As much as I could, I stayed focused on the family dynamic, on where the feeling is.

But I’ve also gotten other story ideas from the news. “Realtor to the Damned” was inspired by an article about people texting deceased loved ones and getting texts back because the phone company had reassigned those numbers. Either way, I check in with myself as I’m drafting a story and inquire, How would this specific character respond to X, Y, and Z situations? Would that be their real reaction, or is that in service to plot or premise? In doing so, I hope I have struck the right balance between character and theme or idea—though, of course, that balance shifts slightly with each story.

Rumpus: Your stories explore how, for better or worse, people’s lives happen in conjunction with technology. In “Camp Jabberwocky for Recovering Internet Trolls,” for instance, Rex destroys his father’s reputation online as revenge for abuse. After writing this book and delving into the subject of virtual interaction, do you believe technology is damaging human relationships, or rather is a vehicle to act out dynamics already there?

South: It’s both. Technology provides an often irresistible forum for acting out dynamics that are already there, but the ability to then completely give in to our impulses, some of which can be hurtful and obsessive, without facing nearly as much consequence as in real life, damages our relationships. A negatively reinforcing pattern emerges and becomes hard to break. Our core needs for stable and meaningful work, for companionship, acceptance, and sex are the same as they ever were in history. How we go about trying to meet those needs is also the same, including how we sometimes try to meet them in very unhealthy ways due to trauma. But the internet offers deceptively easy and extreme solutions for sating our needs. It traps us in cycles of addictive rumination; it amplifies crude and cavalier reactions to the opinions and agency of others.

One of the aftereffects of trauma that my protagonist has to reckon with in the title story, “You Will Never Be Forgotten,” is that she has been compelled against her will to think constantly about the night of her sexual assault. Was she singled out in some way? Why was this man so cruel? Meanwhile, she’s enraged at the unfairness in the realization that her rapist may not remember her at all. Her thoughts and feelings, that intense processing of trauma, would exist without the internet. But with the internet, she can easily look up her rapist’s public social media accounts and find out what he’s doing at any time: see what he’s having for lunch, where he’s hanging out with his friends, the progress he’s made on his hobbies, who he’s dating. This illusion of access to him traps her in a cycle of re-traumatization. That’s a new channel of pain unique to our current era. She has to get herself “unstuck,” perform that very difficult and invisible labor of healing. This is what she realizes at the end of the story.

People talk about taking breaks from social media or detoxing from the internet, and I think the way hyperconnectivity can be very revealing of dysfunctional coping is a big part of why we need those hiatuses. On the other hand, that kind of revelation—once it is made so clear that it’s impossible not to acknowledge—also brings with it the possibility for change. Rex, the character who ruins his father’s reputation online as revenge for abuse, now has the opportunity to reckon with his wounded psyche and to learn functional coping. That reckoning may not have otherwise been possible for many more years because the ways he has been hurt would have remained deeply hidden.

Rumpus: Do you think technology can also help relationships? I’m thinking about how, during the COVID-19 pandemic, so many meaningful interactions are happening virtually.

South: I do. Technology isn’t inherently good or bad, but it does reveal character, how we cope with need. Sometimes that coping can be beautiful, and can bring people together. While doing research for my story “Frequently Asked Questions About Your Craniotomy,” I came across online cancer and hospice forums, people who were vulnerable and sad but also taking care of each other in a really tender way. They felt less alone in finding others to talk to who were going through the same experience. Couples who have met through online dating and fallen in love and gotten married would certainly claim that technology has helped their relationships. I myself posted on social media asking if any other authors who were publishing during COVID-19 would like to form an email group, where we could brainstorm ideas for events and share experiences of publishing a book in a highly unusual marketplace. And I’ve connected with some great people this way who I likely may not have otherwise. Then there’s Bookshop, a new online retailer, which has enabled readers to get books during this time and really been an aid to independent bookstores.

So much of the technology in our current society is a dream. The ability to call someone who is halfway around the world and see their face and hear their voice is incredible. To know, almost instantly, an item of news—and then to get instant breaking commentary on it from journalists as well as friends and family—is incredible. There’s still no substitute for self-knowledge, to uncovering what made you who you are, your “programming,” so to speak, but technology accompanied by deep emotional insight is truly utopic in nature.

Rumpus: Your book also reckons with the body, often in capitalist healthcare systems. One of your characters is a brain surgeon, while another is a night nurse at a nursing home, and another is a tender of artificial wombs. What draws you to the medical world?

South: I mentioned the invisible labor of recovery that the protagonist has to perform in the ending of the title story. But there are many other kinds of invisible labor present throughout our society as well, jobs involving cleaning, caring, and maintaining that we’d prefer not to spend much time thinking about. If these jobs are done perfectly—which is impossible—no one will ever know they are needed. I’m very interested in examining our current, late-capitalist iterations of invisible work—work that has always existed, but in its new forms involves a sort of harrowing and antiseptic tracking and optimization of human beings as though they were machines. I’m particularly drawn to the invisible work of caretaking, as it has been historically relegated to women. Who is regarded as valuable by a society? This can be startlingly revealed in caretaking work, the kind of toxic hierarchization in our culture. If a society can’t even value your body, won’t provide you with healthcare or only values you for your productivity, it’s a broken society. We’re seeing how little those in power value middle- and lower-income Americans in our current moment, with the outbreak of the COVID-19 virus, as the very bodies and lives of workers are deemed to be a necessary sacrifice in order to keep the behemoth of the economy running. But for whom?

It’s easy for humans to forget we’re part of nature—we’re so addicted to oil and plastic and consumer goods—but our bodies remind us, they get sick and need tending to, they die, they demonstrate we need others in order to survive. It doesn’t matter how accomplished we become, the body insists upon itself. I want to examine how interdependent we all really are, to emphasize it, because we are so alienated now. What bridges the gap of loneliness in modern life? Touch, gentleness, genuine care. But genuine care is fundamentally impossible when you’re viewed as a commodity and caretaking is a profit-making venture.

Rumpus: None of your stories lack stakes—they are all quite charged and propulsive. What advice do you have to aspiring writers striving to increase tension in their work?

South: I don’t have many rules for writing that I follow and mostly find rules unhelpful. I love writers who experiment with form and language and big ideas in their work, incorporating facts and digression. Strict rules could very well discourage that kind of play. One soft guideline I do believe in, however, is that you should always try to not be boring—especially to yourself. When you’re writing, monitor where your interest waxes and wanes. If you find yourself really struggling with a scene, why is that? Is it because you think it needs to be in the story to explain something about the character or the plot but it actually doesn’t seem to fit? This is similar to what I was mentioning earlier about checking in with yourself with regard to how a character would actually react. Maybe you don’t need that scene after all; maybe the story would be far more intriguing without it. Nothing should be in a story because it is merely information. If it’s important that we know a character is tall or has brown eyes or et cetera, you need to find a way to communicate that through point of view and idiosyncratic language.

I also believe in allowing yourself to take big risks—it’s easier to dial back emotion than to dial it up in later drafts, for example. Perhaps this is related to the risk inherent in formal play. In “Frequently Asked Questions About Your Craniotomy” the structure mimics an FAQ page on a hospital’s website, until the questions and answers become more and more digressive, revealing the troubled personal life of the neurosurgeon tasked with composing this content. The story doesn’t really work unless it can smash its form. In earlier drafts of the story, it wasn’t as successful because it didn’t push the form far enough. It ended with the protagonist still in the hospital, reflecting on her husband’s death. My brilliant editor encouraged me to take a risk and see what would happen if it broke out of its mold even more. I went back and rewrote the ending so the neurosurgeon leaves the hospital, buys a ball gown and wears it home, then her sons make fun of her, and it ends with them all throwing their belongings into the pool. It changes the entire story, gives it greater meaning. But when I first added it, I had no idea if it would work. I think it’s always worth trying something that might totally fail and seeing if it can open your fiction up in ways you might not have anticipated. What’s the worst that could happen? You revise it again.

Rumpus: After reading a recent Deb Olin Unferth essay in Granta, your book immediately came to mind. She writes: “the role of literature is, and has always been, to describe where we are today in light of where we once were and are now headed.” Do you share this ethos?

South: That’s such an elegant quotation, and I’m an admirer of Deb Olin Unferth’s excellent fiction. But as for myself, I’m not sure what the role of literature is. I do know that I’ve always turned to fiction for understanding—whether that’s of human behavior or to figure out how memories and emotions manifest within us. It’s made sense of the world for me more than anything else. The best way I can describe how it does so is that it catches life sideways, rather than analyzing it head on. You see a glimpse of something essential, the sensation of what it’s like to be alive at its most thrilling or meaningful. (Even when fiction is describing the quotidian or banal, I find this thrilling.) Garth Greenwell recently wrote that literature is the most powerful medium we have for communicating consciousness, and I believe that’s true. There are a lot of reasons I’m sure why people make art—didactic and instructive reasons, to comfort, to entertain. But I’m always writing for this peering in at life feeling.

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Photograph of Mary South by Nina Subin.


Shannon Perri’s writing has appeared in Texas Observer, Joyland Magazine, Literary Orphans, Houston Chronicle, Austin-American Statesman, and elsewhere. She holds a master’s degree in Social Work from the University of Texas and an MFA in Creative Writing from Texas State University. She lives in Austin with her husband, son, and menagerie of pets. Learn more at www.shannonperri.com or on Twitter @shannonperriii. More from this author →