Navigating the Messy, the Scary, and the Beautiful: A conversation with Marisa Crane

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“I never feel like I know how to live in the world. Only on top of it, hanging on as it spins madly,” Marisa Crane writes in their debut novel I Keep My Exoskeletons to Myself (Catapult, 2023). From a place of curiosity and vulnerability, Crane explores grief, survival, shame, fear, hope, love, and resistance. The novel’s protagonist, Kris, faces the future of raising her newborn alone after her wife, Beau, dies in childbirth. In this speculative world, the baby has been labeled a “Shadester” for causing her mother’s death. Like her other mother, Kris, she is now sentenced to second-class citizenship, walking through life with an extra shadow, being surveilled in her home, and facing discrimination everywhere. While the premise is dark, Crane brings wit and depth to the novel’s characters and their tender relationships. The result: a story that is also humorous and hopeful.

Crane’s short stories and essays have appeared in Joyland, The Offing, No Tokens, The Florida Review, TriQuarterly, Catapult, and elsewhere. In addition to creating vulnerable, lyrical work that resonates deeply with readers, Crane is unique in the way they embrace their peers in the writing community. When they posted on Twitter nearly a year ago that they wanted to provide feedback to a few queer writers, I jumped at the chance. I received thoughtful, detailed, and supportive comments on an essay that had been giving me trouble. A former athlete, Crane is a team player who shows genuine love and care not only in their craft, but in their relationship with their writing community.

I caught up with Marisa Crane, who also goes by Mac, via email to discuss the personal and political circumstances that led them to write their novel, pushing literary boundaries, the role humor plays in grief, creating community among queer writers, how we forgive ourselves as parents and people, and so much more.

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The Rumpus: Individual and collective grief, shame, fear, loneliness, and resistance are undercurrents of I Keep My Exoskeletons to Myself. If you don’t mind sharing, what were the personal, political, and cultural circumstances from which the novel originated?

Marisa Crane: I wrote a short poem a number of years ago that went something like this: “If the shadows of everyone you’ve ever hurt followed you around all day, every day, would you still be so reckless with people’s hearts?” It was intended to shame me into behaving better. I was full of so much regret, and I saw no way of forgiving myself. Years later, that concept of extra shadows became the seed for this novel, reflecting our punishment-obsessed, oppressive society committed to anything but real healing. Additionally, my wife and I had just begun discussing getting pregnant when I began drafting, so all of my fears related to parenting and partnering were top of mind—I decided to use Kris to write into those fears instead of shying from them.

While drafting and revising this book, I researched forms of public shaming and humiliation, from public beatings and brandings to mocking rituals and public stocks, such as in colonial America. It wasn’t the act that was so much the punishment (though of course, it was often physically painful) but it was the humiliation of being on display, of having others participate in the shaming—it causes a deep emotional and social pain. In my novel, it isn’t enough just for Shadesters to receive an extra shadow—the Department of Balance has also created a stage in which new Shadesters are publicly humiliated. Department officers announce the person’s name and what they did to receive their extra shadows, inviting the crowd to shame them.

Rumpus: In an interview with the Daily Kos you said, “. . . so much of this was written on pure instinct and guts before I took a step back and examined what was actually going on.” Can you elaborate on this? How did you tackle revising after that first instinctual draft?

Crane: My writing process has changed a lot over the past few years. I wrote the first draft of this book in about three months on unemployment, both because I was a very fast writer back then and out of necessity since I knew I’d never have that much time again once I found a job. It was great to get the first draft down so I could have the bones and structure to work with, but then I spent over a year revising, even starting from scratch a few times. So much of my revision process was centered around worldbuilding, as well as focusing on cause and effects, little ripples throughout the book and tinkering with rhythm, word choice, and what I like to refer to as “callbacks,” in which early lines or motifs return again in a new form. Now, I am a much slower writer. I like to spend weeks or months thinking about a certain story, essay, or chapter before I sit down to write it. I consider all of that time thinking [about writing] to be writing, too—I’m trying things out, forming a structure in my head, making connections, setting intentions, writing quick notes on my phone, etc.

Rumpus: How is Kris’s story shaped by your experiences of queer life and parenting? Through writing, did you confront any fears, or challenges surrounding forgiveness, specifically of the self?

Crane: Self-forgiveness has never come easy for me, though I’ll readily forgive others for how they’ve hurt me. I’ve historically been unable to offer myself the same grace and compassion I try to offer others. But, getting married to my wonderful and caring wife and becoming a parent to our sweet toddler has allowed me to finally step outside of myself and see myself how they see me. They don’t see me as a composite of past actions—they see me as a person they want and need. They both have unlocked something in me, a self-tenderness, the ability to be kind to myself.

Rumpus: Do you feel you’ve unlocked a sort of parallel ability in Kris?

Crane: Hmm, I suppose you could say that. I hesitate to compare myself to my fictional character. I think I’m far more self-aware than Kris, less self-destructive (at least at this point in my life). But I do think in helping Kris forgive herself, I could start giving myself the same kindness.

Rumpus: I’d love to know more about your choices related to form and point of view. The novel doesn’t have chapters (brilliant decision, as it was hard to find a place to set it down) and there’s interplay between scenes; poetic, cerebral asides; quizzes; and games. It’s written in second person, from Kris to Beau, Kris’s deceased wife. Why did you make these choices, and how do they intersect to create tension and meaning?

Crane: See, trickery! If there are no chapters, no one is allowed to put the book down.

I couldn’t imagine writing the book with any other point of view. It felt necessary for its intimacy and vulnerability, like letting the reader in on a secret. It seemed like the only way for Kris’s grief to manifest—she feels very lonely and doesn’t really have anyone to talk to early on, besides her newborn, so she talks to her late wife. Then, later on, it becomes a testament to Kris’s inability or unwillingness to let go. Her life is happening all around her, and still, Beau is the first one she shares everything with. What starts as a means of coping becomes a hindrance in noticing her life, in being present and appreciating the people who are still alive, the people who add so much joy and richness to her life. As for the asides like pop quizzes, they gave me an opportunity to challenge Kris and her beliefs in a playful way, without necessarily demanding a solid answer. They leave room for ambiguity, for the reader to mull over these questions as well.

Rumpus: Your characters are feisty, funny, flawed, and filled with heart. “The kid” is wise beyond her years, and I love the honesty between the kid and Kris, this lack of babying. How did you establish these elements in each character, especially the voice of the kid?

Crane: Because I wrote this book using fragments, it forced me to agonize over every word, especially dialogue, more than I ever have in my life. I’ve always valued humor and voice in short stories, but obviously with writing a novel, there’s a certain rigor involved in sustaining these distinct voices and making them sing on the page. During revisions, I spent so much time holding my lines of dialogue accountable, pushing myself to find a more surprising and strange way to say something, still keeping it in the character’s voice. Focusing on character motivation was particularly helpful, because it guided how someone might say something. I like that you pointed out Kris’s lack of babying the kid, because that was an important motivation for Kris, one that guided her voice and approach to parenting. The kid’s voice actually came pretty easily to me. I always knew she was going to be wise because most of the wisest people I know and have ever known have been children, and I wanted that reflected in the kid’s character, especially in contrast to Kris, who I think sort of feels like she’s flailing through life.

Rumpus: Many of the most sobering moments are still sprinkled with humor, such as when the kid finds out how she got her shadow. Why was it important to you to bring humor into this story?

Crane: Sometimes when I explain the plot of my book, people are like “Oh, wow, that sounds so depressing,” and I’m like “Yeah, I mean, it is, but I also promise that it’s funny and hopeful” and they seem very skeptical.

I think humor is so important to who we are as people, how we deal with pain, how we connect with one another. It’s essential to my being and my writing. Despair and suffering without joy, pleasure, and humor fall flat for me—I like when seemingly contradictory feelings have a chance to collide. Because really, they aren’t contradictory—we laugh so hard we cry, we cry so hard we laugh at ourselves. And the book itself is just filled with so much grief and hardship and depression. Without humor, I think it would be hard for readers to engage with it or stick with these characters in the long run.

Rumpus: The novel ends with Kris taking an imagined final exam that includes questions like “What’s one thing you understand that you didn’t before?” “Where in your body do you store your regrets? How will you release them?” and “Who are you when no one is looking, not even your shadows?” What’s one thing you understand now that you didn’t before embarking on this project? Do you expect or hope readers might try to answer any of Kris’s questions for themselves?

Crane: Honestly, I do hope readers might try to answer some of Kris’ questions for themselves. That wasn’t my original intention, but I do hope that these questions provoke some curiosity in readers. Especially the question about storing and releasing regrets, because that’s something that I have struggled with over the years. I’ve allowed my regrets to overshadow my present and amplify my shame, but once I focused on releasing my regrets and forgiving myself, I was able to shed some of that shame and step into a version of myself that I can be proud of.

One thing that I understand now? It’s related to the above. I came to realize, in a very real and big way, that I won’t ever be free if I keep shaming myself. I’m not the worst things I’ve ever done and I’m also not the best things I’ve ever done. I’m just a person navigating this messy, scary, beautiful life.

Rumpus: What do you hope this story adds to the conversation about queer families, resistance, survival, and joy?

Crane: Oh man. I hesitate to answer what I want my work to add to a conversation, because really, I just want people to enjoy the story and take from it what they will. But if I had to choose, I’d say that I want people, mainly cishet people, to understand that queer and/or trans families don’t have to be perfect. We don’t have to be palatable or follow a certain cisheteronormative blueprint of what makes a family in order to be valid, in order to justify our existence. I think so often society is communicating to us that we need to parent perfectly, that we need to partner perfectly, because that’s the only way we can be accepted. There’s little room for our messiness amongst cishetero standards.

Rumpus: Who do you write for? What audience did you envision reading I Keep My Exoskeletons to Myself?

Crane: First and foremost, I write for myself. I write what I want to read, I write into my obsessions and curiosities—I chase questions that won’t stop haunting me. After that, the audience I envisioned while writing this book were queer and trans people, especially queer and trans parents, as well as anyone who has ever grieved someone (which, who hasn’t?) And the lost, messy people, who feel like they’ll never have it all figured out.

Rumpus: What art have you engaged with—literary, visual, music, etc.—that influenced or supported the writing of this novel? Has seeing queer resistance in art and media inspired your own art?

Crane: I have so many authors who have influenced my work in major ways, including Jenny Offill, Mary Robison, Kelly Link, George Saunders, Carmen Maria Machado, Octavia Butler…I could go on and on. And really, I owe so much of my experimentation to the flash fiction community—work published by indie mags like Jellyfish Review, Cotton Xenomorph, Okay Donkey, Pigeon Pages, X-R-A-Y Magazine, Barren Magazine, Split Lip, Always Crashing, CRAFT, and many, many more. Indie journals are always publishing the best and most original work that pushes the boundaries of literary conventions.

Rumpus: You’re such a generous writer, offering feedback to peers who are total strangers (this is how we became acquainted!) and putting together writing groups for queer writers. What does creating community among writers—and queer writers—mean to you?

Crane: I’m still trying to figure out the best way to foster true community among queer writers, but I think my desire for community stems from a lifetime playing team sports, particularly basketball, which I played in college. I’ve always thrived in team environments, in loving communities in which we lift each other up, in which our connection transcends anything I can even put into words. When I started taking my writing seriously, I found that I was feeling lonely often, that I was craving connection with other writers. I realized what was missing, for me, was that team element. I’d never played an individual sport before, which is what writing feels like to me, in many ways. I want to cheer people on and support them any way that I can. I want to give them the writing equivalent of high fives.

 

 

 

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Author photo by Jerrelle Wilson


Samantha Paige Rosen’s essays have appeared in Catapult, Electric Literature, Slate, The Washington Post, Ms. Magazine, and elsewhere, and she has written short stories for Necessary Fiction and Lumina Journal. She earned an MFA in creative nonfiction from Sarah Lawrence College and is a proud Smith College graduate. Sam writes, teaches, and tutors outside of Philadelphia and has three cats who are her children. Say hi at samanthapaigerosen.com or on Twitter @samanthaprosen. More from this author →