Mary South’s debut collection You Will Never Be Forgotten (FSG Originals, 2020) is a stunning compendium of enormous emotions and imagistic writing. Whether we’re following a woman who stalks her rapist in the aftermath of sexual assault, or a summer camp of trolls in recovery from internet addiction, it is remarkable how South sustains energy and perspective by keeping the reader enmeshed in her characters’ headspace throughout.
Below, I talk to the author about her process of selecting stories for the collection, corporate activism, and the role of accountability today, as an increasing percentage of our lives pivots online.
Hi Mary! Thanks so much for taking the time out to chat with me! Where are you writing from, and how are you holding up?
My pleasure, Gauraa. Hello from Alphabet City in Manhattan. It’s been a strange and stressful year thus far, but I’m doing all right. Mostly just taking it one week at a time or so.
I know the circumstances aren’t quite ideal, but how does it feel, to have your debut collection out in the world?
As a debut author, I wasn’t entirely sure what to expect! Though, admittedly, in all my imagining about what it would be like to have my first book out, I never foresaw that I’d be publishing it in the middle of a global pandemic. However, despite everything having been shut down, I’ll say that booksellers and fellow authors have really come out strongly to support books being published right now, including mine. I feel very much taken care of by the literary community and doubly grateful for the readers who have reached out to me to say that they’ve enjoyed my book. I hope I’ve been able to give back a little in that sense, too.
No matter what, it is one of the coolest things to have a book out in the world and with such a great publisher. I know I’m incredibly lucky.
The stories in You Will Never Be Forgotten feel inextricably connected—they share existential elements and often delve into similar psychological terrain in discussions about technology. What did the selection process for this collection look like for you? Were there some stories you had to leave out? Did you add new pieces to preserve the thematic consistency of the work?
I did leave some stories out; the collection took ten years to write, and in that time I’d write stories, then set them aside for a while and work on new ones. Then I’d come back to the earlier ones and work on revising them. Either they would improve to the point where I felt they were finished or I would ultimately end up dropping them. I ended up dropping one about a husband and wife that go cave diving together—it was a split POV story, and the wife ultimately dies (cave diving is very dangerous, and I did a lot of research about it). The wife’s sections were very long and paratactic and the husband’s were shorter and more subjunctive and hypotactic. That was the trick, the back-and-forth of the voices and styles. But I could never get it to work right, never get them to sound quite right. I dropped another about a woman grieving her husband’s death due to a plane crash, and she also recounts the history of aviation interspersed in between memories of him. (I had 100+ pages of notes about aviation; I may have a dysfunctional relationship to research and how much of it I should do for a 20ish-page short story.) But again, I couldn’t get it to move quite right. And I dropped another that was formally experimental—it was told as a letter from a mother to her children, explaining why she should get custody of them in the upcoming divorce from their father, but there’s also footnotes from the father, explaining that he found her letter and he has recontextualizations or rebuttals to all of her arguments. That was the last one I let go of; my brilliant editor pointed out that the format always gave the father the last word, and I agreed that the imbalance wasn’t fair. But I couldn’t really figure out how to fix it. I also think it didn’t entirely fit tonally with the rest of the collection. Instead, I ended up replacing it with “Keith Prime,” a much more nascent idea at the time that I subsequently expanded.
I’m really pleased to hear the stories all felt interconnected and thematically linked because that was very important to me. Even though some stories involve technology in a plot-driven way more than others, they all touch on it.
I’ve heard writers and editors compare the sequence of a short story collection to an album track list — how do you feel about that analogy? And was there a specific reasoning behind the order of stories in You Will Never Be Forgotten?
It’s funny—as I mentioned in my previous answer, “Keith Prime” was one of the last stories to be written, and yet it comes first in the collection. Whereas “Not Setsuko” was one of the first to be written but comes last in the collection. So those two are sort of “swapped” in terms of the order of when I wrote them. But I thought it would be appropriate to have the collection open and close with stories about uncanny doubling. They both feature characters getting cloned and other characters having very intense relationships with the clones on account of prior traumas.
I think the album track list analogy is spot on, and I did think quite a lot about order. A writer I admire, May-Lan Tan, said that when she was putting her collection together, Things to Make and Break, she printed out all her stories, cut out the last lines and first lines of each, and then arranged and rearranged them until she had an order that felt right. I tried that technique, too, and it did help. But I also thought a lot about tone; some of the stories are intense—the title story is centered on a woman who stalks her rapist in the aftermath of a sexual assault—so I wanted to give the reader a break or “breath” so to speak and have a more lighthearted story after a darker story. Thus, “Camp Jabberwocky,” about a summer camp of trolls in recovery from internet addiction, follows “You Will Never Be Forgotten.” I also tried to vary the length, so that the shorter stories wouldn’t be bunched together.
Mostly, I just wanted the stories to be in conversation with each other. A story narrated by a neurosurgeon comes immediately before a story about a famous architect known for her “ravaging” designs inspired by surgeries. A story about a realtor couple inventing ghost stories about the properties they sell comes before a story about a couple who have tragically lost their daughter and try to bring her back to life in unhealthy and upsetting ways, one of which is for the husband, who is a filmmaker, to cast her as a ghost in a film he’s directing. There are Easter egg moments, too, which a reader can potentially spot. For example, there’s more than one sly reference to Gertrude Stein. And there’s oil paintings of ladies reclining on teeth, all of which are named after famous female Surrealists.
You’ve worked as an editor at NOON with Diane Williams for many years. Do you bring the same editorial eye when approaching your own work — or if not, how are those processes different for you?
I have a very similar approach to my own fiction—I’m very language-focused, in terms of both drafting and revising—though I can only hope to be as good of an editor as Diane Williams, to have as keen an eye. Working with her was a gift because it really increased the standards I have for what constitutes an excellent sentence. She is so incredibly attentive to sound. Often, she would have us read aloud the stories she was considering for the journal, during which she’d close her eyes and her mouth would move silently along with the words. She practices consecution, a method espoused by Gordon Lish and brilliantly explained by Gary Lutz in his essay “A Sentence Is a Lonely Place,” but in a style that’s also completely her own. Once you understand how someone hones a piece of fiction the way she does, it’s not possible to unknow it. So when I’m editing a story, or composing it sentence by sentence, I’ll think, “Do I really need this sentence or this phrase or this clause?” Or I’ll think about how the language is affecting the story, both overtly and on a subconscious level. In “Architecture for Monsters,” for example, the story begins with a lot of hard “k” sounds, to emphasize breaking, because I’m describing an architect known for her style of buildings inspired by interrupted or damaged bodies. The idea is that the “k” sounds will be compelling in and of themselves, but will also reinforce, under the surface, this feeling of sundering for the reader. Such exactingness slows down the process, but the work is better.
I think becoming a better writer is mostly about learning to trust your instincts, of what’s good and what’s not, what’s necessary and what’s not. It’s a fine balance—not becoming hypercritical to the point where you can’t do the work but also listening to the voice that tells you, “This section right here—it’s not my best; it can be improved.”
The first story in your collection, “Keith Prime”, is set in an organ harvest fulfillment center loosely modeled after Amazon warehouses. What was your research process for “Keith Prime”, as well as your other stories? Did research typically come before or after the idea for the story itself?
Well, as I’ve already mentioned, I have a love of research! I think sometimes it can be a bit of a hindrance, a way to avoid doing the hard work of actually writing the story. But it also helps me feel safe and comfortable as a writer, like I know what I’m doing or have something to fall back on. I spend a lot of time not only reading about elements in play for each story—neurosurgery or architecture or ghost lore, for example—before I start drafting it, but I also spend a lot of time dreaming up the world of the story and the characters. I think about where the character comes from and how they grew up, the shaping moments of their lives—even if those don’t appear in the story—so I can then dream up how they speak and think and relate to others. And I dream about what the rules of the world are, how close or how far away to ours it is, and exactly how. There’s a lot of work that’s done, so to speak, before a single word is written. Sometimes, I’ll even journal about it if there’s problems I can’t figure out. And there’s outlines! I’ll usually know what important plot points or pivotal scenes I plan to write my way through.
A lot of your stories seem to challenge formal expectations— “Architecture for Monsters,” for example, presents in the form of a magazine feature. “Frequently Asked Questions About Your Craniotomy” appears in the form of, well, an FAQ. Do you find that working with unconventional forms unlocks a different ability for you as a writer?
There’s just such a pleasure for me in playing with form. I’m constantly seeing them everywhere, new forms of stories emerging or old ones that are getting newly updated. I got the idea for “To Save the Universe” partly from forums where people post about their favorite TV shows. As a general rule, I believe in going where the pleasure is, in one’s fiction. Writing is so hard already and comes with so many unknowns—as great as my intentions are for every story I try to write, I never know if any one of them will be successful or not, and sometimes, no matter how much I learn about how to write, they’re just not—that a writer might as well go where their interests take them, where the joy is. I think the work is better for it; often, if I’m struggling with something excessively that means there’s something about it that isn’t right and I should move on to something else or that story or scene needs to be reconceptualized.
I also think that new or nonstandard forms are great at unlocking emotion or other aspects of story or character that you might not be able to otherwise. The break in the form in “Frequently Asked Questions About Your Craniotomy,” where the answers start to really go off the rails and become more personal and less like a hospital website page, does a lot of work in revealing the narrator’s vulnerability and how she’s struggling with her grief. If it were told without the device of the form, I don’t think it would be nearly as effective at showing just how difficult it is has been for her to cope with her personal tragedy, the suicide of her husband. The dry presentation of the phone sex in “The Age of Love,” as transcripts, makes it more humorous to my mind, which allows more tenderness in later, especially as that tenderness emerges within the dry form of transcription itself. By posing “Architecture for Monsters” as a fake profile piece for a glossy magazine, I’m able to include much more material—more characters and descriptions of buildings and ideas about motherhood and family structures—than I would in a traditional story.
You’ve mentioned, in a different interview, that “it’s extremely dissociating to be aware that our planet is irrevocably heating up, species are going extinct, and also to be simultaneously subjected to targeted advertising.” This stayed with me, and I’m wondering how you feel about the forces of corporations today, as branding and activism continue to converge in advertisement?
I believe that corporations almost always are not forces in favor of righteousness but rather the status quo. It’s been unsettling to be subjected to advertising during Covid-19. I got an ad the other day on social media, from Uber. The ad had a different face in a different mask every second or so, with updated accompanying text that went, “Wear a mask for Dave. Wear a mask for Jackie. Wear a mask for Steve. Wear a mask for Pam.” And et cetera. I am absolutely pro-mask, I want everyone to be wearing masks, because it is essential for our safety. But my first thought wasn’t, “Oh, that’s great, Uber, yes, masks are important” it was, “Why don’t you treat your drivers better?” Especially since, from what I understand, they were allegedly stalling their workers from receiving unemployment benefits in April. Perhaps those in positions of power within corporations think it would be insensitive to run normal ads during a crisis, just an ad that went, “We know you still need to do laundry, so buy our detergent!” I’d find that more comforting, though, than this “we’re on the side of good, buy our stuff” advertising, which strikes me as false and pandering. That’s more enervating and depressing to me. It would be interesting to see how advertising has changed in the past during moments of historical crisis. I’m sure someone has already put a great book together about this that I merely need to discover.
I do believe in other forces of collective good that can enact change in the world. But positive change is never caused by those who already have power, and corporations have a lot of power. But it is possible! And the internet can enable it, as much as it can also reinforce toxic habits and impulses.
Your stories often point out that there’s a different kind of accountability online than in-person. What are your thoughts about the role of that accountability today, as an increasing percentage of our lives pivots online?
In my mind, technology is never the problem, but technology does reveal, and often intensify, dysfunctional coping patterns, various stresses and traumas that we might otherwise ignore more easily. I think if we can learn to reckon positively with what technology reveals, we can become better, more compassionate, more ethical people. We can hold ourselves accountable. Others, too, but ultimately the self is the more important because the self is the one we have the power to change.
In the title story, for example, the protagonist would have to reckon with the trauma of her sexual assault with or without the internet, but the internet more intensely shows how she has been trapped in a cycle of hurtful rumination. Ultimately, she realizes that she has to break the habit of monitoring her rapist, she has to decide to do the hard work of healing and moving on. The internet, although it enabled her toxic obsession, to do some things that are really not okay, also has revealed the extent of her woundedness and indicated the way out. Similarly, Rex in “Camp Jabberwocky” retaliates against his abusive father via the internet, ruining his reputation by hacking his accounts and posting foul content. Perhaps it’s understandable why Rex would do that, but it’s ultimately not just damaging to his father but Rex as well. However, now that he’s able to more clearly see his trauma, become conscious of it, he can reckon with it, discover methods of healthy processing and relating.
More generally, something I’m thinking about is how Covid requiring us to distance these days and rely heavily upon technology reveals just how social we actually are and how much we need each other, need others in order to feel whole or all right. Zooms and Facetimes and phone calls can’t replace real life. It’s been dissociating, but it’s also revealed dissociation, how much we were putting up with in terms of precarity or accepted distance from those we love before the pandemic. I’m hoping to use what I’ve experienced during this time, personally, to establish new ways of keeping in touch, new rituals of checking in and taking care of those I love. Often, once a crisis is over, we return to our old habits and pre-worn grooves because everyone only has so much energy, so many hours in the day, but I’m hoping new ways of holding our society and our relating accountable are possible.
I recently read that you’re working on a novel about women who are turning into household objects—that sounds incredible! How is that project coming along? Do you find that writing under quarantine has altered your process in any way?
It’s hasn’t been as easy as I imagined to transition from drafting stories to drafting a novel. My stories often involve a lot of information and moving parts, so I had thought it would be mostly the same and merely take longer, that my usual habits would apply. I’m learning that it’s a very different process, partly because the longer form makes it more difficult to hold the whole arc in your head at one time. I’m trying to let go a little bit—I’ve done so much imagining of the plot and the characters and scenes—that I’m trying to trust that those will emerge when and how they’re supposed to as I write, rather than me imposing them at a specific point I had decided in advance. Letting go is hard to do for someone who really takes solace in planning! But it got easier to do once I decided to allow it to become more a process of discovery. As far as being under quarantine, I notice that I’m a lot slower, too, because I’m more easily distracted. It’s harder to maintain the focus that’s key to really getting mentally immersed in the writing—for me, writing involves entering into a deeply meditative and quiet state. I think as long as I’m understanding with myself about that and don’t stress too much about word counts or removing sections or language that isn’t working, just allowing it to happen as it happens, it will continue to progress, hopefully more easily. All progress is progress in the end. Every novel gets written in its own unique way and time. That’s something I’ve heard before that I believe to be true, and which I find comforting, that you have to learn how each book wants to be written.
Since it’s difficult to focus on anything for too long these days, this is a tricky question, but one I feel obligated to ask: what are you reading at the moment?
While I completely empathize with those who have found it difficult to focus on reading at the moment, I’ve had the opposite experience. As mentioned, maintaining the focus I need to write has been more of a challenge, but I’ve been reading at a faster clip than usual. Books have been a comfort and a way to get away from the stresses of the current moment. I was blown away by The Memory Police, Shuggie Bain, and The Undying. I found The Undying so extraordinary, not only for its portrayal of what it’s like to struggle with a severe and often terminal illness and how our capitalist culture exploits and exacerbates that struggle, but also for its precise and unflinching language. I vowed to read everything Anne Boyer ever writes and have Garments Against Women in the docket. I also have Diane Cook’s The New Wilderness up next, and I’m eager to read Judith Schlansky’s Inventory of Losses, due out soon from New Directions.
Lastly, since we’re definitely not trying to send our readers to Amazon, is there an indie bookstore you’d like to recommend us?
I was grateful to have one launch event with Alexandra Kleeman at Powerhouse Arena in Brooklyn before I moved to online promotion due to Covid-19. I recommend them highly! I also recommend Book Moon in Maine, Skylight Books in Los Angeles, and The Booksmith in San Francisco. And in lieu of Amazon, you can always order online with Bookshop.org.
You Will Never Be Forgotten is available for purchase here, and wherever books are sold.