Five Questions with Laura McCullough
Will McCarry: We published two pieces from you in the most recent issue of NANO: “Desire” and “The Smoke of Thought.” Both feature Mary, a woman seemingly crippled with self doubt. What drew you to her as a character and prompted you to write multiple flash pieces about her?
Laura McCullough: I really appreciate this question. Mary is one of several characters in Ripple & Snap, a “flash-novel” about a suicide in a high school gym during a pep rally. There are a number of flash-chapters in which Mary is the focus. Others focus on the football coach, Diego, who plays bassoon in the band, Luanne, also in the band, the janitor, the school cop. The novel is about the effects of the suicide on all of the people who are there when a young man kills himself in front of them all. It is about the moments right afterwards as well as the ripples that follow over the next few days.
WM: There seems to be a recent trend in fiction obsessed with the act of returning home. Your piece, “Desire,” as well as movies like Young Adult, Garden State, and People Like Us highlight the shame associated with such an act. What is it about this theme that attracts you?
LM: Thank you for such thoughtful questions. I don’t think I would ever have said these pieces, and the larger piece they are part of, are about returning home, or nostalgic in anyway, though I might have said they had some grappling with shame, but I see now that you are right. The project came to me because I heard a news story several years ago about a young man who killed himself in a school. The story came and went within hours because it wasn’t big news—the kid didn’t harm anyone but himself—but I was shaken desperately. It was because I understand something of the aftermath of suicide, the psycho-spiritual and emotional damage done to those left behind. In college, when I was nineteen, my boyfriend took a blanket to the north end of Brigantine beach in southern Jersey and shot himself through the mouth with a rifle. He’d left the suicide note on the seat of my car. Eighteen months later, my close friend hung herself. These were profound experiences of grief, shame, confusion, and fear for me. When that news event happened just a few years ago, it brought all that back for me, and Ripple & Snap is the first project I’ve done that tries to explore what I know about living with suicide. Mary isn’t me – none of the characters are; they are entirely fictionalized—but I certainly think I am “going home” in a lot of ways in these pieces, and, yes, dealing with some varieties of shame.
WM: You have published several books of poetry. What would you say is the difference between flash fiction and prose poetry?
LM: Great question! I don’t know! Of course, I know! Who knows?! Well, I would say this. In my new book, Rigger Death & Hoist Another (Black Lawrence Press), I am using lineation, but with a very clear effort to work with prose strategies (I have an MFA in fiction, not poetry) and to use indentations and caesura in ways to try and bridge the divide between my more obvious prose-poem/flash fiction work and my more traditionally lineated poetry, but here is what I believe essentially is the difference: the more figuration and figurative language in a work, the more likely I am to call it poetry whether it is written in sentences or lines (or some combination of both). For me, the line between poetry and prose is blurry, and my process in writing in either form is increasingly the same.
WM: Who are the writers (flash fiction or otherwise) that you most admire?
LM: Flannery O’Connor and Victor Hugo are two vitally important writers to me. Maybe DH Lawrence. The first two, and in a lot of ways the third, have as a major concern, grace. James Wright. Some living writers I cannot live without (pardon what sounds hyperbolic; it doesn’t feel that way to me): Stephen Dunn, Tony Hoagland, Kathleen Graber, Andre Dubus III, Nick Flynn, Michael Broek, Jeffrey Ford, Bob Hicok—have you read his new book? My god, Elegy Owed. My list can go on to many writers I deeply admire: Gerald Stern, Terrance Hayes, Dwayne Betts, Kamiko Hahn, Mark Doty, Yusef Komunyakaa, Garrett Hongo, Brian Turner, Dean Young, Kelle Groom, many more, many more. It’s a wonder to have so many great writers writing. Every day, this list could change though, depending on what books come on and off my desk, which ones I need today.
WM: What else can we look forward to from you?
LM: I’ve got the new book, Rigger Death & Hoist Another, just out this summer, and I’ve just completed a new book of poems that doesn’t have a publisher yet, The Sea & the Shore, poems about science, oceanography, robotics, music, pop culture, and poems that take their musical permissions from old sea shanties like “What to do with a drunkin’ sailor?” I am excited by these poems right now, they have more play, and I am a lifelong Jersey Shore gal, so this manuscript feels as if I may have said something about my home finally. I’ve finished a full length memoir about, well, sex and death, The Belt of Venus, and a multi-perspective novel, Little Wolf, about human trafficking. I have published excerpts of both, but would like to find a home for these projects. I am about to begin a second memoir about the suicides I mentioned earlier. Its taken years, but I might have a sense finally about how to structure the story. Thanks for the great questions and for a terrific magazine.
Listen to Laura’s “Desire” from NANO Fiction’s 6.2 below. Pick up a copy here.