I have known Mairead Case for many years now. For a couple of those, I’ve been eagerly awaiting the release of her first novel, See You in the Morning. Describing this book isn’t easy: on the one hand, it follows its narrator through a crucial point in their life, and examines how a couple of significant friendships ebb and flow due to certain circumstances. But it’s a much more mysterious book than that: dreams, fragmented messages, and a sense of ambiguity mingle with more naturalistic descriptions of punk shows, odd retail jobs, and trying to figure out one’s place in life. I talked with Mairead via email over the course of a few weeks; this interview is the result.
So: this seems like a good place to start. In 2011, we published your short story “Summertime.” When you were writing this, was it already envisioned as part of a larger work, or did that come later?
That was the first published piece of this book that I think would be recognizable to anyone (besides me) as a piece of it, so: yes and no. When you published it, it was such a boost—and, given the authors you’ve published and the kinds of books you cover, a light into the kinds of spaces I could think about writing myself into. (Plus I was such a noob I remember recommitting to Twitter because of the mentions from this publication.)
Another answer is that to submit it to Vol. 1 in the first place, I’d spent a lot of time slicing up notebooks and thinking about audience, and cohesion. When we read together at BookThug it was absolutely the first time I named these characters in public, and for you to ask more about them was the best. After that were real outside my head too.
The use of names in See You in the Morning seems very deliberate: some characters are given instantly memorable names, while the narrator and the town in which it’s set go unnamed. Did you have that in mind from the outset?
Well, the narrator isn’t named because I felt very strongly that they don’t know their real name yet. I think it’s a really powerful and important stance, rejecting things so firmly even when it’s scary as hell to, and even when that means you have no idea who you are. Gender is a part of this; I definitely always had that in mind. These choices meant the book would be shorter.
The town itself, because I’m such a zine kid and Triggering Town devotee, is deep-rooted in Indiana and Nebraska, because I know those states so well, but I didn’t name it because it’s a hybrid of actual places. I did draw a map and stick it above my desk. Looking back I guess I felt comfortable naming people and places I pulled from my dreams, but not ones that came to me instead.
At what point, when you were working on the novel, did the idea that the narrator didn’t yet know their name figure into things? Did that always relate directly to how gender played into the novel, or did the two aspects eventually come together?
I always knew they weren’t quite sure who they were (or who they were going to be, or how much choice they had about that), but I wasn’t sure how to show this on the page. I wanted to write something that people would probably want to put on a young adult shelf, but whose structure resisted closure—because I mean, personally, lots of things happened to me coming up that could be shaped into a Coming of Age Story, but fact is I’m still not exactly sure what they “meant.” I wanted to be as honest as possible.
And part of that was writing from personal experience. There was a time when I dressed like a man (a boy) pretty frequently, and felt most myself in those clothes, and an even more confusing one when I felt so angry and sad about what I was taught in church that I figured I had the wrong body and the wrong desires. This character is no longer me, but they’re truer because they started in my confusion, my loves, and what scared me.
I was also really struck by the way that Catholicism was such a huge presence in the novel, from the regular churchgoing to the Graveyard of the Unborn. (Which might be projecting my own experience with very anti-abortion Catholics in my own hometown.) But the novel also seems more ambivalent about it than positive or negative. Was that also something that changed over the course of writing the novel?
I was surprised that happened! I definitely didn’t start out to write a book about Catholicism. But then it started happening and the book didn’t want anything else. Catholicism is, simply put, an important part of my brain because I know so much about it critically and emotionally. I grew up in it and still go to church fairly regularly, though I struggle with a lot of the details and try to be vocal about them. In this book I tried to be both positive and negative, instead of straight ambivalent. It feels next-level-punk, loving something you hate sometimes too.
As an only child myself, I am honor-bound to ask: what prompted the decision to make the narrator one?
Part of it was a critical choice—I wanted them to be alone, and to spend time alone, and to do this, in the kind of book I found myself writing, they needed to be an only child.
Another answer is something I learned from Samuel Delany’s About Writing. He says you should write what you know, but not what you know TOO well. For example, after starting work in academia he wrote a Xerox-style MSS about people who worked in academia, and he said it felt really flat. On the other hand, he could take his experiences with a flesh infection in the hospital and write a really good battlefield scene about decay and pain and pus. What I’m saying is I’m not an only child—my sister is one of my dearest friends in all worlds, and so instead of writing about that relationship here, even peripherally, I just dedicated See You In the Morning to her.
I was constantly impressed with how the novel captured certain very particular rhythms: this specific set of characters, this specific place, this specific time in their lives. When coming up with a world that feels this lived-in (I’m thinking of the bit about looking at shoes at punk shows), were those details imagined? Taken from life? Taken from stories you’d heard? All of the above?
Thank you!–a large part of that came from reading the whole thing aloud to myself, over and over, and cutting or condensing anything that messed with the music. There was only ever one house for shows, but at one point John and Rosie were never together, John had a different girlfriend; at one point there was a diner and a coffee shop instead of a coffee counter in the diner. I guess what I’m saying is that the world came from all these places, but it became real when I started reading it aloud to myself in an empty apartment (well, there was a cat there too).
Another motor here is the anger I have about those places in Indiana and Nebraska—elsewhere too, but I know Indiana and Nebraska best—where soft borders aren’t allowed and shame is super-real and home is restricted. At the same time, part of my home is these places and their people so I really wrestled with how to write it. Being critical did seem ungrateful, and perhaps it is but I did it anyway. I don’t believe in writing books that don’t scare me. The Graveyard of the Unborn, the suicidal feelings, the unhappy monogamy, etc.—those are all absolutely taken from life. Each situation is specific and complicated, obviously. I’m sure I’ll try writing them again as I get older.
Dreams play a not insignificant part in See You in the Morning. How did you come up with the logic and imagery that informed them?
Dreams are way fun to write, and I found they were especially important for this character because they allowed them to start building an escape route. I was (am!) interested in the non-binary system created by reading books and hearing songs and talking to people, and funneling those into desire, and working those desires into dreams you have or stories you tell your friends or costumes you try on, and then seeing whether, or how, any of that works in daily life. But of course, on the page it’s important that the dreams aren’t an escape route from narrative structure. I worked hard to give them firm borders, and to use them as peepholes and intimacies, not just ways to plug up empty space.
In some of your writings (I’m thinking especially of your nod to Wall of Sound in your recap of all things cultural for 2014), you’ve talked about the influence of music on your writings. Were there specific pieces of music that you either listened to or were looking to for an emotional or stylistic influence?
Yes, definitely! One big lesson I learned from Jeffrey at Wall of Sound is how to use music to focus. I do listen to certain pieces to keep myself in the chair and off the internet. For this book I listened to a loop of Daft Punk’s “Make Love,” Califone on structural days, and Battles’s “Tonto” whenever I needed just to wrap a draft and send it off. Matthew Goulish told me to listen to Bach to figure out how to end in harmony instead of dissonance, and he was right. I also got a lot of permission from Holly’s story in The Hold Steady’s Separation Sunday, though not the resurrection part. And most importantly I funneled tons of good dark energy from starfish-dancing to Joy Division whenever I was alone in the apartment at night.
You’re now in the process of getting your PhD. Has the progression of your graduate studies had any effect on the way that your novel has evolved over time?
It has in the sense that if I hadn’t started my master’s program in 2012, I don’t know that I would’ve completed See You In the Morning by now. For me, going to graduate school, in particular moving to Denver after a decade in Chicago, was a big and scary commitment to my voice. I don’t mean this in a corny dreamy way at all—having space and funding, being required to show up and be creative while also scraping an idea to the bottom of the can: this changed the way I think about narratives, and so it changed my book too. I loved going to the fluid kind of school where painting MFAs could critique my work, and Barbara Degenevieve, and a class with performance majors could help me write the end. I also learned a lot from working at the Poetry Foundation Library, and in the Naropa Summer Writing Program, which also happened during my MFA. And from waiting to go to grad school until I was in my thirties. All these were gifts.
All that said—and especially as someone who has benefited from scholarships and worked since she was 16, but benefited too from being a white girl with a strong liberal arts education—I have struggled with feeling isolated in academia, and with the system itself for its limited radical possibilities. I do not want it to be my whole life. And I did resist writing this book towards certain norms that might’ve made it easier to market or explain. I don’t know that I’ll do that next time. But this time, every time I wrote about affect and people said oh, are you an experimental woman writer? Are you hard to understand? I thought about Feel Tank Chicago, or Louise Fishman’s angry paintings, or Lucky Dragons’s “make a baby,” for example, and just stayed on course. For me graduate school was not about swerving but about learning lineages and how I want to be a part of them, or reject them, or already am even if I don’t want to be, and the rad power in that.
This is something of an open-ended question, and I realize that the answer for it may well be “No.” But, I’m wondering–you’re one of the most sociopolitically active people I know, and I’m curious: did that end up impacting the novel at all?
I think it does because my activism, even when I don’t call myself an activist, absolutely affects how I think and move through the world, and so it impacts the stories I tell about it. Translation and code-switching are a part of this too, and are a part of my everyday down to the shoes I choose. But I would never, ever write my students’ or clients’ stories, or use these experiences or humans as cultural clout, or call pedagogy art. That’s gross, and it grosses me out when people do it. That said, every time I found myself wanting to write someone as a shadow, or to tie a vignette all pretty, or to make a room sound like a display window because that’s much easier, I heard my students razzing me and so found the courage to do it better.
See You in the Morning evokes a particular time in one’s life really well, to my mind. Was it difficult to put yourself into the mindset of someone younger? And: were there any other works that you looked to that may have had a similar approach?
Not too hard. I’ve kept a journal since I was eight, and while the literal narratives in there were not all that helpful in this context, the tone and atmosphere definitely were. The clothes, the music, the food. As I wrote in I found it was generally harder than I would’ve expected, prescribing myself inspirational texts—usually I just found myself writing not-so-cleverly disguised love letters to their authors, instead of figuring out the book I wanted to write.
But there’s still plenty gray area here, for example I had to put David Wojnarowicz’s book Close to the Knives away, but I wrote a lot of See You In the Morning underneath photocopies of his burning house stencil and his buffalo photograph. Ditto houses depicted by Mike Kelley, Edie Fake, and Gordon Matta-Clark And I did write into Vivian Gornick’s essay “The End of the Novel of Love” and John Darnielle’s Master of Reality, though I kind of always do that. In general I just tried to write this mindset from the heart and my experience, no shame.
You made an allusion to how you might do things next time. Which prompts me to wonder: do you have a sense of what’s next for you, in terms of writing projects?
I do! I have a chapbook of poems out from Meekling Press sometime this winter, so I’m working on editing that, and also I’m starting a new longform manuscript about Antigone. This summer I read all the translations I could find, and texts that are kin, and took morning walks in the woods like she did (only I was in Steuben Wisconsin, with the chicory and mosquitoes and the wonderful people of ACRE). Now I just have to keep myself at the desk until spring. I’m excited that one monster (book) is out in the world, and I’m anxious and ready to meet the next one.