Mairead Case’s first novel, See You In the Morning, was a moving and unpredictable coming-of-age story; I spoke with her about it in 2015. Her new novel, Tiny, uses a more formally inventive structure to tell a story of family, grief, and community. (It’s also a retelling of Antigone.) It’s a fantastic work in its own right and an impressive demonstration of what Case is capable of, a work that’s simultaneously intimate and epic. We checked in via email to talk about the book’s origins and the ways in which it resonates right now. Experimental post-punk bands/art projects came up as well, as they tend to do.
First things first: when did you first encounter Antigone? And for how long have you wanted to write your own version of it?
In the beginning of high school, I was very sick. I did not want to be in the world, but I didn’t want to leave it either. So I struggled. There’s more to that story. But, in my junior year, as I slowly started to stop ghosting myself, I was cast as Antigone in our school play. Looking back, the lines are so straight they’re embarrassing (a girl stuck in her own story, able to play another girl stuck in hers), but they’re beautiful too. It fits for a lot of us. It wasn’t that my drama teacher made me Antigone or gave me a plot (she didn’t, I had plenty already) but she made a gesture that said I didn’t have to define myself by my stuckness. She gave me time and a script: “The play is on. Antigone has been caught. For the first time in her life, Antigone is going to be able to play herself” (Jean Anouilh). Okay, yes. So I’ve thought about Antigone for a long time, but I don’t think I considered writing her directly until 2014, when I was applying to PhD programs and people wanted to know about stories that mattered to me.
Structurally, Tiny is a lot more nonlinear than See You in the Morning. What made this approach the right one for this book?
To me, Tiny feels more linear than See You in the Morning, in that the narrative is more directly tied to the narrator’s experience of the world. See You in the Morning is essentially three separate short stories, grouted together with a structural shift at the end. Tiny follows a “traditional” novel structure, but it shimmers and wanders because of the trauma Tiny carries, and the love. That said, I’m so glad not to be the only reader of this book any more—I see what you’re seeing too.
There’s a very strong presence narrating this book. Is that you, or did you come up with a distinctive character to handle that task?
It’s me! I set out very purposefully to write a house for my trauma so that it didn’t keep lurking in other doorways. Other homes I don’t know yet. Because of this, my mom is here too, epically. But it’s also the voice of the chorus, which helped me make the third person less cold and dictatorial. And this novel was my PhD dissertation, so there are words and sounds from my comps lists, and the rooms where I did that work. I did my best to quote everyone as I heard them, and thank them in the back. (I did allow myself one corny Easter egg, which was quoting from Inger Christiansen’s Alphabet in a way that is also about the band Planes Mistaken For Stars. The same words work for both, and I am very happy when someone else knows it.)
Throughout Tiny, you make use of the very physical aspects of the book, sometimes using large amounts of blank space on a page and adjusting the placement of certain words or phrases. Was that an element you’d had in mind for this project from the beginning?
One HUGE part of that is the brilliance of Zach Dodson, who I’ve now completely embarrassed by calling him brilliant. He is, though. We have been friends for a long time, so that is part of the understanding, but I also sent him a list of things like “Matta-Clark’s circles,” “air flow around moss,” and “hot pink,” and then Zach alone geled it on the page. That said, yes: this book has always been a physical object, for me. I think a lot about paintings. I think a lot about how we stand together and look at them, or how we listen to music. I’m really happy that Tiny is also an object that could be on a merch table in a dark room. You could put it in your pocket and read it coming home on the bus.
How challenging was it to write and revise a book with such a particular relationship to time?
It was hard because I had no idea how to work an ending, since the ending is in the beginning. We know her brother is dead. I ended up turning to music, particularly transitional moments in “The Orchids” by Califone and “Your Love” by Frankie Knuckles. Two very different songs! I also moved around a lot, meaning: my body. The descriptions of Tiny’s walks are descriptions of my walks, especially along rivers and railroads in Denver and Chicago, and out in the Driftless during two summers at ACRE. Her flora are the ones I knew, growing up in Seattle. These details are all related to time. They just don’t keep it in the same ways.
Possibly strange question: is it weird to have a book where dancing plays such a large part at a time when social events are largely virtual?
The weird part, for me, is that (with some fun exceptions!) I’m a wallflower. Sure, I’m anxious, but I also like talking with the bartender when it’s quiet, or the smokers, or watching the gear in the alley, or reading while other people go up to sing. I’ll hold your coat. It’s really soothing and centering. I thought a lot about the ethics of writing from dance floors that I wasn’t especially on, but then I got over myself and asked other questions. I do feel bittersweetly (though that isn’t the exact word) that I wrote a book about death and trauma, particularly trauma from militarization and policing, at a time when so many days are all already so loud and bruised with both. They always were to me though? My hope is that Tiny is a light and a balm, in her own time. And that’s not about medicine, or helping everyone, or pretending that this is a new conversation (!). Like Rachel McKibbens said in her workshop this morning, “I want us to reach for the sweetness of us more quickly. I want us to figure out ways this moment can happen to us more quickly.”
Do you think of Tiny as a ghost story?
I think of her as a haunting, in the way Rebecca Schneider, or particularly Avery F. Gordon, write about haunting. Antigone is an artifact, and a living story, from a society (Ancient Greece, tentacled) whose insistence on greatness is tied to militarism, and the erasure of the people who that incarcerated. I address this directly. I also directly quote Jose Muñoz, who says, “One of the things one risks when one talks of ghosts is the charge of ignoring the living, the real, and the material.” I write fiction and poetry in part because I can quote, which means remember, people who are no longer in their bodies as if they are. Because they definitely still are. I am really aware of the PhD-ness of some of this language, but I don’t fight that because I write and move it in other ways too. I wrote Tiny with a scarab pin that used to belong to Eve Kosofsky-Sedgwick on the corner of my desk.
I might be overthinking this, but: you used a Tracy + the Plastics lyric as one of this book’s epigraphs. The one time I saw said group live, I was really taken by the sight of three bandmates interacting, all of whom were played by the same person, and only one of whom was live. Did that experience of watching one person be in multiple places and times at once have any influence on the feel and structure of your book?
Yes! Tracy + the Plastics were also touring a lot when I was in high school, so they’re sovereign in my Antigone memories too—and, how clear Wynne Greenwood always was about the sincerity of the dynamic you describe. No one was lying, and that made it messy. It was complicated, hilarious, and private. The band insisted, even when it got super-weird, that personal context must inform, if not completely make, our language. Our tours, even. Otherwise, what’s the point? Why talk? Why look? Why love? I talked about Tracy, Nikki, and Cola at Pop Con one year, on a panel with Chrissy Shively (and Andi Harriman, and Michaelangelo Matos), which is how Sylvester ended up in the book. I still really care about how Cola kept saying she would do something to “look more real.” It’s all so complicated.
Besides Antigone itself, are there any other books or creative works that you see Tiny as being in dialogue with?
Yes! A lot of them are listed in the back, and then I want others to find her. I want her to be a part of the future. More than anything though, my hope is that she shows up for conversations about abolition—in rooms (Carrie Mae Weems’ Past Tense, Tina Chanter’s Whose Antigone?), but also outside of them. I know that Antigone is often used in arguments against the destruction of racist monuments, the thought being that your brother is your brother is your brother, no matter what. Of course. He is. My hope is that Tiny pushes this argument even further: he is, of course he is. And, what if we don’t define him purely by what he did? Or was forced to do? Or the path he walked until he stopped? The tools he lacked? Guy Hamilton-Smith asks this question another way: “if you tell someone that the only thing that they can ever be is the worst thing they’ve ever done, what good are their efforts at change, and accountability?” In Tiny’s case, her brother Kelly is literally beside himself because of his time in Iraq. If you are white, Puritanical America says you can lie your way out of that harm (the harm you did, the harm done to you), and if you are not white (or cis, or rich, or straight), in many cases the 13th Amendment says you should be in a cage. Or you should not rest. These are not great options!! Obviously this is an evil bigger than all of us, and so it will need all of us to hold it back, but you know: we already are. As Jasmine Syedullah, Rahawa Haile, Monica Cosby, and (so many!) other people write and say repeatedly, already: freedom is the ability to leave. I want this to include our grief, and so does Tiny. What if we all get home, alive.