“We Both Have a Stake in the Way That Stories Are Told”: Janice Lee and Mairead Case on Writing

"Imagine a Death" and "Tiny" covers

No two books are written the same way, even if they share an author. For some writers, the process of writing one book can sharply influence the writing of the next; for others, the circumstances under which one work is created can be radically different from that work’s predecessor. The last year and a half has seen the release of new books by Janice Lee (Imagine a Death) and Mairead Case (Tiny). In the wake of both books’ release, Lee and Case discussed their own processes, the role of imagery in their books, and the power of names in fiction — among a host of other topics.

Janice Lee: I want to ask you about the birds. Birds feature in both our works. In Tiny, I was struck by the first page that introduces the cast of characters, so to speak, and is titled, “People & Birds.” The list includes the prominent human characters, and then draws attention to the crows, “lots of CROWS,” the narrative tells us. Who are the birds for you? And what is their role in the narrative, in this world?

Mairead Case: In part, I wanted to trouble the cast, because I have received messages years after people have first said them to me, and in a play about family and death, it seemed important to acknowledge that. And, growing up in Seattle, I rode across a lake on a bus at least once a day for a large part of my life. It was always comforting to see birds outside the windows—they catch wind and coast on it. Their ease has always reminded me to breathe. My mother would always point out the first robin of the spring, and an old friend always points out crows to me, even though we don’t live in the same state anymore. In another way, I think the birds are there as placeholders, because I know I am going to write about him someday. Can you talk about how animals affect the way you write? I’m thinking first of just where your body is. Where are mooshes when you write, and where did that word come from?

JL: I love that, that their ease reminded you to breathe. I’ve been returning to my breath more and more lately, and I recently had the opportunity to participate in an online Buddhist retreat. And I finally cultivated that feeling of the breath being a “refuge” that I perhaps was tangentially accessing before, but this time, I really felt that feeling of being “at home” in a profound and felt way. Animals are present in my writing because animals are such a part of my world. Everything and everyone utterly entangled. I want to work towards being able to tell stories from the perspective of entanglement and interbeing, rather than protagonists, heroes, human beings. The mooshes, in this realm or in the ancestor realm, are also always present. The word “moosh” was actually first coined by my friend Shoshana when she met Benny for the first time, and he was lying in a very mooshy fashion on the ground 🙂 Where are you in relation to your body when you write?

MC: Finally being at home in a way you were tangentially accessing before—I know that’s right! And I’m really happy for you. I don’t think I had the words for this then, but for my first book in particular I wasn’t in anything but my hands and my brain. I wrote a lot at night in noisy places, after running with music and eating sugar. At the time, I romanticized it. Looking back, it seems anxious and lonely, but also very brave. I don’t think I’ll ever write that way again, but I know it was the only way for me to survive writing both of those books with the toolboxes I had. Now, like you, I can really sit with my breath. I’m grateful to my yoga and meditation teachers, and also for Hero, who sits in my lap or lies on my chest. I’m ready to write more stories now.

JL: I know we both have a stake in the way that stories are told. In my novel I’m both resisting certain conventions and expectations of narrative, but also simply presenting another way that story can exist, already exists. Your book begins with a Donna Haraway quote that feels really important, “It matters what stories we tell to tell other stories with; it matters what concepts we think to think other concepts with.” And later in the book, “Stories are arcs, but they are also waves, firecrackers, flowers, and rings. Sometimes they are black holes.” Why are stories so important to you? Have you always been drawn to story? And what is at stake for you in how stories are told, what concepts we use to describe story? Do you have a particular definition of story that you are drawn to?

MC: I have always been drawn to them, even as my definition of what a story is has changed multiple times throughout my life. It involves ears and eyes, translation, my mother’s voice and my dad keeping me safe, promises, science, faith, mystery, and polyphony. I think everything is at stake, if what we write and say is to be remembered, even if we’re the only ones who remember it. I want stories to be helpful. I have always cared about the story in a sentence and through seasons, and I’m learning to care otherwise too. What is at stake for you here?

JL: I agree that everything is at stake. So much in a sentence represents and enacts particular ways of seeing the world, being in the world, relating to the world. Seemingly simple sentences often are enacting vast value systems and ideologies, many of which are also related to colonialism. Privileging the individual, the subject. Emphasis on action and doing, rather than existing. Emphasis on things, on static boundaries of beingness. The belief in cause and effect, causality in general, on linear time. The belief in separation of things, rather than interbeing or entanglement. Etc. I want very much to bring awareness to this and to make more space for other ways of being.

MC: Yes, value and colonialism. Sentences have all kinds of weights. They can make time. I’d like to ask you about your epigraph too—there are two, but I’m particularly interested in the Etel Adnan one: “We are all contemplatives of an ongoing apocalypse.” At the risk of projecting, when writing my own book about death I often felt unable to trust any future at all, specifically or in the abstract, and it has been such a miraculous relief to not feel that way anymore. Did you experience anything like this? How did you continue? Either way, how do you understand contemplation, and the ongoing apocalypse, today? (To me, the latter phrase echoes with your own “provisional drowning.”) As a follow-up question, were there any epigraphs you considered, but ended up leaving out?

JL: The ongoingness of the apocalypse is about the ongoingness of death for me, which also, is the ongoingness of life. I think it’s important to acknowledge that death isn’t the opposite of life, and that when we pin one as antagonistic to the other, it’s a great disservice to the great entanglement that is living, in all its forms, cycles, iterations, through being born, broken open, composted, reintegrated, and re-remembered. The apocalypse, as a popular, Western concept is so much about finality, about endings, and also about redemption, resolution, and triumph. I think for me, there was a lot of letting go that needed to happen. Around death but also the state of the world. And also, yes, I had so many epigraphs, that were much more for me in writing the book. The ones that didn’t make it:

“Recognizing isn’t at all like seeing; the two often don’t even agree.” – Sten Nadolny, The Discovery of Slowness 

“There are those to whom it is obvious that it is impossible to make a whole out of all these billions of available images, who instinctively look away from the billions of fragments and in one surprising and elegant feint begin anew with the act of creation, imagining a brand new set of fragments out of which he constructs a brand new totality.” – László Krasznahorkai 

“This slow spider dragging itself towards the light of the moon and that same moonlight, and you and I whispering at the gateway, whispering of eternal things, haven’t we already coincided in the past? And won’t we happen again on the long road, on this long tremulous road, won’t we recur eternally?” – Friedrich Nietzsche 

“Time is not a straight line, but just a flat hell, like a desert. I am a tomb robber who is robbing my own tomb. Things from my tomb are exhibited under the radiant sun. Every time it happens I feel crude.” – Kim Hyesoon (from interview in Guernica with Ruth Williams)

MC: Yes. How do you connect death to love—or do you? I ask because of the phrase “the depth of my mourning is the depth of my love.” In my experience, this is flipped. I knew the depth of my mourning first, and it felt like apocalypse. 

JL: I think it all comes back to love. Something like death, or loss, matters because we’ve loved deeply. It is the capacity to love that creates the circumstances for compassion, kindness, acceptance, gratitude, but also for grief, sadness, despair. But these aren’t separate things. In that phrase, I don’t mean to imply that one causes the other. The awareness might happen differently, but there is a relation. The depth of love is the depth of mourning is the depth of feeling is the depth of compassion is the depth of presence is the depth of recognition. The chronology can vary, but energetically, spiritually, it’s all already there, and by there what I really mean is here.

MC: Both you and I write in a narrative voice (here I’m thinking about your first voice in particular) that is not-us, but also very much us. While I don’t think there can ever truly be a complete separation here, I do think there is a particular risk (maybe that’s not the right word?) in writing characters who, sure, might speak in similar ways as we do, but more importantly are grappling with the same kinds of reckonings and crises. What agency do you feel you have here, as the writer? How did you separate yourself, or how are you still separating yourself?

JL: This is a great question. The narrative voice I think very much reflected me, but also was a strange, familiar and also alien entity that I felt like I was channeling. Most of the book is in a third person narration, but this narrator isn’t neutral. They are rather obsessive, and linger in places where other narrators might not linger. There are stakes for what is noticed and what isn’t noticed, and there is a desire to take up space in a way that is about agency, but also about the very nature of existing and being seen to exist in the first place. In a way, I think this is connected to how the narrator takes agency in the present moment to curate/recreate a new past (and therefore, a different future). There is also leakage. The text is porous and permeable. So as my own consciousness leaks into the text, so too does the narrator’s consciousness leak into mine. So too do many other consciousnesses that I have encountered, encounter still. The leakage is the point. The few places I used first person were for the non-human characters, and there is an awareness that the “I” in these sections is very much a gesture. These are characters who don’t have access to language in the same way, so of course the vantage points are highly mediated through the human, the human narrator and the human author. But the gesture matters. What else can be noticed? Where else can attention lead us? And what are the stakes of being outside of one’s vantage point, even if just for a moment?

MC: Yes. When you pick up your book now, two years into a pandemic (for one), do you remember everything you wrote? I ask because I don’t, and yet I know, deeply, that everything was intentional at the time. It’s a kind of coming-home, even when it’s bewildering.

JL: I don’t! That feeling of “coming-home” you mention, YES! It’s kind of extraordinary how much of my own writing I don’t actually remember, and yet sort of know, and yet the familiarity is more energetic than language-based.

I want to ask you about names. I myself have such a hard time with names. Partially I fear the specificity of names, and partially, I wanted to lean into archetypes with titles like “the writer,” “the photographer,” “the birds,” “the old man.” In your book, there is a line, “Naming something doesn’t mean you understand it. You need to watch for a while too, and look for patterns.” I’m curious to hear about your choices in naming. The names of the characters, especially Tiny, which also becomes the name of the book.

MC: Can you say more about fearing the specificity of names? I think I do too, even as I feel lucky to have always clicked with the one my parents gave me (even when everyone, it seems, pronounces it differently). Tiny came automatically, and because this book was also a dissertation, I held onto the etymology of tinsel, and matter v. space and time. Too, it was—it is–the name of an artist who tattooed a braid and an ear on my calf, in a city I’ll always recognize as home. In all drafts until we went to print, Tiny’s brother had the same name as a relative I never met outside of stories. He was also a brother. Sammi Skolmoski, my editor, finally named him Kelley, which felt like a shoulder locking back into place, and so it stuck. (Also, what is your experience with editors, for this book in particular? For me it felt painful but necessary—life-saving,even—to invite other people into the conversation.)

JL: I think I’m just uncomfortable with the specific associations or attachments people may have with names. Names of friends, family members, exes, celebrities, etc. And I want to bypass some of the preconceptions readers might already have with those labels, and try to cultivate a relationship that lives outside of that a little bit, one that needs to be built up in a different way.

I had many readers for this book initially, many friends and colleagues who read parts of it along the way. And I’m really grateful for their depth of engagement. I’m also really grateful that my editors at the press, Katie Jean Shinkle and PJ Carlisle, really saw me and the work, and understood the book on its own terms. When I was placing excerpts of the book in journals and such leading up to the release, many journal editors wanted to rewrite my sentences, make them more “accessible” and I often had to stand up for the consciousness of the text.

MC: Yes. That’s a kind of breathing too. Thank you for talking with me, Janice.

JL: Thank YOU Mairead. I’m really cherishing the time I was able to spend with your words and your heart. 


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