My son, the drug addict, is about to tell a story. I can tell because he’s closed his eyes and lifted his chin. I can tell because he’s laid his hands, palms down, on the table, like a shaman feeling the energy of the tree-spirit still in the wood. I can tell because he’s drawing a shuddering breath, as if what he has to say will take all he’s got. He’s putting on the full show because he has a new audience—he’d streamline the theatrics if it were only me. We’re having dinner in Levi Lambright’s recording compound, Chautauqua, in remote Appalachian Tennessee. I’m a songwriter—a lyricist—and I’m here to work on a new album with Levi, our first in fifteen years. Dee was not invited. The only other person who should be here is Lucinda, Levi’s cook. But Dee just showed up, the way drug-addicted sons sometimes do.
–Excerpt from “THE CHAUTAUQUA SESSIONS” in Bright Shards of Someplace Else
Late Night Library: Summarize your book in 10 words or fewer.
Monica McFawn: Obsessive people both sustained and stymied by their unshakable passions.
LNL: If this book were the lovechild of two authors, who are its parents?
MM: I see the book as the outcome of a May-December affair between Jennifer Egan’s A Visit from the Goonsquad and Nathaniel Hawthorne’s Mosses from an Old Manse. The stories have bold, weird setups like Mosses, and the prose has stylistic similarities to Goonsquad. Both Hawthorne and Egan write sentences that turn an object or concept around several times, like someone turns a gem to see all the ways it catches the light. Bright Shards of Someplace Else has inherited that habit from her parents.
LNL: What ingredients go into the recipe of your writing style?
MM: Ginseng, John Ashbery, Lydia Davis, espresso, late-night euphoric laughter, Kafka, Roth, Russo, and sometimes a sip of malbec.
LNL: Name one book you wish you could read again for the first time.
MM: The House of the Seven Gables, specifically the Governor Pyncheon chapter. It’s one of the most risky and bizarre moves I’ve seen in a novel. The chapter breaks from the plot of the book and consists of nothing more than the narrator describing a dead man, but pretending as if he doesn’t realize the man is dead. So the narrator says things like: “The judge has not shifted his position for a long while now. He has not stirred hand or foot…” and “Canst thou not brush the fly away? Art thou too sluggish?” The chapter is long and trippy, and the narrator keeps the prose-version of a straight face. Reading that chapter for the first time was exhilarating—it held me in uncomfortable thrall like a comedy set that seems to be falling off the rails but is actually working out a larger, better joke. It made me realize that fiction can work like an edgy comic, unafraid to make the audience squirm with a long bit that becomes unfunny and then—after more time—funny again, this time more transcendently so.
LNL: Answer a question you wish people would ask you about writing.
MM: I like to be asked the “why I write” question purely because I like conjuring up metaphors for my answers. The most recent iteration is that being a writer or an artist is like being a rodent. A rodents’ teeth grow nonstop, so they must constantly chew on hard objects to keep their teeth at a comfortable length. That chewing is the equivalent of making art. But if the rodent doesn’t have something to chew on, the teeth will get too long, growing right into the animal’s skull. That scenario is like a writer who isn’t writing—which Kafka describes as “a monster courting insanity.” I think being an artist is a little like that—a special set of teeth that insist on chewing up the world, sometimes self-destructively, sometimes beautifully.
Get a copy of Bright Shards of Someplace Else at IndieBound.
Monica McFawn is a writer and playwright living in Michigan. Her short story collection, Bright Shards of Someplace Else, won the Flannery O’Connor Award for Short Fiction. She is also the author of a hybrid chapbook, “A Catalogue of Rare Moments,” and her screenplays and plays have had readings in New York and Chicago. She teaches writing at Grand Valley State University, and trains her Welsh Cob cross pony in dressage and jumping.