Lynne Barrett: Magpies

Lynne Barrett is the award-winning author of  the story collections The Secret Names of Women, The Land of Go, and, most recently, Magpies, which was published by Carnegie Mellon University Press Sept. 1, 2011. She co-edited Birth: A Literary Companion and The James M. Cain Cookbook.  Her work has appeared in Delta Blues, A Dixie Christmas, Miami Noir, One Year to a Writing Life, Simply the Best Mysteries, A Hell of a Woman, Ellery Queen’s Mystery Magazine, Painted Bride Quarterly, Night Train, The Southern Women’s Review, The Review Review, and many other anthologies and journals.

Lynne has received the Edgar Allan Poe Award for best mystery story from the Mystery Writers of America, the Moondance International Film Festival award for Best Short story, and fellowships from the Florida Division of Cultural Affairs and the National Endowment for the Arts. She teaches in the M.F.A. program in Creative Writing at Florida International University and edits The Florida Book Review.

Lynne was interviewed by Laura Richardson for Sliver of Stone Magazine.

LR: In your blog post “Why Magpies?,” you touch on the “two human sides to magpie acquisitiveness.” Magpies also have a reputation for chattering, and I was struck by that as I read your stories, the “talk” of humanity, from the incessant noise of the media to conversations between intimates. I wondered if that aspect seemed heightened because of the title, or did it influence your writing?

LB: I can’t say that the notion of magpies’ “chatter” influenced me. But I did think about different approaches to dialogue as I wrote and revised the stories. In “One Hippopotamus,” for a lot of the piece one character tells a story, the other at times interrupts, questions, and interprets the story being told, and the teller reacts to this, explaining himself and understanding her—both are speaking and listening to each other closely. That’s a story about two lovers, and what they reveal to each other through dialogue changes their relationship. On the other hand, in “When, He Wondered,” a story of crime and conspiracy, there is very little dialogue, and what is said aims to prompt action. The story begins with a character initiating an affair with one provocative line, and there’s a later spot where characters have a conversation they know will be kept on an answering machine, as (false) evidence of innocence. Words—and silence—are used to manipulate and deceive. In one story there’s an attempt to communicate across language differences, while in another we see unexpected consequences of the malicious speech of a gossip columnist.

Your question has made me think about how the word “chatter” has changed in the past ten years. It used to convey meaningless babble, but since 9-11 we’ve spoken of the “chatter” picked up in communications overheard among terrorists, which to me implies excitement and sinister intentions, something bad about to happen, a heightened tension and alertness. I think there’s some element of that in the stories, the tension always of wondering what others really are up to, that a line that seems light could mean more.

LR: Yes, I thought there was a question running through many of the stories of the worth not just of objects or real property, but of what others are saying, or words in general.

In “Gossip and Toad” there is an illustration of human “magpieness” when Tally, the gossip columnist, considers how she learned to “gather shreds and twigs of information from which she could shape something.” That raises the issue of words as commodities, an idea also seen in “Links” where the inflated market value of an advertising website is contrasted with a chronically broke but culturally significant literary magazine.

One of the essential tasks that confronts your characters, it seems, is determining what is valuable amidst a wide array of often baffling choices. Is it money? Is it prestige? Love? What is worth pursuing? And whichever you choose, how do you know you are getting it? These conditions make the “fear of loss” and “desire mingled with anxiety” you reference almost unavoidable. Would you agree with that assessment?

LB: Yes. I like stories where characters’ values are revealed by the actions they take. Uncertainty enhances this—it not only magnifies the tension, it forces the character to choose an idiosyncratic path rather than a generic “safe” or “reasonable” one. I like to follow the entanglements of complications as characters learn who they are and the consequences of what they do.

LR: Could you elaborate on that?

LB: Well, let me go back to “Links.” The cultural significance of the literary magazine is partly its sheer endurance, having been around (though “chronically broke” as you deftly put it) since the 1890s. It’s not clear that it contained anything so wonderful. No one seems to do more than shrug when it goes under (just before the start of the story), but it has value to the narrator, who worked there, underpaid, for years, and wouldn’t have left if it hadn’t collapsed. She knows this may be a sign of inertia or misplaced loyalty, and she’s certainly been told it was foolish when there was money to be made. After the magazine is gone, and when she and the website venture are prospering, she alone goes to visit the editor in his retirement where he is supposedly writing a history of the magazine and going through its records, which consist mainly of letters from distinguished contributors begging to be paid. It’s not that she has illusions—the magazine exploited writers, and the editor is a curmudgeon. She asks herself why she goes, why she’s a softie, but is she soft or not? She’s stubbornly committed to her attachments, and she doesn’t follow the herd. Her loyalty and endurance show up elsewhere in the story, too, and have unexpected results, as the literary and commercial marketplaces provide more twists towards the end of the story.

LR: One of the aspects of your stories I appreciate most is that they don’t suffer from conventional morality. Lies are not always wrong, criminal activity is not always punished, and even malicious acts can have beneficial outcomes. Does this reflect your worldview, or is it more in service to designing interesting plots?

LB: I suppose I see a world that has strange, and often double, outcomes, where something gained means something else lost. “Getting away with” a crime, for instance, means there’s an ongoing tension that can eat into the person’s sense of self, exposing what was hidden.

I am sure there are traits and actions I expect the reader to consider “bad.” Selfishness is one, let’s say, but selfishness so often betrays itself that it can be self-defeating—and a malicious or heedless act can produce an unexpected benefit to the intended victim. That’s fun, for me, thinking about those complexities. I wouldn’t say that I design plots, so much as I discover them, and enjoy the way a situation can turn around.

And here’s a huge advantage the short story has over the novel, these days. Agents and editors looking at novels talk about wanting a “likeable” protagonist, meaning one not going to offend some large conventional audience. But for the length of a short story, we can stand to be with someone who is not whatever likeable might mean—sympathetic, admirable, high-minded, without fault?—but who is perhaps sneaky or mean or selfish or stubborn or desperately driven to do things he or she shouldn’t, yet perhaps also witty, or honest with herself, or simply fun to watch in action.

Aristotle says the audience will be naturally disgusted to see a base person prosper. I agree, that‘s true, but he just thought it didn’t belong in tragedy at all, and missed out on what could be done with it. That revulsion is itself interesting, a kind of moral horror that, perhaps, drives us to examine our world more than would a pat ending with the bad person carried off in handcuffs. I think, for instance, of the end of Chinatown, where a base man (very base) prospers and nothing can stop him, which is a noir ending, but something similar is also felt at the end of James’ Portrait of a Lady, or Wharton’s The House of Mirth, where the very goodness of the good thwarts them.

My own sensibility is not so grim, but I do like to mix things up. I think my worldview (if I have to say something sweeping about this) is a kind of merry sadness. Or rueful joy.

LR: I read two poems linked from your website—“How to Make a Crazy Quilt, 1906-1917” and “Hatteras Bride, Knitting”—in Southern Women’s Review. As a poet I took special pleasure in the design of your poems, not just in terms of line and stanza, but in the carefully-placed revelation of events and reversals in the narrators’ lives. Of course, this reminded me of the plot class I took with you at Florida International University. You also teach plot workshops at literary conferences. I have to wonder, is plot structure so ingrained in you at this point that you look at your own days, weeks, or months and see discoveries, plot wheels, and recognitions?

LB: I would say it’s the other way round: plot is an element of real life. We notice coincidence and unexpected consequence and, especially, discoveries that shake our understanding of what we thought was going on, in our own lives and in public life. Politics is full of plot and plotters, for instance. So of course I notice when something in my life has that kind of shapeliness, and also appreciate when it is not evident, when I am simply doing things I like to do, however repetitive and inconsequential they may be. But what we ask for in what we read is for the humdrum to be removed so that we see the design more clearly. It’s more highly spiced with drama—and can be over-spiced, of course.

By the way, while I might use a plot element in a poem, I also borrow structures from poetry for fiction. The story “Cave of the Winds,” uses an abecedarian form of sorts. I decided to see if I could write the story so that each sentence would begin with the next letter of the alphabet, twenty-six sentences (and as it turned out, twenty-six one sentence paragraphs, some very long). I was ready to abandon the experiment if the form became too obtrusive or limiting, of course. I wanted it to be possible not to notice it. So perhaps I shouldn’t be mentioning it here!

I think writing poetry, which I don’t do a lot right now, but do enjoy and find challenging, helps to remind me that everything must be thought about—diction and line breaks and sound. In fiction, the length of paragraphs, the proportion of the scenes and contrast between them, these and far more are all elements of structure, even though the reader may be unaware of them.

LR: As well as a writer and teacher, you are also an editor. Would you talk a little bit about your projects?

LB: I have co-edited two books, a collection of James M. Cain’s nonfiction and an anthology of literary writing about the transformations that occur in becoming a parent (Birth: A Literary Companion). I founded Gulf Stream Magazine and edited about 20 print issues. It’s now an online journal overseen by John Dufresne and Denise Duhamel. And I am editor of The Florida Book Review, an online publication that concentrates on work with Florida subject matter.

This year I was invited to be guest editor of Tigertail’s print annual, and I suggested that the publication, which has focused on poetry, move for this 9th edition to very short forms, including prose poetry, flash fiction, and flash nonfiction, with no piece being more than 305 words, which is the original area code for South Florida. It has 54 contributors who all have some connection to Florida. Tigertail: Florida Flash is just back from the printer’s and will have a launch reading at Books and Books on Oct. 17th, and a session at Miami Book Fair International in November.

I like editing—I enjoy bringing the work of others to people’s attention. But I try to confine it to a different part of my time than my own writing. I wrote an essay last spring, “What Editors Want,” published in The Review Review. One point I make there is that much of what editors do is invisible—they give a lot of writers their first chances, new audiences, and bring devotion to the highly detailed stages of production, yet are unsung. I heard from many editors as well as writers and teachers from around the world (around the world—amazing—but that’s what online publishing can do) who appreciated the piece. It was written up in the L.A. Times book blog and was recently republished by Glimmer Train.

LR: Where will your book tour and literary conferences be taking you this year? Where can our readers find you to attend a reading or one of your workshops?

LB: As this interview appears, I am preparing for a big launch reading at Books and Books in Coral Gables, FL, my “hometown” independent bookstore, on Oct. 1. After that, I’ll be doing events in Massachusetts in October, in South Hadley and Cambridge, as well as teaching at the FIU-Books and Books International Writers Conference in Grand Cayman. November first I’ll be reading in Sarasota at Bookstore1Sarasota, and then teaching at the FGCU Sanibel Island Writers Conference. Then I’ll be at the Miami Book Fair in mid-November. Beyond that, there are visits in the planning stage to New Orleans, California, and North Carolina in Spring 2012, and in May I’ll be keynote speaker at the Florida Institute of Technology’s writers conference. Details are on the calendar on the events page of my website, http://www.lynnebarrett.com/events.html. I hope lots of people will come out, say hi, and tell me that they read this interview.

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