August 2014

Coco Papy

features

An Interview with Lynn Lurie

What does it mean to be hunted? To be preyed upon, openly, and yet, unable to verbally recognize it or even speak upon it? This is the central theme in Lynn Lurie's second book, Quick Kills. A nameless young woman's narration is threaded into the realm of boundaries crossed, the inability to speak on violation, and how trauma plays out in the strangest of ways. Lurie has set up a world of privilege and excess, a world in which one assumes nothing "bad" could ever happen, and yet, it is this very exact world of privilege and expected behavior that allows for the most vulnerable characters to be rendered powerless, voiceless, and silent.

Lurie explores exploitation, particularly that of the precarious transition of girlhood to womanhood, and those who prey on it, all through the voice of someone whose detachment adds a bizarre normalcy to the violence that surrounds her. I sat down with Lurie to talk more on why she chose to speak on that violence, how trauma causes people to act out, and naming the nameless.

Quick Kills is told from such a detached perspective, even though the narrator, who is nameless, is telling the story of these traumatic events. It's almost clinical, the way she describes what's happening, and part of it seems like that plays into her class and social privilege, and part of it also seems to be a coping mechanism for trauma. How did you decide to frame the way she told this story, and in essence, the way you are telling the story?

I like that, "almost clinical." The detachment is also evident in the fragmented nature of the narrative and the non-linear structure of the story, both of which were present in my first book. It's the subject matter in both stories that cries out for distance between the narrator and the story. Without this it would be too painful for the narrator to recount. The use of the first person point-of-view also compels distance and, I hope, gives the reader room to assess the space between what the narrator believes happened and what another party to the story might say happened.

The nature of the secrets and the failure to address them is likely a reflection of the social class of the family as well as of the time. The silence and the ability to look away reflect a certain aloofness of adults at a time when seismic shifts were occurring in the country: the Vietnam War, civil rights, the experimenting with drug use and sex for pleasure, all of which propelled many teenagers to run away, figuratively and emotionally, from comfortable homes. Middle America was populated with families that were prosperous, yet the adults refused to acknowledge the new world that was unfolding on their television sets and in their living rooms.

The problem that has no name seems to be a strong theme in the book. There are these problems that are known to everyone, yet no one seems to be able to name them, much less even approach them. How does this play into the story or to the narrator's experience?

Very wise. I see it as similar to when a child doesn't want to contend with the food in front of him or her. By choosing to close her eyes the child wills it to disappear. If you name something, you are acknowledging it, and once that happens, you should feel compelled to address it. Adults are even better at turning away, because they are aware that if they don't address something, then there is the possibility the child won't be able to articulate it, maybe even forget it happened or think it was a dream. It's an unacceptable tactic for hiding from the truth or from responsibility. No adult in Quick Kills is particularly good at either.

Quick Kills made me think of two things: one, the idea of "rich people problems" and two, the ways in which young women are confronted with manipulation and abuse. With the idea of "rich people problems," I think in telling this story, you were able to give humanity to this family, to show that even in certain social spheres, things like sexual violence and neglect happen. I think it's easy for people to write problems off, if one comes from a well-to do environment, especially as the person has access to resources. Secondly, you explore the way women, and really, girls who are becoming women, cope with those first interactions of men who take advantage of their innocence and their inability to speak on these incidences. These are both highly different thoughts, but would you say that these accurately reflect the undercurrent of the book?

Neglect and sexual violence happen regardless of economic strata. How this is dealt with by both victims and perpetrators will likely be the result of many factors, some of which may be related to economic well-being, but I don't think anyone, regardless of social class, has immunity.

Young people, both girls and boys, and those from all over the world, are vulnerable to exploitation by adults. Children don't know they have agency over their own bodies and are poorly equipped to delineate the borders between consent and coercion and from acquiescence to force, particularly when the behavior comes from adults who are presumed to be guardians and protectors. I read different texts while writing this book including academic treatises on sex trafficking and the abuse of young boys by the Catholic Church. Part of the horror is no one was looking out for these children even when some knew for certain something quite horrendous was happening. We tend to rewrite so we can avoid addressing our neglect even if doing so leads to abandoning a child.

You begin the book with a line from "Do Re Mi," from The Sound of Music. In context of the film, it's so positive, so comforting, and yet, when placed in the context of Quick Kills, becomes a dark metaphor for the ways in which young women are hunted, almost unfairly. Deer meat, flesh, and hunting become commonplace, as well as the idea of having to "hunt" deer; otherwise, they starve out. Can you talk more about this particular imagery?

Fairy tales are so frequently about children being hunted, being harmed, being tempted, getting lost, often in idyllic places, the forest, grandmother's house, one's own house. There is always the looming threat of predators, and sometimes, the threat escalates in a positive correlation to the innocence of the child. I think that is relevant. Predators look for weakness. Adults who take advantage of children know how to spot weakness and how to access it to their own ends.

Wasn't The Sound of Music about escaping the Nazis? What is more terrifying to the safe child, the child who has a warm house and loving family... an external force with far greater power than even the power of mother and father. The idea that childhood is supposed to be "the sound of music" runs contrary to so much of how I have seen children struggle. I lived in Ecuador while I was in the Peace Corps; children work in the fields, children die from diarrhea, children's parents die from illness, from violence, from simple avoidable accidents. The news is full of children soldiers, children refugees, orphans escaping war. I wish childhood was a lot different than how it actually is for most children.

All the characters seem to have a learned helplessness, which can also be a side effect of trauma, whether little or big. There is a deep-rooted awareness in their circumstances being so deeply unsettling, and a total acceptance of it, and an awareness of how both are equally strange. How do you reconcile this with the reader or even with the characters?

Helplessness is often the result of trauma, and in Quick Kills we see helplessness born from trauma even in the adults. Yet it doesn't excuse the behavior that the helplessness perpetuates. Awareness, at least for the narrator, is her best chance to escape her pervasive feeling of doom, yet of course, it is quite difficult for her. The question remains are her efforts to name, even obliquely, the unspoken, able to set her free or, at least, do they make what comes afterwards somewhat less debilitating?

As compared to your previous book, Corner of the Dead, which was the story of a human rights worker in Peru who witnesses the violence against indigenous residents, how does Quick Kills differ in relation to dealing with violence, and more importantly, naming that violence?

I have an interest in understanding why people do horrible things to one another. What compels us to do the worst? The interest is driven by a desire to change this behavior. The best way I know how to do this is to tell you about it. For those who haven't quite been able to say it, I would like their suffering to be reduced by hearing it told by filmmakers, journalists, fiction writers, or Picasso giving us Guernica.

What are you hoping readers take away from this book?

Be mindful.