An Interview with Mairead Case
For a long time, Mairead Case has been like a river, running smoothly just under the surface of the literary world, keeping everything green. While living in Chicago she was the volunteer director for the Louder Than a Bomb youth poetry festival, a copy editor for Semiotext(e), an MFAW student at the Art Institute of Chicago, a writer for some and sundry, a support system for all.
Now she's a PhD student at the University of Denver and a columnist for Bookslut, among other things. In September, her debut novel, See You in the Morning, will be published by featherproof books. It follows three teenagers -- John, Rosie, and (especially) an unnamed narrator -- through the summer before their senior year of high school.
The first time I remember meeting you we were both in high school -- maybe sophomores? -- and I visited your school along with a mutual friend on perhaps the most ill-advised spring break excursion of all time. (N.B.: Our schools had different spring breaks. Double N.B.: No one should go to math class during spring break unless they really love math.) One of my close childhood friends was a classmate of yours, and I remember believing that your school would be uptight, because it was private and I was a public school kid, and I thought I was going to really weird people out with my patchwork thrift store pants. Not so! Mostly I remember thinking that you were really nice and probably a bookish oddball like me, and that no one thought my pants were strange. This isn't really a question. I just want to set the tone: We've known each other for a really long time.
I remember that day. I was jealous of those pants! And your piercing and your perfect hair. But then we worked at Hugo House together! And celebrated Christmas at Fred Meyer with Kraft macaroni (and gin).
One of the first things I noticed in See You in the Morning is how adept you are at lacing your narrator's speech with the opinions of the various people around her -- sometimes she's narrating her dreams, but sometimes she's using what seems to be the exact phrasing that a parent or other adult has given her about how things are. Was this a conscious element of her voice?
I think -- speaking from my own life too -- that if you are a certain kind of tenderheart, one who loves her family but isn't exactly like them, a major way you discover what to protect/reject/incorporate is vocalizing everything, even just as voices in your head. This can mean treating your brain and body as a puppet for someone else for a while, stuttering through your own beliefs, writing weird shit, putting on a dress, whatever. The process becomes more complicated if you are someone who prays or sings, or wears headphones or takes medication (for example). It gets loud. I thought a lot about oracles and the Wizard of Oz and Shari Lewis.
I'm really glad that sounded smooth to you as a reader -- I worked at making them sound focused not chaotic. It was a conscious element of the voice -- but anthropologically, not experimentally. In workshop sometimes people thought the narrator was schizophrenic, but I knew they were a teenager.
One of the first things I noticed in The Daughters was how beautifully you write about music (or silence) and the way that it sounds. Did that come naturally to you or did it click after research and practice?
Thank you! I did take voice lessons, so some of the physicality came from that, but I would say that a lot of it was earned just through listening: to a lot of music, and (as I think you'll particularly understand) to what my characters had to say. Music and silence go hand in hand, so both were important.
Ok. Moving on: how did you get interested in writing about this last safe summer, a time that lives outside of certain more adult responsibilities? Do you think you were aware of how sacred that time was when you were actually in it?
That element came later in the process, respectively, as a response to critiques about the book's timeline. Readers said well, at some point something HUGE is going to happen, right? And, outside of my own critique about literary forms that aren't "valid" or "true" unless they're shaped like a penis, it just wasn't my experience. I love summertime stories and stories about youth so much, and so I wanted to write one shaped like my summers, where everything seemed impossibly disastrous and monotonous and deep tender all the time. Personally speaking I was maybe too aware of it. It made me sick.
This book is full of moments of blur (Does the narrator love-love John or not? Are she and Rosie really friends, and if so, how? Is the narrator pulling away from her home, or towards it?). Do you think blurriness is an essential part of adolescence, or an essential part of humanity?
I think gray areas and soft borders are necessary if humanity (whoa big word!) is going to make it through this increasingly large mess we are building with our selves. I don't mean carelessness, I mean more brave attempts at expressions of safety and desire and family, and more spaces where people can become as well as define. I also think youth are deeply wise, and youth space should be archived so we can still use that wisdom when we're differently deeply wise crones.
Speaking of blur, when I read your Bookslut columns, I'm always struck by how wide-ranging your reading habits are: poetry to punk to criticism to Kathy Acker to Harold and the Purple Crayon. Did your reading have a noticeable (to you) effect on the writing of this book?
Sure! I think reading is a really important part of all writing, especially if (like me) you start each work for a specific reader. One big reason why I took on a column project was because I love how Jessa makes rooms where people can read and think intimately, across time and space. I believe books are torches and amulets and so I wanted to review them in a way that directly shows how they affect the life I'm making (and want). And because my reading life happens in schools and libraries and jails and alternative spaces and wherever else, it does get blurry. Choosing to represent this omnivorousness as accurately as I can in regularly scheduled publication is a strategically anti-capitalist move, too.
So, yes! Most importantly my reading gave me permission to be more of a weirdo in this book. The title is from something Jim Woodring said about a Kenneth Patchen poem. There are top fives. There's a dream. People talk about money and God. The coolest part was that as I gave myself more and more permission to write soft borders -- to accurately portray the way I stay strong, at least -- I found myself writing much sharper sentences.
I'm interested in the genesis of this book, because the voice feels very intuitive, and I feel like that can often mask a lot of hard work figuring out structure, communicating ideas, etc. Can you talk a little bit about that?
I first met these characters in a short story I wrote for Steve Tomasula. His firm encouragement helped me write more and clearer versions of that story, and much later I found myself with a handful of stories about a group of three friends, all told in first person. Then I started writing filler paragraphs or anecdotes in that voice, in part to see if I had a book and in part to hear the voice better. I imagined a stage and the voice catwalking down it, sometimes as a boy and sometimes a girl, sometimes a pivot.
Once I heard them separately from my brain and experiences, I returned to that handful of original stories, teased out three arcs, and started sewing everything together. Sewing-wise David Stuart MacLean helped me find a beginning, Adam Levin seriously helped me with pacing, and Chip Delany helped me finish by encouraging me to just make a damn plan for it. I always write better from an outline but I usually don't have an outline until halfway through. In this case a crucial part of the outline was drawing a map of the town.
Another answer: two dear friends died unexpectedly about a year apart from each other. One had cancer and the other killed himself. I never expected to be on the planet so long without them, and so I felt terribly lonely and then terribly angry and then horrified with myself for being selfish. But I had promised them both to finish this book, and so whenever I felt stuck I either wrote their ghost-selves into the manuscript (always taking them out after I found my compass again), or just typed DEAR MATT DEAR DEACON at the top of the page and got on with it.
You're a very community-minded person, and yet your writing is very internally focused. Are you interested in the way that having a defined role within a community (whether that's a small town, a high school, or the Chicago indie lit scene) can occlude or disguise a person's inner life? Do you think that's a useful natural tension for a writer?
The tension between being on the ground so you know what's useful and relevant and desired, and being alone in the attic so you can write -- totally. It's also a total heartbreaker. It was (and is!) hard for me to take time from work and loves and the neighborhood so I could sit and write one great paragraph for every six terrible ones, and I never felt more grown than when I figured out how to do it.
Speaking of community, then, what do you think about the evolving role of indie publishers in the literary world? (Since you are very much a part of the indie lit community, in a way I admire.)
Well, I tend to mom out, so I worry about my friends who are super rad publishers but don't have health care, or time for their own writing or a proofreader, or any sleep at all. But I've been that person too and will probably be again, so.
I love Deep Vellum. I love Les Figues. I love Asymptote and Temporary Services and Guillotine. I love presses who do brave crazy stuff and then take vacations when they need to, because good bright books are more important than burning out for the sake of being An Institution, IMHO. I love friends of presses who ask libraries to order these books or sneak them onto front tables in bookstores. I admire visionary shepherds like Chris Fischbach at Coffee House and Mattilda Bernstein-Sycamore at make/shift. I would have a different brain if Fantagraphics didn't exist. I just finished Cody-Rose Clevidence's Beast Feast and dear god it's beautiful.
I would love to help build a CASH Music for publishers. I would love for there to be less discussion about indie or not, and more transparency about all the muscle that goes into making a book, from editing to copyediting to proofreading to distribution. I adore books like Althea and Oliver that punk-bloom into more corporate spaces.
Basically I want us all to make like mushrooms and grow. I believe in the revolutionary power of segmented, polycentric, ideologically integrated networks.
Did you think a lot about this when your book was Rusalka and you were figuring out where to publish it? What were your priorities?
Yeah, I did, because I also love the work indies are doing and particularly am inspired by the way there seems to be -- as you hope -- a growing overlap. People pick up a book at the library, and they don't necessarily know if it comes from Penguin or Coffee House, because both are putting out beautiful work. I guess my main priority, though, was just finding the editor who would love it most and help me make it into its best book self, which I certainly think I did. (Even losing the title Rusalka -- a good choice in the end.) But of course I lucked out: Liveright is a small and intimate place within a larger publisher.
Ok, and one last question, which I am throwing to you the way I might to a Magic 8 ball: There seems to be a motif of rabbit costumes throughout a lot of film and literature -- off the top of my head I can think of John in your book, the character Marcus in Laura van den Berg's novel Find Me, the scary weird bunny in Donnie Darko. Care to comment? Why giant rabbits?
Oh! and Harvey the pooka, and Joseph Beuys' dead hare, and Grace Slick and magic and springtime. Rabbits are the best.