Emergence: An Interview with Lee Conell by Madison Brown

Lee Conell is the author of the story collection Subcortical (Johns Hopkins University Press, November 2017), which was awarded The Story Prize Spotlight Award. Her short fiction has won the Chicago Tribune‘s Nelson Algren Award and appears in the Oxford American, Kenyon Review, Glimmer Train, American Short Fiction, and elsewhere. She has received creative writing fellowships from the Japan-United States Friendship Commission and the National Endowment for the Arts, the Tennessee Arts Commission, and the Sewanee Writers’ Conference. Her novel is forthcoming from Penguin Press.

Madison Brown: Congratulations on your new collection, Subcortical. How do you begin a story? Where do you begin? Tell me about your process.

Lee Conell: Every story begins somewhere different for me, which means I often have to be alert to what pulls me in. Sometimes a story starts with the sound of a sentence, sometimes with a character, sometimes with a burst of emotion, sometimes with a strange fact that keeps rolling around in my brain. I don’t know if I have a set process, but I do tend to write a fair amount that doesn’t make it into the final draft. It’s not very efficient, but it’s very absorbing. So, there’s a lot of brainstorming, getting to know the characters, and then some whittling away.

MB: This next question is two-parts. How does it feel to be in possession of your first published collection of stories? How have people received it, clearly well since it’s received awards on multiple fronts (The Story Prize Spotlight Award, American Fiction Award, etc.)?

LC:  It’s an exciting thing, though also sometimes nerve-wracking. I’ve spent so much time with these characters and it’s unexpectedly weird to realize they can now waltz through other people’s minds!

MB: How do you title these stories and the collection—Subcortical, “My Four Stomachs,” “Hart Island,” “The Sextrology Woman?” Are we right to assume there are several medically inspired themes?

LC: The medically inspired themes across the collection were certainly not planned. But I found that my characters kept thinking about and commenting on their bodies and the bits that make up their bodies. A lot of times my titles seem to come from my characters’ own unexpected obsessions and that might be the reason for some of those body-specific titles, too.

MB: The scientific language that goes into your collection—from brains to cow’ —makes me wonder if you do any kind of research; if so, how long do you spend researching before beginning a book or new story?

LC: I love when a story calls for me to fall down a rabbit hole of unexpected research. There’s a certain point in most stories for me where I just feel I have no idea what I’m doing, like every sentence is a mistake, etc. In those moments, research is the best form of procrastination—it keeps me thinking about the story but gives me a little space from it at the same time. How much time I spend researching really varies from story to story. Some stories require no outside research whatsoever, of course. And there’s always the danger of too much research, which can crowd out the imagination.

MB: Your stories seem to create a kind of distortion of reality, lingering in this imaginative place; would you say as much?

LC: Yes, I think that’s a nice way of putting it. For me, also, that imaginative place feels like such a part of my reality—it’s always rubbing against my perception of what’s going on around me. Fiction feels like a space to freely acknowledge that.

MB: In “My Four Stomachs,” you have created characters that fit on this sliding scale of mental instability. Jack, is recently hospitalized, and his partner Carley, is left to “compartmentalize” her responses per her mother’s orders. Then Becky’s mom in “The Lock Factory” has these moments of a Jekyll and Hyde routine. How do you create these complex, ambivalent characters so well?

LC: I try to not hold too tightly to who I think the characters are or the people I want them to be. I give them space to surprise me. This can mean a lot of revision, a lot of patience. I also consider the stories my own characters might have told themselves about who they are. A useful question I’ve found to ask is: How does the story I’m writing put pressure on my characters’ own sense of identity or their sense of how they should behave?

MB: Many of your characters are suffering/living/coinciding with some forms of mental illness and disorders—borderline personality identity, dissociative identity disorder, schizophrenia, drug addiction. These are notoriously difficult ideas to portray. How do you create these conflicts so subtly?

LC: My characters are often struggling with their own sometimes not-so-subtle ideas about mental illness. I’m as interested in examining—or maybe more interested in examining—the ways we stigmatize or flatten out experiences of mental illness as I am in writing about these disorders themselves.

MB: You manage some difficult, realistic issues in your stories like: financial inequalities in “The Rent Controlled Ghost” which has the constant manipulation of the rent-controlled tenant in 4C and the monetary exchange for goods and services from Joyce by the Doctor in the title story, “Subcortical.” What’s the intention? Is this something you feel passionately about?

LC: Yes, I think class is something that isn’t talked about openly enough, in and out of fictional spheres. I’m also curious about the different ways financial power and financial interests intersect with what stories we hear and don’t hear.

MB: This collection has various pieces of different lengths. How do you decide on structure? Are there any inspiration pieces that you “beg, borrow, and steal” structure from? How do you decide what format works best for each piece?

LC: In structuring the collection, I tried to mix up shorter stories and longer stories for variance. But as far as stories themselves go, the structure usually emerges from the characters and their needs. In “My Four Stomachs,” which contains four stomach-named parts, the structure emerged when a character expressed a difficulty compartmentalizing. The story itself, I realized, needed compartments to better embody her struggle to clearly delineate her mess of emotions. I hoped the urgency of this structure would help override any sense of manipulative gimmick. Some of the shorter ones, though, did start out with a clear conceit. “A Magic Trick for the Unemployed” was always structured to resemble an instructional manual. The structure—the limitations it imposed—was what pulled me.

MB: What’s next?

LC: I have a novel coming out with Penguin Press next year. And later this summer I’m heading to Japan on an artist fellowship to continue research on a different novel (involving volcanoes, monsters, fraught mother-daughter relationships, all the usual stuff). I’m also working on more stories, always.

Madison Brown is the co-Managing Editor of Equinox literary magazine. She studies Creative Writing in the MA program at Mississippi State University.

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in:

WordPress.com Logo

You are commenting using your WordPress.com account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s