Web Exclusive Interview: Lee Conell

lee conell_wideThis season, as the nights turn ever longer and we turn ever inward to contemplate life’s mysteries, stories like our November exclusive, “A Guide to Sirens,” seem especially to speak (or sing) to us. We talked to author Lee Conell about her inspiration for the story, about magic and the unexpected, and about creatures real and imagined.

Erin McReynolds: What part of “A Guide to Sirens” came to you first: the island hotel, Frank and his job, or the wife/vision dynamic?

Lee Conell: When I was growing up, a friend of my father’s was a tour guide on a double-decker bus in New York City. I thought that was so cool; that his stories were shaping the way people saw the city around them, that he could make something up about the history of a street and everybody would not only sort of have to buy it, but would actually maybe feel like that knowledge had enlightened them in some way. I was interested in exploring that power dynamic, and somehow along the way, Frank happened, and the island hotel, and the wife, and all the rest.

EM: Writers are tour guides, in a sense, coloring the reader’s experience based on the perspective we bring to the story. It’s hard to know when you’ve given enough, versus too much, isn’t it?

LC: Right. I think having some awareness of the way your perspective colors a story or a place is a good start.

EM: The story has this wonderful, fabulist tension: depending on whether his wife is a hallucination or Something Else, he is either cursed by himself or an outside force. Which way do you tend to lean?

LC: As I wrote the story, I actually resisted deciding whether Frank’s wife was a hallucination or Something Else, because I was enjoying that tension you mentioned. And because also I was pretty sure if I made a decision one way or the other, the story would fall apart completely under the weight of whatever Great Secret Authorial Knowledge I’d be annoyingly concealing from the reader. I like the idea that the story might be interpreted differently depending on how much the reader believes in ghosts on the day they sit down to read it.

EM: “On the day they sit down and read it”—yes! Because that’s how it is, isn’t it? Some days it’s the Universe and some days it’s …Jung.

LC: Some hours, even.

EM: Do you have other stories that get into this fabulist/magic realist territory?

LC: I do have some other stories in this vein, but a lot of my stories contain no magical realist elements. I just try to follow my interest in whatever I’m working on, and sometimes that leads to a siren or a werewolf or a flying space pony showing up, and sometimes that leads to a paragraph on the background of some diorama in the Museum of Natural History (that was a recent one).

EM: Ooh, which are your favorites? I’m obsessed with the moose diorama. I visit it like a shrine.

LC: Yes! The moose diorama is so intense. There are a lot that I could name. I’m a fan of the mountain goats. The black rhinos, the wolves and a bunch of the birds. The blue whale might not technically count as a diorama, but still—the whale!

EM: What draws you to stories, both those you write and those you love to read?

LC: Probably a lot of it is just curiosity—stories are usually more acceptable places to be too curious than a lot of other places. I’m curious about how and what other people think and feel. I’m curious about how and what I think and feel, too, and find fiction is one of the best ways to get me to really investigate how honest I’m being in whatever stories I’m telling myself about my own life and the world around me. Mostly, though, I’m just drawn to stories because of all the ways they will suddenly offer up surprising language, new images, unexpected moments of sadness or understanding or goofiness or joy.

EM: I’d say that’s exactly what draws us to stories, too—the unexpected moments and surprising language have a way of casting everyday life into sharp relief, so it becomes treasured, harder to take for granted. Who have you been reading lately that does this for you?

LC: I very recently finished a short novel called Lolly Willowes, by Sylvia Townsend Warner, which came out in 1926. It’s about a woman who leaves her demanding relatives in London and moves alone to a small village, where she takes walks by herself and looks at plants and ends up becoming a witch. It’s weird and incredible. Since you mentioned magical realism, I should say I just started rereading 100 Years of Solitude. I’ve been rereading Grace Paley, too, who definitely does what you mentioned—casting the everyday into sharp relief. And I know we’re talking about words, but I just read the graphic novel Here by Richard McGuire, which was full of all sorts of those unexpected moments for me.

EM: That sounds like a perfect autumn reading list. And I think I speak for everyone when I say I want to read that flying space pony story.

Lee Conell’s fiction has appeared or is forthcoming in Guernica, Glimmer TrainCrazyhorse, The Masters ReviewFive Chapters, and elsewhere. She is a recent graduate of Vanderbilt University’s Creative Writing MFA program, where she was the 2014-2015 fiction fellow and won the Guy Goffe Means Prize for Fiction. She currently lives in Nashville and works as a writer mentor for Southern Word and as a creative writing instructor for K-12 students and others in the Nashville community.

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