Our December Web Exclusive, “The Night Bus, ” beautifully elucidates the moment two lives intersect—lives forever changed by random acts of violence. We talked with author Leslie Parry about anonymity, anxiety, and a very effective antidote for procrastination.
Erin McReynolds: Congratulations on your first novel, Church of Marvels, being released earlier this year! Both that story and “Night Bus” center on characters who are the forgotten and unseen players in the larger drama of the city. What draws you to that dynamic?
Leslie Parry: That’s a good question. Invisibility can be a harrowing experience anywhere, but I think it’s particularly intense in the big city. Most people flock to cities hoping to find their tribe, their calling, a place to belong—to fully realize themselves. And I think, especially in storied megalopolises like Los Angeles or New York, many hope for some kind of transference—of vitality, of importance, of recognition. But what happens when, for all your ambition and defiance, your world is as circumscribed, your spirit as unexpressed, as it ever was? To me it’s a riveting conundrum: how can you be lonely or isolated when you’re surrounded by thousands, perhaps millions of people every day? Maybe because your anonymity is magnified; maybe because you’re always reminded of the lives you are not leading—I can’t really say. But I’m always fascinated by the intimate, interior dramas that play out against a landscape that promises something more, something epic. It’s such a rich contrast, the singular voice against the mighty plural.
EM: The story has a “ripped from headlines” situation in it. Was it, in fact?
LP: Actually, I did come across a newspaper clipping from 1876, a very brief item about an acid-throwing incident at an exposition in Philadelphia. There were no fatalities as far as I recall, but it felt uncomfortably close to recent headlines—an attack in a public place on innocent civilians. I couldn’t stop thinking about it. This was probably coupled with the looming anxiety of motherhood: I’m about to have a baby, so I’ve been more attuned to danger, to the fear and reality of not being able to protect my child. I guess I channeled those fixations into the characters of “The Night Bus”: two people (one onstage, one off) at different ages, in different circumstances, whose chances for a fulfilled life have been compromised, governed by the impulses of others.
EM: It seems to me to be a benefit of being a writer: if you can locate the beauty and artfulness in random horrors, you feel a little less victimized by it. The girl: what made you put her in the theater, and why masks, in particular?
LP: I love the ephemerality of the theater. A world created, a world gone; nothing’s ever replicated or preserved. There’s something very beautiful about that impermanence. And going back to the idea of invisibility—for a medium that relies on gaze, on spectacle, there’s so much to a performance that goes unseen. Hours of rehearsal, carpentry, rigging, design—the actual world-building is hidden from view. What you’re left with is an illusion. Which, I suppose, makes me think of that division between the private self and the public face.
EM: What have you been reading?
LP: It wasn’t a conscious decision, but the last few months I’ve been reading books about the elements—man trying to conquer the wild and all that. I was completely consumed by The Ice Balloon by Alec Wilkinson and Coal: A Human History by Barbara Freese. In a time of texts, tweets, and ten-second sound bites, it’s been a pleasure to marvel at the expanse of geological time, and to wonder at man’s hubris and ingenuity, especially when it comes to technology. My basic interaction with technology is, you know, Instagramming a sandwich or something, so to steep myself in the history of fuel and flight and fossils—it’s astounded me and made me giddy: the way I felt in science class as a kid.
EM: That feeling is the best! Are you working on anything now?
LP: A second novel (which concerns a protagonist who absolutely refuses to go forgotten and unseen).
EM: Are you racing to get as much of it done as you can before the baby comes? A friend told me her impending delivery date motivated her to finish her novel in what I always imagine is this superhuman, hyper-focused way. Am I totally off-base in thinking pregnancy is a solid antidote for procrastinators?
LP: No, you’re right! I’ve been racing to get down as many words as possible. I have no idea if they’re intelligible words, of course, but the act of writing has definitely become more heady and high-spirited. With a deadline like that, you don’t think—you just do.
Leslie Parry  is the author of the novel Church of Marvels (Ecco, 2015). Her short fiction has previously appeared in Heavy Feather Review, The Cincinnati Review, Isthmus, The Journal, The Missouri Review, Cream City Review, Indiana Review, VQR, and The PEN/O. Henry Prize Stories. She lives in Chicago.