A Writer’s Insight: Danielle Lazarin

Danielle Lazarin’s story, “Floor Plans,” appears in the summer 2017 issue of The Southern Review. Read more about Lazarin’s forthcoming debut collection, Back Talk, and her approach to writing “New York stories,” below.

Kathleen Boland: What was the inspiration for “Floor Plans”?

Danielle Lazarin: A few years ago I noticed that one of my neighbors down the hall was moving boxes out of his apartment, but not, I understood, enough of them to be moving out. I never asked, but I did guess and confirm that it was a couple going through a divorce—the boxes belonged to the wife and daughter. I thought about both of my instincts: sadness at the fact of their marriage ending, and also wondering if they’d sell the apartment (they did, about a year later), what it looked like, how much they’d get for it. I am, after all, a native New Yorker, and shameless real estate curiosity is in my blood.

I began to imagine what it would be like to be on the inside of that story, to see opportunity in loss and also maintain empathy throughout it. At the time, there was a rash of divorces among my peers, and I knew, even under the least dramatic of circumstances, it is a wrenching process, with its own grief and expectations and pain, and I wanted to explore the aftershocks of that experience.

KB: The story opens with the image of a piano delivery via window; a bit later we meet Juliet, who wants to combine neighboring apartments. In my mind, both of these things are particularly New York City experiences. How else is this story a New York story? Or, how does the setting of New York interact this unraveling marriage and burgeoning friendship?

DL: I think New York is particularly suited to the sudden and brief sort of intimacy that Robin and Juliet share during this transitional time in their lives. The ratio of space to population in this city means that other people are inescapable; we share elevators and subway cars and washing machines; we hear each other fighting and vacuuming and crying. There’s a loss of privacy to this, of course, but I also see that New Yorkers are exceptionally respectful of this public/private boundary, sensitive to how difficult it can be to be so exposed. What Robin and Juliet do for each other, as many New Yorkers do, is bear witness to what’s difficult without interfering; I like to think this lessens the loneliness they are both feeling. Of course, they also both take advantage of these changes in each other’s circumstances (divorce, pregnancy) without apology. It’s undoubtedly part of the culture of New York to be curious, to cross boundaries in order to claim what space we can.

KB: I appreciated how much “Floor Plans” discussed the financial lives of its characters, especially the socioeconomics of real estate. Why did you choose to include these details in the story?

DL: Part of it was quite personal—there is nearly no one I know in NYC who has purchased real estate without great privilege, whether that’s a literal down payment from family or a lifetime of safety nets that account for being stable enough to save, yet this myth of luck and hard work over privilege persists, and it makes me crazy.

On a character level, it’s key to what Robin is asking herself as she makes her choices: Is this life of the woman next door built on smarter choices, more stable ground? I think we often look at someone else’s life and think it’s better than ours when we are just looking at their things or trappings without any idea of what they cost on an emotional level. What are the limits you impose on your life when you have kids? Get a mortgage? Be in a marriage? Accept money from family? Choose a certain career? We all want a life that isn’t really tied to things or relationship status, but sometimes we trick ourselves into believing we do. Everything costs. Ultimately, the choice Robin makes comes at a literal cost to her; it changes her future, and she does it for a more-or-less stranger. Robin sees that money won’t fix things she or Juliet want fixed.

KB: At one point, Robin remarks how Juliet has an “in-between of her world face and her home face.” The story revolves around in-betweenness: the divorce, the sale, the pregnancy. How does this theme speak to the tone of the story, as well as the setting of New York?

DL: A wise early reader of mine described this story as existing in “the liminal space” and that was a guiding principle when I revised it, so I’m really pleased that you picked up on that as the space of the story. Both women’s situations and choices couldn’t be farther apart, yet they need a lot of the same things: company, distraction, an illusion that they will be OK on the other side of something quite unpredictable. They need to do this out of the eye of others who know them. They find each other in that space, and once these transactions are over, so is their connection. I think, for better or worse, this is an oddly normal New York relationship: temporary, need-based, and intense, but no less real.

The city, too, leads many people to believe it’s all temporary: that you can start over again and again, that there are so many lives you can live, and that you’re always on your way to the next, better one. This can be great if you are the one who is changing or leaving—as Lev is, on to bigger and better, he believes—but it can be painful if you just want things to stay the way they are. New York will change over and over again without asking you if you want something more permanent. My favorite essay about New York, Colson Whitehead’s “Lost and Found,” speaks to this coexisting sense of loss and renewal that makes New York hum.

KB: “Floor Plans” will be in your forthcoming debut collection, Back Talk, out next year. Can you speak about your experience publishing a debut collection? What was the most surprising aspect of putting Back Talk together? The most satisfying?

DL: The publishing part has been, all things considered, fairly fast: I snagged my amazing agent, Julie Barer, in January 2016, and the book sold later that year (to the equally amazing Sarah Stein at Penguin Books). But it’s been a long road; I wrote about half the stories in the years before and during graduate school, which I finished in 2007. The rest, including “Floor Plans,” were written after moving back to New York in 2009, when I was theoretically working on a novel. So the book itself represents a lot of invested time. I think story collections at their best are representations of the risks writers have taken with their work, in craft and content. So in a really simple way, after all those years of playing around with what my stories can and cannot do, it’s been satisfying to be able to gather them, to see my own themes and limitations and ways I’ve tried to push past those.

It has been surprising to see early readers picking favorites, which are often not my favorites. And that separation of my feelings for certain stories from the readers’ feelings for them is actually delightful. It gives me hope that the stories can live beyond my feelings about them, that they might go out into the world and belong to others.

KB: And finally, what’s the strangest encounter you’ve had with a neighbor? 

DL: I really wish I had a better to answer to this, but most of my neighbor interactions are fairly normal; my NYC neighbors are great—many of them have said they think it’s adorable that the dog howls when the kids cry (which is likely because I’m yelling at my kids). They deserve cookies and booze for living around us.

There was that one time our neighbor in Michigan, who had a great sense of humor, knocked on our door to ask if we had put an opossum in the trash can. That was also the time we learned what it means to “play possum.”

Danielle Lazarin’s debut collection, Back Talk, is forthcoming from Penguin Books in 2018. Her fiction has appeared in Indiana Review, Glimmer Train, and Boston Review. She lives in New York City, where she is at work on a novel.

Kathleen Boland is the editorial assistant of The Southern Review.

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When the days are longer

This morning my nine-year-old daughter came into the kitchen while I was preparing her lunch for day camp to announce that she found it “ridiculous” that Minecraft does not make seasonal adjustments for time: morning and night arrive at the same time year round. “Doesn’t Minecraft know it’s summer?!” she exhaled with her hands in the air, eyes rolled. That it was 8:00 am and we weren’t already in the car frantically en route to school was, in itself, an adjustment for summer. Another is that there are a few extra minutes in the day not dedicated to the rigorous drill of homework, dinner, bath, story, and lights-out by 8:45 pm that can, instead, be used for catching up on reading. The joys of summer.

The summer 2017 issue of The Southern Review is out, and I’ve already fielded numerous compliments, starting right with the cover. A live oak canopy opening up to blue sky, the cover painting, by New Orleans–based artist Elise Toups, is quintessential Louisiana and gives the issue an immediate sense of place. You can view a gallery of Toups’s images here. A strong sense of place as subject is reinforced with the first three poets. Alison Pelegrin’s “Our Lady of the Flood,” about the devastating floods in South Louisiana last summer, opens the issue with a woman surrounded by a “citronella halo” and carrying a “laundry basket of kittens in one arm.” In her “shrimp boots and rubber gloves,” she walks on water, leading her people “to the safety of each other.” It’s a powerful opening to strong issue of texts.

Jill Osier follows with three poems, “Elegy,” “Siberian,” and “Star Field,” set in Alaska, where the speaker regularly visits the local library to read by a window that overlooks a ridge. It’s the same region where the last caribou was killed and a meadow of tiny flowers sits high above the town. She reads her poems in our audio gallery this season along with several other writers, including Erika Meitner, who provides a long four-part poem.

Meitner’s “Another Ohio Road Trip” weaves its way through several states, touching on the subjects of death, infertility, a Super Bowl party, the movie Free Willy, and the speaker’s intersection with the Catholic Church. Having grown up taking road trips every summer with my family—often to Pennsylvania and Ohio, where my mother’s family still lives—the landscapes in Meitner’s poem felt familiar, and they immediately transported me to our own station wagon loaded up with six or seven kids who were counting trains and factories, reading billboards, and searching for a Stuckey’s.

At the other end of the journal, closing the summer issue, is Bob Hicok’s “Poem ending with a murder/suicide.” While the issue opens with poems that present specific corners of the United States, it closes with a piece that addresses the whole of America. Hicok’s poem begins, “It’s interesting to me there’s a minimum / but no maximum wage,” and then muses about work and fairness and quality of life, among other things.

In between are numerous works that talk about place, including Jeff Hardin’s poem “One Moment Touching All the Others,” about finding one’s place in the world—in other words, finding home. Edward McPherson’s “Sky-Stormers of the Llano Estacado,” set outside of Midland, Texas, presents the story of nineteenth-century “weathermakers” who use explosives in an attempt to make it rain. And Danielle Lazarin’s “Floor Plans” is a story that takes place in a New York City apartment building, where two women, neighbors who are both experiencing great personal changes, seize an opportunity to form a fast but fleeting friendship.

Fast and fleeting is what summer always seems to be. So enjoy the season that, if you’re fortunate, provides the gift of a little time and opportunity for reading.

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NEWSLETTER: The Southern Review gears up for summer – and Father’s Day

Read our latest newsletter here: The Southern Review gears up for summer – and Father’s Day

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A Writer’s Insight: Kevin Prufer

Kevin Prufer’s poem, “In Small Spaces,” appears in the spring 2017 issue of The Southern Review. Hear Prufer read the poem in our audio gallery here; read more about the inspiration behind the poem and current projects, as well as his favorite type of gin, below.

Kathleen Boland: What inspired “In Small Spaces”?

Kevin Prufer: I was doing the dishes one evening and happened to glance up at the television. On TV was a true-crime program about a voyeur who had crawled from his apartment to his neighbor’s apartment simply by removing the ceiling tiles and squeezing above the walls. I couldn’t get that image out of my mind—both the literal thought of someone doing that to someone else (I think he ended up murdering the woman on the program, though I left that out in my poem) and the metaphorical, the idea of a violent figure moving, unseen, from one realm into another, whose motivations are mysterious. It seemed like a particularly chilling and meaningful way of thinking about the divine.

KB: As a woman, this poem was pretty terrifying to read. The voyeurism depicted is gendered, not just that the victim is a woman, but that details of her are feminized; the man’s obsession with her pink toenails, for instance. What commentary, if any, were you aiming for with these choices?

KP: Yes, I was aware of the creepily gendered subtext. But isn’t that version of God—the God who lives above our ceiling tiles and watches our every move—frequently gendered, too? Personally, I’ve always found the idea of an all-seeing, all-loving, all-knowing God frightening . . . when I thought about it (which I did, a lot, when I was a boy). But it’s important that the news story about the man coming down from the ceiling is, in many ways, buried in the larger narrative involving the speaker in the poem—a guy who begins by watching the TV program, then descends into imagining what might really be happening inside the voyeur’s head, etc. That is, the larger creepiness of the poem is the speaker who can’t help but use the terrifying story he’s watching on TV to try to understand something frightening, sexualized, and invasive about the way we think about the divine.

KB: Halfway through the poem, the narrator’s bottle of gin begins to admonish the speaker: “Don’t think about the man in the rafters, / says my bottle of gin” and then, “Stop it, / says my bottle of gin, you’re inventing things.” How does this bottle of gin speak to the themes of gaze and surveillance in the poem? Of its meditation on God?

KP: Well, I imagined the speaker slowly getting drunk here—the bottle of gin offering him some escape from anxious thoughts, suggesting that oblivion might be an alternative. But, really, there’s no escaping an image—try not thinking about a blue elephant, after all. Or a creepy man hiding in your rafters.

KB: Along with Martha Collins, you edited an anthology of poetry in translation, Into English, forthcoming from Graywolf Press later this year. What is your experience with poetry in translation, especially when translated into English? Did you make any discoveries or realizations of the genre or language while working on this project?

KP: We invited twenty-five very experienced translators to each select a poem that has been translated into English at least three times. We’re reprinting all three translations alongside both the original poem and an essay on what the various versions tell us about the art of translation, poetry, and literary history.

I’ve worked a great deal with translators and have also translated some German poetry into English (and vice versa), but I am by no means the expert that Martha and our contributors are. For me, it was fascinating editing the essays, reading the versions of the poems, and thinking about how encountering different versions at once can lead to a prismatic and far deeper understanding of a poem. Working with these translators certainly deepened my sense of the enormous number of choices translators make—considering poetic music, image, diction, white space, tone, nuance, colloquialism. What does one favor? What does one suppress? How does one translate the experience of a poem?

KB: What are you working on now?

KP: I have a book coming out next year called How He Loved Them, a new collection of poems, quite a few of which appeared in The Southern Review. We’re in the final editing process of that, though I’ve mostly moved on to newer work—a poetry collection I’m tentatively calling The Art of Fiction; “In Small Spaces” will be included in that manuscript.

And I continue to work on the Unsung Masters Series, a book series I curate with Wayne Miller devoted to bringing great, out-of-print, little-known writers to new readers. Each volume includes not just a healthy selection of the writer’s work, but also features essays on the writer, interviews with people who may have known her, photographs, ephemera, reviews, etc. The next volume is on the mid-twentieth-century Colorado poet Belle Turnbull, and the editors will be David Rothman and Jeffrey Villines.

KB: And finally, what’s your favorite brand of gin?

KP: My favorite brand of gin is Cabernet Sauvignon.

Kevin Prufer is the author of six collections of poems, the most recent of which is Churches. With Martha Collins, he is currently editing Into English: Poems, Translations, Commentaries, which Graywolf Press will publish this year. In 2018, Four Way Books will release his next poetry book, How He Loved Them.

Kathleen Boland is the editorial assistant of The Southern Review.

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A Writer’s Insight: Amy Silverberg

Amy Silverberg’s story, “Suburbia!” appears in the spring 2017 issue of The Southern Review. Hear Silverberg read an excerpt of her story in our audio gallery here; read more about her approach to humor in fiction, as well as her thoughts about adulthood and urban planning, below.

Kathleen Boland: “Suburbia!” revolves around the distance between Maria’s suburban hometown and the city of Los Angeles. Though these locations are geographically close, they’re emotionally distant, a truth made all too clear in the bet made by Maria’s father.

Amy Silverberg: I grew up an hour away from Los Angeles, and even though I lived so close, I rarely came to the city unless my parents had a reason to take me. I was under eighteen; I didn’t have my own car. I think a city—even if it’s geographically close—always feels like night and day in comparison. Really, living in a city has always seemed emblematic of adulthood to me, of being able to make one’s own choices, create one’s own life. I suppose I set the story in L.A. because I live here, and it has, for me, a strange and particular identity which I associate with people moving here to “start their lives” and “make their dreams come true.” Those are clichés, of course, but it’s true that so many waitresses are actresses, and comedians, and writers—I’m always sitting in the back of a café listening to people tell each other about the auditions they bombed or nailed. I’m a stand-up comic, and everyone I know is working a day job, trying to juggle their shifts around so they can make it to a show, that kind of thing. It’s a unique kind of striving. And even while I’m in the hustle (though my day job is teaching and not in the service industry), I find it endlessly interesting and stressful and worth writing about.

KB: Why is the mother left out of the bet? Or, what is the significance of having the bet be between the father and daughter, rather than the sister and brother or the mother and daughter?

AS: I’m not sure I have a great answer other than the central force of the story seemed to be coming from the relationship between father and daughter. It made sense to me as I was writing it that the father would try to shield the mother from the bet, or at least, not inform her completely—keep her in the dark. I think parents are rarely on the exact same page regarding how hard or quickly they should push their kid out of the nest. My students volunteer that sort of information all the time: “My mom wants me to call every day; my dad says don’t worry about it. . .” The beginning of adulthood, around age eighteen, seems rife with those decisions, for both parents and kids.

KB: Without giving it away, the story takes a big left turn near the end. Did you know from the outset that you’d be landing in a surreal moment, or was the end as much a surprise for you as it is for the reader?

AS: The ending turned out to be as much of a surprise for me as it is for the reader. In fact, I haven’t written anything I could call “surreal” before or since. I do remember I’d read “The Paperhanger” by William Gay at the time. I was into the ominousness of that story, that you weren’t quite sure where it was going, but the tone of the voice was confident and a little spooky. I thought “Suburbia!” would turn out more like that, too—creepier, not as light. The first few sentences felt ominous as I wrote them, but the story lightened up as I went along.

KB: There’s a lot of indirect humor underscored by punctuation, such as the “When?!” after the laundry confusion, or Maria’s response of “How are Mom and Dad?!?” when James quotes Whitman. Most notably, however, is the exclamation point in the title. In your mind, what’s the difference between stories entitled “Suburbia” and “Suburbia!”? What’s the relationship between punctuation and humor in this story?

AS: I’ve always loved the exclamation point, and I could probably stand to cool it. It’s my favorite punctuation mark! I’m a big fan of Lorrie Moore and the way she uses the exclamation point as a kind of willed, as opposed to felt, excitement. It might be simpler for me: I read everything aloud as I write it, and I’m interested in performance (as a stand-up comic, but also separately, as a fiction writer) and when I feel as though something should be exclaimed, I use the punctuation. It mostly has to do with rhythm, I think, the way it sounds and the way it looks on the page. I wish I could use an exclamation point as deftly as Lorrie Moore, but alas!

KB: Brevity is the soul of wit—and also pretty essential for story writing. What’s the difference in process for creating stories and jokes?

AS: Recently I told a friend about being in a workshop with Aimee Bender at the University of Southern California and she’d written on one of my stories “this is too jokey—there are too many jokes in here” and, of course, she was right. The problem was that the jokes didn’t come organically from the character, but rather, from me. You could see the writer wedging them in, the classic set up/punch lines that could’ve worked anywhere (on Twitter, for instance) and, therefore, didn’t work in the story because they weren’t particular to the narrator. I love joke writing; it’s one of my favorite things. Jokes I tell onstage usually come from a kernel of truth about my life that I then blow out or exaggerate. But I’m not the protagonist in my fiction, and my jokes—jokes that I would tell—rarely belong there.

KB: What’s your definition of adulthood? Is there one?

AS: My definition of adulthood I guess is the same definition I have for the city—being able to make one’s own choices, create one’s own life. But I think that definition points to a state of mind rather than an age. I associate my own adulthood with feeling most myself, living a life only I could have created by doing the things I love day in and day out. This is a very personal definition, I guess.  Maybe every definition is personal?

Amy Silverberg is a writer and comedian based in Los Angeles. She’s currently a doctoral candidate in the Creative Writing & Literature Program at the University of Southern California. Her work has appeared in the Los Angeles Review of Books, The Collagist, Joyland, and Hobart.

Kathleen Boland is the editorial assistant of The Southern Review and an MFA candidate in fiction at Louisiana State University.

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