April Ayers Lawson’s debut book, Virgin and Other Stories, was one of the most eagerly anticipated titles of 2016: Huffington Post, Harpers’ Bazaar, The Boston Globe all created huge, pre-release hype for the collection while Vice, among others, named it as one of the best books of the year. Having already caused a stir in the U.S., this January finally sees its U.K. release.
The first in the collection, the eponymous ‘Virgin’, was picked up by The Paris Review in 2011, and explores the turbulent beginnings of a marriage. Focussing on the husband’s perspective, it charts the early days of the courtship (when he learns of his partner’s virginity) and the start of their marriage (when he expects to take it). Despite strained attempts at patience and understanding, their union soon shows signs of dysfunction and as they spend more time together, each grows dangerously unfamiliar. Although there is a mutual fixation with the wife’s status as virgin, virginity itself is not presented as a binary state, but something fluid, its parameters constantly being redefined. Virginity becomes a shared climate, almost, enveloping both, taking on new meanings and implications; genuine knowledge of the other remains elusive.
Like all the stories in this collection, the simple premise belies a deeper sense of mystery; Lawson continually returns to dynamics that evade easy inspection or diagnostics. The husband’s pragmatic approach to his wife’s sexual difficulties quickly seems both optimistic and inadequate. While he reaches for practical solutions, the sandy foundations of their relationship keep everything in a state of subtle flux.
The other pieces all offer subtle inflections on this theme. We see characters contemplating change, the crossing of some imagined threshold: a married artist considers an affair, a young piano student experiences a sexual awakening. Yet these crossings are not accompanied by epiphanies or clean transitions, there is no satisfying sense of a ‘before’ and ‘after’; Virginity is never lost, but seems to dematerialise. We see characters remapping their world around an idea, a fantasy with totemic power. We see the loneliness of pursuing that fantasy and the inevitable disorientation that comes after achieving it.
Despite the emotive nature of the collection, Lawson’s style rigorously unsentimental. At times, there’s an icy, clinical quality to her writing that powerfully offsets the emotional ambiguity pooling beneath. It seems the excitement for this debut was well justified and Lawson is an extremely promising new voice. I caught up with her to discuss the book and her striking emergence onto the literary scene.
2015 involved a lot of exciting developments for your career as a writer. Can you talk a bit about how you got there? When did you first have the idea for the book, how did the collection take shape?
You could say I’m a failed-writer-turned-failed-painter-turned-writer. What’s funny about it is that growing up I thought I couldn’t write fiction—I just didn’t understand how to do it—and because I couldn’t I went into visual art. I was decent at painting, but unfocused, and I didn’t get into any of the three graduate painting programs I applied to senior year of college; so then I went into a master’s in teaching program, figuring I’d teach art at the secondary level for a living. But around that time I began reading Portrait Of A Lady by Henry James, which was more interesting to me than anything in the master’s in teaching program—the bureaucracy of the public school system made me feel trapped, just wasn’t the right thing for my personality—and I switched to the MA in English, thinking, Might as well get a degree for reading what I’d be reading anyway. While in that program I came across the story “Solid Objects” by Virginia Woolf (when wandering around in a bookstore) and something about story writing clicked for me at an intuitive level as I read it there in the store aisle. Oh, I kind of get this now, how it’s done—is what I remember thinking after reading it. I took a story writing class as an elective for the MA degree. My professor, the writer Scott Ely, encouraged me to go all the way—to get an MFA and become a writer.
I didn’t get an idea for the book so much as just started writing. That might sound odd to anyone who doesn’t write fiction. But mostly what I do is start writing and things evolve in that way. I never planned out the book. I do a lot intuitively; the best stuff happens that way, while in the writing trance. It would be more accurate to say I kind of just amassed it by writing into what felt alive to me, by writing into what was compelling at a deep level; when you do that, things evolve organically. I felt out how to complete the stories and their order in the book in the same way I’d intuited how to strike a balance in composing (visual) abstracts.
What sort of impact did the MFA have on your approach to writing?
Some writers knock MFAs but they’re often enough writers who take for granted that they have connections and have maybe even grown up around literary and artistic people. But imagine what it might be like growing up if no one in your family, even your extended family, is literary; if no one is in the arts in general. Well then it’s quite wonderful to find this group of other students and teachers who share your passion and enthusiasm. You don’t feel so alone. Through it, for me, the world seemed to open up. During the first two years, I worked with the same teacher, the writer Marjorie Sandor. She was good at helping me to become better while very much allowing me to be myself as a writer. The aforementioned Scott Ely (who is now deceased) wanted her to be my teacher before I’d ever met her, sensing some sort of connection between us, influenced the then-directors of my program to put us together, and he turned out to be exactly right.
Some of the stories, particularly The Negative Effects of Homeschooling, explore what must be quite foreign experiences. Where do you get the inspiration for these stories and what sort of research does your process involve?
Well I don’t talk much about where my stories come from because people begin trying to guess what is and isn’t from my personal life, what is and isn’t autobiography. It is best for the story for people to not know that stuff. I will say in general that some stories require research, others don’t. Some have more autobiographical material in them, some less. I’m curious about things and so I ask people questions. For example in the past I asked someone close to me, Tell me what it’s like to grow up as a boy; I want to understand what it feels like to be a boy. Also, with certain people I know or encounter—well I watch and listen, imagine.
The story ‘Virgin’ presents virginity as a collective experience, a space where fantasies intersect. Yet, consistently, the stories seem to focus on moments of anticlimax or frustration. Do you think the concept of virginity has a loaded role in culture? Is there something problematic about the way we approach virginity or the sort of expectations and values we ascribe to it?
Hmm . . . that’s a hard one. Loaded, yes. Virginity is in itself—the idea of it, I mean—an unsolvable problem in that contemplating it leads us into the paradox of how sex is very important and not very important at the same time. Of course to whom you lose your virginity and when and how is significant, and of course it is important to respect sex; and yet if you’re raped, sexually abused, violated, etc. then you don’t wish to be defined by it, are wary of the stigma of it, wary of it taking a too-important place in your life and psyche, while also wishing people to see how serious the physical and psychological consequences of it are. There is danger both in making sex very important and danger in trying to render it insignificant. Virginity and the concept of it and the stigma that surrounds the loss of it create a sort of intersection at which the wish for sex to be both very important and to not much matter is pronounced. I’m sure we as a society can improve our views of it but I also think our approach will always be problematic because it ties into the problem of being human, of having to reconcile contradictions. In this book, I was interested in exploring that problem, in settling into the discomfort of the paradox—in making art that uses the energy that comes from that.
Sexual frustration, sexual awkwardness—well I find writing about these much more interesting than writing about everything going as planned. Because what I’m really interested in is intimacy; and it’s writing into the vulnerability that comes with awkwardness, with frustration, that allows the stories to feel intimate to the reader—that allows for an intimate experience.
I noticed that there was some crossover between this stage in your career as a writer and some of the themes you address in the book. How did the experience of writing your first book channel into the stories themselves?
During the writing, I was always just thinking of the story I was working on. Every story while requiring effort and energy somehow also feels like a miracle. This might sound crazy but even after I’d signed book contracts, even after a box of books came in the mail—well I had trouble dealing with the reality of it being a book. When the book came in the mail, I propped it against the back of a chair and for several days I passed by there, eyeing it and feeling a sort of density in the air that had to do with my awareness of the book as an object. It took me days to fully process the existence of it, as weird as that might sound.
What are you reading at the moment?
I am reading How Should A Person Be by Sheila Heti, the manuscript of a novel-in-progress called The Primitive by Clancy Martin, and The Body Has A Mind Of Its Own by Sandra Blakeslee & Matthew Blakeslee.
Interview by Sean Gilbert