I first knew Lucy K Shaw from events we performed at together during 2012-14. At some point during that time, I became a big fan of her prose, especially her short fiction, as well as the online magazine that she was curating. Her prose was fun to read because it was very real, both in terms of its everyday situations and its matter-of-fact tone.
SHABBY DOLL HOUSE is her art/lit journal that publishes new and innovative work by writers, poets, and artists. [Full disclosure: I was published in it several years back.] A related project is THE READER, which is the journal’s monthly newsletter and magazine, featuring excerpts from and interviews with various authors and artists who have been associated with Shabby Doll House, or who draw the interest of Shaw. It is sent via email, which isn’t a way that you usually get your news, which is fun.
Her first book of short stories, THE MOTION, was published by 421 Atlanta in 2015. Her second book is a novella called WAVES, out now from Second Books.
While THE MOTION showed how she could write stories in a delicate and deft manner, both spare and rich at the same time, WAVES is a whole other kind of power. It is a short novella packed with tiny chapters that each holds its own voice, all the while pulling you deeper and deeper into the overall narrative. I found it innovative and emotional and incisive all at the same time.
I asked Lucy if I could ask her some questions, and she sort of said yes but didn’t respond for a while. Then I saw her in July in Croatia, where we met up along with her husband and my girlfriend, I mentioned that we should still do it. She agreed, and our conversation is below:
WORTHINGTON: You are known in terms of what you curate/edit/publish, as well as your writing. Can you describe what creative or other desires you fill through each (writing and editing)? What parts of you do they each activate? Which do you like more?
SHAW: I think I just need to do both things in order to be good at either of them. I’m lucky to have the freedom to decide how much time and energy goes into Shabby Doll House and/or my own writing. It’s more fun doing Shabby Doll though, most of the time. I get more pleasure out of celebrating things that other people do.
A lot of your stories are seemingly autobiographical. Do you see any distinctions between fiction and nonfiction?
People who think they write non-fiction are kidding themselves, in my humble opinion.
Your stories have a lot of descriptions and recountings, often interspersed with reflections. Do you ever think about when it is time in a story to go from the former to the latter, or vice versa?
Yeah, all the time. When someone I know is telling a story, I often feel like I’m editing it in my head. I want to say, you need to make that detail clearer, you shouldn’t have revealed that information yet. Obviously, socially, this is awful.
Your question reminds me of a New York Times profile I read a while ago, on the Kardashian mom, Kris Jenner:
‘And that right there is the hustle. What matters is not the revelation of secrets; who can keep secrets in this modern tabloid culture anyway? It’s the reaction to recently surfaced information — a father’s transition, a sex tape, a new husband’s crack addiction, a boyfriend’s drinking problem — that are most valuable in this world. Kris Jenner doesn’t care that you know everything. What secrets can you “discover” from a woman who airs her daughters’ discussion of the size of their labia? Kris only cares that you heard them when and where she decided you should.’
I think my favorite story in THE MOTION may be “Robert Burns.” It is about a man and a woman walking around Manhattan and they go to a monument dedicated to the Scottish poet Robert Burns. Can you describe your writing process for that story?
Yeah, so I wrote that in 2013 and at the time I was really trying to figure out new ways to tell stories. I was really actively looking for them, I think. And I was meeting a lot of new people around that time too, so naturally they became the inspiration for my characters. The person I based the male character on in that story, I took detailed notes on something like the first nine times we hung out – which I don’t recommend as a lifestyle technique – but it meant that I had all of this raw material to mine when I later started to construct a narrative. I think that was the first and only time I’ve done that. I try to prioritise being present in the moment more now.
Some people think there is too much autobiographical, realistic fiction. Do you like this “genre”? What, if any, kinds of really weird, non-realistic fiction do you like?
I don’t think I’ve ever been interested in non-realistic types of writing, as far as I can remember. I’m really just interested in regular people and how they live.
How did you develop the style used in your novella WAVES of having only a short amount of words, sometimes only a couple sentences per paragraph? Also, do you think the ebook format made it more appealing to play around with font and color and other inputs into how the words look on a page?
I think reading Chelsea Girls by Eileen Myles made me feel brave about what I could do with form, or without form? And also, having already written The Motion, I didn’t feel under as much pressure to prove that I could write traditional stories. I felt more confident.
I had this idea the whole time that I was ‘writing an imperfect book, like boys do.’ And having the freedom of the ebook, yeah, I just went with what came naturally.
One of the characters the narrator interacts with in WAVES says that reading novels is stressful because he doesn’t want them to end, even though they always do. Do you empathize with this character’s perspective on novels?
As a reader, I like when things have ended. I like opening a book I’ve already read at any page and joining the story wherever I want, knowing it’s a complete and tiny world I can come and go from.
But actually when I’m writing, I think it’s a lot harder to let go. When I finished writing WAVES I remember feeling like, oh so all I’ve got now is real life?
“Do you ever feel like your closest relationships are based on a mutual understanding that there is something fundamentally insane about the rest of the world and that, in a sense, you’re just hiding from it together?”
This is one of my favorite quotes from the novella. Do you remember where you were and what you were doing when you wrote it? Is the narrator essentially trying to “hide from it” with the reader, too, in a way?
Does it spoil the book if I answer this question? Maybe. But I know the answer so I’ll tell you.
I was walking with Oscar, my husband, on a Sunday morning, and we were rushing somewhere, I don’t remember where we were going, we were quiet, it was early, and I was just thinking about him/his relationships/life and then I formulated that question in my head and said it out loud, out of nowhere, expecting him to be taken aback because why was I thinking about that, why was I asking? But he didn’t, he just said, ‘certainly’ without missing a beat and I started laughing. After that, I kept thinking about it a lot, noted it down somewhere, and then when I was writing WAVES, I realised the characters in my story were doing the same thing.
There’s a period of intense vulnerability that precedes that part of the book, so it’s also a heavy handed attempt to invite the reader to empathise, I think.
My favorite line is probably this: “I was so sure this was normal.” The narrator says this right after an exploration of rape and beauty, all in a whirlwind section backed with a lot of power in just a few short paragraphs. How did you develop this style where you would play around with tempo and size in the prose flow like this?
Honestly, a lot of that is adrenalin. I mostly wrote WAVES in my apartment when I was alone, but when I wrote that section, I needed to feel safer so I got up really early and went into the living room while Oscar was still in bed and I spent a few hours going to this dangerous, traumatic place in the story, and then I went back to bed and hid under the covers with him feeling terrible. I think he sort of sensed what was going on, but I didn’t explicitly talk about it until afterwards when he read the book.
When I was editing that part, I knew it was essential to juxtapose the way the character’s whole life is collapsing on top of her, while the rest of the world continues as usual. She has no vocabulary for understanding what has happened to her, so she convinces herself that her new reality is ordinary, which I guess, in a way, it kind of is.
How did the plot for this novella develop? How much planning did you put before the writing?
It took about five years and many aborted attempts to develop this story. The mistake I kept making in every version before this one was that I thought the whole story was centered around one traumatic event. It took me a while to realise that the character’s pain and suffering was not her entire identity.
You talk about playing music in the book, and I actually saw you sing and play guitar the first time we met. Anyways, how much do you do nowadays with music? How often do you see live music?
Music isn’t central to my life at the moment, but I think it will be again one day. Do you want to be in a band with me?
Anyways, I wanted to talk about one final quote I love: “Sometimes I almost feel like a human being.”
How do you think we understand ourselves? Are we able to understand ourselves or are we constantly delusional and self-centered?
Lately I feel frustrated by the ways we commonly seem to understand ourselves and each other. I guess being in Berlin, everyone here is international and you can easily start to interpret people’s actions based on some vague misunderstanding of their national identity, or I often hear people saying things like, ‘well, in my country it’s like…’ People are always comparing things that are new to them to things that they already know.. So I don’t think we really understand anything, honestly. When I think of times I’ve felt closest to understanding myself, they all involve a loss of control, like walking through a strange forest in total darkness, being smashed against the sand by a giant wave in the Atlantic ocean, believing I was about to die in a plane crash.
Also, I’m 28. If I’m still alive in thirty more years I’d like to be asked this question again.
What projects are you working on next?
I’m writing some new stories! And I’m always working on The Shabby Doll Reader.
About the interviewer:
Andrew Duncan Worthington is the author of the novel WALLS (2014, Civil Coping Mechanisms) and the story collection Delete Space (forthcoming winter 2017, Monster House Press). His work has been published in Vice, Mr. Beller’s Neighborhood, Atticus Review, Vol.1 Brooklyn, The Fanzine, and other venues. He previously edited the magazine http://keepthisbagwayfromchildren.com.
For his personal website, go here: http://www.andrewduncanworthington.com/
About the author:
Lucy K Shaw’s first book of short stories, THE MOTION, was published by 421 Atlanta in 2015. Her second book is a novella called WAVES, out now from Second Books. It was released in April 2016 and was released as a double feature with LOUD IDIOTS by Sarah Jean Alexander from Second Books. She founded Shabby Doll House in 2012 and her subscription-based magazine, The Shabby Doll Reader, comes out on the first Sunday of every month.
For Lucy’s personal website, go here: http://lkshow.biz/
For her subscription-based monthly magazine, go here: http://shabbydollhouse.com/THE-READER