The Chat With Lori McNulty

We start this month on The Chat in conversation with Vancouver writer Lori McNulty, author of the sizzling collection Life on Mars. With a blend of aesthetic styles and an impressive range of compelling voices, this is a wide-ranging collection of stories and a notable debut.

In praising the collection, writer Alexander MacLeod says, “Lori McNulty's stories are wise and funny and they pound with an energy that is simultaneously physical and philosophical.” Zsuzsi Gartner says, “This is ferocious fiction from a new master witness of life on Earth.”

Lori McNulty was born in Ottawa but has called many places home. Her work has appeared in the Fiddlehead, the New Quarterly, PRISM international, the Dalhousie Review, Descant, and the Globe and Mail as well as a number of anthologies. She has twice been nominated for the Journey Prize, making the shortlist in 2014 for her story "Monsoon Season." She has also been a finalist for the CBC Short Story Prize, the CBC Creative Nonfiction Prize, and the Edna Staebler Personal Essay Contest. A global traveller and digital storyteller, she now resides in Vancouver.

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THE CHAT WITH LORI MCNULTY

Trevor Corkum: This is a superb collection about outliers, outcasts, solitary figures—characters who find themselves exiled by family or work or gender or disease—in other words, by the complex realities of life. How did the collection come together?

Lori McNulty: Thanks for the kind words. In a way this collection collided rather than came together. I write into spaces that make me curious, or sorrowful, or uncertain, or scared, or exalted—and that often means inviting in an unusual cast of characters and events. For example, while sitting in a café, I noticed a man wearing a button on his chest that read: Ask me about my transplant. That encounter led to Ticker, the story of a heart transplant patient’s relationship to his donor heart.

Outsiders intrigue me. Not so much in a romantic way, but rather in how the outsider (the other) throws us back onto ourselves. In the story of two brothers plagued by a harrowing past, I ended up exploring the permeable edge between mental illness and soundness. Later, when the stories began to take final shape, Mars began surfacing in each one as a kind of existential moment—a symbol of desire, violation, redemption, or imagination. So these stories came together, but not in a way that was planned. It was an intimate and unexpected collision. That was exciting for me.

Outsiders intrigue me. Not so much in a romantic way, but rather in how the outsider (the other) throws us back onto ourselves.

TC: Your writing is sometimes acerbic, sometimes witty or comic, always very physical. I love the versatility and range, the play with language. I found myself pausing at certain passages, feeling my body respond almost viscerally to the writing. As one example, here’s a quote from the story “Fingernecklace”:

"Gus bunches the belt in his lap, blinks wet, wandering tears. Donny wraps his arms around his big old stump of a baby brother, tries to hold the roots down, keep the disease from spreading. Root rot. Runs in the family."

Can you talk more about your relationship to language, as a writer? What was going on for you when you wrote this passage?

LM: My mother’s family has always been funny. My twin is hilarious. Yet I had once thought literature must be serious, tragic, and deeply intellectual to capture the human condition. Then in encountering everyone from Chekhov to Lorrie Moore and the tragic-comic stories of George Saunders, I felt liberated. Our world is absurd and painful and the comic cuts right to it.

I had once thought literature must be serious, tragic, and deeply intellectual to capture the human condition. Then in encountering everyone from Chekhov to Lorrie Moore and the tragic-comic stories of George Saunders, I felt liberated.

When I run my fingers across my computer keyboard, it feels like playing a musical instrument. I hear words before I see them. There is such physicality to the process. "Fingernecklace" demanded that I enter both the mental and physical states of two men whose interiority is often accessible only in their bodies and movements. What I remember of that passage as well is how much the story opened after I told it from the point of view of both brothers, rather than just one.

The writers I admire most seem to effortlessly transmit emotion and experience through their styles—you can taste their words. Follow a passage of sparse prose and your own chest seizes. There is also an elegiac quality to language; a deep rhythm to sentences, a melancholy, as if time’s sorrowful passage is embodied in the words themselves. I try not to shy away from raw physicality or the comic in my writing now. I want to leave nothing on the table. 

I try not to shy away from raw physicality or the comic in my writing now. I want to leave nothing on the table.  

TC: “Monsoon Season,” a story shortlisted for the Writer’s Trust Journey Prize, is a heartbreaking and vivid account of a trans woman’s gender reassignment surgery in Thailand. The story weaves back and forth, through her life before and after her surgery. What inspired the tale? What was it like to have a story achieve so much recognition?

LM: Again, thanks for the beautiful words. I began writing "Monsoon Season" seven years ago, during the first year of my UBC MFA. The story had a different title then, and transgender identity was much less openly discussed than it is today. I’d always understood identity/gender as fluid, but for me, the physical experience of transforming one’s body was much less clear. The tension in making a “radical” physical transformation to embody an internal harmony and knowing feels incredibly courageous. I began looking into sex reassignment surgeries, and discovered that many people go to Thailand for the procedure. I had travelled to Thailand and Vietnam on backpacking trips and fell in love with these places so set the story there. I did find the structure and gender slippage in the story a great challenge.

Getting the email from Anita Chong about the Journey Prize nomination came as a complete shock. I had no idea the story had even been submitted for consideration. As you know from personal experience, it’s an extraordinary boost. The shortlist announcement was another thrill. Flying into Toronto for the ceremony, doing interviews. I also got emails from agents asking me about representation, especially once I had finished a novel. Getting the second Journey Prize nomination the next year seemed to confirm I was on the right track. The recognition certainly helped in securing a great agent and publisher for Life on Mars.

TC: We’re often led to believe that short stories are somehow inferior step-cousins to novels, yet so many of us work in and love this genre. Some of the best-known Canadian writers are famed for their work in short fiction. Any thoughts on how we can better champion short fiction in Canada?  

Yes, we need to better champion short fiction but I don’t think most see it as an inferior step-cousin. Maybe a misunderstood cousin.  

I do understand short fiction is a tough sell for publishers because it is harder to find an audience. And a common complaint among readers is that some stories seem to abandon them just as they were getting hooked. Yet I wonder if that’s an outdated notion? There is so much explosive and brilliant short fiction today. Epic themes and imagined worlds are created in just a few pages, and what a legacy we have in Alice Munro.  

I love that Cork, Ireland, has a hugely popular international short story festival or the Alice Munro Festival in Ontario. Maybe we need to be inventive in using digital media to promote short fiction to a younger audience. Book marketing departments also need to be especially savvy in using native, visual storytelling on social media platforms to talk about stories. Think of what great film has come out of short fiction: Sarah Polley’s Away From Her, Brokeback Mountain, Memento, Breakfast at Tiffany’s. Short fiction is a natural for visual stories. Adding visual elements, like those great illustrations that accompany short stories in the New Yorker, or bio snippets that connect authors to readers, or mixed-media performance, or some graphic novel hybrid we haven’t yet imagined.   
Short stories can be a great antidote in fragmented times but we have to reach readers where they are. And maybe take a few risks, including publishing bold collections, even in tough markets.

Book marketing departments also need to be especially savvy in using native, visual storytelling on social media platforms to talk about stories. Think of what great film has come out of short fiction: Sarah Polley’s Away From Her, Brokeback Mountain, Memento, Breakfast at Tiffany’s.

TC: Finally, this is your first collection, the start of what I am sure will be a great career, if these stories are any indication. What does it feel like to have a book finally out there in the world? And what’s next, Lori?    

Thank you again for the gracious words. Having a book out there in the world, something that I can hold in my hands, feels wonderful. It also soothes my disquiet psyche. I hope it finds a wide readership and, of course, that depends on readers talking to other readers. There is also something exciting in knowing that many of the themes explored (of transformation, identity, uncertainty) seem to be resonating strongly in this cultural moment.

What’s next? I’m at work on a novel. I’m looking forward to meeting readers, to spending time with other authors. I want to travel more. Encounter new cultures. Climb mountains. Make photographs. Visit Mars.

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Excerpt from Life on Mars (“Evidence of Life on Mars”)

Under my cement roof, at the top of the sloped underpass, I watch cars grow fins as they sail out along the flooding highway. Drivers lean on their horns in the heavy rain, as if the sound can open up a space I can soar through.

Blunt on my lips, I inhale a head full of stars.

Dust then darkness. I keep an eye on the intersection where my father’s big rig will swing a wide arc off Albert Road. Ten tons of steel and rubber, its back end doglegging out onto the road. That huge silver grill grinning at me.

Chrome is tooth enamel for big rigs, my father said. As a kid, I used to polish the chrome-plated axle and hubs in the driveway. Got a buck a wheel.
My pocket buzzes. Il Duce again. Mars. Get home. Now.

Fascist. My sister Lizzie is a dead ringer for Mussolini, who was famous for bulging eyes and annexing Albania. She has perfect SATs to go along with Il Duce’s unplucked unibrow and military-grade temper.

Coming home, I text back. Add two kiss symbols to drive her mental.

Floating downhill on my bike, I shred roots and rocks on the trails before kicking up asphalt alongside the same two-storey houses with double-lane driveways and identical lawns buzzed to three-inch pelts. I hop the sidewalk and swing around the huge pile of sawed two-by-fours growing mould beside the old man’s shed.

If nothing changes tonight, I’ll buy a one-way ticket. I’ll buy two.

Excerpt from “Evidence of Life on Mars” was published in Life on Mars © 2017 by Lori McNulty. Reproduced by permission of Goose Lane Editions.

March 6, 2017
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