This month, Courtney Harler interviews Kasey Thornton, whose stunning short story, “Out of Our Suffering,” was featured in The Masters Review VI, judged by Roxane Gay. That same story also features in Thornton’s new novel-in-stories, Lord the One You Love Is Sick, out in trade paperback on November 10, 2020, from Ig Publishing. To celebrate the debut, Courtney and Kasey recently chatted about form and content.
Harler: First off, Kasey, congratulations! We at The Masters Review have been anticipating your debut novel-in-stories. I want to ask you about your chosen form, but first—a quick question about commas. I’ve noticed lately that many writers are deliberately omitting the comma for the direct address. Although I see this trend most often on social media, your novel’s title also takes this option. Maybe it’s a silly, pedantic question—but I’m very curious about how these sorts of decisions are made. Did you want the title to seem more casual? Or more desperate/urgent? Or, did the good people at Ig think the comma itself would complicate the title unnecessarily? I don’t doubt you’ve made a deliberate, thoughtful choice here, but I am fascinated by the way our language is rapidly evolving of late. Your thoughts?
Thornton: No, that’s a great question. It was a very instinctive decision for me at the time, so I didn’t give it a lot of thought, but I see now that I did it for the rhythm of the phrase. I liked the title most when it had the unhindered humming feel of (what I think is) a trochaic meter, with the alternating falling stress of the syllables, as opposed to a direct address with a pause that I found awkward.
Yes, I can definitely hear the meter when I say the title aloud. It’s almost as if taking away the comma puts more stress on “Lord,” and not less. I love that you went with your gut here. Now, about the novel-in-stories. It’s still a relatively new form. But—it’s tricky. (As I know all too well, because I am writing a novel-in-stories, myself.)
How did you land on this form? Did you write a bunch of stories that just seemed to want to come together? The flow is pretty spot-on, and you do offer your readers a little recap at the beginning of each new chapter. I guess my main question is about the form, or what to call the form. Why not just call it a novel? From your perspective as a debut author, what are the most significant differences between a novel and a novel-in-stories? As readers and writers, in general, what do you think we might gain (or lose?) with the novel-in-stories?
I definitely did not put pen to paper back in 2009 expecting that those first few words would one day produce a novel-in-stories. I absolutely would not have trusted my own mettle in that regard, and long form frightened me immensely, so I stuck to my Southern fiction short stories and spent the next ten years putting them in and out of undergrad and graduate workshops.
Then, as you said, they did seem to want to come together. I saw the same conflicts, the same themes, the same settings and even the same characters cropping up in multiple stories like cameos, and I figured out that they could fairly easily all take place in one novel about one small town. That part of the process—looking at everything as a cohesive unit and straightening the seams—was almost a psychological experiment, as it forced me to see all the randomly weird elements I repeated ad nauseum in every story I wrote. (Why was there a mason jar in every story?!)
I’m not an expert as to what attracts a reader these days. With everything happening in the world, I consider it an act of immense fortitude whenever anyone is willing to take their attention away from a screen and commit to any kind of writing for any duration of time. Though my book has been carefully crafted in order to be read cohesively from front to back, I do still like the idea that someone who has thirty minutes until their next appointment could pick up my book and flip to any random story, and still be able to digest something that is self-contained. It feels like I’m accommodating more attention spans and reading styles and lifestyles if I offer both options.
We certainly live in a world where “time” is of the essence, even during the quarantine, wherein we have had, as some would contend, rather too much time/energy on our hands. But let me say now that I absolutely loved the book, loved all the connected stories, loved all the (repeating) characters. I especially felt for Emma Lynn, particularly in “Out of Our Suffering.” As a writer, my aesthetic is quite similar to yours: very Southern, and in fact, pretty Gothic, too. You tackle some rather heavy topics that tend to plague the South: drug addiction, sexual abuse, patriarchal structures, religious dogma. I’ve written about those issues as well, and it’s not easy. How did you prepare yourself to write this book? I mean, each chapter/story to me seems a test of courage, an exercise in bravery. How did you find the fortitude to address all of these taboos?
As far as courage goes, I had an amazing army of creative writing colleagues and mentors from three different universities that I grew to trust so much. Of course, there was always anxiety in writing a difficult story and handing it out to twenty people right off the printer for them to pass judgment upon, but I knew that they would come back with feedback that would tell me what was too subtle, what was too gratuitous, what wasn’t resonating enough emotionally, and what needed to be toned down. My fortitude for putting these stories into the world absolutely came from the dozens upon dozens of writing peers I have at my back, and I’m so grateful for every one of them.
Kaye Gibbons gave me unspoken permission to write “Out of Our Suffering” in Emma’s voice the moment I picked up Ellen Foster. It took an immense amount of pressure off of me, actually, to just put this little girl down on the page and let her reactions to the world around her speak for themselves. I didn’t need to be introspective or broody. I didn’t need to explain to the reader why it was awful, or translate that terrible world into meaning in the same way as I might have had I been writing in third omniscient or even a close third. Emma and I took it step-by-dreadful-step and got the first draft done in one single terrifying night, which I have never done before or since.
I’ve not read Ellen Foster, but your response just made my heart squeeze in my chest. As of right now, all of my narrators in my novel-in-stories are twelve years old, and every chapter is told in present tense. Believe you me, I’ve struggled with that choice, and now that I’m headed into a heavy revision phase, I am very much rethinking that format. But, your response give me hope, gives me guidance: “…let her reactions to the world around her speak for themselves.” So beautifully put. Do you have any additional parting advice for other emerging writers? You began Lord the One You Love Is Sick back in 2009. What have you learned as a writer in the past decade, and what helped you persevere to publication?
I’d say to make sure you stay in love with storytelling in general, and don’t let anyone tell you how you’re supposed to digest them. If you like the stories in comic books, read comic books. If you like the stories in video games, play video games. If you like the stories in movies, watch movies. If you like the stories in TV shows, watch TV shows. If you see stories in works of art, gaze at works of art. Read books, yes. Of course, read books. But stories are all around us. Drown yourself in them daily and figure out what you like about them, what you dislike, what works and what doesn’t—delivery of information, pacing, dialogue, setting, etc. That will translate to your writing.
Also, to those who write fiction, read poetry. To those who write poetry, read fiction. It will absolutely change your writing for the better.
As far as persevering goes, I know it’s cliché, but I really couldn’t have done it without the number of wonderful mentors and colleagues I had constantly pushing and paving the way forward for me. The days of the tortured-writer-alone-in-an-attic-with-a-typewriter are over, thank goodness. That’s one thing I’d recommend to aspiring writers is to never underestimate the power of finding peers and mentors who understand what you’re trying to do with your writing, and who want to help you get there.
Interviewed by Courtney Harler