Tuesday, May 30, 2017

The nature of gender and of reality. Sara Taylor talks about her new novel, (and what a great title, too) THE LAURAS

 Once again, I was so charmed by the bio the author herself wrote that I am swiping it here. (Hey, being funny counts.)

Sara Taylor is a product of Virginia and the homeschooling movement. She traded her health for a BFA from Randolph College in Lynchburg, Virginia, and her sanity for an MA in Prose Fiction from the University of East Anglia in Norwich, England. Following the MA her supervisor refused to let her leave, so she remains as a PhD candidate at the UEA where she researches censorship, writes fiction, and is occasionally entrusted with the teaching of undergraduates. She spends an unprecedented amount of time on delayed trains between Norwich and her husband’s house in Reading, and tends to get lost, rained on, and chased by cows with unsettling frequency.
Her short fiction has been published electronically and in print in The FiddleheadThe Fog Horn, and Granta, among other places.

So what was haunting you that propelled you into writing The Lauras?

When I first began the book I wanted to write a short story about a small child who is kidnapped of their parents’ front porch and taken on a journey by an older adult whom the child knows but isn’t entirely comfortable around. The story had other ideas – the narrator’s voice quickly evolved to be older, and the relative became the mother almost immediately. When I started writing the book I had just committed to staying in the United Kingdom, and my parents, especially my mother, were having a hard time with the fact that I wouldn’t be coming back to America. I think I was mostly haunted by the fact that, even if I did go back, I wouldn’t be able to return to the life I’d led before I left, which was what they were missing. I was also pretty preoccupied by how difficult it is to see a person whom you’ve defined by their role – parent, child, sibling – as an individual, and how much harder it seems to be when that role is specifically mother or child. And I had some family stories that I’d wanted to make use of for a while but had never been able to make fit comfortably in other characters’ backgrounds.

I loved the voice of teenaged Alex who refuses to gender-identify.  But I also loved Ma and her stories that she tells Alex as they road trip across the country, where like the best journey, it isn’t the destination that is so crucial, it is the getting there. Can you talk about this please?

A lot of the subtext of the story consists of Alex trying to come to terms with the fact that Ma has an identity, a past and future, that is independent of her motherhood, while being simultaneously frustrated by the fact that Ma doesn’t seem to consistently recognize that Alex also has an identity that isn’t based exclusively on their relationship, and which isn’t the same as it was when Alex was six years old. Since everything is filtered through Alex’s eyes, it’s easier for the reader than for Alex to see how successful either of them are in this.
Alex’s voice came to the page almost immediately, and without much work; I’ve known several people who don’t occupy the traditional ends of the gender spectrum, and a lot of Alex’s preoccupations are either mine or those of people close to me. Ma was more difficult; I feel like I got to know her over the course of the novel, and several of the stories she told did not make it into the final version but were important for me to write so I could better understand how she became who she is.

The Lauras says so much about environment, both the land outside of us, and the environment of relationships.  Can’t our identities, like some of our sexualties, be fluid, too?

It’s easy to label people, both in terms of identity and sexuality, in terms of their environment – that person has a child, so they are a mother; that person has a partner of the opposite sex, so they are straight. Both instances makes categorizing and interacting with people easier on some level, and both categorizations ignore what came before and what will come after the child, and the partner. I get the feeling that, culturally, there has been an aversion to fluid identity, on one level because humans are organized creatures who find things easier to deal with when they can be categorized, and on a slightly different level because fluidity means change, change is caused by time, and time brings death; a lot of Alex’s preoccupation with change even while clinging to fluidity is my own obsession with the linear way humans experience time. And even the people who have no problems with the categories they’re in, are in more than one category: mothers are also daughters, workers, creators, things that are uncategorizable. Sometimes it seems like the refusal to identify as one has been assigned, or to identify at all, is the only way to start getting beyond the arbitrary designations to the substance of things.

What kind of writer are you? Do you scribble on legal pads, or only use your trusty computer?

The first draft usually happens in the morning, every morning until it’s finished, while drinking coffee; it always happens in a lined notebook with a fountain pen, because I have a bad tendency to procrastinate if given a computer and ballpoint pens give me hand cramp. Then it gets transcribed onto my computer so that it can be revised several times, usually in the afternoons and often while drinking tea. I tend to lose all concept of what I’ve written once it’s on the computer, so every few versions the whole thing gets printed out, marked up in pen, and occasionally cut up so pieces can be moved around. When all that’s done I call what is left the first draft, and that’s when the real work begins.

What’s obsessing you now and why?

For nearly the past five years I’ve been working on contemporary, realist fiction, and researching and writing about fringe forms of censorship. A big part of both of those has involved trying to answer the question, ‘how do I represent reality as it is as clearly and accurately as possible?’ The closer I get to being able to put those projects to bed, the more I find myself wondering the opposite, ‘what does the reality that I would like to represent look like?’ There are piles of notes and premises that I’ve had to put away over the past few years because they only work in a fantastic or speculative frame, and they’ve started whispering to me quite insistently. I think it’s safe to say that realist fiction is an exploration of what humanity is, while speculative fiction is an exploration of what it might become; I’m probably not the only person at the moment who is slightly obsessed with what we might become.

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