I first became acquainted with Margaret Luongo when she drove the short distance from Hamilton, Ohio, to Cincinnati to read at a literary festival. In a dark bar full of half-drunk aspiring writers, she read from a story called “The War Artist” and cast a spell over all of us. She transported her audience to a dystopian artist residency where military officials lock a visual artist in a room and task her with making art about a war she has never seen. In equally beautiful and unsettling language, Luongo challenged her audience to question their own relationship to distant wars.
Later, when I was an editor at the Cincinnati Review, we published Luongo’s delightful story “Word Problem,” which is …you guessed it…a story in the form of a word problem. For this one, she assigned herself quite a doozy: Can she tell the story of ten music students over the course of their careers, in a multiple point-of-view panorama of finely observed success, defeat, compromise, and adaption, which is by turns both funny and heartbreaking, both dark and hopeful? And can she provide her answer in less than sixteen pages? Her answer seemed utterly true and absolutely correct.
In Memorious 16, we were lucky enough to publish Luongo’s story “The War Artist Makes God Visible,” a haunting and surrealist series of vignettes (based on Stanley Spencer’s Great War memorial), in which WWI soldiers are resurrected from their graves, “entwined…in their white picket crosses. Already their capes make wings.” These finely crafted stories are now collected with many others in Luongo’s second collection, The History of Art: Stories (LSU Press), published in April. In it, Luongo meditates on the relationship between violence and creation, in sharp and nimble stories that vacillate between the surreal and the real, the traditional and the formally experimental.
Luongo is also the author of the short story collection If the Heart is Lean (also by LSU Press) and has published stories in the Cincinnati Review, Granta, Tin House, the Southern Review, and the Pushcart Prize Anthology. She is an associate professor of English at Miami University in Ohio, where she teaches creative writing and contemporary fiction. She spoke to me via email about writing, the relationship between war and creation, and the current (hopeful!) state of publishing.
–Brian Trapp, Co-Fiction Editor
We were lucky enough to publish “The War Artist Makes God Visible” in Memorious 16. It changed quite a bit since you first published it with us. Can you tell us about the development of this story?
When I was teaching in London in 2010, I traveled to Burghclere to see Stanley Spencer’s Great War Memorial. It’s the mural the story is based on, painted on the walls of a chapel built especially for that work. I’d already written the version of the story that Memorious published. My feelings about the paintings changed when I saw them in the chapel. Previously I had only seen them reproduced in books, and I’d been puzzled by the religious imagery in them. Spencer had a front row seat to the misery of war, tending to wounded soldiers in a military hospital. Yet he still seemed to find solace in this idea of resurrection and redemption. I couldn’t understand it, so I wrote about it. Then I saw the paintings in their true scale and setting, and I understood that the redemption Spencer believed in came through caring for others. So I went back into the story and expanded it slightly. In no way did I capture the tenderness and generosity of Spencer’s work.
That story seems to be a companion piece to the first story of the collection, titled “The War Artist,” in which military officials lock a visual artist in a room and task her with making art about “the war,” in a sort of dystopian artist residency. An obsession with art seems to connect all the stories in this collection, but these two stories seem to ask about the connection between war and art, violence and meaning. Can you speak about this connection, and, in general, your obsession with art throughout this collection?
The two obsessions were going on parallel tracks for a while. Visual art helps me think about writing—and just helps me think. War is everywhere. Even if the bombs aren’t falling on you, with the speed of communication these days it’s hard to remain totally ignorant of what’s going on around the world. Humans have been making art and war side by side for millennia, creation and destruction—and then there’s the obsession with beautiful ruins, from tourist photos of ancient Rome to art photography of defunct Detroit. We love those traces of our faded glory, however romanticized our notion of the past may be. Hitler based his Reich on that idea—leaving a glorious ruin. We make meaning through story, and I think people believe that for the story to have a meaning, it has to end. So the link between violence and meaning does make some sense, I suppose.
Art to me is mostly about perception—how we see the world and others—in addition to those issues of craft, technical skill, and materiality. I appreciate our drive to perceive and make sense, even though we so often get it wrong. The struggle sometimes elevates us.
In one of my favorite stories, “Word Problem,” you write a story in the form of a word problem. You write another story in the form of notes on the type and another as directions for bird watching. Can you talk about how “Word Problem” developed and, in general, your interest in playing with various forms?
“Word Problem” came about partly because of that inclination and partly because I’m really horrible at math and I still resent word problems. I thought it would be a good idea to do a story in that form, but I didn’t know for a couple of years what it would be about. Then I attended a performance of John Cage’s Music for Radios at the Cincinnati Fringe Festival. That’s what set it off.
I like to create constraints for myself in writing—at least I think that’s what I’m doing—so forms that make storytelling difficult appeal to me. I think it’s just that I like the indication of a story, the fragments. I think the main thing is brevity. I really like the short story game, and I also like to think of puzzles for myself within the form: how short can I go? What rule might provide a new challenge? I like to choose forms that make telling a story somewhat difficult (like “Word Problem”). I also like to get away from traditional character development, maybe to find a balance between head and heart. I want people to think and feel.
Both of your books were published with LSU Press’ Yellow Shoe Fiction Series, edited by my former professor at the University of Cincinnati, Michael Griffith. What was it like to work with Michael and LSU? As someone who is teaching a course on publishing, what is your opinion of the current publishing landscape?
Michael is a great editor. His focus is razor sharp and he just knows a lot about a lot of things. I never realized how important context is for editing. It’s not enough to know about literature and to know how stories are made. You also have to know about people, places, music, art, sports, clothing, religion, animals, train stations, wall-to-wall carpet—everything terrestrial and extra-terrestrial. He also trusts writers. He’s not a heavy-handed editor and seems to have no need to make his mark on a book that isn’t his. No excessive ego, just enough confidence to do right by a book and its author. LSU makes gorgeous books, and Baton Rouge is on my list of places to relocate to, mostly because I fantasize about hanging out with MaryKatherine Callaway and the other LSU people. I went there once for a book festival and I still think about the people and the place. It’s a little creepy that I want to hang out with my publisher, but it’s a good sign, I think.
Despite the corporatization of publishing, I’m optimistic. So many small independent publishers have sprung up. However strange or marginalized a work may be, its author can probably find a home for it. The independents are not so concerned with the bottom line, so they’re more free to publish books that will have a smaller audience. This means more freedom for writers, so long as they have a day job. The abundance of smaller publishers like Rose Metal Press and Black Lawrence should encourage writers to create more freely.
In the UK, independent publishers like Tilted Axis, And Other Stories, and Peirene are bringing out translated work by authors whose books have never been available in English. That could help to shift aesthetics in America and the UK. For instance, what’s mainstream in Korean fiction—nonlinear, multi-voiced, and surreal—is often considered experimental or just strange in the US. Maybe some of that will find its way to American readers and writers and inspire appreciation for more diverse forms. I’m very hopeful about publishing, almost exclusively because of the small independents.
In the UK, publishers can declare that they are a Community Interest Company, which means, among other things, that they cannot be bought by a for-profit enterprise. I find that very promising.
And now some process questions: How did you write the stories in this collection? Are you a ‘write everyday’ person or does it come in bursts? Do you have any consistent habits or rituals for when you are most productive? Any advice to emerging fiction writers?
When I first started writing, I wrote every day and that helped me learn to take myself—or the task I set for myself—more seriously. The daily work improved my writing and in general gave me some sense of purpose, as well as confidence. The mental activity kept me happy. History of Art developed over something like eight years, so I can’t say I worked every day on those stories. I’m usually most productive over the summer, and I can sustain writing through mid-October or early November. Then I won’t really write again until winter break. Spring semester is usually a loss, for the most part. I’ll give myself smaller assignments then, just to try to get some time back.
About four years ago, my husband and I rented studio space in downtown Hamilton (Ohio), and that’s been a huge help. The space is pleasant, uncluttered, and internet-free. I only write there—I do nothing else. I can drop everything, go to the studio, and almost immediately find focus. It’s walking distance from our house and it’s just a good happy space for me. I keep a little chart on the wall of all the things I could work on, in their varying stages of completion. There’s one column for stories that are just ideas. I think there’s even a poetry column, though the poems might be under another heading—“in progress” or something. There’s always something I want to work on, and I can choose whatever I like, so there’s no obstacle to working.
I also like to listen to music, but it has to be music without words. I particularly like classical guitar—Segovia, Carlos Barbosa-Lima, Christopher Parkening. I was on a Bach kick for a while during the latter stages of History of Art. I’d listen to Foo Fighters on the way to the studio, then switch over to Bach. Having that space outside the home has made a huge difference for me. For a while I was working at coffee shops and getting really angry at people who dared to have audible conversations. Even at that time I knew my anger was unreasonable.
Advice for emerging fiction writers: don’t make problems for yourself that you can’t solve. Be flexible. If something’s not working, try a different path. Be a good boss to yourself; while it’s true that discipline is important, you have to know when to ease up on yourself.
Can you tell us about what you are working on now?
I’m working on a story for the ACRE Books anthology, The Very Angry Baby. ACRE Books is a new press edited by the people at The Cincinnati Review, including Nicola Mason. That’s all I can say!
What are you reading now?
I’m teaching a London-based course in publishing, so I’m reading books published by smaller UK houses:
The Man I Became by Peter Verhelst, translated by David Colmer (Peirene Press)
Lunatics, Lovers and Poets: Twelve Stories after Cervantes and Shakespeare, edited by Daniel Hahn and Margarita Valencia (And Other Stories Press)
Kauthar, by Meike Ziervogel (Salt)
Our Man in Orlando, by Hugh Hunter (Monday Books)
As a supplement to this, I’m also reading Panty, by Sangeeta Bandyopadhyay, translated by Arunava Sinha (Tilted Axis) and The Vegetarian, by Han Kang, translated by Deborah Smith (Portobello Books), which just won the Man Booker prize.
I also just picked up Mary Beard’s SPQR, a partial re-reading of Roman history. Beard has an easy style, and she exposes the way the Romans crafted (revised?) their own history, rewriting it through the lens of the present moment. It’s a good reminder to those of us writing historical fiction, which Henry James warned us about: We can’t really be accurate. We’re always writing through the film of the now.
For original poetry, fiction, art song, art, and more interviews, please visit our magazine at www.memorious.org.