Lee Conell’s debut story collection Subcortical was released this past fall from Johns Hopkins University Press and was selected for the 2018 Story Prize Spotlight Award. Although the stories touch on cellular biology, animal science and even paranormal activity, more than anything they seek to explore the conflicting desires of the human heart. Conell’s characters aspire to a greater sense of purpose and independence, seeking to clarify their roles as friends, lovers, mothers and daughters. In the title story, an aspiring medical student is compelled by the particulars of neuroscience, stating, “I was interested in opening up a brain and cataloguing the wildness there.” Such is Conell’s own intent in the charming, lucid stories of Subcortical.
Connell earned her MFA at Vanderbilt University, and in 2016 her story “The Lock Factory” won the Chicago Tribune’s Nelson Algren Literary Award. Stories from Subcortical previously appeared in Glimmer Train, The Sewanee Review, Guernica and elsewhere. Her story “My Four Stomachs,” in which a young woman discovers the limits of her compassion when her boyfriend experiences a psychological break, appeared in Memorious 28. Conell recently answered some questions about science, ghosts, her inspirations and her creative process.
Let’s start at the beginning. How did you get into writing fiction?
I always made up stories in my head. I can never remember not doing that. I think part of my interest in fiction in particular came from growing up as a super’s kid. My dad’s answering machine was right outside my room, so I’d regularly wake up to calls from tenants and contractors, complaining about something or making a request. I’d be aggravated by these calls disturbing my dreams, but they also awakened something in my imagination. I’d start to wonder about the people behind them and make up little stories about their lives. I was interested in the way I had slivers of access to all these lives going on around me and fiction allowed me to more fully imagine those lives.
Which writers (or teachers) have been most influential to your work? Is there a story in Subcortical that seems especially indebted to another author or teacher?
The first books I got truly obsessed with were Animorphs, when I was about nine years old. I read some of those books five or six times. I know it sounds goofy, but I think that level of obsession, that desire to reread, meant that I really began to notice certain ways characters were being built or made more complicated. Though I don’t think I would have put it that way–I mostly was just like, “aliens and animals!”
Since then, my influences have gotten a little wider. “The Lock Factory” owes a lot to Alice Munro’s “Friend of My Youth.” I think a lot about Grace Paley’s “A Conversation with My Father,” especially when I’m grappling with the power dynamics involved in the different stories we want to tell and feel like we can tell, which is a big concern of the story “What the Blob Said to Me.” Writers like Kevin Wilson and Kelly Link also have given me permission to just allow a story to go weird, to be both conceit-driven and character-driven, which helped me write stories such as “Guardian” (where an imaginary friend from childhood manifests herself to someone as an adult) and “The Rent-Controlled Ghost.” Andrea Barrett was very helpful in the stories that dealt more directly with scientific stuff, like “Unit Cell.”
Subcortical contains 16 distinct stories, each of which covers a lot of narrative ground. Can you discuss your writing process for the book—how you composed the stories and ordered them into a coherent collection?
A lot of the stories were written over a period of about two to three years. I definitely did not write them with the idea of a book in mind. I felt (and generally still feel) like each time I sat down to write a story, I was figuring out how to write a story. But as the stories accumulated, I started to see all sorts of thematic resonances and patterns, which made putting the collection together a lot of fun, sort of like decoding a dream that felt really complicated and disjointed during the act of dreaming, but, when shared out loud, is actually a lot more direct.
You incorporate a fair amount of scientific exposition in Subcortical, although it never overtakes the human drama of the stories. How did you conduct research, and how did you choose which scientific topics to explore?
Often the topics choose me. There’s something I hear or learn that seems so strange, and it just feels resonant, or like a subject I want an excuse to spend some time inside. In some cases, I find out about a topic that I don’t really understand, but want to understand and writing a story helps me do that. That was the case with “Unit Cell,” which is about a crystallographer. I had just started dating a crystallographer, and whenever he told me about his work, it all seemed really wild and surreal to me. I realized the best way for me to truly grasp what he was doing, and the techniques he used, was to write a story about it. Reading and writing stories are how I start to make meaning, and also how I try (and usually fail) to absorb mysteries in the world.
“My Four Stomachs” is structured according to the four compartments of a cow’s stomach. In that story, the narrator writes sonnets to her boyfriend, and says, “I liked having a form to follow—it allowed me somehow to be both weirder and more truthful.” Do formal constraints or structures guide your creative process?
Formal constraints have proven really helpful to me. They push me out of my comfort zone to where a lot of the revelations about characters happen. I’m forced to dig for what doesn’t seem readily available. Also, something about formal constraints allows me to take the writing process less seriously, which is almost always a good thing. Writing a story through the four compartments in a cow’s stomach seems like a little narrative experiment that is so ostensibly silly and gimmicky, I got less intimidated by the idea of making something artful. And then, hopefully, the art just sneaks up on the story in a way that surprises the reader or at least me.
Not every story works with those constraints, of course, but I’ve found that if I’m having issues getting to the heart of a narrative, constraints often help me think about the story in a new, liberating way. And if the constraints end up truly constraining the story, I can always get rid of them in revision.
The stories in Subcortical are realistic in that they take place in our contemporary world. Yet many stories hint at unknowable elements, especially ghosts. Can you speak a little to your interest in the supernatural?
There’s something supernatural about fiction, the way it moves you out of yourself or makes you see things/feel like you know people that don’t entirely exist. That’s so weird. So having a ghost show up in a story almost feels more realistic, like an acknowledgment of the ghostliness in the entire act of reading and writing. I also believe our internal lives are full of unknowable elements, including the memories and dreams that haunt us. Of course just the phrase “the memories and dreams that haunt us” feels utterly melodramatic in the context of this interview. But in the context of fiction, there’s all sorts of rich territory to explore, in hopefully not so melodramatic ways.
Several stories in Subcortical feature young women protagonists who are about to leave for college and begin new, different lives. In doing so, they often see previous relationships fizzle out or change drastically. How do these situations lend themselves to drama and narrative complication?
Any time characters have to re-imagine themselves in a new context, such as college, there’s an enormous opportunity for change. The obvious drama in these narratives is that these young women are often betwixt and between worlds. But I’m also interested in the economic power struggles that come from being in that place. For young women, who often are raised to please the people in power around them, it’s can be hard to find yourself in the middle of these sorts of stories involving what it means to be successful or truly “good” as you move into adulthood, especially if you’re not coming from a place of much economic privilege.
There’s a hilarious paragraph in the story “Recuerdo” where a security guard tries reading The Lord of the Rings while drunk. I often found your description of simple human follies to be really funny. Do you have any reading recommendations of authors whose sense of humor you enjoy?
So many recommendations! Just a few off the top of my head—Lorrie Moore, Lorraine Lopez, George Saunders, Sam Lipsyte and Junot Diaz are the writers I go to for moments that are hilarious and tragic all at once. I also think there are a number of women writers whose fiction is described as “spare” but sometimes this just feels like a skewed reading of the fact that they are also really funny. Like Jenny Offill’s Dept. of Speculation or many of Amy Hempel’s stories. Sometimes what is read as spare is actually just good comic timing.
Interviewer Joseph Holt teaches at the University of Minnesota. He recently received an AWP Intro Journals Award in fiction.