Linen Press intern Lola Boorman interviews Lindsay Parnell, the author of our most recent publication, Dogwood.
Lola Boorman: Dogwood is your first novel, how did you come to the realisation that you could write it?
Lindsay Parnell: Prior to Dogwood I wrote exclusively short fiction. A few years ago, while living in London, I began work on what I thought would be a series of interconnected short stories set in the same town. Early in that process, I began focusing on two particular stories about a teenaged girl and her much younger half-brother. This pair of stories, one of which is featured in Dogwood and one that I cut, ultimately became the foundation of the finished text. I worked closely with Heidi James from beginning to end and could not have dreamed for better guidance, edits and encouragement. She really supported this narrative and the voices of these girls. I’m incredibly indebted to her two-fold: not only because of her guidance, but her own fiction, which is a huge influence on my own work.
LB: What was your background in writing? I know you’ve published a number of short stories but how did your previous work compare to the process of writing a novel?
LP: Three-quarters of this novel was written in a two-year period followed by revisions and rewrites off-and-on for about three years. As it’s a much longer piece than anything I’ve done before, it took me a while to settle into a structure that would serve Harper’s fragmented narrative, yet remain a coherent journey. Some of the short stories I’ve been working on recently explore a similar vein of narrative fractures and splintering which I feel has been a stylistic continuation of the book in some ways.
LB: When I first read your Dogwood submission I was stunned by its visceral descriptions of its characters and their destructive and entrapped world. How did these images come to you? What world are you depicting?
LP: I wanted to explore female voice and experiences of becoming within the limitations of a very inclusive environment. It was my hope to create a narrative that explores violence both in voice and in image. These girls are very much a product of their environment so in their interactions and with each other, especially between Harper and Collier, I wanted to illuminate these girls, in voice and in behaviour, as both recipients and agents of violent abjection. Although they are desperate to maintain their friendship, they all actively participate in the destruction of the others. While their world is definitely a real place, I hoped that in Harper’s recreation of her home, in memory and retelling, has a fluctuating, boundless and dream-like existence.
LB: Memory plays a large part in the novel, and in doing so falls into a tradition in fiction of memory’s infringement on reality. Was this method of structuring something you were conscious of or did it arise from your storytelling?
LP: I personally enjoy and feel challenged by fiction that articulates itself in scenes of episodic glimpses that ricochet and slip, especially Kathy Acker and Lynne Tillman, because I find it an accurate embodiment of memory itself. The structure I ended up using I believe is one that serves her voice more effectively than would a linear retelling. Harper’s story exists in her obsession of recreating and claiming ownership of her past by highlighting these small moments she finds definitive of “why things ended up the way they did…” But I find her explicit omissions, which are often alluded to but never expanded on, just as important as the moments upon which she is fixated. She talks and writes herself in circles, as she is repetitive to the point of obsession. Ultimately, I hope that Harper’s episodic recreations serve as tellings that don’t necessarily explore how things were, but how she needs them to be in order to alleviate the guilt and responsibility she feels.
LB: What is possibly one of the most striking features of the novel is its use of dialect which often holds the reader at arms length, while at times endearing its characters. I know you grew up in Virginia, did you have to do much research on this? What made you decide to write in this way?
LP: It was my hope that in their specific way of speaking that these girls experience self-discovery within a specific inheritance of their home. I wanted their voices to be very distinct and echo their personal histories, the histories of their mothers, and their mothers’ voices. Overlapping and cyclical verbal ticks add highlighted similarities of parallel identities while reinforcing the intimacy of their sisterhood; but also are separate enough, especially in the case of Caro, is a wedge between them.
LB: The character of Harper is the centre of the novel; she’s an almost Christ-like figure and all the other relationships in the novel splinter off from her. At times, she appears a blank slate upon which the other characters project themselves. What inspired her?
LP: Her voice and self-awareness, or lack of at times, dictate the other characters in behaviour I believe. They orbit around her, even in her absence. Like most, Scout Finch is one of my favourite characters in American literature, but I’ve always been struck by Mayella Ewell. She has such limited speech and physical presence in To Kill a Mockingbird yet it’s her voice that triggers the narrative itself. I’m a disciple of Dorothy Allison and I really don’t think there exists a more compelling narrator than Bone Boatwright in Bastard Out of Carolina. Her story, one that is simultaneously challenged, fused with, and somehow still divergent from her mother Anney’s, I think is masterful. Although this is Harper’s story, I wanted to emphasize varying points and phases of becoming for these girls as a cohesive trifecta. It was important to me that they’re never static, but always in flux, even if that means digressing at points or sustaining such a devastating cycle. Harper can’t seem to exist with Collier and Caro, yet she feels she is nothing without them.
LB: Willa Cather said that ‘Most of the basic material a writer works with is acquired before the age of fifteen’. This seems particularly relevant for your characters whose innocence is constantly under threat. Why was childhood such an important theme in the novel?
LP: The story of these girls is one I wanted birthed from becoming, movement and growth within the female experience. They’re depicted at various ages but I wanted to highlight and pause at times I think would best highlight emotional, spiritual and sexual coming of age. Their voices, identities and bodies are constantly under threat, and when they are attacked in various ways, their innocence is absolutely damaged. I became fixated myself of exploring the wake of this damage.
LB: The novel memorialises Harper’s relationship with her mother (Luce), through the fragmentary and contradictory memories of all the subsidiary characters. What do you think Luce represents?
LP: I’m hesitant now, and was especially during writing, to explicitly define Luce. I wanted her to maintain a ghost-like presence in both flashback sequences and Harper’s meditations in her letter to Job. I believe she serves a very specific purpose for each individual character and hopefully, specific purposes for individual readers.
LB: While we were editing Dogwood the layers of reference and intertextuality in the novel came to the surface. What were its main influences? Do you always write with a sense of tradition behind you?
LP: Outside of Southern writers who I adore and significantly shaped my own writing, Anne Sexton’s catalogue was an immense influence on this book. I am incredibly undeserving to say that I write in her tradition but very much hope to one day. Specifically, Love Poems, To Bedlam and Part Way Back, An Awful Rowing Towards God and All My Pretty Ones, were texts that became present in my own drafting. Her written correspondence with Brother Dennis Farrell was also influential as it explores challenges she faced in her faith, something Harper experiences greatly. In this way, I also found inspiration in Flannery O’Connor’s prayer journal.
LB: You revised parts of the novel heavily. Are you a writer who can’t stop returning and improving?
LP: Revision occurred mainly in structure and fine-tuning the dialog, so in terms of content, that has largely remained the same over the last three years, so I felt that the story’s final form is the story I wanted and Harper needed to tell. She was done well before I was done though, Collier too. Caro was the only one who held on I think.
LB: Why do you own 13 editions of the The Bell Jar?
LP: It’s one of my absolute favourites. An intense book collection that escalated quite quickly…it’s what Esther would have wanted I think. Well, Doreen perhaps. Definitely not Betsy, she’d find it excessive.
LB: What else influences your writing? Literary or otherwise.
LP: Bone Boatwright. Jo March. Scout Finch. Esther Greenwood. Frankie Addams. Mick Kelly. Peggy Olsen. Dewey Dell Bundren. Lucy Ricardo. Margo Channing. Harriet M. Welsch. Matilda Wormwood. Mayella Ewell. April Wheeler. Blanche DuBois and Stella Kowalski. Sister Aloysius Beauvier. Clarissa Vaughn. Rachel Samstat. Edna Pontellier. Lux Lisbon. Ree Dolly. Meryl Streep in anything and Mary Magdalene.
LB: Do you think your work shares a similar landscape or setting? A place which resonates at the core of your writing?
LP: The core currently is the South; a number of my short stories are either set in the South or are about displaced Southerners but recently I’ve been exploring settings in larger cities, which is perhaps lazy as I currently live in one.
LB: What’s next for you? Any new projects?
LP: I’m scribbling currently and hope it’s going somewhere… too soon to tell… but somewhere I hope.