Mary South’s You Will Never Be Forgotten is an excellent collection of high concept short stories, usually having something to do with the intersection of technology and being human—energetic literary fiction that sometimes collides with sci-fi, or something even more interesting that I can’t put my finger on; I just think of them as Mary South stories. A clone named Keith, being harvested for his internal organs, is also an object of love; a person who works as an online content scrubber lashes back at a venture capitalist who sexually assaulted them; a devastated mother resurrects a deceased daughter with new tech. I loved this book. I read it on an airplane right before Covid-19 quarantine happened and was in awe after every story, “Oh this one will be a movie someday.” “Oh this one could, too.” “Oh they should make six movies out of this one.” Mary South has big ideas but cares just as much about her sentences and her characters. There’s a big heartbeat, a big pulse of life running though the veins of her writing. She’s an idiosyncratic, singular voice out there, telling radical stories about normal people thrust into a strange changing world. What else can I say? When I finished You Will Never Be Forgotten and got off the airplane, things were beginning to shut down for the coronavirus. I wanted to know more about Mary South and how she creates her unique stories. Instead of meeting up in person in the city, like I’m sure we would have done, and recording the conversation over a few beers, the questioning turned to telephone calls and emails and google docs and on and on, at least we didn’t have to do any Zooms. All right. Well, I’m always interested in where artists come from, so I guess we’ll begin there. The first thing I learned about Mary South is that she grew up in a small town called Rosemount. There were a lot of woods, she says. It was quiet.
Mary South: My mother is from Northern Minnesota, another small town called Starbuck. She has the strong accent and everything. She comes from a long line of farmers. She’s told me both some pretty harrowing and funny stories about farm work.
Bud Smith: What happened on the farm?
MS: When she was a child, my mother became attached to this calf, which she named Velvet because its coat was so soft. She still brings up sometimes how she showed up after school one day on the farm to see it, but Velvet had been shipped off to the slaughterhouse for veal. This anecdote will often segue into how my great-great-grandmother walked heavily pregnant behind a covered wagon for weeks until they reached northern Minnesota and started farming back in the 1800s.
My mother’s uncle Claude managed the farm for decades until he died and it was finally sold. He could toss a bale of hay with one arm into his tractor even when he was very old. Those bales are heavy, a hundred pounds or more. We would visit him on occasion when I was a kid; on one such trip, he whispered to me that he believed aliens were living underneath the surface of the earth. I told my mother about it later, and she said, “Oh, Claude was just messing with you.” I think he had a bit of a diabolical sense of humor.
BS: I could see how somebody telling a child ‘aliens live beneath the surface of the earth’ could turn them into the author of You Will Never Be Forgotten, thanks uncle Claude. What was the rest of your family like?
MS: My paternal grandfather was adopted, and he fought in the navy during World War II, first as a gunner, then a signalman. His captain was killed by shrapnel while standing right next to him. I guess it’s one of those chances of fate that I’m here.
His family couldn’t get ahold of him during the war to tell him that his adopted father had died. He came home to nothing, literally. They had sold the house he grew up in, all possessions. My grandfather had no idea. After he had to confront that loss on top of everything, he married my grandmother. He had a breakdown due to untreated PTSD while she worked at Siegel’s.
BS: Did he ever find out about his biological parents?
MS: He never did; he insisted that he didn’t want to find them. The story was that he had been born Richard Alden Clark somewhere in northwest Pennsylvania. Around the age of four, he was found in the streets of Massillon, Ohio, eating scraps from garbage cans and taken to a shelter. That they had abandoned him so terribly was all he needed to know. But he really loved his adopted father.
BS: And your grandmom’s family?
MS: Her family had come over from Poland right after World War I, with just one small antique chest of their things. Her father worked in steel factories his whole life, first as a scarfer, then a cold roller. Eventually, my grandfather recovered enough to start traveling around, selling industrial manufacturing parts.
BS: What kinds of jobs did you have, growing up?
MS: As a kid, it was usually babysitting. As an adult, I’ve had a lot of odd jobs in order to make money while working on my writing. I’ve waited tables, handed out movie surveys and compiled their stats at 5 a.m. (also a way to be paid to watch a movie), been an assistant and temped, with all of its collating, printing, filing, organizing, and et cetera. I’ve written SEO copy and ad copy for Google, performed eBook quality assurance, and been a proofreader in many different capacities. When I was living in Los Angeles, where there aren’t as many publishing jobs, I was lucky to have a few offers when I initially moved there: copy editing for a medical devices and diagnostic supplies trade journal, copy editing for magazines geared toward hobbyist photographers, and copy editing for a magazine devoted solely to hot tubbing—I don’t even remember how I found out about that last one. I think that company reached out to me from finding my resume on a career site. I took the photography magazine proofing gig. I still sort of think it would have been kind of funny to work at the hot tubbing magazine, but it also might have gotten kind of tedious to explain that bullet point in my work history in job interviews. Nowadays, I’ve been teaching writing much more, which I really love.
BS: You just shared an article about a restaurant that’s opening smack in the middle of the Covid 19 quarantine: ‘Extremely my shit: Michelin-starred restaurant will seat 1940s-era mannequins at half of its tables to comply with social distancing guidelines.’
MS: Yes! The Inn at Little Washington in Virginia is going to seat mannequins dressed in formal wear at half of its tables. I’m very into strange or even mundane objects that accumulate special resonance, people projecting feelings onto the inanimate, as well as doubling.
BS: It does feel like a story that would have been in your collection, You Will Never Be Forgotten.
MS: Both the first and last stories in my collection feature uncanny doubling. (“Keith Prime” and “Not Setsuko”) But this development would probably fit best with my novel-in-progress, about women who are turning into household objects at a hospice for the 1%, where only ultra-wealthy women can undergo this painful transformation with lavish care. At present, I don’t plan on any of the women to actually turn into mannequins, but you never know. I’m also interested in issues of disposability, of plastic and consumer goods that are meant to be used once and then discarded but won’t biodegrade for decades or longer as well as the toxic effect those have upon our environment and our bodies.
BS: ‘Issues of disposability’. Recycling—repurposing as resurrection that is a key element to some your stories.
MS: I love that: “recycling, repurposing as resurrection.” I’m very much interested in exploring that concept, although it’s often a twisted or abject kind of resurrection. And yet, Is resurrection ever not twisted?
In fiction, at least, from the monster in Frankenstein to Aunt Bernie in George Saunders’s “Sea Oak,” resurrection never goes right. What returns is put together horribly somehow, should have been left in peace. We can’t get back what was lost.
I’m interested, too, in exploring the psychic residues accumulated by objects and places. The women who turn into objects in my novel—it’s not an identical, perfect transformation; there’s often remnants of their fleshly selves left behind, plastic that bleeds a little when damaged, tissue within circuits, vestigial traces of human DNA. There are psychic residues as well—ghosts within the machines, so to speak. Bodily, we’re always in the process of replacement; there’s sex and reproduction, the conception and rearing of new generations of people, but there’s also copying, dying, and replacing on the cellular level. (Until, perhaps, a cancerous error is introduced or we run out of time.) We have to always move forward, even though that seemingly requires revision, revisiting.
BS: In your short story, “You Will Never Be Forgotten” lives and events are uploaded to an internet that never goes away, never ends, never stops repeating itself …. The New Yorker published that story.
MS: The experience of getting published in The New Yorker was overwhelmingly positive—honestly, one of the coolest moments of my life thus far. Everyone who works there is incredibly good at their job, unsurprisingly, from the fiction editors, to the copy editors to art team, to the audio engineer, Michele Moses. I feel incredibly lucky to have had that experience and will probably be using it to motivate myself creatively for a while.
Before the story came out, I was worried about the reception it might have, since it’s about a woman in recovery from a sexual assault. It’s also highly critical of toxic masculinity. I thought I might experience trolling or worse from certain dark corners of the internet. Fortunately, that hasn’t happened. A few readers have reached out to me to say how much they appreciated it. That meant the world to me.
One thing I have been asked about is the ending of that story and why I chose to subvert expectations and not bring back the mountain lion. And the reason is that I didn’t want to leave the reader with the impression that suddenly everything was going to be all right, that the woman was now healed and ready to move on. I didn’t want the easy out of an epiphany. So it’s sort of an anti-epiphany; the woman realizes she does need to move on, but moving on is going to take work. She’s going to have to put in a lot of effort to get to an okay place with her trauma. That’s why there’s not a standard kind of catharsis there.
BS: You’re so good at naming your characters. What do you think about when you name them?
MS: I think about the inherent qualities of a name; what makes a Justin a Justin and a Molly a Molly.
But there’s been research on this kind of thing, too! It’s called “sound symbolism.” Apparently, when names contain sonorant consonants (“l” or “m”), sounds we associate as being more smooth or flowing, we also expect that person to be more agreeable, kind, and conscientious. Conversely, when names contain voiceless stop consonants (“k” or “t”), we also expect that person to be more assertive or extroverted. There’s no evidence that’s actually the case, though, when it comes to people.
More broadly, I also think about how my characters speak—would a character talk in long, winding, paratactic sentences, listing and piling on coordinating conjunction after coordinating conjunction? Or would that character be more hypotactic, employing levels of subordination? Laird, the science teacher character in “Camp Jabberwocky,” speaks more hypotactically, seemingly methodically, for example. The mother in “Not Setsuko” probably speaks and thinks, on the surface, most simply, in declarative sentences with not a lot of stylistic variation. But that’s because what she’s describing—controlling her daughter to the point where she’s staging her memories—is so disturbing that it’s more effective to have sentences that don’t draw attention to themselves. I didn’t want the sentences to distract from the horror of what she’s doing. If you can get at the way a character talks you’re more than halfway there to understanding how that character thinks.
I also spend a lot of time thinking on my characters’ histories, where they come from, what their losses or traumas have been. Even if that information doesn’t come up in the story, it influences how they interact with other characters, how I write them. The more I read about psychology or how we process those losses or traumas, the better I am at writing characters, too. With the mother in “Not Setsuko,” yes, her project is monstrous, but it comes from a universal psychological place. We’re often trying to re-create happy times or hoping to subvert and “heal” trauma by re-creating an iteration of it that is the same but different in the present. Despite how much technology advances, I don’t think our basic mental processes and patterns will ever change that much. We’ll always be aching to fulfill our needs, sometimes via unhealthy coping, and reckoning with the past.
BS: We’ll always need other people, or the illusion of other people?
MS: Yes, though I’m interested in how technology allows us to almost double down in our patterns and coping or how it can more starkly reveal them, reveal trauma. The stories in my collection all have that in common. Most of us want to find a life partner, but what happens to our instincts for empathy and connection, how are they twisted, when people become infinitely replaceable, upgradeable? We’ll always have to endure the stages of grief, but what happens when technology enables you to linger in those stages, to insist upon not moving on? What happens when you can live in the illusion that you’ve never lost your daughter because you’ve cloned her, as in “Not Setsuko”?
I’m not sure I have any good solutions as to how our ethics or personalities twist in response and how we can untwist them, but I hope I’ve brought forward interesting situations to consider.
BS: Anti-rejection pills, anti-death pills, put another quarter in the slot and you can live again for a couple seconds.
MS: It’s funny—normally, in terms of “anti-rejection drugs,” I’d think of immunosuppressants that enable the body to function with transplanted organs. And that makes me think of “Keith Prime,” the first story in the collection, about clones, all named Keith, raised in comas to provide spare biological parts for rich people. There’s also the idea mentioned in that story about “bespoke Keiths,” tailored to individual genomes, so as to eliminate the need altogether for anti-rejection drugs. It feels right to more fully delve into the Keiths since we’ve already touched on “Not Setsuko,” the last story in the book that also involves doubling. Here, again, that mind-body connection comes up; I’ve read that the same part of the brain responds to emotional pain as it does to corporeal pain. They’ve seen the same part of it “light up” in MRI machines in medical studies on the subject. And apparently, taking aspirin can assist with emotional pain similar to how it helps relieve physical pain. It can also reduce empathy. Maybe the person getting rejected, as well as their rejector, could just take an aspirin.
Beyond that, there’s research into how your gut flora can affect your mood. I think we probably woefully underestimate just how much our minds are influenced by our cells. Or how much our cells remember.
BS: What is your first memory that you can place in time?
MS: Just these enormous high drifts of snow. It could snow so intensely in Minnesota when I was growing up. I remember it piling up into these big mounds on the sides of streets. I wonder if it still snows as hard there in the winters now, considering the effects of climate change. One winter, when I was very little, I got really sick with an ear infection—I had a dangerously high fever—and there was a blizzard happening at the same time. Everything was shutting down, including pharmacies, and I needed antibiotics badly. It was almost impossible to drive, too, but my dad borrowed one of those personal snowplows from a neighbor. He drove it all the way to the pharmacy in the snow to get medication for me. That’s the kind of thing, even though I don’t remember it, that gets inside your cells, I think. I have these very vivid memories of snow.
Mary South is a graduate of Northwestern University and the MFA program in fiction at Columbia University, where she was a chosen for a Henfield scholarship. For many years, she has worked with Diane Williams as an editor at the literary journal NOON. She is also a former intern in The New Yorker’s fiction department and a Bread Loaf work-study fellow. Her writing has appeared in The Believer, The Collagist, Conjunctions, Electric Literature, NewYorker.com, NOON, and Words Without Borders. The writer Maile Meloy awarded her story “Not Setsuko” an honorable mention in the Zoetrope: All Story fiction contest. Her debut story collection, You Will Never Be Forgotten, is available from FSG Originals.She lives in New York.