April Ayers Lawson’s first collection of stories, Virgin and Other Stories (out November 1st from Farar, Straus and Giroux), embodies anew the Southern Gothic, with its twisted, oft-hackneyed Christian traditions, sexual hunger, and isolated yearning. In today’s secular literary climate, transgressive and unnerving fiction from a Christian Southern author is a rare find — and rarer still is the quality of subjects and craft in these stories. Virgin and Other Stories emerges from a brilliant young mind, living open-eyed through transgression.
Winner of the Paris Review’s coveted Plimpton Prize, Lawson is a Christian author from South Carolina. Her stories are comprised of sexually hungry people, still reeling from childhood transgressions and abuse, living with palpable desire and double-edged faith. She unflinchingly creates a world in characters: one that is entirely whole, and in conversation with itself as a unified world. On the verge of fracture — but bound, mortared, and haunted by faith — these characters patiently take the world over, giving themselves over to temptation in hopes of finding bonds beyond the walls of inner scarring.
Art is the final constant in this work — Lawson deftly marries faith and sex to art, and many of her characters are artists of various mediums. For instance, the narrator in the final story is painter who paints portraits of men, and seeks out subjects who remind her of the men who first violated her as a child. The collection also hosts a failed gothic musician turned piano instructor as she cares for an ailing brother who preys on her underage students, an array of writers and filmmakers, a homeschooled boy who has sexual fantasies involving a famous artist’s work and attraction to his Christian mother’s transgender best friend, and three female writers caught in a sexual triangle in a hammock at a dinner party.
As a collection, Virgin and Other Stories is so unified that it’s more like novel, or a film, or perhaps something outside of our categories. The contents are mesmeric and potent, profoundly masterful. In six faithful stories, I was knocked out of my orbit into hers, entirely.
LUKE B. GOEBEL: I get the feeling that if all the Gideon Bibles were to be stolen from hotels across the country, a copy of Virgin and Other Stories could well-suffice in bringing solace to any person in need.
APRIL AYERS LAWSON: Now that you’ve created this flattering scenario, I can’t help but picture you stealing them. While Virgin and Other Stories is certainly no replacement for the Bible, I do hope it could get someone through a dark night of the soul, as some books have occasionally done for me.
Are your parents of faith? How do they respond to your work?
My parents are Christian. We’re quite different — I’m considered the weird child — but they’ve always been and continue to be supportive and proud of what I do creatively. They never tried to persuade me to direct myself towards something more practical, like some parents might’ve, I think.
How do the themes of sexual transgression and faith intersect?
When I shape things it becomes pretty abstract, in the sense that I’m thinking about pattern, about tensions and contrast, about elements clicking to form a picture that feels complete in composition to me. I tape the pages on the wall. I approach it kind of like a mental painting. Feeling a sense of transgression is very valuable artistically because it puts a kind of pressure and energy behind the words. I’m a physical person, but not a violent one, and feelings of sexual transgression are usually more accessible and interesting to me. Also, sexual transgression can be wonderfully complicated because lust can lead to love or love can lead to lust.
Transgression and religious faith are intertwined in the sense that for me to write about something transgressive — for it to come off as that, to have that kind of tension and pressure — I have to be writing through the lens of my sense of right and wrong, which is influenced by my religion, by a belief in God (pointing to a meaning greater than the meaning I construct personally) and, whether or not I agree with it, by the stigma of some things I was taught by people growing up. So in that sense, yes, it’s very much connected.
You begin the collection with a dedication to your grandmother, including a lovely verse from the Bible (Timothy), which is a call to power, faith, and action over frailty, doubt, and negativity. How did you come to choose the dedication and verse attached to it?
My grandmother Francis came from a background of extreme poverty. Her father abandoned the family, she had a young sister, and when she was in eighth grade she dropped out of school and lied about her age to get a job at the hospital, which was at that time run by nuns. The nuns found out she was lying and the mother superior confronted her about it alone in the chapel; my grandmother, after the nun repeatedly addressed her as a Child Of God, told her the truth and was allowed to stay anyway, because of her situation. She liked to tell stories and when she was older she wrote in a journal at night. The journal was for me. She spoke with a lot of rhythm, sometimes in a sort of musical or poetic way, and she could be rather bold and dramatic. Under other circumstances she might’ve had a lot more schooling, and written in the professional sense. But in her world, the idea of it would’ve never been entertained. She went out of her way to instill in me that I was totally accepted by her, however I was. I wanted her name at the front of the book. She made sacrifices that made it possible. To me, the verse communicates something about her spirit.
How do contemporary audiences resonate with your stories — stories that address faith and unflinching sexual desire at once?
Everyone who forms some belief about our origin and purpose, or lack thereof, has faith in something — even atheism requires faith. And most people are sexual beings. So I think a lot of people can relate to it. A lot of people wrote me nice things about “Virgin” when it came out in the Paris Review. When I worked at Emory, a man wrote me several emails in a threatening, overly familiar tone, warning me of how I’d suffer when the apocalypse came and I assumed he was sending them to everyone who taught in creative writing — our emails were on a web page — but I found out he was just sending them to me. That said, I’ve gotten a couple of other disturbing messages from strangers that have nothing to do with religion and sexual transgression intersecting in my stories. I don’t think it’s a huge deal to most people who read my stuff; I think the majority of people who read them get my stories.
How do you write stories that feel so effortless, and yet take so much into the aperture of eyes and heart? Is it a slow process?
You are being very generous in your assessment of my work; thanks. My process is usually something like: I start a lot of things that don’t seem to hit the right place; so I start again; and again; and again. I become desperate, despairing, sometimes self-loathing (when I was younger I’d cry and kind of want to not exist — and this goes to before writing, back when I did visual art, as far back as when I was a kid and through my twenties); then, somehow, after I think I’ve given up, a part of me is still going, hits a vein; then once that happens something else takes over; I’m in the flow and a deeper, smarter part of me, my intuition, is running things and it does what it does without my more surface facet of self being able to understand how.
The achieved-simulacrum of your short fictions, as well as your narrator in “The Negative Effects of Homeschooling,” remind me of Salinger. Have you heard that before?
No. I know you love finding traces of imitation, and that you’re good at it. But that story is not where I directly borrowed from Salinger; it’s somewhere else you apparently haven’t noticed — and I’m not saying where!
The narrators of your stories feel too-close-to-the-nerve to be made up; they feel more like eyeholes, lenses toward you, or perhaps something even bigger. Do you feel exposed by your work? How does it feel to write and publish stories that are this sincere?
For me to really get into writing a story I have to get to a state in which what comes out feels inevitable rather than constructed. It’s maybe a little like method acting. Some parts of my stories are very fictional and other parts draw pretty directly from life — though I’d never say which was which — and the funny thing is that people will often enough think what I made up happened to me and what happened to me I made up. What I do make up — well it feels as real to me as a memory. It feels like something that happened. I will have to remind myself: such-and-such didn’t actually happen to you in physical life; you wrote that. That means what I write changes me, in a way. I find myself changed both by what I make up, by what comes out that I in no way saw coming, and by how I construct what comes more directly from life. In that way — because it feels spiritually transformative — writing can feel like a mystical experience for me. And my more baseline self can be intimidated by that deeper level of being that can do things my more baseline self couldn’t do; doesn’t know how to do.
But it isn’t like this is happening all the time — this being in the flow, the sense of mysticism, transformation. I have really frustrating and despairing writing days too, much more often. I go through periods where writing seems meaningless to me. If it were always some intense mystical experience, I doubt I could stand that. I know I couldn’t. I’m not equipped to go through that all the time; it has gotten more intense than it used to be. With the last story in the book it got pretty upsetting in the sense that if I went somewhere afterwards I couldn’t shake off the high from the flow state. It was a discomfiting high that I remember not being able to snap out of in the grocery store while I was trying to shop, and I felt worried other people would notice. I am guessing this happens to a number of other writers — this weird trance state that you can’t enter into or shake off as easily as you’d like. People who don’t write stories might read this and be like, Seriously? It takes you going through that kind of ordeal just to write a story? Yep, it apparently does.
Exposure, the feeling of it, gives me a sense of risk that translates to energy. Yet at the same time, once a story is out, it’s like the past.
I couldn’t read your collection without having my own worlds evoked: hackneyed Christianity as practiced in cultish homemade churches in my childhood, and my own trauma from it; feelings of goodness, comfort, sexual trauma, alienation, yearning.
I’m glad it had that effect on you. I see no point in writing something that doesn’t in some way make me feel exposed, and so it will never be totally comfortable to publish. I don’t think it should be. I think you totally get this — I see you doing things that I’d assume would make you feel really exposed. When we’re talking about art — I don’t want to read something that fails to make its author feel vulnerable in some way. Connection and intimacy requires vulnerability on both the page and in life.
Am I right in finding these six stories connected to one another in some solar system of relation around faith, shame, trauma, sex, goodness, hope, and desire?
You’re right that that’s where a lot of the tensions repeatedly come from. But it’s not something I planned. Consciously I often enough feel more interest in having characters have conversations I find amusing than writing into these areas. I don’t concern myself with how it all connects because I don’t have to; it does that naturally.
What is the role of God in your work, both as product and process?
I pray about writing. Sometimes before writing. I prayed a lot during the writing of the last story especially.
Characters in the book often are unable to speak about the things that are so overwhelmingly alive in their inner worlds. You shared with me that you were unable to speak at some point in your childhood. Would you talk about this and about its role in your work?
I had a condition called “selective mutism.” For about two years I didn’t speak at school. Other kids teased me about it. I exhibited characteristics that I guess at the surface level sound pretty Aspergian, like not making much eye contact, being overwhelmed by external stimuli, carrying myself kind of stiffly, having weird bursts of intense anger, and being really socially awkward and depressed about feeling alienated in a way I couldn’t understand. As I got older I started to talk more but I still had terrible social anxiety. The more I wrote, the easier it became to talk to people, I think because I often didn’t know what I thought until I wrote it. And so writing gave me a more solid sense of self that made it possible to deal with and connect to other people. Nowadays I notice that when I don’t write, I resist being social more. If I’m not writing, it can get to the point where just making a phone call is a huge ordeal.
I found the ability to speak in the book as having sexual power and the ability to see as sexually threatening. Does this resonate in any way as true?
That’s interesting, but I don’t know. Speaking in general can be viewed as being empowering but it does seem particularly meaningful in the context of abuse, for people who’ve been abused. I don’t think it’s seeing itself that is sexually threatening. I think seeing someone as very attractive can feel threatening emotionally because that person in attracting you has some sort of power over you; or, in other words, that person can hurt you. The kind of letting go that comes with sexual feeling can be threatening. I think it’s normal to sometimes be unnerved by someone you’re attracted to, at least initially; if it weren’t, it wouldn’t be exciting.
The last story is genius; it’s a perfect way to complete the cycles of story and trauma. How did it come to you?
Thank you. Its creation was intense, feverish, and demanding. I began writing it at Starbucks. Then at my desk for seven to nine hour stretches (which for me is really long). On the morning of finishing it I was alone at my parents’ house and in going downstairs to get coffee saw a white hawk swoop towards the window by which I was passing and land on the porch railing, facing me. It perched there and held eye contact with me for about two minutes and then took off.
The printed material on the front inside flap of your book cover ends with the statement that these stories may be about what happens: “when we succumb to temptation.” Do you see it that way? If so, is temptation the work of God? How is temptation part of your work?
No, that is not how I saw it, but it makes sense to me that someone else could see it like that. I don’t think of my stories as being lessons in any way, of being instructional. I don’t know how to describe them in a marketable way and so I appreciate the description on the jacket. I would not say that God tempts us but that he makes use of it. God and Story can be similar in that through them our lowest, darkest moments become transformed by light, and the worst downfall makes possible the glory of salvation.