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“The houses in the hills are bad at being real”: Meghan Lamb on Spaces, Liminality, and Bodies


The innovative in-between spaces in Meghan Lamb’s writing, at once so gentle and unsettled, have long arrested me. Her intellectual, emotional, and sensory intelligences merge to create multidimensional language-realms of a flavor I seldom encounter. It was a privilege to interview her earlier this year about even more such realms in her new book, All of Your Most Private Places.

Carolyn Zaikowski: Considering the title of your new book, perhaps I shouldn’t have been surprised about its stunning, constant sense of place, location, and sensory detail. With almost every sentence, words in this book can be experienced as a meditation, often quite subtle, on the sensory and psychological aspects of setting. Different towns, fortresses, types of rooms and living situations, acts of traveling, industrialization, and cities vs. natural spaces, parties, clubs, peep shows, a simulated nuclear testing site; juxtaposed spaces, like an overwatered golf course vs. a mountain, allusions to emptiness—can you speak about what drove this theme?

Meghan Lamb: This is a wonderful question. It would probably take another even weirder book to answer it fully! Ultimately, I think the essence of my space-obsession is rooted in the ways I communicate and—perhaps more precisely—the ways I remember. I have a lot of social anxiety and I suck at oral processing, so I struggle to access those kinds of details—dialogic details—when I’m mining my memory for material. Additionally, I’m one of those shocking humans who doesn’t really have an internal monologue (and always felt like those voice-over style, epiphanic interior moments were kind of stagey and false). As I struggle with the kinds of details I think I’m supposed to remember—the kinds of details that are supposed to be narratively important—atmospheric, sensory details like the smell of air, the shape of a lake, or the repetitive sound of a sprinkler machine rise from the fog and consume my imagination. So, I use place to suggest tensions and ideas beneath the surface, not because I’m trying to test the reader, and certainly not because there’s a single, secret meaning behind all these sensory details, but because any other kind of writing would feel fake to me, like a bad mimicry of life and lived experience.

Even if readers don’t necessarily share my strange mode of processing the world, I think everyone can appreciate the ways sensation and setting take over in emotionally overwhelming situations. Everyone has had at least one of those significant life moments where the fight or flight response kicks in, normal perception flies out the window, and is suddenly replaced by small details…things that would otherwise seem insignificant or meaningless. I’m kind of fascinated by that response, by the ways we can subconsciously transform a space simply by noticing things. The way a small detail can make even the most familiar space seem entirely new. In a way, I guess that fascination also drives my interest in juxtaposing spaces. It’s a similar, albeit mostly subconscious, narrative impulse: to reveal something new about space, to show how two spaces are simultaneously so alike and so different.

Zaikowski: Is this book a meditation on liminal spaces, too? There are so many in-between moments, both literally, in the sense of travel, and metaphorically, in the sense of the psychology of the characters and places.

Lamb: Oh, absolutely! My husband and I travel a lot and move around a lot for work, averaging about five or six major moves per year. I often feel a sense of in-betweenness wherever I happen to be living. I feel like I’m only partially there in the present. The rest of me is divided between the last place we lived in, the place(s) we’re planning to move to, and some ethereal amalgamation of past-spaces and past-selves.

I think technology has also really intensified our in-betweenness. As we move around through space, both over the years and from day-to-day, we carry the Internet with us, this portable space that serves the strange function of blending (and, to some degree, homogenizing) lived space. I’ve been thinking about this a lot because my husband and I recently moved to a small city in Hungary called Szombathely, and the Internet often goes out where we live, sometimes for days at a time. When we have the Internet, Szombathely feels safe in its in-betweenness: partially unfamiliar, but partially an extension of this portable, universal Internet space. Whenever we lose the Internet, I think we become overwhelmed with the weight of the city’s strangeness, inundated with reminders of our not-belonging. Gravity descends upon us; liminality assumes a certain weight. It ceases to be this light, ethereal thing we can choose to notice or not notice.

I hope that in this collection, the stories with sedentary spaces, like “Inventory” and “Afraid of the Rain”, access that sense of liminality just as much as the travel stories, like “Loyalty” and “Indoor/Outdoor.” We’re always traveling, always in some liminal state of development, even if we don’t quite recognize where we’re going or where we are.

Zaikowski: The expression of the body as a location is also striking in this collection. The theme of sex and sexuality, particularly in the sense of fantasy and objectification, rolls in and out of various sections. Death of the body also comes up in uncanny moments and mini-moments. Do you have a sense of meditating on the body itself as a location? As liminal? Something else?

Lamb: When I was writing these stories, I don’t think I ever made a conscious connection between bodies and liminal spaces, but I feel tremendously honored and satisfied that you observed that connection in my book! This was probably an intuitive connection that extended from my work as a caregiver, my weird intimacy with bodies that was always connected to specific institutional spaces, such as the group home for adults with disabilities in “Inventory” and the assisted living facility in “The Widower. “Assisted living” is a weird phrase, isn’t it…a phrase that delicately, nervously whispers its own liminality.

I’m not religious, but I believe in the power of intense physical changes, including death, to bring humans together, to cut through the bullshit and bring out our most essential qualities. Not to digress, but as someone who believes in this power, I’ve greatly appreciated everything you’ve shared about your own work as a death doula.

Zaikowski: Thank you!

Lamb: I also believe, and have observed, that many people who work in caregiving environments have complicated relationships with this power. When you’re constantly participating in these physically and emotionally overwhelming experiences (in these liminal workspaces), it’s hard not to lose touch with yourself. Life feels all foggy and dream-weird outside the walls of assisted living. You squint at people. You wonder why you’re in this body, why you’re alive. When I used to work third shift at a group home, I often felt like my life was a series of waiting rooms. That even when I was active and moving and trying to do things, I was really just pacing the halls between waiting rooms.

What am I saying with this past tense: “used to,” “felt,” “was”? I still feel that way.

Zaikowski: I love your language and the phrase “dream-weird”! This connects to how, in your book, there’s such a lyrical and poetic sensibility, overlaid by elements more commonly associated with narrative fiction. To me, this could be a book of short stories, prose poetry (even little moments that read like “regular,” line-break poetry), hybrid/non-genre, or a novel loosely held together by themes and repetitions. I’ve always wondered about your relationship to genre. Did you consider it, or do you just let a text tell you what it wants to be?

Lamb: I’m really glad the book felt that way, because I definitely wanted it to feel that way! And by “that way,” I mean both fragmented and narratively blended, like a sedimentary stone: a hybrid of tiny little bits and textures cemented together. I think repetition is the element that cements all the disparate pieces. When you see the same thing over and over again, or something that looks the same, you naturally notice difference and change. You appreciate all the paratactical connections between the little bits.

I’m always thinking about repetition and rhythm, both as they pertain to the big undulations in a project and as they pertain to the smaller shifts, fractures, and explosions in each sentence. But genre-wise, I guess I don’t really know what that means. I know that agents seem to think my work is too weird to be marketed as narrative fiction and too narrative to be marketed as experimental fiction. I’m content to live with this in-between space, though. Why shouldn’t writing be hybrid? Life is hybrid. Memory is hybrid. And the narratives that link us aren’t always these grandiose arcs with a clear rise, descent, and resolution. Sometimes the most transformative developments emerge from the same things just happening again (or again and again).

Zaikowski: Couldn’t agree more. People don’t realize how much “genre” is connected to recent developments in the publishing industry, and how fluid “genre” actually is if you look closely, even in mainstream books.

Of all the stunning lines in your text, here are two favorites: “In this space, the only evidence is absence” and “the houses in the hills are bad at being real.” Can you briefly riff on your relationship to these two lines?

Lamb: Ha ha, the first quote is already kind of a sly riff on Donald Rumsfeld’s quote about the absence of nuclear weapons in Iraq, which was itself a riff on a quote from Carl Sagan: “Absence of evidence is not the evidence of absence.” I just always found that quote so poetic and so weirdly true in a way I’m sure defies all of Donald Rumsfeld’s intentions.

The second quote could be a thesis for the collection itself. Being real is a performance. We are all bad at it and totally unequipped to deal with our own badness. So, we project our badness onto our environment, onto other things. And of course, the absurdity of our projections just serves to further illustrate how bad we are at being real.

Zaikowski: Several sections of the book are reminiscent of themes of domesticity and marriage-type relationships seen in your other gorgeous book, Silk Flowers. Is there something about this that reaches out to you, whether consciously or subconsciously? Am I reading too much into this?

Lamb: Marriage is just the most profound and accessible example of two humans desperately longing, trying, and often failing to connect.

Zaikowski: Truer words never spoken.

Lamb: The utter devastation of that failure. The divine, all-encompassing—yet liminal, oh so liminal!—flashes of connection. And the shared (if never fully mutual) experience of day-to-day life, with all its quiet, mundane movements and intimate gestures that serve as a kind of short-hand for both.

Zaikowski: So as a fellow vegan, of course I noticed the moments with animals, including meat/animal as a location of death, which might go under the radar for people who don’t think about this as often as you and I do. Can you speak about animals in relationship to the book?

Lamb: Thank you so much for asking this, Carolyn.

Zaikowski: You know I had to.

Lamb: Admittedly, I’m terrified I won’t provide an adequately articulate answer, and I hope that for just a few moments, I won’t fail at being real.

To begin: I think these kinds of moments don’t fall under most people’s radars so much as people consciously resist them, pushing them from their imaginations. People often dismiss non-human suffering in narrative as being either manipulative—too much, too sad—or somehow unbelievable—less relatable, less real—than human suffering. For example, prior to sending this book to Spork, I (somewhat reluctantly) met with an agent and gave her a copy of “Loyalty” as an example of my work. The agent told me she had a major problem with the deaths of the dogs in this story, that this development was unrealistic and unbelievable. The funny (not ha ha) thing is, this part of the story was based on something my dad actually experienced. He cleaned up my uncle’s house after his death and bonded really deeply with his two Alaskan Malamutes, but made the difficult decision to end their lives when he realized the dogs couldn’t be adopted, that they were too violently “loyal” to my uncle. I experienced similar resistance to that story in workshops, receiving feedback that it was too sad, too maudlin, too much of a tragedy and not enough of a real story.

I wonder a lot about that resistance, about who gets to prioritize what a real story is.

I also wonder about the criticism that vegans—and/or people who devote themselves to issues of animal welfare—don’t care enough about humans. I get where the criticism is coming from; there’s just so much human suffering in the world that people question your priorities, and your awareness of that suffering, when you observe the suffering of nonhuman animals. But whether we acknowledge it or not, humans are animals, and so much of our suffering is enmeshed in the same messy problem—who gets to prioritize what a real story is, and who gets to tell it.

Zaikowski: And maybe I run in unusual circles, but I can genuinely say I’ve never met an animal rights activist who didn’t care about human rights—often way more than the general population. It’s a straw man argument, like feminists hating men.

Lamb: I try to pay homage to this problem in the title story of All of Your Most Private Places, with my dual references to the homeless woman, who dies, unacknowledged within the story’s diegesis, and the desert animals, who also die, their homes destroyed by the explosion. In the story, I position the fake human houses with their mannequin families as more narratively real than these real deaths. I want this positioning to feel weird and wrong. I want the deaths of the homeless woman and the desert animals to be noticed by the reader because they are not noticed by the story.

Zaikowski: Which creative works have inspired you?

Lamb: Way too many to count, and I know some really critical books will slip my mind because I don’t have most of my books with me in Szombathely. But the most influential texts definitely include Nightwork, by Christine Schutt; The Dog of the Marriage, by Amy Hempel; Mauve Desert, by Nicole Brossard; The Sky Is Not Blue, by Janice Lee; Her 37th Year: An Index, by Suzanne Scanlon; Creature, by Amina Cain; Don’t Let Me Be Lonely, by Claudia Rankine; No Other, by Mark Gluth; A Bestiary, by Lily Hoang; Journey by Moonlight, by Antal Szerb; To the Friend Who Did Not Save My Life, by Hervé Guibert; The Disintegrations, by Alistair McCartney; Stories in the Worst Way and Assisted Living, by Gary Lutz; Autoportrait, by Édouard Levé; No Longer Human and The Setting Sun, by Osamu Dazai; Owls Do Cry and Faces in the Water, by Janet Frame; everything by Marguerite Duras, everything by Yasunari Kawabata, everything by Sarah Kane, and everything by Anna Kavan (even her kind of mediocre early realist novels—Kavan in particular has been a constant inspiration to me as a writer who reinvented herself over and over again, who forged her own voice from the tragic rage-fires of her experience).

I’ve also been deeply inspired by the slow-paced, atmospheric films of Béla Tarr and Tsai Ming-liang. I could probably spend the rest of my life just writing odes to Lee Kang-sheng and his amazing, subtly expressive face, his fascinating breed of masculinity, the way he so beautifully embodies so many kinds of loneliness.

Zaikowski: That’s an incredible list! So, are you working on any upcoming writing projects, then?

Lamb: I love that this conversation focuses so much on space and liminality, because both books I’m working on deal intently with these subject arenas (in very different, arguably even opposite, ways).

I’m currently editing (well, not actively editing so much as sitting with, mediating over) a finished manuscript entitled Failure to Thrive. I’m calling it a novel because it’s probably the closest thing I’ll ever write to a novel. I have no idea if it’s a novel. I have no idea if it’s real.

Failure to Thrive follows the interconnected stories of three families as they navigate issues of disability, illness, and substance abuse in a former coal town. A landscape that is itself sick. A married couple argues over how to raise their neuroatypical child. A nurse cares for her aging father, processing guilt over her former addiction. A young man returns home after experiencing a traumatic brain injury, rediscovering a space where the past and present bleed uncannily together. Meanwhile, a two hundred-year mine fire burns beneath the town, a whispering dread that pervades the atmosphere.

(And yes, in case you were wondering, that’s my elevator pitch for the book. Make of it what you will.)

Zaikowski: That sounds amazing.

Lamb: To make a long story short, I felt like I had a lot of unfinished business in terms of space writing after “finishing” this book, this project that’s so closely embedded in space, even if it’s just my imagination of space. To be more precise: I felt like I had to write something that engaged more directly with my complex subjectivities, living in and writing this space as an outsider. So, I’m working on a book of essays on space and disappearance that explores the complex relationships I’ve developed, or failed to develop, with territories I’ve liminally inhabited.

Stay tuned as I try to/pretend to figure out what all of that means!

  • Carolyn Zaikowski is the author of the hybrid novels In a Dream, I Dance by Myself, and I Collapse and A Child Is Being Killed. Her fiction, poetry, essays, and hybrid work have appeared in such publications as The Washington Post, West Branch, Denver Quarterly, The Rumpus, PANK, DIAGRAM, and Everyday Feminism. She holds an MFA from Naropa University.

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