Conversations Between Friends: Gale Massey and Louise Marburg
Gale Massey and Louise Marburg met in 2016 at the Sewanee Writers’ Conference over a tarot card consultation. Discovering a shared interest in exploring the dark side of human nature, they immediately clicked and have been friends and writing peers ever since. In this conversation, they discuss class and privilege, writing characters of different sexual orientations, the intuitive process of discovering a new story, and their mutual attraction to the “unlikeable.”
Gale Massey: Just to start us off I want to say how much I loved reading No Diving Allowed! Your stories have been described by Margot Livesey as fearless, and indeed, many of the stories in this collection go straight to the heart of topics many writers would struggle to build into a short story. I was particularly drawn in by “Identical” and the adamantly obtuse parents in regard to their twin sons’ mutual hatred and aggression toward each other. We politely call that sibling rivalry, but I suspect this level of hatred is more common than we suspect. That same theme is played out between sisters in “Play Nice, Be Good.” What pushes you as a writer to dive so deeply into topics that might be considered taboo?
Louise Marburg: Thanks, Gale! I loved Rising and Other Stories, and I think our collections thematically have much in common. It hadn’t occurred to me that my topics are “taboo,” but I am very much interested in the dark side of human nature, and how badly people will behave given the opportunity. It has been said that an author should write what they know, and while in adulthood I know many kind, generous people, as a kid it seemed to me that all the adults in my orbit were capable of being reprehensible. Now, looking back, I am fascinated by how people can seem perfectly okay but in fact be dishonest or greedy or aggressive or whatever—you name the bad characteristic. As I was writing No Diving Allowed, I jokingly called it “Terrible People Swimming.” Unlikeable people abound in my stories because I’ve known so many, and aren’t they really more interesting to write about than likable ones?
Certainly, you’re no stranger to writing unlikable characters! Where do your characters come from and what attracts you to them? The breath was knocked out of me by the character Angel in “Differences,” a seemingly ordinary girl who pushes her friend into the Grand Canyon by casually touching the girl’s chest as she teeters at the edge. Wow! Now that is a bad act. Who is Angel? I’d love to know. Many of your characters go further into the dark side than mine would dare, and I admire your boldness in creating them.
GM: Like you, I grew up knowing many despicable people. Maybe everyone does but as children, you and I were observers making mental notes. I didn’t start writing until later in life and needless to say, by then, I had a lot to work with. Perhaps the price bad actors pay is that some children will grow up and write about them as fictional characters. Angel is the answer to the question of how a bully who isn’t getting her way might respond with annoyance to another human’s grief. A lot of my characters are about a basically good person running headlong into someone who is devoid of empathy.
So much of my writing seems to be my way of working out questions regarding evil. These questions have haunted me my whole life. What is its origin? How can people be so cruel to each other? It seems more and more prevalent in the world; I think as a byproduct of social media. My fiction is how I try to work through these questions. Our stories seem to have that in common.
Your stories are very dark and edgy. That’s why they are so compelling! Deception plays a major role in the relationships between your characters, especially in “Talk to Me,” where a man and woman marry and all is not revealed until the honeymoon. That guy! Wow. I do admire how you don’t pull any punches or let any one group of humans off the hook.
LM: You’re right, I don’t let anyone off the hook! Maybe that’s because people wriggle off the hook so much in life, and I am the type of person who wants everyone to apologize for bad acts when apology is in fact quite rare. And I find your approach to exploring cruelty and evil in the world to be fascinating and enlightening. My own characters can be nasty or deceptive or just have terrible personalities, but I don’t think any of them are truly evil. I insert a lot of dark humor into my stories, so even the worst behavior can end up being somewhat funny—not always, but often. I see some kind of humor in practically everything; I laugh a lot, so it stands to reason that attitude would flow into my fiction. What I think about is the almost-normal-but-not-normal behaviors and attitudes that are so common now and probably always have been.
Striking to me when I read Rising is that our collections have in common these unlikable characters and an interest in the darker side of human nature, but the socioeconomic status of our characters and the settings in which they live are polar opposites. When I think of the characters and settings in your stories, the word “hardscrabble” comes to mind. I grew up in a wealthy, deeply screwed-up, suburban East Coast family, and I draw from that well in my work. Can you discuss the well you drew from in Rising?
GM: Can I just say how much I love the word “hardscrabble” and that you used it in reference to my stories? Having watched my mother raise five kids by herself and stretch a few dollars of groceries over a week’s worth of meals, I am very interested in telling stories that show the impact of poverty on families. I’m particularly interested in blowing up the myth that people can simply rise out of poverty via self-determination and that scarcity of resources can be overcome by perseverance. Impoverished school systems, hunger, and lack of safe spaces have long-term mental and physical impacts on millions of children. From a writer’s perspective, characters from impoverished backgrounds bring up questions that create interesting storylines. The question the story tries to answer is built into the character’s identity. How does a young woman aging out of an economically crushed and dysfunctional family create her future? What options are available to her? Or, how does a young man from a similar background find the courage to own his sexual orientation and navigate his community? As a result of living as an out-lesbian woman, I’ve borne witness to many coming-out processes. Not only do these characters have built-in hurdles to jump in terms of building a story around them, but they are pertinent because as a culture we are grappling to widen inclusion for the LGBTQI population. Their stories are important to the larger conversation, and I want to give them a voice.
So, that’s the well I drew from in writing Rising but in terms of bad actors and the darkness humans are capable of, it seems our wells tap into the same eternal spring. Can you talk about your process? Do you begin a story with a character in mind? Is it your sense that you are creating characters or is it more accurate to say you are channeling them? I was recently asked this question and find it intriguing.
LM: I usually begin a story with a character in mind, though sometimes I just write something, anything—a description of a place or a notion of some kind—until a character appears. I definitely feel my characters are more channeled than created; they often do and say things that I find completely surprising. That surprise is the magic I love, and I don’t think I’m alone in that; authors have often spoken of their characters wresting control. It’s odd and marvelous. Eventually I come to inhabit a character, almost as if I am acting, and I know I’m on the right track when I feel utterly comfortable in that. At the moment I’m writing linked stories that feature the same main character and she is such a handful, so full of surprises, that it’s a little exhausting.
My process is intuitive. I start a story very slowly and will take long breaks—sometimes for days—to absorb and consider what I’ve written so far and what it’s telling me to write next. I cannot just sit down and bang out something; I tiptoe very quietly until I reach the point where what I need to do becomes clear, and then I write fast and furiously. It’s like climbing up one side of a hill and sledding down the other. But that sitting and staring and pondering is absolutely necessary; I don’t pressure myself to write. I move forward when I feel ready.
You talk about your interest in the impact of poverty. I am interested in the impact of wealth, which can be very negative indeed. I love your stories. I wonder if I would love mine had I not written them. How close do you feel to your characters? I am straight and yet sometimes write gay characters. You are gay and often write straight characters. We clearly have no problem inhabiting people different from ourselves—as any good writer can—but how far from your own experience do you feel comfortable taking them? Sometimes I feel I don’t stretch as far as I could and should.
GM: I love hearing about your process! It sounds as if you have really accepted and cultivated what works best for you and I admire that a great deal. And that you take your time to sit and ponder. For me, it’s daydreaming. I’ve always been a big daydreamer, as noted in my early report cards from school. It’s very interesting how we investigate such similar themes from such different perspectives. Somehow, we each get to the human dilemma by taking different paths. There’s no doubt in my mind that I would love your stories, but I will confess that I love them more because I know the person who birthed them.
I’m excited to hear you are working on linked stories with a main character who is a handful. How fun! I do write across a wide spectrum. My next project is based on the character from the story in my collection, “Freedom’s Just Another Word.” Toby is a young gay man from a homophobic family who is in the process of defining for himself what family is and is not, and what it means to be a man. It’s very interesting to put myself in his shoes and use my personal experience of homophobia to tell his story.
It seems to me that we don’t necessarily choose the stories we tell, and isn’t writing itself a stretch of the imagination? Maybe diving deep and writing linked stories that feature the same main character is the stretch you are looking for. Sorry for the pun, but No Diving Allowed is such a great title. I can’t wait to read your next offerings.
As I read these stories I’m reminded of the question that haunts me as a writer—How well can we ever know or understand another human?—which is illustrated beautifully in “The Bottom of the Deep End.”
I’m interested in how you build stories from the underside of human nature, the lies and grudges, the power differentials, that are often the cornerstone of lifelong relationships. Here, I’m thinking about “Wildebeests,” where you tackle the seldom-discussed issue of marital rape that Gail suffers as a result of wanting to end her marriage. Another hard look at marriage is explored in “All Pies Look Delicious,” which is a bold look at dementia and the wreckage it has on relationships.
LM: I think everyone operates on two levels, the “acceptable” level and a deeper level that consists of anger, envy, sexual needs, despair—all the negative emotions and desires we seldom talk about. In “The Bottom of the Deep End,” the protagonist, Sarah, wants to be asked if she’s sad. Yet she thinks, “I would have said I wasn’t. Desperately I wanted to confess my unhappiness, but just as desperately I wanted to hide it.” At the same time, her uncle presents a happy façade that is belied by his manner of death. This is what I am interested in—how people will both wear a façade and act out what lies beneath.
Your next project sounds exciting. In my story, “Pulling Toward Meanness,” I write about a lesbian couple. I’ve been asked how I’m able to get inside the head of someone whose sexual orientation is different from mine. I find it to be about as difficult as getting into the head of any character. We all share human problems and emotions regardless of our gender or orientation. Admittedly, had I never known anyone gay, I might have a harder time with it, though maybe not; I can only wonder about that, but I don’t think we’re only capable of writing our experience. As a woman, how are you liking the process of inhabiting a gay man?
GM: I’m enjoying it quite a lot. Writing from a gay male character’s perspective allows for more space to explore issues of gender fluidity that have intrigued me ever since I was little and forced to wear stiff-laced dresses to school. Maybe that’s why I’m drawn to this character. There are societal constraints on gays, especially here in the South—I’m a seventh-generation Floridian—that add layers of complexity to the story.
I’m intrigued by the comments about façades and what lies beneath. Were there any surprises for you in writing “Pulling Toward Meanness”? Did you set out to write about the masks that people present to the outer world knowing that the story would end with the uncle’s death? The inner reality versus the exterior façade is evident in all these stories. That dynamic is what makes each story so powerful. The inevitable surprise of these two elements colliding packs a lot of power.
LM: There are always surprises for me when I write any story. I did not, for instance, expect the husband in “Wildebeest” to rape his wife, nor did I plot the death of the uncle in “The Bottom of the Deep End.” I don’t know that I’ll ever give up my interest in the dark side. My forthcoming book, You Have Reached Your Destination, has some pretty extreme characters, but when I write them, I don’t think of them as extreme at all! I think of them as ordinary people showing themselves in sometimes extraordinary ways. My childhood community was solidly upper-middle class, but despite the façade of entitlement and sophistication, terrible things happened—people went crazy or behaved badly or had affairs—and everyone had a swimming pool! Thus, the connecting theme for No Diving Allowed, which also came as a surprise. I hadn’t realized I’d been using swimming pools in stories until I’d written three or four.
The difference between our characters is that yours don’t hide behind façades, they are what they are without apology. I was sort of left open-mouthed by the things they did, and I liked that; it’s bracing. I think my people are sneakier!
GM: I have to agree! Let’s talk about how we evolve as writers. In an effort to grow I’m changing up how I approach writing. In the past, I’ve only written when I was moved to or when I had a deadline. I found that I had developed a tortured relationship with writing. It had become something of a joke that I would openly state how much I hated writing but loved having written. When I took a step back from that, I wondered why in the world would I continue doing something that didn’t bring me joy. I almost walked away from the work, but I had a long discussion with another writer who convinced me that if I teased out the goal of writing from the goal of being published, I could find joy in the practice again. With his help, I’ve set up a daily routine. Now, I write every day. It seems to be a pitfall that writers fall into. Once we begin getting our work out there, the goals of writing and publishing start to merge. It’s been very helpful to refocus on the purpose of what I’m trying to do, which is storytelling, and keeping a looser grasp on the publishing aspect. This approach has given me a sense of ease; that, indeed, is bringing me joy.
LM: As a writer of short stories, I receive rejections from literary journals more often than I receive acceptances, and with every collection I write comes the very real possibility that it will never be published. That uncertainty frees me from writing with a view to publishing—and in fact many of my stories never are published. It’s impossible to create a work of art that everyone loves, or to precisely predict its audience; I’m always surprised by who ends up accepting a particular story or collection. For instance, in my forthcoming collection the protagonists are all women, so I assumed if the book were acquired, the publisher would be a woman. Not so! The collection was picked up by a press that’s run by three men. But if I were writing a novel, I think I would feel much more pressure about publishing, and of course that would affect my attitude toward writing. Relatively few people read my work, and from a creative standpoint, that is kind of a gift. Hard on the ego, though!
My particular challenge isn’t sitting down to write, it’s trying to eradicate the boundaries of what I write about. After I finished my most recent collection, I found myself continuing to write the same kind of stories. So, I stopped writing so furiously and took a long break to shake out some new themes. I think my current work in progress is very different for me. Will it be published? Who knows, but it’s exciting to create.
LOUISE MARBURG is the author of three collections of stories, You Have Reached Your Destination (October 2022; EastOver Press; winner of the EastOver Prize for Fiction), No Diving Allowed (2021; Regal House Publishing; winner of the W.H. Porter Prize), and The Truth About Me (2017; WTAW Press; named best book of 2017 by the San Francisco Chronicle and Entropy; winner of the Independent Publishers Gold Medal Award; shortlisted for the Saroyan Prize). Her stories have appeared in such journals as Narrative, Story, Ploughshares, and many others. She lives in New York City with her husband, the artist Charles Marburg.
GALE MASSEY is the author of Rising and Other Stories (2021; Bronzeville Books) and the novel, The Girl from Blind River (2018; Crooked Lane Books; Florida Book Award Winner; finalist for the Clara Johnson Award). Her work has been featured in Salon, Writer’s Digest, 83 Degrees, CutBank, Saw Palm, Tampa Bay Noir, Sabal, CrimeReads, Lambda Literary, and the Tampa Bay Times. She lives in Florida with her partner.