Interview: Nicole McCarthy
CRAFT is excited to collaborate with Nicole McCarthy, our guest judge for the 2023 Hybrid Writing Contest. Below, Leslie Lindsay interviews Nicole about memory, story, and hybridity.
All spaces are haunted. In a way, all spaces are about memory. In A Summoning, “a conceptual, psychological experiment focused on memory,” Nicole McCarthy invites readers to sit and feel and think and remember. Throughout this fragmented collection, McCarthy explores how we come to terms with trauma, family, and memory. A Summoning is a delicious layering of poetic recollections tucked within the confines of blueprints, visual splicing, collaging, maps, and more.
What might have begun as a reckoning with trauma, A Summoning slips into a tour of the rooms of life. In some cases, we never want to step foot into that house again. Memory, as Jenny Boully writes in her blurb for A Summoning, is “not so much a palace as it is a haunted attic, a storage shed of despair.” Should—or do—we compartmentalize our memories, our traumas? And what value does that bring?
Perhaps we build things to house our stories, our experiences, which, in turn, become ourselves.
In order to bring back what has been taken, humans have, throughout history, pulled from various art forms, including writing, but also film and plays, poetry, photography, painting, fragmentation, image, lists, songs, blueprints, and others to make sense of loss.
Excavating memory and documenting trauma is what McCarthy does so sublimely as she layers thoughts with visuals, white space with noise, breaks with narrative flow. The effect is at once genius and unsettling, wherein the structure becomes part of the story; I loved the artistic and stylistic sophistication of this book.
As I embarked on my own hybrid, genre-defying work, I began speculating on the concept of memory, how events are recalled differently as we age. Each memory becomes an accumulation of past memories, narratives from others, and they augment—shapeshift—as the body ages, absorbing new experiences.
The concept of home, a longtime personal obsession, has grown exponentially after reading A Summoning. It’s also led me to question my own memories, to see how I might repackage and re-vision them. Like McCarthy, I am in the throes of excavating home and memory, and the notion that we are all haunted by the past—and perhaps, the present too.
McCarthy would say we devote so much to memory because in those spaces, in their depths, we find a kernel of recognition from which we can summon something close to a home.
Leslie Lindsay: I am swooning over A Summoning. It’s so exquisitely and evocatively rendered. Jungian theories often refer to the conceit that the house is a physical manifestation of the body, of memory. I am curious if you started out wanting to explore memory or trauma—or more specifically—how they are intertwined. Or was the writing of A Summoning a way to preserve our lives in things—homes, books, pictures? Maybe I missed the mark?
Nicole McCarthy: First of all, thank you for diving into this book with so much care and attention. I feel you are one of the readers it was meant for. This book began with the blueprints, actually! I was responding to prompts in one of my graduate writing classes, and I had been exploring memory for over a year at this point. As seen in the book, I have specific memories that I knew I needed to communicate, and every time I tried through text, it felt one-dimensional. Unfinished. I started thinking about the country homes I shared with a terrible boyfriend; my childhood home that my mom still owns; movie theaters and bookstores in which I fell in love. Memories that live in physical spaces became an obsession of mine, as well as how our bodies are often considered homes, or temples, and how memory can live and be stored in our bodies.
And it’s true, look at the variety of ways we attempt to capture and hold onto our memories—photos, videos, journals, websites, homes, cemeteries, museums—it’s such a universal concept that we’re all so fascinated with. With A Summoning, I wanted to explore the idea of memory and trauma, but the idea of examining how and why we preserve memories in physical objects also fascinates me.
LL: You do an incredible job of blending the informational with the emotional, breaking down memory in more biological terms. This creates a strong sentimental arc to your story. In the spirit of conventional narrative, can you speak to how you developed a character arc through these fragments? This is not an easy feat, regardless of genre, but since A Summoning is so unique in form, I can only imagine this was particularly trying.
NM: Initially I just started writing: it was a literal coffee-induced frenzy as I tried to write down every idea I had for the book. The Greek root of memory! Breakthrough scientific experiments! Neurons and the hippocampus! At the same time, I had bullet points in my journal of the personal elements I wanted (needed) to address: packing up and potentially moving away from the only homes I’ve ever had; my grandma being diagnosed with Alzheimer’s and my dad showing signs of memory issues; moments of trauma I held onto from an abusive relationship when I was younger. I knew pairing these elements together would make the personal more effective, but I also knew the reader would potentially see themselves in the narrator’s place.
Every piece was created individually, and when I felt it was in a somewhat final form, I laid out the pieces on my living room floor, seeing the flow of the work and how impactful pieces could be when lying next to each other, or following one after another. Some transitions I intended to be jarring, some I wanted to be restful. Some pages I built with more empty space than normal, save for a line or two of text, so the reader would sit with the personal for a moment longer before moving along. I must also say: my thesis advisor was the experimental artist Renee Gladman, and she really helped me polish the ideas and guide me toward where I needed to go.
The work is meant to be fluid, hence why nothing is really titled and one piece flows into another. If I had my wish, we would have gone to print without page numbers.
The book is meant to be cyclical, as we all see these same patterns happening and repeating in our lives, but I hoped it would end with the narrator gaining more understanding with how memory lives in our body and how it’s not something we can rely on, which I find terrifying.
LL: I found A Summoning so tactile, so visceral, so lyrical and haunting. What I think this speaks to is that reading is not just an immersive experience, but a collaborative one too. Reader-viewer and writer are sort of working in magical tandem. That’s typically the case of most written work—it’s all interpreted individually, though there is often a general consensus to its meaning. Do you see this work as a collaboration? How do you feel our reading lives are evolving with our image-obsessed social media?
NM: I frequently consider my work as a collaboration with the reader, knowing they will be bringing their own experiences and backgrounds into whatever I’ve created. Their interpretation of the work will always be significantly different than the next person’s, which makes it a truly ephemeral experience. It can’t be predicted or orchestrated. Then you bring in the additional layer of in-person stories, and the body of work breeds a life outside of itself. I’ve done experimental performances of this book many times, and each time I have someone come up to me with a different anecdote or memory that sparked something for them. Whether it was divorce, marriage, abuse, trauma, or their own relationship to memory, I usually hear something that adds on to the memory of this book. It’s one of my favorite elements of launching this body of work into the world. I have unknowingly formed connections with others who read my work and feel like someone else sees them as well.
I will say: I do feel like our relationship to memory is changing, or at least how we interpret and place value on memory. Diaries, physical tokens, film-developed photos, the kind you hoped didn’t have a glare and were somewhat flattering, you had to wait a week (or longer!) to get back, and it felt so rare, you know? Somehow you magically captured a moment that you can frame, and if you didn’t keep the negatives, it became an artifact that was finite. It had to be protected. They were framed conversation pieces when you invited someone into your home, because the internet didn’t exist to blast them into cyberspace. Now, with iPhones that can fit thousands of photos without slowing down, we live in a time in which we focus on getting the perfect photo because we can try and try again, as opposed to living your present reality and just hoping you somehow capture the feelings that possessed you in that moment. The act of taking photos or videos and cataloging moments is changing how we experience the world in real time: recently I was in Ireland on a road trip—Cliffs of Moher, Dublin, Dingle Peninsula, etc.—and it was like an addiction. People would line up in the exact spots they saw others pose on Instagram, and they would take shot after shot without ever looking out at the exact thing they wished to be photographed with. It made me ask: can we still be simply in awe of a place or a moment?
It’s become a natural impulse, when faced with a setting that takes your breath away or seeing the face of a beloved human you haven’t seen in some time, to pull out your phone to take a picture. We also want to be seen doing so, which is why Instagram is so successful. It’s now a curation process, as opposed to an organic lived moment. It’s not just about having the memory for yourself, but sharing it and documenting it for people following along with your life journey. People now plan vacation spots, or interactions with others, for the sole purpose of getting the right photo, rather than having a natural moment occur that feels so different that you feel it has to be captured permanently. I know some people who track likes and comments on social media, which then equates to the success of the photo, thus changing their take on the original experience. Then there is the monetary aspect of selling our memories, but it is what it is. It’s both fascinating and saddening to watch.
I say this as a thirty-five-year-old who greatly appreciates the quality of photos an iPhone can take and has a well-used Shutterfly account. So, there’s that.
LL: I absolutely adore the floorplans interspersed throughout the narrative. Layering them in speaks to this concept of compartmentalizing, a tidiness that becomes messy. Can you elaborate on that?
NM: Compartmentalizing is definitely an aspect of it, but also the examination of the physical spaces our memories take part in. Think about how many homes we could potentially live in throughout our lives? Or the buildings that hold our important moments? They become activation spaces without our knowing it. And what happens if we lose access to those spaces? If you move or the building is torn down—does that mean that memory weakens because we can’t stand in the same spot and be activated by similar senses? It feels like a mental catalog, and sometimes when the space has been removed, we feel the memory has been removed too.
When building the blueprint memories, I was trying to visualize for the reader how certain memories feel in my body. This is where the book section about massaging trauma knots comes into play. That’s how I visualize storing my memories, both good and bad, within the walls of my living house.
With this book, and the writing, I looked at it from an architectural standpoint. At the core of this book, I wanted to experiment with my own memories. Through repetition, alterations, falsifying memories, etc., after a long period of time of reading from and interacting with this book, the idea is my memories would slightly alter over time. That’s the experiment and my hope. With that concept, I needed first to share the details I learned about how malleable and unreliable our memories are with the reader, which is why I introduce science and history briefs on the subject.
So, if the historical and scientific essays form the firm foundation of the book, the lyrical/personal pieces are the rooms, and the visual pieces are the incorporeal beings that bring life into the house. That’s what I was aiming for.
LL: Another method you use in A Summoning is a layering conversation at a coffee shop on a Wednesday…it morphs and transitions to Grandpa, Martha, being alone, in a bar, and so forth. Each section repeats and overlaps much like stamps might appear on passports or official documents, right-side up and upside down. This is so jarring and almost dizzying to read. This cacophony of voices is so affecting. Can you expand on this technique?
NM: This was built from another memory experiment I was testing out. There’s a line elsewhere in the book about memories taking up so much space in the body, and this “Chatter” exercise leapt from that. After thirty-plus years, how many memories do you have? Thousands upon thousands, right? Any memory can be sparked by different sensations or locations, and it can almost feel like a stampede of memories flooding your cortex. With this one, it’s definitely focused on memories that I can’t let go—guilt, exaltation, inhibition, unanswered questions, emptiness—it’s all here.
This section of the book also explores the idea of memory entitlement. We live in a society that so readily shares memories with others, and that exchange process forms connections, builds trust, etc. Sharing a memory with someone else, be it a good or bad one, is a choice and, in a small way, a gift. We aren’t entitled to each other’s memories, but sometimes it feels that way, especially in nonfiction projects. I share many vulnerable moments in this book with the reader; this “Chatter” section has passages obscured by other text so although it’s there on the page, I’m still the only one who knows what happened.
I’ve performed this piece live a handful of times, when I feel the audience is right. I have slips of paper that hold a random memory from this section and I give them to audience members to read when signaled. Near the end, as I introduce the first memory, it’s such a kick to my senses to suddenly hear someone in the audience share one, then another on the other side of the room, and so on. It changes the experience for me, as reader, and for the audience members hearing the rolling voices all around them. It’s the exact auditory equivalent of this layered-voices text, and it’s breathtaking.
LL: I want to end with the crux of the entire book: life (including loss, love, and trauma) is encapsulated in this nebulous concept of memory. It’s at once fresh and tainted, blank and demented. There is a sense of mourning, but also hope. You end with leaving “deep invisible tracks.” What do you see as something we leave behind? Is it tangible—a house, a book, a photograph, or something more elusive?
NM: I honestly think we leave nothing behind. Yes, there are photos and videos, but how many people, outside our immediate family, will hold onto and cherish them? Without the memories attached to the objects, people have no reason to keep them. We have photographic evidence that’ll live forever online, but it’s detached; it becomes purely referential.
With memories that we build with others, it becomes a situation of scarcity. We store memories in others, moments that capture who we are and why we’re loved. You can be a conversation starter between two people who mutually know you, and the exchange of memories begins. But as we age and we start losing loved ones, we also lose memories. I was once talking to a friend who lost her husband over a decade ago. She had recently lost a very close friend of hers and she said, “She was the last person who knew my former husband. All those memories are gone.” Now she is the only one who has them in the catalogs of her memory. But I think there’s something so beautiful about that; our legacy is ephemeral.
NICOLE McCARTHY is an experimental writer and artist based outside of Tacoma, Washington State. Her work has appeared in [PANK], The Offing, Redivider, Glass: A Journal of Poetry, Best American Experimental Writing, and others. A Summoning is her first nonfiction collection, published by Heavy Feather Review. She can be found @nmcarthywriter on Twitter and @nicole_c_mccarthy on Instagram.
LESLIE LINDSAY’s writing has been featured in The Millions, SEPIA, Hippocampus Magazine, The Rumpus, Autofocus, The Smart Set, Brevity, The Florida Review, Levitate, ANMLY, the tiny journal, The Cincinnati Review, Essay Daily, Mutha Magazine, The Waking, Visual Verse, The Manifest-Station, Pithead Chapel, Cleaver Magazine, and Motherwell, with forthcoming work in ELJ Editions, On the Seawall, and DIAGRAM. She resides in Greater Chicago and is at work on a memoir excavating her mother’s mental illness through fragments. She is a former Mayo Clinic child/adolescent psychiatric RN and can be found @leslielindsay1 on Twitter and Instagram, where she shares thoughtful explorations and musings on literature, art, design, and nature.