Angela Kelsey

Tell the Story

On Magpies: Part One of a Four-Part Interview with Lynne Barrett

Filed in Books, Memoir, Stories, voices, Writing :: November 14, 2011

As my MFA thesis director, Lynne Barrett alternately pushed and pulled me through the writing of my memoir-still-in-progress, and for that I will be forever grateful.

In addition to being one of the best editors and teachers I’ve ever known (and I’ve known a few), Lynne is also a brilliant writer, and her new short story collection, Magpies, is pure glittering literary pleasure.

If you’re anywhere near Miami, or you can get here by Sunday, Lynne will be reading from and discussing Magpies at the Miami Book Fair as part of a panel with Tayari Jones (Silver Sparrow), Ana Menendez (Adios, Happy Homeland) and Justin Torres (We The Animals) on Sunday, Nov. 20, 12:30 p.m., in Room 3209, (Building 3, Second Floor), Miami Dade College, Wolfson Campus.

Lynne was gracious enough to answer a few questions for me, which I’ll post in four installments, beginning today and continuing through Thursday, while I write my NaNo words.

Angela: I want to start with the title of your book, Magpies, which, as you note, is not the title of any one story but is mentioned in the story “The Noir Boudoir.”

Ray Strout, the narrator, says, “These are my fellow members of the species Magpie.  We are small-time antique dealers, which is to say we are collectors who sell to support our habit.”  Ray, in particular, is “into paper ephemera.  Books, magazines, letters, photos, bills, matchbooks, anything like that interests me.  There’s history in paper,” according to Ray.

I’m wondering whether you think writers are Magpies, and whether your writing process resembles the Magpie’s search for glitter.  You mention in your Goodreads.com essay that you thumbtacked an index card with the word “Magpies” on it to a bulletin board above your desk.

What other glittering objects might we find on that bulletin board and how do you think they might show up in future stories?  What are some of the other ways you collect bits of glitter that might show up in your writing?

Lynne: Yes, writers grab scraps of language and images and bits of human behavior and hold onto them until, somehow, they transmute. Certainly I do. It might be that someone else would find no glitter to them at all, but I post on my bulletin board small images and objects, phrases thought of or overheard, sometimes a quote. To give an example, I have an old rubber stamp of a woman in bathing suit and cap, poised to dive, and I know that she represents a story I’ve been working on. I have two photos, Ella Fitzgerald young and Ella Fitzgerald old, and somehow she is a divinity presiding over that same story, though it may be that no one who reads it (someday, when it’s done and published) would see the connection.

But some things you only learn are obsessions when they find a way onto the page. I grew up in New Jersey, not far from Edison’s house and laboratories. My great-grandfather worked there circa World War I, as some kind of low-level lab assistant. When I went there on school trips, it was a national historic site, with much of the old red brick complex closed off. It has since been renovated, I hear, but the lab we toured looked as if they’d simply left it the day work stopped, beakers and tools still in place. I can remember the smell of it, chemical and musty. It all seemed very far off and long ago. Even though at the time I had no great interest in science or technology, the place and what was invented or refined there, light bulbs, phonographs, motion picture machines, somehow have haunted me as these things have multiplied and morphed into what we have now, both wonderful and inescapable. In Magpies, in the story “Links,” the young dot com entrepreneur likens himself to great 19th century inventors. (He’s particularly taken with Fulton’s steamboat.) His Silicon Alley office is in an old 1800’s brick building, rewired with high-speed lines, while the narrator lives in West Orange, the town where the Edison site is. Even though I did not directly mention Edison’s labs, I know they were in my mind when I wrote a story about 21st century ambitions, delusions, and dreams.

Part 2, on questions of place and genre, tomorrow.  Stay tuned.