Interview: Lindsay Stern on Town of Shadows and Strangeness

"Literature should make us feel less alone"

Lindsay Stern is an up-and-coming writer whose novella, Town of Shadows, was recently published by Scrambler Books. A native of New York City, Stern is currently finishing her B.A. in English and Philosophy at Amherst College. Town of Shadows has already received strong praise from authors such as Patricia Morrisroe, who lauds the book as being “deeply moving, darkly imaginative, and delightfully weird,” and Hanna Andrews, who calls Town of Shadows “a dark and fascinating debut.” You can find more information about Stern at her website.

I recently interviewed Stern via email about her novella, as well as her approach to her writing, her feelings on the tension between “experimental” and “traditional” literature, and weird literature and art.

Weirdfictionreview.com: So, what kinds of stories did you read growing up? Do you recall reading anything that was definitely out of the ordinary, or weird or stranger than usual?

Lindsay Stern: I spent most of my childhood immersed in Roald Dahl — his wickeder stories, in particular. George’s Marvelous Medicine and The Twits come to mind. Later I moved on to Skin, his collection for adults. (In my case, unfortunately, life began to imitate art. If you’ve read Dahl’s Matilda, you’re familiar with Miss Agatha Trunchbull, the tyrannical headmistress who locks children in a closet laced with nails. There happened to be a small brick alcove in the playground of my elementary school, an academy for girls in New York City. Much to the chagrin of my popularity, I took Agatha’s cue and thrust my classmates into said alcove every afternoon.)

In any case, I can’t think of Dahl now without thinking of Salvador Dalí. Both have a way of throwing the ordinary into impossible relief. What I found so captivating about Dahl was how he managed to implicate the reader and the reader’s world. As strange as his stories are, they have a moral dimension. Reading Dahl, you never feel — as I sometimes do reading “experimental” fiction — that he’s speaking a different language. Instead, he twists our common lexicon into something anomalous and new.

WFR.com: Your novella, Town of Shadows, is markedly dark and postmodern/experimental at points, very surreal. What draws you to that kind of writing in the first place?

Stern: What seems postmodern to me about Town of Shadows is its attention to language. Many chapters consist of the writings of its protagonist, Pierre. I wanted to explore the intersection between my (third-person omniscient) narrative voice and his. The last chapter welds the two together, a fusion that coincides with his physical disappearance. I was also interested in the idea of language as a means of transgression. In the novella, the characters navigate life under the rule of a tyrannical mayor, who does things like banish vowels and declare mathematics the national dialect. Many of them use language — the writing of poems, proofs and definitions — as a way to withstand and defy that absurdity.

That said, I do try to distance my writing from the “postmodern” thought that truth is relative. You often hear a strain of that view in anthropology classes, or in the cliché “to each his own.” Beyond the fact that the view is self-negating (“the truth is, there is no truth”), it seems to me deeply patronizing, even schismatic. True, it promotes tolerance; but only by foreclosing dialogue. Bertrand Russell has a great quote that sums it up far better than I can: “Find more pleasure in intelligent dissent that in passive agreement, for…the former implies a deeper agreement than the latter.”

WFR.com: How much do you feel compelled to follow a “traditional” narrative in your writing, in general? Do you feel such a compulsion or obligation?

Stern: While I try never to impose a stylistic agenda (whether it be “traditional” or “experimental”) on a given piece, I do feel obliged to work within a shared grammar. Growing up, I went through a phase of free associative writing after discovering Gertrude Stein and the Cubists. While I admire their work, I worry now about estranging the reader. I used to see literature as a means of re-enchanting words — as solely aesthetic, rather than normative, in value. It didn’t matter to me whether the reader “got” my work. Why should it matter, I thought, if meaning was subjective? That line of thought seems solipsistic to me now. At least, it seems to contradict the idea that literature should make us feel less alone. We read, in part, to empathize; the thought is hardly new. And empathy presupposes something shared. In that sense, I do feel compelled to follow a “traditional” narrative, even as much of Town of Shadows defies that compulsion.

WFR.com: What writers or stories do you feel have been most influential for you and your writing?

Stern: Pierre, the protagonist of Town of Shadows, occurred to me several weeks after I discovered Salman Rushdie’s Midnight’s Children. The connection wasn’t incidental; both Pierre and Rushdie’s protagonist disintegrate over the course of their respective pages. Months later I picked up a copy Sherwood Anderson’s Winesburg, Ohio at the library. That book inspired the vignette structure of TOS. As I write these days, I keep a copy of Anne Carson’s Decreation and Norman Lock’s Grim Tales close at hand. Both of them deal in fragments, and manage to weave a whole out of seemingly incommensurable parts.

WFR.com: Many elements in Town of Shadows feel like parts of real life twisted into unrecognizable forms. How does that process work for you, i.e. taking something from the real world that could be inexplicable or weird and then converting it into a different form for your writing? Any particular moments from Town of Shadows where you want to show how that works for you?

Stern: Yes, I guess I did take a set of familiar paradigms — mathematical equations, logical proofs, and scientific procedures, to name a few — and redeploy them. It’s funny how things align in retrospect. I never set out to twist the ordinary into the unrecognizable, as you put it well. But that’s what happened. Here’s one example, taken from Pierre’s book of experiments:

EXPERIMENT 2: HOW TO SWIM

Materials:
Water, hands, feet.

Procedure:

1. Lift hands to surface.
2. Flap once.
3. Notice water’s modesty in feigning monochromatism.
4. Flap twice.
5. Lift mouth to surface.
6. Kick once.
7. Breathe to avoid becoming a thought.
8. Kick twice.
9. Watch: at high temperatures, water may shed.
10. Do not mistake evaporation for flight.

WFR.com: Can you recall any particular spark or point of inspiration that got you started writing Town of Shadows?

Stern: In April 2008, on a visit to Amherst College (where I’ve just begun my senior year), I stopped in a town called Northampton with my parents. We had lunch, then returned to the car. Just as I was opening the door, I spotted an awning across the street. The awning read, “The Rug Doctor.” The next morning I wrote an eponymous short story about Pierre. When I returned to Northampton that fall, the awning was gone. I can find no record that it ever existed.

WFR.com: Can you describe the process of writing Town of Shadows as a whole? Especially since the structure of the novella is so different from a traditional narrative arc.

Stern: As you might imagine, the process was far from linear. After reading Winesburg, Ohio in my parents’ living room, I ran upstairs to begin one of the chapters of TOS. It was June, and I resolved to write a chapter a day for the next month. I succeeded, more or less, and set the book aside by the 30th of July. That winter I wrote what I thought was a separate project: a series of experiments and definitions. One night, on a whim, I tried weaving those chapters in between the existing vignettes. By then it was apparent to me that I’d been writing in Pierre’s voice. I rewrote and rearranged, and then added a few more chapters on Pierre and Selma. To answer your question then, the process felt less like writing and more like braiding a series of parts into an unlikely whole.

WFR.com: How much would you say Town of Shadows exemplifies what you try to do with your writing? What kinds of directions do you think you’ll move in going forward with your career?

Stern: I’ve thought hard about this question — about what it is I try to do with words. I could give you a canned and nonetheless honest answer like this: I try and will continue to try to communicate some kind of truth about our situation here on this spinning rock. Here’s a better answer, which is also honest and which won’t make any sense. A little over a year ago, as I was finishing up Town of Shadows, I stopped at a pet store with a close friend. Inside, we encountered a parrot named Max. For reasons I’ll never know, my friend addressed the bird with the following question:

“What is being?”

Max adjusted his feathers, cocked his head, and sneezed.

WFR.com: It might be a bit soon to say, but how has the response to Town of Shadows affected you in the time leading up to and after its publication?

Stern: It’s all a bit surreal, as I’m still in college and hardly feel qualified to give interviews like this to literary venues I so respect. I’ve been leading somewhat of a double life recently, promoting the book as best I can in my hours off from class. All I can say is that I’m immensely grateful to Jeremy Spencer at Scrambler Books and to the writers and editors who have supported the book over these past few weeks. I’ve been overwhelmed by their generosity.

WFR.com: Do you have any other projects that you’re currently working on?

Stern: I am working on a full-length novel now, which I’ll submit as my senior thesis at Amherst. The book traces the genealogy of a fictional city, incorporating its surviving literature and laws. Its protagonist is an astronomer who discovers that the night sky is speaking in Braille.

WFR.com: Finally, what’s the weirdest piece of fiction, story or novel, that you’ve ever read? Why?

Stern: One of the strangest pieces of literature I’ve read, by Aram Saroyan, is only seven letters long:

lighght

What I find mesmerizing about that piece (poem?) is how it exposes the silence in a familiar word. Ten thousand more insertions of “gh” would yield no difference in pronunciation. In Saroyan’s words, “[the extra ‘gh’] adds an element to the word as if to make the phenomenon more palpable.” And yes, the silence in “lighght” does seem to reflect the phenomenon: the composition of white light — every beam of which contains, imperceptibly (silently), the entire color spectrum.

The strangest piece of fiction I’ve encountered is Borges’ “Argumentum Ornithologicum” (translated here by Mildred Boyer):

“I close my eyes and see a flock of birds. The vision lasts a second or perhaps less; I don’t know how many birds I saw. Were they a definite or an indefinite number? This problem involves the question of the existence of God. If God exists, the number is definite, because how many birds I saw is known to God. If God does not exist, the number is indefinite, because nobody was able to take count. In this case, I saw fewer than ten birds (let’s say) and more than one; but I did not see nine, eight, seven, six, five, four, three, or two birds. I saw a number between ten and one, but not nine, eight, seven, six, five, etc. That number, as a whole number, is inconceivable; ergo, God exists.”

Linguistically, the paragraph is completely lucid. Its parts are simple: the thought experiment, the flock, the closing of the eyes. We think we’re with him, and then he takes us somewhere illegible. We’re left swimming in that final declaration, not understanding and yet feeling paradoxically that our lack of understanding is itself a kind of proof. Work like this — that creates out of comprehensible parts an incomprehensible whole — I find most exciting, because it mirrors our predicament. We can make out the things of this world — its objects and events — but we can’t agree on how they fit together. So we make up stories, religions, explanations. And when we think deeply enough, we admit that those stories fail. We can start to hate thought for its irresolution, for its failure to map what Borges calls the “inconceivable.” We can think, I don’t know, ergo, there’s nothing to know. That’s the trap; and that, for me, is what great art refutes.

3 replies to “Interview: Lindsay Stern on Town of Shadows and Strangeness

  1. Lindsay Stern’s wisdom, understanding and imagination make my heart sing and my old body just dissolve. When she says, for example:
    “Work like this — that creates out of comprehensible parts an incomprehensible whole — I find most exciting, because it mirrors our predicament. We can make out the things of this world — its objects and events — but we can’t agree on how they fit together. So we make up stories, religions, explanations. “
    Yes! yes! yes!

  2. When Lindsay says:
    “Work like this — that creates out of comprehensible parts an incomprehensible whole — I find most exciting, because it mirrors our predicament. We can make out the things of this world — its objects and events — but we can’t agree on how they fit together. So we make up stories, religions, explanations. “,
    she makes my heart sing.

  3. Pingback: Magpie Monday | Robert E. Stutts

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