SUBCORTICAL: A Conversation with Lee Conell
by Simon Han
Since the pizza and beers, I’ve finished reading Infinite Jest, but it is Lee’s stories in Subcortical that have stayed with me more. We exchanged emails in December to discuss them.
SIMON HAN: Subcortical begins in a lock factory and ends in the fancy lobby of the Pierre Hotel. Can you talk more about these spaces?
LEE CONELL: Beginning in the one space and ending in the other feels, on the surface, like movement, a traditional arc of generational progress or smooth success. Starting with the lock factory and ending with the fancy Groupon tea seem to speak to common narratives around socioeconomic and educational mobility. But what looks like an arc can really just be repetition in disguise. The lock factory is a space the mother in “The Lock Factory” wants to escape, and the Pierre Hotel is a space where the daughter in “Mutant at the Pierre Hotel” wants to belong, but both places are full of projections, especially in terms of how these characters want to see or re-envision themselves and their lives. Neither of these spaces are home to these characters. They’re limbo spaces. And I love the way those in-between spaces in fiction, those halls of mirrors, automatically generate a kind of tension, a sense of instability.
SH: Is home also a projection?
LC: Definitely! And it’s a useful projection, especially in fiction, because it’s a projection that can be so wrapped up with a sense of identity, a sense of the stories that define us. There’s something interesting that can happen when characters enter places where they feel they’re leaving behind their old familiar selves and their old familiar stories to become something else.
SH: What is also fascinating are the imaginative spaces. Many of your characters become storytellers themselves. What does telling another’s story mean to you?
LC: Stories themselves are spaces that often are deeply fraught, and trying to build these spaces as a writer is, like, fraught to the second power. I think there’s a lot to be gleaned about us from our assumptions about other people’s stories, from our assumptions about their dreams and fears—and these assumptions are all on display in a story. Which is territory that’s been deeply interesting to me, so a lot of my characters wind up as storytellers. Storytellers are always in some position of power, and sometimes my characters use storytelling as a way to gain agency and understanding into scenarios that make them feel vulnerable and powerless. When my characters tell another’s story, it’s hopefully interesting to watch them put on a mask, to play with that same sense of power (and of ignorance) I am playing with when I write.
Telling another’s story in fiction sometimes feels like this tricky way of admitting something about myself to myself—only I’m pretending it’s not me in there at all. Which can be a problematic tension I’m still grappling with. Creating characters who are doing this same difficult and weird and powerful and questionable thing—telling a story—actually helps create this sense of connection between the character and myself. Like, we’re both totally lost and fumbling along and probably projecting into other people’s stories in ways unnerving we don’t recognize, and despite all that fumbling mess, we’re both trying to become better.
SH: I think of the grandson in "What the Blob Said to Me," who's so insistent on getting his grandmother to admit some kind of complicity in helping to build the atomic bomb. His aggressiveness was so unsettling.
LC: I know for myself, it’s important to consider why I’m telling a story. Am I really engaging in an attempt at empathy and connection, am I acting in service of the story I feel an urgent need to spend time with, or is it an attempt to show off, to put out I-am-so-skilled-and-empathetic-that-I-can-embody-this-experience chops on display? I think that’s what the grandson is doing in “What the Blob Said to Me.” Which feels both appropriative and immensely boring.
SH: Your book revels in science, and not just for some throwaway metaphor. I loved the stories about crystallography, the brain, the inside of a cow. What do you see as the relationship between fiction and science?
LC: Fiction often feels to me like an experiment. I go into the writing process knowing I might find something completely beyond my original curiosity or predictions for my characters. And both fiction and science are so full of patterns. You’re looking for a pattern, but you’re also looking for the break in the pattern, the interesting rupture.
Then, too, both fiction and science often focus on what we can’t see, on internal and external forces that are so small or so large they defy the eye, defy my mind’s assumptions. Engaging with science in my work often brings out something new in the characters, and sometimes even new in the story’s structure, something that I wasn’t expecting, because this whole new set of internal and external forces are suddenly at play.
Also, I just love weird facts.
SH: Okay, what’s one you’re obsessing over lately?
LC: I read this amazing article on researchers who have been studying the organisms that have interacted with ancient books. Some have been sequencing DNA, for example, that can show where people kissed devotional books in medieval times (and also where they sneezed or coughed on these books, which sounds a little less impressive).
SH: Another distinctive aspect of your writing is its trenchant, and often hilarious, self-awareness. I’ll come across a passage that feels so insightful to me, and then the narrator or another character will poke fun of it in a way that reminds me of the larger world in which the insight—still a great insight—exists. How do you arrive at these sorts of moments?
LC: I’m really suspicious of holding onto moments of insight. I think feeling too insightful about something can blind us to actually seeing what’s going on. The moment we become too sure of something, we stop moving, the story stops moving. At the same time, I love reading about insights, and having insights. I just know I can’t cling to them. And now this insight about insights makes me feel like I’m being too confident about my insight about insights, which means maybe that insight needs to be questioned too. It’s exhausting, Simon.
SH: It is! This need to be mindful of our limitations with a need to say: This is what I believe, and it's important.
LC: There’s a way to acknowledge the limitation and still say and value the important thing. Just because we’re all limited in some way doesn’t mean our experiences and our thoughts about our experiences don’t matter or can’t be truthful. In fact, I think being upfront about those limitations only sharpens the important thing you want to say. Because suddenly you’re not just saying a thing, you’re more clearly showing where that thing comes from. Which, to my mind, only makes what you need to say sharper and more powerful.
SH: How does the world today inform how you think about these stories?
LC: I feel like this has been said before in better ways, but stories to me feel really essential for my own sense of connection and empathy. It’s just so easy to feel hopeless, but then there’s that kind of grace or invitation a story extends—an invitation to another’s world or thoughts, a chance to explore someone else’s projections and little graveyard of fallen insights. Stories can expand our sense of self beyond our own individual needs. This feels very important in the world today. I wouldn’t be so presumptuous as to prescribe story reading or story writing to others as, like, a definite solution to anything whatsoever. But I know for me it’s been sanity-inducing, helpful, important, like breathing in and out deeply.
SH: What's something you've read recently that has done that for you?
LC: Carmen Maria Machado’s “The Husband Stitch,” Sycamore by Bryn Chancellor, The Transcriptionist by Amy Rowland, and Kevin Wilson’s Perfect Little World. Also, recent for me but not recent—Virginia Woolf’s Orlando was so much funnier and surprising than I’d realized it would be.
SH: I’ve had the pleasure of reading drafts of these stories as far back as four years ago. Has your relationship to some of the earlier writing changed?
When I got to know Lee Conell, I was in my third year of failing to finish Infinite Jest. Over beers and pizza, we talked about the cult of DFW, the temptation to love the idea of loving a book more than the book itself. In her own writing, Lee’s enthusiasm for language, laughter, and moments of grace and beauty comes through with refreshing authenticity. One gets a sense that she would be a writer even if there were no one else to read her words.
Thankfully, I’ve been able to read Lee’s stories for years, many of which appear in her debut book, Subcortical, published last December by Johns Hopkins Press. Lorrie Moore calls the book “brilliant” and Sam Lipsyte says her work is “much needed in our times.” Drawing from histories of twisted medical studies, ghostly gentrification, atomic bombs, haunted islands, and GroupOn afternoon teas, Subcortical tells subversive, often hilarious, stories about the people erased from these histories. Lee’s work appears in the Chicago Tribune, Kenyon Review online, Guernica, The Collagist, Glimmer Train, and elsewhere. She is a writer mentor for the arts nonprofit Southern Word and a current visiting professor at Sewanee.
LC: Honestly, in a lot of those drafts you read, I was just trying to figure out what the hell a story could be. Maybe this is still what I’m trying to do. I’ve found that when I look at my writing from far enough back, I have a kind of tenderness toward it. And I’ll want to rescue the parts that seem interesting and rehabilitate them. Like I just found this really strange essay from college about how my dog would hump the legs of any friend I brought over. It’s a mess, but I’m like, “I can work with this!” Writing I’ve put aside from a few months ago will often be more embarrassing, because it feels closer to who I am now, so moments that make me cringe feel like present failures, rather than interesting lapses that tell me something about a past self.
SH: In “Hart Island,” the narrator imagines her dead high school crush critiquing her own narration: “Just describe the goopy living things for me.” Is this what we’re trying to rescue from our dog-humping-leg stories? The goopy living things?
LC: Yes! The goopy living things are what I’m usually after in fiction. (But sometimes the goopy living things turn out to be ghosts, which is confusing.) One key contextual note for that quote is, before the crush urges the narrator to describe the goopy living things, he also urges her not to be afraid to “go sentimental, go melodramatic” in narrating her love for him. The goopy living things might be classified as the emotions we’re afraid to fall into or articulate because it seems risky, it all feels like too much. How do we dive into that muck of our messiest (and sometimes less than lyrical) feelings, knowing the result might be intense or extreme, knowing that we might come out of that deep dive with words or stories that seem painfully adolescent or just not very cool? It’s a vulnerable place, the place of the goopy living things, and it’s a place I want to read and write about, a place I want to approach as fearlessly as I can.
SH: What are you fearlessly working on now?
LC: I’m writing a story about posthumous portraiture? It might be a distraction from the other things I’m working on, which include a novel that uses details of my own upbringing as the daughter of a residential building superintendent to explore issues of class, socioeconomic tensions in small spaces, plus also ghosts, dioramas, the Museum of Natural History, and shame? And then I’m working on another novel simultaneously about fanfiction and female friendships and space ponies and, also, more shame!
Simon Han's writing has appeared in The Atlantic, The Iowa Review, Guernica, and the Texas Observer. He is a 2017-2018 Tulsa Artist Fellow.