A conversation between West Trade Review’s Fiction Editor D.W. White and the novelist and story writer Lucy Corin on her new book, The Swank Hotel, and the narrative, creative, and technical evolution of this remarkable novel.
The Swank Hotel by Lucy Corin; Graywolf Press; 400 pages; $17
Lucy Corin is the author of the novel The Swank Hotel, as well as the story collections One Hundred Apocalypses and Other Apocalypses and The Entire Predicament, and the novel Everyday Psychokillers: A History for Girls. Her work has appeared in American Short Fiction, Conjunctions, Harper’s Magazine, Ploughshares, Bomb, Tin House Magazine, and the New American Stories anthology from Vintage Contemporaries. She is the recipient of an American Academy of Arts and Letters Rome Prize and a literature fellowship from the National Endowment for the Arts. She teaches at the University of California at Davis and lives in Berkeley.
D.W. White: One thing that I really thought was interesting about this book is how it intersects with this emerging trend in fiction right now to discuss the Great Recession, a literary movement that is fairly nascent. There’s Elizabeth Gonzalez James’ Mona at Sea, which came out earlier this year, and was great. And there’re others. But your book, of course, is set in the Great Recession and deals with it, but also it’s kind of a little bit of a cosmic background. I think it works really well as a temporal setting, but I think also this book and what it’s concerned about fundamentally could be set anytime in recent America. So what was the process, what was the decision-making behind that temporal location, and what did it allow you to do, setting the book when you did?
Lucy Corin: For me, writing a book is about feeling out the resonances between the thing that is occupying me overall and really particular individual daily experiences and wondering about where those resonances come from. In story writing, it’s pretty common to go into the psychological history of a character to try to connect those things. You find the thing in their background that helps explain the rest of the stuff the story’s about. Then there’s another way that says that we’re kind of symptoms of our surroundings. But in isolation, they both feel unsatisfactory, and a lot of writing this book was tracing those unsatisfactory explanations. The book starts with tracking these characters and what happens to them, but then I want to include in the book that hovering question around trauma, which is like, where does this come from? You feel like it comes from inside or it comes from outside, and what is that relationship, what does it feel like when the truth is both.
So this sounds very abstract, but the book ended up being about shapes. Like shapes of narratives and stories and the physical shape of a body and also then the physical shape of our literal surroundings, which are these houses and social structures. I thought a lot about literal architectures, and then pushed it further, thinking about the shape of a culture. Then, of course, if you’re thinking about literal and figurative architectures, you have the housing crisis. And of course, you have the falling of the towers [on 9/11]. I wasn’t sure for a long time how to contain the material of the book, so I thought about that bracket between the towers falling and Osama Bin Laden’s death and the difference between that huge public video explosion [on 9/11], the visible thing, and how different that was from this tiny little blip of “then this man died in a faraway place in a way that’s kind of murky,” and the President gave a speech the end that was not the end at all. That kind of story—that felt resonant with the shape of the story I was telling about my characters. So those things and that indeterminacy felt tied to everything that I wanted to be writing about, the immediate problems of mental illness and its repercussions and implications.
DW: That’s such a great answer. In terms of how we talk about stories, and then this will get us into craft, there is a distinction between internally-driven and externally-driven fiction. When I was reading this book, especially that first section — and this sounds cliché, but it’s not if one has read it — I was thinking of Infinite Jest, that type of metafictional, hysterical realism, a lot as I read The Swank Hotel. And with these wonderful interludes about the neighbors across the street and the lawsuit and everything, it’s that movement from a couple decades ago now. But as I was thinking about that, as I was going through the book, I realized there are a lot of books that have been written in the past twenty-odd years that try to mimic Infinite Jest or something. But this is not what that is.
This is a book that for me, as I read it, it was an approach to hysterical realism, but instead of from the top down, it’s from the bottom up, from the inside out. It’s this wonderland of a world, but it’s filtered through the mind of a few characters, principally one. And so I think this is so interesting here, because you say that there is disconnect you felt about the two ways of looking at storytelling and I felt that in the book, in the sense that I thought they were both there. So this is perhaps a long way of saying I’m curious about your literary ancestry. Both yourself as a writer and especially vis-a-vis this book. And where you feel it came from in your own experience as a member of the literary community, as a reader, as an explorer of fiction, and things like that.
LC: You know, I thought a lot about David Foster Wallace in the writing of this book, because, among other things, I wanted to be unapologetically expansive. But I thought of him especially when I had metafictional impulses. I say this with irony, but it’s how I was “raised” as a writer: that generation of white, male, post-modernists were core to my reading experience and the formation of my sensibility. Robert Cooper was an important teacher of mine. But I also always felt, in relation to that strand of American fiction, what I now understand as my feminist impulses and my queer reality, a suspicion of grandiosity and suspicion of authority that I think those texts and writers luxuriate in. Patterning, which is so beautifully heightened in DFW and related writers, is really important to me and I cherish it. But my sensibility comes from a really different place: how do you tell a story, especially about something that’s grand and big, when you don’t feel that your culture has endowed you with the authority to tell that story –– for good and bad reasons.
Why should I get to tell a story? This story? People are very worried about this aspect of authority right now. Who or what gives a writer a right to write about what kind of thing? These things were on my mind, writing this book. I was also daunted by the ambition of my own book, and that came down to a book-long project for me of trying to understand my narrator. So you’re right that the narration is mostly filtered through a few of these characters, but the characters are all filtered through a narrator who is a little indeterminate; there are times when that narrator is invisible or just feels like straight up close-third person, and there are sections where that third person fades out and it feels like straight up first person. And there are times when there is, overtly, an author character, just for a tiny pointed phrase here and there. That is sort of my relationship to that literary tradition and trying to do something that is more, for me, grounded in a kind of honest relationship with trying to tell a hard story in this moment in our culture.
DW: One can see that in the techniques you use and things what you’re talking about, which brings another question. There’s so much of what I call risk-taking on the sentence level here, areas that ask a bit more of the reader, where they perhaps have to work a little bit. That is something that’s not being done to a large extent right now in fiction, this type of daring and innovation, and it’s one of the things I really love about this book.
And obviously it’s an interior-focused book, but I think even more so than most, or perhaps in a deeper way. It’s an attempt to understand or reckon with mental illness, creating a heightened importance of the techniques employed to render consciousness and to interplay the narrative entity and that you’re talking about with these characters who we’re following. I thought of it as a sort of aggrandized free and direct, one that will completely bleed free-associative thought and memory and everything internal and personal into the stage direction, the external narration. But then there's also, as you said, this narrative entity that has its own kind of thought process too. So if you could drill into the evolutionary history of the craft, the deployment of your specific narrative techniques in The Swank Hotel. How did you decide on using these specific narrative techniques — free-indirect, autonomous monologue, accessed memory — these somewhat unusual or less frequently encountered techniques to render consciousness in a way that fits the ambitions of your book.
LC: Core to me as fiction writer is that I both question convention and I love it and use it and exploit it and revel in it. Writing a book, or even a story, is always a long process of sorting through that piece’s relationship to convention. I don't advise that for anybody who wants to put out a lot of books. I feel like I'm very productive, but I have only written a couple of books out of all my productivity, because it's always a matter of sorting through which conventions I want to anchor the work in and which conventions to blow out the window, because I’m trying to show that there are ways of seeing things that are buried or that are not manifest yet, and that I want the book to manifest.
In this book, I tried to take really seriously the modes of thinking that happen in traumatized states or in extreme states of emotion. And I want to be careful about saying in mentally ill states both because that’s really murky territory, and because I made a conscious decision never to depict somebody experiencing an extreme psychotic state from their own perspective. I felt like that wasn't my story to tell. I wanted to be fascinated with it, but to hold certain aspects of that experience sacred to the people who actually experience it. But what I did want to do was take very seriously, as narrative form, things like obsessive patterning of thinking or the deterioration of an idea or associative thinking. So in the drafting, I let myself follow language in an extreme way and claim it as narrative form instead of trying to do what I think most books do, which is sort of translate things back into what is conventionally recognizable, which I think is not really the point of fiction, and not really the truth of most of our experiences, because the mind is broader than that and the imagination is broader than that.
DW: That's a great argument for what's called experimentalism, right, which is not a great term, but in any event that's a great way of framing that concept.
We've brought up a couple of times this idea of who’s story it is. How does personal experience factor in here, to The Swank Hotel, and how did you navigate that concept of possession of a story?
LC: My family is filled with people who have both diagnosed and undiagnosed severe-to-mild forms of mental illness. So I grew up caring about it. I personally have not experienced extreme psychotic states. I've had my own traumatic experiences in my life that I think are on a continuum between perfect health and total incapacity. But I didn't write about mental illness in a direct way for a really long time. There was a period of time where in order to function in my life, I had to contend with it in a serious way. And really the only way that I contend with things as a human is through writing, and so when I started writing the book, it's not like I thought about it as my next masterpiece. I was just trying to function, you know what I mean? I was just trying to do what I do, which is to try and figure out the things of my life and in the world that I live in. And in some ways I do that the way everybody does that, by having friendships and relationships and therapists and that sort of thing. But the other way I do it is through art, through my art. And so, I don't think of art as therapy. But I think of making art as continuous with seriously addressing the things you care about most in your life and in the world. So that's what I did.
DW: One section that stands out with this in mind is the middle, which features a portion written by your sister. Was that a place where these concepts most notably interacted?
LC: So, it's a novel, and it's doing some weird things with form, and a lot of blurring between fact and fiction, and it's teasing, sometimes, about what the book is made of, what’s from my imaginative experience and what's from my lived experience. It was important to me to have that complexity in the book. I actually didn't say this directly before, but in my experience as a reader and as a person walking through the world, there's a lot out there that depicts mental illness that really upsets me and that I find painful, and that also made me not want to write about it at all for a really long time. So it was important to me to have the sense that I, the author, cared about this stuff in the real world built into the book in the way it was told. Because I'm not just a casual participant in this subject matter, right?
But the story that is in that middle section that says “By Emily Hochman,” is written by my real literal sister. She has her own say, in that she tells her own relationship with the material in the book and the fact that some of the material in the book comes from her life and my life as I shared it with her. Some of the language and ways of thinking about things are her language, her ways of thinking about things, and that means something, to see things that happened in the world rendered in a way that is sort of your story and sort of not your story, the way that something that is written is transformed from the thing that was lived, and also still tethered to the thing that was lived. It was hard for me as a writer to puncture the book in that way, to have, literally, another writer's voice in my book, but because of the material of my book, it seems pretty important. The thing I'll add to that is, what if my sister happened to be a terrible writer? Would I have something by her in my book? You know what I mean? But she's not a terrible writer. She's quite brilliant.
DW: There are many very serious and important and emotional elements that you address in The Swank Hotel. But one thing I'm interested in is the logistical-creative process in terms of crafting a book with this section, written as you say by someone else, that had to be fitted in. How did that come to be? Because it fits so well overall, tonally and otherwise.
LC: And it's pretty much right in the middle.
LC: I like that very much, formally.
DW: And it works. One could read this book and feel that it completely fits and doesn't feel like forced or off in any way. So how did that happen? Was that something that you came to via experimentation, trial-and-error? Obviously, you're exploring in this book, as you mentioned, these concepts in a way you hadn’t before, so there's a natural reason, from a craft perspective, why these two things would mesh together. But is that something you worked a bit to do it effectively, or how did that process unfold?
LC: It happened very late in the process. It happened during that period of time when you let an interested party read the book, and the interested party has feelings and thoughts and ideas. It happened then. And I had long talks with my sister and long talks with my editor. And that's where we landed with it. And what I can say about it is that I feel like I would be really proud of the book, that it was whole and complete, if that piece wasn't in it. But I also feel that the book is whole and complete and perfect with that piece. because it's so illustrative of, as I said before, that indeterminacy, that blurring, as it relates to the content of the book in that place.
The whole middle section of the book is called “Voices”. And there's a series of pieces in this section, one of them being the one by my sister. So there's a series of pieces by characters who haven't had a voice yet in the book. There's a retelling of this myth in there, too, a voice from history that is intimately bound with the concerns of the book. Every little piece in that section is its own story about reading, writing and storytelling. It was pretty magical to me that my sister’s piece is, in such a layered and complex way, about reading, writing, and storytelling, and certainly she wrote that piece with no direction from me about how she to do it. It’s all her. It just fits. So when it comes to the inclusion of my sister's piece, it would either be a significant, meaningful absence in the book, or –– as it ended up –– a significant presence in the book. In the story, there are two primary characters struggling with mental illness, Adeline and Jack, and in different ways they are both radically silenced through the whole book. Adeline is off stage most of the time, or incapacitated, or not talking to people, or missing. Jack literally has his mouth sewn shut. The book constantly asks you to consider what is present and what is missing. And this middle section is about voices being heard and unheard and what it means to be hearing voices, and what it means for our voice to be heard. All of those stories [in “Voices”] are about those dynamics. I really feel that if my sister's voice wasn't in there, then the voice of the person that this book, in so many ways, came out of, would still be present, would still be hovering around the book and the subtext of the book. A very present absence. But then, because of all of that, the fact that she does have her real voice in the book seems pretty great.
DW: That's an incredible process and element to the work as a whole. What makes it so effective is how smoothly it's woven in the whole thing, into the tapestry of it.
This is related I suppose again to conventionality in fiction, but one thing, perhaps, is the title, The Swank Hotel. A title that might surprise people a bit, in the sense that after one has read the book — and I think it works very well — some might be expecting the hotel to be somehow more central, as a literal plot location, within the story. I'm curious about the title of the book as a whole, and also how you incorporated titles throughout, because every chapter has its own, as do the larger sections. I'm always interested in titles in fiction. I'll leave it up to you how you want to speak to that topic.
LC: Okay, the swank hotel. My sister did the painting for the cover of the book, an image of a hotel room that is not swank. So for me that's the dynamic of that title. The desire for swank in a place that is not swank. It’s about when Ad says things like, “I could be magic, you know, where do you think Joan of Arc comes from? How do you think we get Joan of Arc? What do you think a shaman does, right?” That's the notion of glorious freaking possibility. The allure of madness is that things could be amazing. Things could be fantastic. And the tragedy is for most of us is that they're really not, they’re mundane, an awful kind of trudging. They’re those dust bunnies in the house that grow to the size of real bunnies, you know, they’re that stupid silverware that your parents picked up at thrift shops when you were a kid and that you're still eating with as an adult who has a “good job,” you know. So that's the contrast that I'm interested in, in the figure of the hotel.
The Swank Hotel is an imaginary space. It comes from the inciting incident of the book, when someone dies and then doesn’t die in a hotel they called “swank,” and then the book just keeps wondering about that space. What is that space? It's the physical architectural space where that place between life and death happens in the story. What is that space? It’s a space of inaccessibility. My hope for readers is that it remains kind of mysterious, but that in those passages that describe it, you get a sense of it that encompasses the world of the book.
DW: And the symbols for each chapter.
LC: They're just the symbols that go along the top row of your keyboard. I've been staring at those for ten years. It's just a little bit of the “this is written” thing. Also, the chapter titles are thematic. This chapter’s about money. That one, I want you to think about animals. I got a kick out of how the keyboard symbols seemed to match, or less directly, the chapter titles. Through a lot of the process of writing the book I’d make up symbols that showed, for me, the individual shape of each chapter, structurally, as I developed it. A knot, parallel lines, the shape of a phone cord, a starburst, stuff like that. For me, this was such a giant book, so organizing it was an absolute obsession through the process of writing. Organizing and reorganizing and just chart after chart after bulletin board, you know, psycho killer diagram with strings, thing after thing on the computer, off the computer, on the floor, everywhere. Just trying to keep track of it was a huge part of writing it. And so I was always looking for symmetries, and from the beginning I thought, “I'll write a book that is ten chapters long and has 200 pages, 20 pages in each chapter.” And I wanted it to be elegant and tidy that way in its broadest form, in part because I knew it was going to be so wild within it that I wanted something that really said “no, really, this book has a shape from the very beginning. Somebody authored this stuff and also our author is not a boundless mess.” So that TOC is, I think, the final effort at a chart that shows the shape of the book.
DW: I think you definitely succeeded in that goal.
There's a lot of humor here. Can you speak to the importance of humor in the book?
LC: Part of how I live is looking for the funny things. I'm a language first writer. And if you're interested in language, you best be interested in funniness, because that's such a large part of what language does, is be funny.
The structure of a joke and the structure of a metaphor are the same. They're two things that you don't expect to be meaningful in relation to each other, and then the pleasure is when they are so alike. There is that spark in between them –– the vehicle and the referent, the setup and the landing –– that happens only in the reader's consciousness when they put things together in a way that is surprising and pleasurable. Constructing metaphor and constructing jokes or things that are funny are the same thing for me and are the reason that I write. I do it as much as I do anything else — it's the same pleasure to find relationships that are funny as relationships that are anything else, that are moving or beautiful.
DW: And it's very true to life, too. Which is, of course, your focus as a writer, even things that are terrible. It's a human reaction to have this kind of dark comedy to it.
You mention being a language-first writer. Something that is not true of the majority of fiction that’s coming out right now, as we mentioned a little earlier. Could you expand some on the idea of being a language-first writer and how that manifests versus having a very specific story to tell that involves functioning with plot and characters and themes? Because obviously they can coexist, but sometimes you have to work to fit in one when the other perhaps comes more naturally.
LC: Again, to go back to how I was raised. I knew I wanted to be an artist, but I didn't really know what sort of artist. When it was clear that I wanted to be a writer, it seemed to me that I shouldn’t do that because everybody knew that if you wanted to be powerful with your storytelling, you shouldn't be a writer. You should be working in film or TV, visual forms, whatever that's evolved into now. But it was clear to me that what mattered to me wasn't people looking at me and wondering what I thought about things; that was not why I was in the game. I was into storytelling for something else. I was into it because of my relationship with language.
If I was going to be a writer, I came to feel I should be working in my form in a way that required a form that did what that form can do. That was about why I was writing instead of doing some other thing all day, every day. I’m also the sort of writer who doesn't know how to tell a story until I know what it sounds like and feels like and what the voices are and the texture of the language is. One of the hardest things about this book was finding the texture of the prose. It took a really long time. And it started from collage. In a lot of short stories, I'll hear a sentence and it will sound like a person, and then if I follow the sentence, I have a character who's telling about the stuff that happened to them, and then I have a story. This was not like that. Because solidifying the narration came so late in the process, and it was an ongoing process through the whole making of the book, to derive the texture of language and how the sentences worked and how we move from one moment to another, I really kind of made it from scratch, out of language. And so I would start through my reading. Every time I encountered a fragment of language that felt like what I wanted my book to feel like I would put that in a file. And I just started collecting fragments from the world that seemed like they fit the sensibility of the space that I was trying to construct. And then that helped me have the language myself, as I started to think about what the fragments had in relation to each other, as I was physically sort of splicing them together to see what sentences they made. That's how I derived what I would say is the voice of the book.
DW: I’m interested in decision-making in fiction. In my opinion, reading the book, it felt like there was an effort to not stray too far from Em and her sister. Maybe stray far but not for too long, in that the book would go off in one direction or the other but always come back around to Em and Ad. We would learn about a character driving over the Great Smokey Mountains, and about this wild house being built, about the neighbor’s lawsuit. All manner of different things. But then it would come back around. Em is at her desk and she's trying to get this coat rack, trying to find Ad. So I'm curious about your decision making, how you balance those things.
LC: It was a project of the book to see exactly how far I could stray and still come back. It’s amazing to me, sometimes, how tight the expectations of most readers are when it comes to, “Why am I reading this?” It has to be really obvious that it all goes together and it all is related (and honestly, as a reader I am really pissed when I feel like I shouldn’t have had to read so much to get what I got) but I don’t think that directness is how significant learning takes place.
So much of this book Em is asking, “What am I learning here? What do I know?” She's in a state of radical uncertainty about what she knows, and about what to do if experts don’t know what they're talking about, which is so clear in the world of mental illness, and an increasingly present concern all over our culture. One of the first things that happens when you encounter mental illness is that the things that you've assumed are true and right are shown to you to maybe not be true and right. Who knows who decides? We're all subjective entities and that is terrifying when stuff like the lives of people and the fate of the planet and the nature of reality, all that, is at stake. What you've described is another version of me wanting to take my subject really seriously in that way, and to really track in this book what I thought, in my experience, is the truth of how you come to learn anything. It's not one plus one is two. It is gradual. It's cumulative. It happens over a long period of time. You don't spot it. You don't spot the moment, you just sort of shift and then you're thinking and then you shift, and then you're thinking about things differently and you don't know where it came from. I wanted to mark that. You have to have a lot of trust to think associatively. If I follow this thing, is it going to relate? And the truth is sometimes it is, and sometimes it's not. And as a writer, you usually make much more conservative choices than as a person in real life. In real life, you sort of flop around hoping for the best. As a writer, you're bound to make it better, make it count, make it better, make it count. If not, you can cut it out, because that's your job, is to cut. And so I took bigger and bigger risks with that, I took bigger and bigger risks with what to keep. I would have these very long chapters that eventually I do make come around. And whether or not I do that in a way that is convincing ends up being the stakes of this book.