Here is an interview with Courtney Morgan. We perform a partial autopsy on her book The Seven Autopsies of Nora Hanneman. Courtney even gives us her thoughts and feelings about assembling a short story collection.
Interviewer: Your book starts with an autopsy for Nora Hanneman. But it seems to me, that it can also be read as an autopsy for the book itself, sorta like the book has died. (And I’m not ignoring the very real violence against women.) Your book isn’t following conventional rules for a novel or a collection of short stories, so that’s also why I think the book dies, in a way. In the Autopsy you have a section called “Anatomic Findings.” Books have anatomies: spine, joint, head, foot, etc. So if we entertained that your book has died, could we perform a portion of an autopsy? What are some Anatomical Findings of your book? And we don’t have to stick strictly to anatomical terms—anything will work that falls under the “body” of a book. I’ll start: Main character is splintered into time and space. “Plot” is broken. What other Anatomical Findings would you include here?
Courtney Morgan: Ooh, okay, I like this. The book has died. This is an interesting metaphorical lens to look at it through. Because of course the metaphorical layers are there. Of course it was always more than a story of Nora or her death, or even violence against women. But I don’t know that I could say what it was a metaphor for—which I suppose is why it needed metaphor in the first place, a grasping to describe what cannot just be named.
So, anatomical findings, I mean, you’ve pointed out two big ones, so I’ll just briefly elaborate on those before adding my own.
Yes, definitely, character is splintered, as is any sense of identity or self—this idea of a continuous self, that I’m the same person I was when I was a ten-pound baby, or when I was thirteen, or even yesterday. Identity is fractured, fragmented, refracted. Subjectivity is inherently dissected, dislocated, torn, especially when confronted with the objectification of the body, the commodification of the self, by the outside world. As people who are women, queer, non-white, experience regularly. (Of course this book focuses on the experience of a white woman, but just to say this phenomenon has many iterations, I think.) And I guess the book is trying to capture or reflect this, as part of its work.
Plot is broken, yes—narrative structure, within stories and also for the book as a whole; compound fractures in the (false?) sense of wholeness, completeness. Traditional linear structures seem to reach for this idea of completeness, even if it’s just a snippet of time/life. This book, I guess, is reaching for the ways this completeness falls flat, fails to capture the fleeting, changing, morphing, decaying aspect contained in every moment, every body, every story. Yes, there’s a breakdown of this “masculine” “Western” “white” linear storyline—but at the same time there’s also a resigning to or an acceptance of chronology and time, or at least, an attempt to grapple with it. And in a way, this collapses into the sense of identity—Nora both is the child-self and the crone, the self in our world and the in fantastical ones—and at the same time, she isn’t, at the same time she can only be one or the other, if she’s one she’s not the other. The way time (and by extension, identity) are both sequential and simultaneous.
Which I’m sure is a thing people can understand scientifically, but I don’t have one of those brains; it’s something really hard for me to wrap my head around intellectually, but still something I experience, so I mostly understand it as sensation, as bodily. Hence this book maybe.
So that’s another anatomical finding: time/chronology collapsed, fallen in on itself, still there, but not functioning properly, like a soggy lung.
Margins rupture. The limits of the page/book are compromised. Structures leak, give way. The page is “torn” into columns and chambers. Of course, the work still has to fit within the physical confines of the object though. And even the stories with columns, or footnotes, or marginalia, still had to fit within the possibilities and capabilities of the page and the printer. In “A Wing Unfolds in the Dark,” when I first wrote it, some of the lines “broke” the margins, pushed out into the white space, but in printing the book that was impossible, they had to stay within the boundaries. And even in the original, there were still the limits of the page. But certainly, the words are trying to fuck with/escape the boundaries. Like a burst appendix: its contents still trapped within the cavity of the body, but not in the place they’re supposed to be.
In a more metaphorical sense, boundaries blur and bleed all over the book: distances between life/death/sex/birth/orgasm; the borders of gender and the binary of masculine/feminine. Delineations befog. Liminality is the foreground, the place we spend most of our time. Gender itself is, I don’t know, I’m not sure if it’s broken; I guess it’s failed, it’s like a failed organ. Multiple organ failure.
And cultural conceptions of femininity/femme-ness: maybe this is coronary artery disease—the heart isn’t getting enough flow, weakens, shuts down. Congestive heart failure.
And I guess we could say there’s a breaching of narration, of the narrator, of the teller of the story. Some stories have multiple voices or speakers, and Nora’s voice changes as she inhabits other versions of herself—the primacy of narration, of voice, punctured. (Woo, running low on metaphorical autopsy verbs.) There’s a division there, a multiplication of cells. “I contain multitudes.”
Autolysis is one of my favorite words. And certainly we’ll find our share here; this corpse has been here a while. Self-digestion. Of the story collection, the stories individually, the character(s). An ouroboric eating of self. Decay inlaid in creation.
Interviewer: Yes, yes. Thank you so much for that response. My plan was to ask you to go into detail about a few of the anatomical findings, but you already did that. I think you’ve just written a mini-essay that I will be returning to. (I’m currently at work, and when I read your response I wanted to leave immediately and go home and write.) Okay, so I’ll ask only one more question since I asked you a pretty big question and you did a lot of work on it. I see that you are teaching a class at Lighthouse Writers Workshop called Assembling a Short Story Collection. And after reading your previous response, I’m curious about that class. What are some of the basic things you would teach about assembling a short story collection?
Courtney Morgan: Oh, yes, I am. And I’m still figuring out all the pieces—it’s a new class and new idea—but I really wanted to explore the process of building a bigger work in a group/class setting. When I was putting my collection together, I felt pretty lost and adrift. Like, if you have a novel, you know what you’re in for, you have some sense of where you’re going, of a destination, but a collection can be open-ended and wander-y, labyrinthine. Especially if you’re writing towards it, writing with the idea of making a collection, rather than just writing a bunch of stories that eventually get thrown together.
That’s one thing I want to look at it, what is the structural goal of the collection? Thinking of it like an album is useful—is it a greatest hits or a concept album? How interconnected are the pieces, and at what joints? Are there recurring characters, settings or themes? Is voice or structure a linkage? And where are the gaps, where are the places that make the stories feel dislocated or unrelated, and then, what bridges those? If they aren’t being bridged yet, how can they be?
I think a lot of it will be an exploration and excavation of obsession. At least, that’s how my collection came together for me. I started to sift through and ask: what do I keep talking about? What images, themes, events keep recurring, what do I keep coming back to, what do I keep reencountering and rewriting? I think we all have our obsessions, and they are usually our impetus to write—I write because I still can’t work out (fill in the blank), or I still can’t capture this experience. So we may write it in all sorts of forms and through all species of characters, but we’re often rehashing a few elements of life experience. And not that you want to oversimplify it into a catch phrase or something, but I think getting an understanding of what those driving elements are, can really help structure your larger work. What is this work’s raison d’etre? What’s its reason for being in the world?
So, in the class, I want to have us move back and forth in a pattern, zooming in and examining the microcosms, on the story and even sentence level; and then pulling back to look at the bigger, overarching themes and linkages for the overall work, how these tiny obsessions are playing out at the macro level. And the idea, the hope, is that wherever you are in the work, just starting out or sifting through dozens of already-written stories, we can use this process to structure and build the bigger project, the whole.
Courtney E. Morgan received her MFA in Creative Writing from the University of Colorado, Boulder. Her collection of stories, The Seven Autopsies of Nora Hanneman, was a semifinalist for the FC2 Ronald Sukenick Innovative Fiction Prize and is available now from FC2 Press.
Courtney has also been published in Pleiades, The Red Anthology, American Book Review, and others. Recipient of the Thompson Award for Western American Writing, founder and managing editor of The Thought Erotic journal on sexuality and gender. She teaches at Lighthouse Writers Workshop, The Gathering Place women’s shelter, and personalized on-site and online writing and healing courses.