Mary South recommends her favorite stories, collections, and journals

Mary South’s debut story collection, You Will Never Be Forgotten, explores what she calls “late-capitalism dystopias.” The collection is filled with memorable stories from a FAQs section gone wrong (““Frequently Asked Questions About Your Craniotomy”) to a woman who stalks her rapist online and then in real life (the title story “You Will Never Be Forgotten”).

In addition to writing stellar stories, she also helped edit NOON. Needless to say: South knows stories. I decided to ask her for recommendations of stories and collections that inspire her, as well as where she finds new voices.

Do you remember the first short story you read that really captivated you? 

Upon reading James Joyce’s “The Dead” in high school one devastatingly cold Minnesota night while bundled up in blankets, I was filled with awe. The management of the dinner party, the use of weather, the cosmopolitanism vs. soulfulness duality of the two suitors named after two archangels, and that exquisitely wistful moment of Gretta listening to music on the stairs all stunned me. I didn’t know short fiction could accomplish so much. I still think that story is a perfect work of art.

I remember my immense excitement, too, upon reading Guy de Maupassant’s “The Horla” and discovering how he was able to slowly build a sense of such dread and threat—and in diary form! The same goes for Flannery O’Connor’s “Good Country People” and its brilliant counterpointed characterization or the temporal leaps that happen so effortlessly in Elizabeth Bowen’s “The Happy Autumn Fields.” Or the disturbingly funny and yet inevitable “turn” mid-story in George Saunders’s “Sea Oak.” Those were all early and treasured discoveries.

Who is the writer that has had the biggest influence on you as a writer?

Undoubtedly Diane Williams. I’ve been fortunate enough to work closely with Diane in editing NOON, her annual literary journal, which always contains extraordinary short fiction that’s often no more than a page or two. Observing how she edits—stripping away unnecessary sentences until the story is an idiosyncratic and fascinatingly compelling object, almost—was revelatory. Diane herself is a master of compression, able to imbue strange and often humorous beauty into her prose. Take this sentence from “Lamb Chops, Cod,” for example: “He died while he was still glossy and smooth at the dinner table between the fish with dill—a great favorite—outstanding with butter—and the boiled blue plum dumplings.” I could write several paragraphs about the genius of that sentence: the repetition of l sounds in dill, boiled, boiled, blue, plum, and dumplings. Same goes for the u and o sounds, not to mention the bilabial nasally stopped m sounds in “plum” and “dumplings,” which arrive elegantly at the end of the sentence and mirror how this character arrived elegantly at the dinner table for his death. I strive to create such sonic elegance in my work.

I’m also very much indebted to Kazuo Ishiguro and Never Let Me Go. I’m fascinated by its bureaucratic dystopia and how the characters who are harvested for their parts never question their reality. They don’t try to fight an unjust system. Instead, they try to exist within the system, merely asking for more time prior to their donations. Observing what they don’t question—but was obviously horribly cruel to me as the reader—made me want to figure out and then embed character assumptions into my stories. Can I then more clearly see what I don’t question about my own lived reality?

Is there a story collection you return to over and over?

In addition to Diane Williams’s stories, I’m a fan of Mary Gaitskill’s Bad Behavior. The point of view switches in “Romantic Weekend” were such an education in how to convey conflicting interior realities. Though perhaps my favorite story by her is “Mirrorball” from Don’t Cry. I was bowled over from the beginning by the opening line: “He took her soul—though, being a secular-minded person, he didn’t think of it that way.” And I’m an admirer of her novella, This Is Pleasure—the kind of subject matter I’d only really trust Mary Gaitskill to address so artfully.

As someone who likes to explore fictional architectural spaces, I’ve also returned to Calvino’s Invisible Cities more than once. And I’ve lately (“lately” meaning the past couple of years) been enraptured by Lucia Berlin’s A Manual for Cleaning Women. If you haven’t read the story “Dr. H. A. Moynihan,” which is hilariously gross and weird—about a dentist who makes his own set of fake teeth—do yourself a favor and read it right now.

What are some contemporary collections you recommend to readers who like your work?

My collection often explores late-capitalist dystopias. “Keith Prime” is about an Amazon-like warehouse where babies, all named Keith, are raised in a comatose state for organ harvest, and the title story, “You Will Never Be Forgotten,” follows a content moderator who screens traumatizing videos while stalking her rapist—first online, then in real life. Thus, I think readers who find my stories powerful and compelling would also enjoy Peter Kispert’s I Know You Know Who I Am, which features one of the most upsetting late-capitalist game shows I’ve ever seen portrayed in fiction, as well as Nana Kwame Adjei-Brenyah’s Friday Black. I found “Zimmer Land,” about a dystopian theme park where attendees can indulge their worst racist compulsions, to be absolutely harrowing. I’m also drawn to the formal inventiveness of Carmen Maria Machado and Lucy Corin’s brilliance. “Godzilla vs. the Smog Monster” is a favorite story of mine.

What journals or publications do you read to find fresh, new voices in literature?

Naturally, NOON will always be one of the first places I turn to find new voices, regardless of my level of involvement in assisting at the journal. I also really love Hobart and Wigleaf for their flash fiction. And New York Tyrant publishes really interesting work. The White Review always looks stunning and features stunning writing. The Rupture (formerly The Collagist) was also one of the first places to accept a story of mine, and I’ve always really enjoyed them. I also love American Short Fiction, BOMB, Conjunctions, One Story, and many more.

I’m a big fan of independent and small presses as well. Dorothy has an absolutely phenomenal track record. I think everyone should read the books published by Danielle Dutton and Martin Riker at Dorothy.

Please subscribe to Debutiful’s podcast, which releases once a month with an in-depth interview with one debut author.

Adam Vitcavage is the founder of Debutiful. His interviews and criticism have also appeared in Electric Literature, The Millions, Paste Magazine, and more.

Visit Mary South at her website and follow her on Twitter and Instagram.

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