NER fiction reader Michael Webster Thompson talks with NER author Raven Leilani on autopsical work, non-chronological story sequences, and silence and space within fiction. Leilani’s story “Dead Weight,” which tracks its protagonist’s alternating loyalties to her mother and father in the years leading up to her departure for college, is featured in NER 39.3.
MWT: “Dead Weight” has such visceral detail throughout, but that opening scene really drew me in as a reader. Do you have first-hand experience with autopsies, or was that all from imagination?
My mother worked as an autopsist for a while. Before I went off to college, she invited me to watch her work. She always worked at night. I spent the whole day trying to be cool about it, but then we put on our hazmat suits and it began to feel concrete. I was afraid and excited by that fear, but when I watched my mother work, I felt such reverence for her craft and for the woman on her table. There is a frankness about the body when it is reduced to all those formerly functioning parts, but that frankness was part of the wonder, the way the tissues and organs give you up—the idea that a record of life exists within the body even after death.
MWT: I really admire how much time you are able to cover in this young woman’s life. I felt as if I, the reader, were getting snapshots of scenes that stitched together gave me a very full story. How did you decide when to zoom in and what to leave out? Is there a lot of writing that didn’t make the final draft?
There was a lot I cut! Usually I write a story and put in the whole kitchen sink, and then later when I’m not as smitten, I get my machete. Because this piece isn’t linear, I had a lot of latitude, maybe too much, and so I settled on the progression that meant most to me, which is the oscillation of loyalties within this family. I wanted it to be a little more liquid, for the action and scenery to recede so I could invest more in the interior and make the private and emotional beats more explicit. By which I mean I feel very close to this piece, and when I feel like that, to make up for a potential lapse of perspective, I try to go deeper in hopes that a reader might feel close to it too. The snapshots released me from the practical demands of time, and so I was free to cut to the chase.
MWT: There is virtually no dialogue in this piece. Was that a conscious decision or simply the way the story evolved naturally?
I went back and forth on that. I love writing dialogue, but since so much of the progression is predicated on what is not being said inside this house, on what is secret and contractual, I didn’t want to let any air in. I love fiction where the silence is conspicuous, and I’m always trying to capture that. It is not my most natural mode of writing, so I definitely had help. While I was writing this I had an amazing teacher, and he taught me how to clear a path so that the more important moments had a little more room to land, and once I started making room, a lot of words were shed and I realized this piece needed to be a quiet one.
MWT: So much of this story is about the father being gone, yet he is also often present. How did you manage to toe this line? The story is also unmoored in time. Did you worry about potentially losing the reader?
When I wrote this, I wanted to show how the father is real to his daughter in a way he is not to his wife. The marriage is contractual, and for the sake of their child they maintain this ruse, and I think the father’s existence in these two opposing states is a function of this ruse breaking down. When I say that he is real to his daughter, I mean she gets to experience how he is unreal first. She gets to love him as an idea, and the mother doesn’t have that privilege. So I put those versions of him side by side, until the Truer version—him being gone, in the sense that he is absorbed in himself—becomes literal. To set the versions next to each other, I had to jump around in time, and so yes, I was extremely anxious about how that would affect the reader’s experience!
MWT: The last paragraph sealed this story up so nicely. We’re so often told to end on an image, which is where you start, but then you zoom out to the abstract. Was it difficult to get this ending right?
Thank you so much! I definitely worried about it, but because I am most inclined toward loud, fatty prose, this was, for me, a real exercise in restraint. With this piece, I tried to be explicit and frugal with page space. But once I got to the end, I felt enormous relief, and all the air and noise I was trying to keep at bay came out. So it happened naturally. I should mention that before I started concentrating on prose, I invested a lot of myself in poetry—and I think I felt such relief to be at the end that I reverted to the language I’m most comfortable with. Because I’d been so careful with the rest of the draft, I did feel a little suspicious of how naturally that happened. But ultimately, I wanted an ending that was more open-ended, that spoke to that in-between space where what is dead is still alive.
Raven Leilani’s work has appeared in Granta, Narrative Magazine, Columbia Literary Journal, New Delta Review, Forge, Bat City Review, Split Lip Magazine, Pigeon Pages, and Florida Review. She is the fiction editor at Ruminate Magazine and currently completing her MFA at New York University.
Michael Webster Thompson’s fiction has been published in Blue Earth Review, Laurel Review, and decomP magazinE, among others. Thompson lives in New Hampshire with his family, and is a graduate of the University of New Hampshire’s MFA in writing program.