A character “containing multitudes” and gender exploration brings their debut author a bit of writerly confidence.
McKenna Marsden talks to NER staff reader Laur Freymiller about “Suffering in Motion,” Marsden’s debut story, and the path and the process that brought her to the pages of NER.
Laur Freymiller: Thanks for sitting down to talk with me about your piece. As a non-binary person myself, I found your character, Hannah, very real. The idea of “containing multitudes” especially resonated with me. Did you feel that writing this piece was more an experience of exploration or an affirmation of something you already thought?
McKenna Marsden: It can be both things. At the time of writing this I was also going through my own gender exploration and I wanted to look at an ungendered relationship with the body. I started writing about someone else other than me and at the end of the process, I realized it wasn’t about someone else after all.
LF: I like what you said about the ungendered body. That was something else that “Suffering in Motion” really nailed—the sense of physicality. Are you a runner yourself?
MM: That was the area I had to do the most research for. I am not a serious runner in that way. A thing I do is long-distance hiking, and that experience was part of how I came to want to write this. You get used to this way of using your body as a tool, but for the purposes of the story, I wanted to introduce a more competitive edge.
LF: It’s impressive that this was your first publication. What was the process like in finding a home for your story?
MM: I spent a really, really long time trying to write a novel that just didn’t work. Just bashing my head against that, and a couple years ago I finally decided to start working on this piece as a way of getting away from the novel. I have been taking classes from GrubStreet in Boston and they are amazing and wonderful and helped me work on getting out of my head with my writing. I also started to think about an audience for my writing. This was the first piece that really felt finished since I started at GrubStreet.
From there, I submitted it broadly, but specifically I really liked NER. I kind of thought of it as a stretch place, but I really love reading their work and I thought I’d love to have my writing be a part of it.
LF: Going forward, has publication changed your viewpoint?
MM: It has. For one thing, it was a big confidence boost. It helped me to think of my writing as something that deserves professional attention. It also inspired me to apply for MFA programs. I’ll be attending the University of Maryland in the fall.
It also helped me re-affirm my commitment to longer forms. I started writing “Suffering in Motion” as a piece of flash fiction. Getting it published made me feel that it’s okay that I’m more interested in at least novella-length works. I have recently been working on either a short novel or a novella. But the experience of publishing something shorter has helped me develop a keen sense for sustaining tension and working with scenes.
LF: That was part of what initially drew me into the piece: the structure. The way that it is cut up into episodic parts lends itself to the feeling of being in a race. Was that intentional? How did you find the structure?
MM: Definitely, I wanted to have the feeling of the present moment throughout the piece. Splitting it up into the segments and scenes was a way for me to keep everything in the present. I also wanted to give it sort of a cinematic or photographic feel. When I was younger, I wanted to write graphic novels, and I still love graphic novels. So that has definitely influenced my style.
I originally loved novels because I was reading novels, and through the experience of writing this short story I also read more short stories and have become interested in them for their unique possibilities. I’m especially interested now in connected short story collections that hang together as a whole.
LF: I guess it was inevitable that I would bring up In the Dream House by Carmen Maria Machado. I think she does a lot structurally that would be interesting to you. I also think it is another example of a nuanced queer relationship. What are your thoughts about the queer relationship in your story?
MM: I was interested in the relationship between Hannah and their partner being the crux of the dramatic structure. I liked that the issues were a combination of Hannah’s evolving gender as well as just personal incompatibilities. But these more abstract issues are less pressing than the fact that the lease is coming to an end or how they handle stress differently. A thing that is interesting to me in general is the way people can be loving and supportive and yet they don’t quite get it. I tried to show that more in Hannah’s relationship with their mom. Their mom isn’t evil or anything but she just doesn’t quite get it.
LF: I felt that very strongly from reading the piece. I also got a really good sense of the setting.
MM: I don’t exclusively write about my personal experience, but I don’t like to get things wrong. I mostly write about things that I have a general sense for. I have lived in Boston for all of my adult life, so I mostly set things here where I have a feel for the place beyond what you can get from research. I grew up in Oregon so I set some things there as well.
LF: Thank you for taking the time to sit down with me. I look forward to reading whatever you come out with next!
McKenna Marsden studied English and Creative Writing at the University of Oregon and currently resides in Somerville, Massachusetts. This is her first publication.
Laur A. Freymiller is a non-binary writer originally from Indiana. Their short stories have been published by Hobart Pulp and the Fabulist: Words & Art, and their short story “Accidents” won the 2019 COG: Page to Screen Award. They will be joining the University of Idaho’s MFA program in the fall.