Rappahannock Review Fiction Editors: The topics of workplace harassment and suicide are important themes in this piece. What was your process when it came to writing about these difficult issues?
Carrie La Seur: As the #MeToo wave washed over us all, I was reading some of Katherine Anne Porter’s short stories from early in the last century and came upon one called Flowering Judas. It’s mostly about encounters between an innocent young American woman in Mexico at the time of their revolution and a revolutionary leader who’s both repulsive and seductive and clearly has designs on her. She holds him off but tolerates his advances because she needs him in many ways – for housing, work, and personal safety. It struck me as a modern tale. I started to contemplate situations where the power differential is great, and of course as a writer the setting of writers’ programs came quickly to mind. How do we navigate these situations? How do they shape us? To what extent are we responsible? Do we eventually become the abusers we avoided? What toll does it take?
RR: Does this story speak to larger issues that you see in the literary community, or would you say it addresses primarily specific figures?
CL: I’ve seen abuses of power in every academic setting I’ve encountered, so I think there’s some universality. Of course I borrowed from own fund of scenes and images but I’m most interested in how the light is shifting to throw a different light on situations that would have seemed tolerable – maybe annoying but tolerable and normal – just a few years ago. Accountability is a great unsettling force.
RR: You mention in a note that this piece is based on Katherine Anne Porter’s “Flowering Judas,” which takes place in Mexico and focuses on the toxic relationship between Laura, the protagonist, and Braggioni, who is a Mexican revolutionary leader. Can you discuss how you think about the similarities and parallels in the two stories?
CL: Braggioni is this Jabba the Hutt of a man as Porter draws him, someone it’s hard to picture anyone finding attractive. He holds people to him with sheer power. I wanted a slightly subtler antagonist, updated for an era when women have more agency but sometimes subvert it to achieve our goals. We become complicit, and my story’s about that too, how we become the thing we submit to.
RR: How do you prepare yourself for your writing process? Do you find it to be an organized event, or is it more spontaneous?
CL: My publication record is all over the map. I began with poetry, went on to essays, law review articles, opinion pieces, book reviews, and then two novels. Now I’m back at poetry and putting real time into short stories, reading and writing them with care. My third novel may be linked short stories. It’s a whole different process from the extended narrative of a novel where I can hammer out pages for days and forget everything on my calendar. Short stories wear me out. I can only work at one for a few hours before I need a break. Then I dip into something like Olive Kitteredge to be reminded how simple it all can be. It’s a discipline, my own little homegrown course of study. I know which hours I’ll have quiet to work, so I sit down and get it done. There’s no time to waste on spontaneity.
RR: In addition to Katherine Anne Porter, of course, are there other writers that have inspired your work?
CL: I quoted from Ovid at the beginning of my first novel and from Willa Cather for the second. Both were quotations about homecoming, the native land. My books are set in highly specific locales in south central Montana and I’m most influenced by writers with a strong sense of place and the people who belong to it, like Wendell Berry, Louise Erdrich, William Faulkner, Gabriel García Márquez, Kazuo Ishiguro, Flannery O’Connor, and Annie Proulx. I wrote my dissertation on Simone de Beauvoir and practically quote her without meaning to sometimes. I go back to Adrienne Rich over and over. Neal Stephenson blows my mind. I’m a complete sucker for writers who take me somewhere new.
Carrie La Seur’s work in Issue 6.1: