April Ayers Lawson’s short story “Virgin” appears in our new issue. It is Lawson’s first appearance in a magazine with national circulation. Last week she was kind enough to answer a few questions from her home in Greenville, South Carolina.
In “Virgin” you describe sexual frustration and desire very convincingly—and very specifically—from a man’s point of view. How did you do it?
Close observation. Male frustration seems to me more focused, more linear, than female frustration. This interests me a lot. Also, I enjoy asking men about what they think it means to be a man. I like to hear about the women in their lives—how they view their mothers, sisters, girlfriends, wives. I like to try to understand what it means to be “manly,” what it means for a man to think he’s failed to be manly. The more I understand men, the more I understand women.
Also, when a story is about women—I consider the story to be mostly about the women—it makes more sense to me to feel them from the perspective of a man.
Did you ever feel out of your depth?
The perspective came naturally. If it didn’t I’d have aborted. When I write I’m doing it as an act of discovery. Also to get high. What I’m writing should feel at least as real to me as what’s physically around me. It should rise out of and also sustain a heightened sense of emotional reality. Otherwise, no point, no pleasure.
The stories of yours that I have read are all set in the South among Evangelical Christians. Do you write with a Southern Christian reader in mind?
The answer is really short: no.
No, no, no.
I write for the person I’m most interested in at the time. Not romantically, I should clarify. It’s beyond that. That person could be dead already. But most of the time he or she is someone alive, someone I know. It’s not that I’m tailoring the story to that person—just that I feel he or she will most understand what I’m trying to say, because what I’m coming to understand is in part inspired by knowing him/her. I do get shy about it. In one case, I sent a story to my “reader” and beforehand wrote her a note about what a failure it was. I didn’t tell her it was for her. And then with “Virgin,” I didn’t even show it to him—decided it was too much pressure, that if he didn’t like it I couldn’t stand the disappointment, the potential loneliness, of that—but he wound up seeing it anyway. Happy results.
Are there any books or stories that you return to for inspiration?
I think people should read Goethe’s Theory of Colours because it defamiliarizes the phenomena of light and color. Reading it straight through gets tedious. But in small doses it’s thrilling. Here you have a man obsessed with vision, with how and why he is able to see, from the moment he wakes up until he goes to sleep. For example:
If in the morning, on waking, when the eye is very susceptible, we look intently at the bars of a window relieved against the dawning sky, and then shut our eyes or look towards a totally dark place, we shall see a dark cross on a light ground before us for some time.
Also, sometimes it’s so nonchalantly sexy, it’s wild:
I had entered an inn towards evening, and, as a well-favoured girl, with a brilliantly fair complexion, black hair, and a scarlet bodice, came into the room, I looked attentively at her as she stood before me at some distance in half shadow. As she presently afterwards turned away, I saw on the white wall, which was now before me, a black face surrounded with a bright light, while the dress of the perfectly distinct figure appeared of a beautiful sea-green.
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