Lynn Lurie is the author of three novels, Corner of the Dead (2008), winner of the Juniper Prize for Fiction, Quick Kills (2014), and Museum of Stones (early 2019). An attorney with an MA in international affairs and an MFA in writing, she is a graduate of Barnard College and Columbia University. She served as a Peace Corps volunteer in Ecuador and currently teaches creative writing and literature to incarcerated men. She has served as a translator and administrator on medical trips to South America providing surgery free of charge to children, and has mentored at Girls Write Now in New York City.
Melissa Cronin: I’m intrigued by the non-linear approach to the story. As a writer myself, I tend toward a chronological telling, so I’m curious to know how you decided on the unique collage-like structure. It flowed really well for me, but I’d love to hear from you how you decided on this approach.
Lynn Lurie: The narrative in Museum of Stones is an assembling of fragments into something more complete. I often begin with a memory, or a memory of a feeling, or work off of recollections of a conversation or a reaction to something. I don’t think along a time line—one idea doesn’t necessarily connect to the next, rather, there is a constant back and forth between present, future and past. Museum of Stones, more than my other two novels, initially was a stack of index cards, which I kept re-arranging to find the connective threads. I actually used scissors and scotch tape to piece it together. When the subject matter became too much I fell into white space, which served as a pause, a reset.
MC: Works of fiction are often based on real events. How do you mix truth and fiction?
LL: Once I am able to capture the emotional tone, I look for a proper context, which is often fictional. What it triggers in the reader, the feeling conveyed, I want to be as close to truth as I can get.
MC: As we talk about the fragmented nature of your novel, it reminds me of your interview with Danielle Sherrod, when your novel Quick Kills came out. In the interview, you talked about how the fragmented nature of that story lent detachment, and that it was necessary, otherwise it would be too painful for the reader. I’m wondering if this is the case in Museum of Stones.
LL: There are a few events in my life I keep returning to in my writing. My three novels, although of very different subject matter, circle back to and try to understand the human capacity for cruelty, displacement, and how we manage loss. While fragments do allow for a certain detachment, because the action is incomplete, I think the fragments are a constant in my writing, because what I am most concerned with, what moves me most, doesn’t have a beginning middle or end.
MC: The levity and humor in the book also allows for some detachment from the difficult and traumatic scenes. Such levity keeps the reader going. I couldn’t help laugh out loud at times.
LL: I wish I were funny in my writing. Humor saves us from ourselves. I don’t think I’m very good at this, but when it appears, I’m grateful. My daughter was helping me format Quick Kills and she laughed. I needed to know what was funny. I realized the part she was reading was hilarious. But I needed her to lead me to the humor, despite having written it.
MC: One of my favorite humorous moments is when the mother says to her son, “The carpool is coming,” and he responds, “I don’t know how to swim.” Then again, when she tells him she signed him up for archery and he says, “Sign me down.”
LL: Those things are funny, especially in this story—I want the reader to see how delightful and unique this child is. He may not play well with his peers, but we see how beautifully he plays with language. When childhood is over, he’ll have a far more valuable skill than his peers. He’ll be able to construct other worlds with his words, pointing out what we are not seeing. The narrator’s quest throughout the novel is to bring the glory that she knows lives inside this child into the light. I’m always listening to the way children talk. Their language is their way of making sense of the world, and because it is new to them, and because they are in so many ways innocent, we are reminded of how much they deserve to be listened to.
MC: Speaking of children, I’m curious about why the son is never named in the novel.
LL: I’m not good at naming things. Maybe it’s because I’m working off composites of people and I don’t want to betray anyone. But I think it’s something else. The story isn’t about a particular person, but is, I hope, about something bigger. The other problem with naming is it makes it too real.
MC: There’s no over-explaining at all in the novel. Your trust in readers is respectful and admirable. You’re brave in leaving it up to us to extract meaning from each scene.
LL: I want to work to understand something. If I am not working, I’m not in the world. Those are the kinds of books I prefer to read, those that ask me to participate, to stay focused. Reading is my greatest joy because it allows me to be present in the world of the book. At the same time, I am delightfully alone, because I can read at my own pace and in my own way. This process is what allows me to make the story mine.
MC: The narrator writes from the comfortable economic perspective of a mother in modern America, but the novel shares the experience of mothers in other places and situations, such as a mother in Peru, where it’s a luxury to have a pair of shoes, and where so many people don’t have access to modern medicine. Why did you make this choice?
LL: The no shoes are about a parent who would love to do more for her child but can’t. Museum of Stones is about a mother who has many more resources than the mother in Peru, but who also comes up short. This is our lot in life: We’re always inadequate. What the narrator’s child needs she can’t give. As a parent you feel you have an obligation to provide everything, and when you can’t you see yourself as a failure. There’s a blindness to parenting. You foolishly believe, at first, that anything can be accomplished—you are a god of sorts, giving life, but nothing is further from the truth. Becoming a parent is facing head on your limitations, your failures, your shortcomings.
MC: Readers want to read a balanced narrative, something that reveals both the good and the bad in each character. And you do that well in the novel, through the actions of the narrator. I’m thinking of the flashback scene with the narrator’s classmate, Billy. Because she knows the alphabet, and he “can’t tell one letter from the next,” she helps him, which makes her very likeable. Yet we do see her flaws, especially as a mother. For example, when she deliberates abandoning him in his crib, “his diaper over-flowing, the wet running down his leg.” This touches upon what we were just talking about, wanting to do the best for your child, but you don’t always rise to that.
LL: There are many examples in Museum of Stones where the narrator lacks compassion. I reject the idea that a parent, that this narrator, is supposed to lose herself in her child’s struggle. While this may be the expectation, it cannot stand. The tension is how does she save herself and not see herself as being woefully inadequate. All parents are something more than that—we come with a past. Children don’t have to honor the past, but as parents, we must, or the whole project, this thing we call family, will collapse.
MC: Now, the big aha moment for me—the source of the novel’s title. It started to come together for me during the scene when the son collects rocks and asks his mother, the narrator, to write Museum of Stones on a stake so others can see it. Later, when the mother and her husband return to his childhood home, she notices a pile of rocks under the porch. She fills her pockets with them. I thought, wow, such a beautiful moment. For me, that was a metaphor for how she holds onto her son, how we hold onto things, or memories, or people who have come into our lives.
LL: Great! Your interpretation isn’t mine, yet they can peacefully exist side by side. This is part of what I was getting at when I said I don’t like naming things—each reader can turn the text into something slightly different depending on who they are or what they need at the moment they are reading. It’s why we re-read favorite books. Meaning is variable. We are looking for how it connects now. For me, this passage is about an extraordinary child who sees in an ordinary stone something exquisite. We all make up fantasies to survive, and children are especially resilient because of their imaginations. But the passage is about how most adults see the cracks or the dirt, the flaws, but this allegedly flawed little boy proclaims it is our obligation as human beings to see beyond the ordinary, to find the non-flaws, the beauty. It is an ode to the kind of person the boy is and to the narrator, who, by going along with him, allows him to reach beyond the sadness in his life. And the grandmother, who [in another scene] helps him assemble the rocks, she too gives his fantasy a form. What sustains us is our ability to construct something even from a void. And you’re right, it’s also about returning to the memory of something good in a difficult time, and a woman who stood by, who waited and who hoped.
Melissa Cronin’s work has appeared in a number of publications, including literary journals, magazines, and mainstream newspapers. She is a recipient of a Vermont Studio Center Merit Grant and a Vermont Arts Council Development Grant. Melissa holds a BS in nursing from Boston University and an MFA in creative nonfiction from Vermont College of Fine Arts. She is currently completing a memoir and working on her first novel. For more information, please go to melissacronin.com.