“Numbering, Headings, Weird Animal Facts”: Gay Degani Interviews Lynn Mundell, author of LET OUR BODIES BE RETURNED TO US

Lynn Mundell’s writing has been published in literary journals including Tin House, The Sun, Booth, and Five Points, and in the W.W. Norton anthology New Micro: Exceptionally Short Fiction. Her work has placed in the Wigleaf Top 50 Very Short Fictions, short and long listed between 2017 and 2020, and won the 2019 Lascaux Prize in Creative Nonfiction. She is co-founder and co-editor of 100 Word Story and co-editor of its anthology, Nothing Short Of. Her chapbook Let Our Bodies Be Returned to Us won the 2021 Yemassee Fiction Chapbook Award and released in March. It is in its second printing. Visit Lynn at lynnmundell.com.

Gay Degani: Lynn, thank you, for discussing your newly released chapbook, Let Our Bodies Be Returned to Us. Your stories are as intriguing as your title. They are fresh and unique, experimental, yet all very readable. You play with structure, you play with theme, and always bring something unexpected. Your stories seem to come from a Pandora’s box, though they don’t put evil out into the world, but rather take the reader on unexpected journeys.

I’m interested in how you think about “story” because your pieces have a fractured-mirror aspect to them. For example, in one of my favorites, “Cloise,” in which twins tie themselves together in clothing, side by side, when their parents are divorcing. How did this idea come about?

Lynn Mundell: I’m really interested in siblings, who are friends and peers, but something much more. Twins are the ultimate siblings. So interesting! I started with the idea of two girls who are very close and then took it to the literal, which is their melding their own names and then their own bodies. The missing father is sort of the villain, but so is the mess of a mom. She’s more interested in their stretched clothes than in why they are sharing one item of clothing between two girls, which is that they are afraid of being physically parted. Sometimes I like to take a notion and manipulate it to see how far it can go.

GD: That’s how I felt when reading your work, that you want to see what happens if you don’t take the expected path. You seem very curious about what might happen “if.” In “Sophia,” a young woman pretends that she is Sophia Loren, and in “Smile Lisa,” you reimagine Da Vinci’s muse. Can you talk a little about what other kinds of situations, objects, people inspire you? What keeps you at your computer?

LM: I like an unexpected scenario as a means to get into a character. Sophia may not have occurred to me, but was in response to the early days of Jellyfish Review, when editor Christopher James was accepting submissions for a celebrity issue. I liked the idea of celebrity, but from someone who wasn’t even grade B—someone who was really not a celebrity at all. “Smile, Lisa” was sparked by a news article about two sisters who are the descendants of Lisa Gherardini del Giocondo, who some say was the real Mona Lisa. That spun off with my own memories of the painting at the Louvre, a lot of research about the painting, #MeToo, and my own musings on women’s bodies.

I didn’t realize I was writing so many stories that were thematically connected—the notion of beauty and our relationship to our bodies as we move through puberty, womanhood, childbearing years, and finally old age. I suspect this arose from my own aging and thoughts about what it means to be a woman who is heading into the final third of life.

GD: You often use different structures for your stories. In “Sky Lanterns” you use key words. “Three Metals” and “Tres Flores” are mini-triptychs, and “Wise Owls” employs the actual behavior of owls. How important is using a variety of constructions to keep your storytelling fresh and urgent?

LM: Because flash is so short, sometimes transitions or big themes need a boost. Beyond the language, how? I have fun with structure. Numbering, headings, weird animal facts, dates, organizing by something like flowers or metals can help pack that wallop I ideally want. I suppose it can also be a bit of a crutch, too, because it can help give me the bones of a story that I can fill out more easily.

GD: What is your favorite story in this collection and why?

LM: This is a very interesting question because I have found that a writer’s favorite story is not necessarily the favorite of her readers! I have a soft spot for the first story in the collection, “Again.” It was written to a photo prompt for a very hip lit journal that ultimately rejected it. But I worked hard on it and felt that I was using my language as an old, ex-poet and a trippy concept of a baby born over and over again who I really loved. It is also very fun to read. A crowd pleaser!

That said, others tend to really like the Nancy Drew story which taps into a nostalgia for everyone who loved those books compounded by what it is like to be the somewhat adorkable girl who is both smart and vulnerable. Interestingly, when I was shopping around this manuscript, an editor told she didn’t like any stories that were based on real people or already invented characters, which happened to include Nancy Drew.

GD: As co-editor of 100 Word Story, you read more flash than most writers. How has that experience influenced your writing?

LM: I can honestly say if my old friend Grant Faulkner had not invited me to start 100 Word Story nearly 11 years ago, I would not have dusted off my MFA and resumed the writing that I dropped when I first became a mother in 1998. The excitement of starting a literary journal, reading and publishing so many writers—both seasoned and green—and meeting many fantastic creative people who have become dear friends encouraged me to become a practitioner again. Curiously, I have learned a lot about the current literary journals and publishers, because I have read just as many bios as stories. But the real gift has been by reading literally thousands of micros by now, I have learned so much about how flexible the form is, and how to wield power with less.

Gay Degani has received nominations and honors for her work including Pushcart consideration and Best Small Fictions. She’s published a collection of eight stories about mothers, Pomegranate, a full-length collection, Rattle of Want, (Pure Slush Press, 2015) and a suspense novel, What Came Before (Truth Serum Press, 2016). She occasionally blogs at Words in Place, gaydegani.com.

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