“Towards Love”: Cameron Finch Interviews Erin Stalcup, Author of KEEN

Erin Stalcup is a big-hearted human who writes novels with her blood. What I mean is that when Erin cares about somethings, someones—she goes all in. She is radical and boundary-pushing in all aspects of her life: writing, parenting, teaching. She naturally surges towards narratives that decolonize and invigorate readers to consider the many possibilities of “being” in this world, and her newest novel, Keen, is no exception.

Keen (Gold Wake Press, 2022) is a short read, but one that should not be underestimated. In less than 115 pages, Stalcup sculpts a dazzling landscape that will delight Brooklynites to great avail. The novel imagines that the ancient Irish custom of hiring women to mourn at funerals has continued into the modern day, and follows Maeve McNamara, the most famous keener in the world, at the height of her career.

Although steeped in glamour, stardom, and plenty of familiar name-drops, like some extended O’Hara poem, Keen isn’t all just red carpets and gossip columns. Written in the weeks following the birth of her own child, Stalcup deftly interweaves personal and domestic fears with the American political horrors of 2016-2020: the rise of the far right, police brutality and the murders of Black Americans, anti-trans legislation. And as COVID continues to menace the world, Keen takes on an even more urgent relevance: mourning for us all.

Keen pries open the wounds of our collective consciousness; investigates binaries; grabs hold of our shoulders and asks us to pay attention; to consider the weight of our grief and its validity. It says, “Hey, you! Try taking a load off now and then.” It encourages us to celebrate life when we can, and to respect the lives of those around us. And maybe … we can even imagine (or believe) that endings are not always the end.

Keen is a true punk novel. Mythical. It is an open hand, offering itself to the sky or at least to another open hand. It is a book for anyone who needs a companion to get through the hard days.

In the interview below, I chatted with Erin via email about performance, revolutions, gender, Tool, and much more!

Cameron Finch: A few years ago—I haven’t forgotten and will never forget (!)—you told me that you didn’t care if you ever got famous from your writing as long as you had a beautiful book cover. So … before we even dive into the electronic funk orchestra that is the Keen narrative, in all its fabulous and glittering mourning glory, let’s talk about your beautiful book cover! Readers are introduced to a myriad of Irish prints and symbols patterning the book’s cover and title pages, including a traditional mourning dress and a vector graphic portraying the sacred Tree of Life. I’d love to know more about the collaboration with your designer, the concept behind incorporating these images into the design, and the symbiosis between the artwork and your heartwork in Keen.

Erin Stalcup: One of the reasons I sent my book to Gold Wake Press is that I knew if they wanted it, they would make it wild and wonderful visually. I started the collaboration with the fabulous Nick Courtright, who had created the cover of my previous novel with Gold Wake. I found the image of the mourning dress (public domain through the Metropolitan Museum of Art, in their Brooklyn Museum Costume Collection, which, perfect, because while the Met is phenomenal I am a Brooklyn girl), and I sent it to Nick, but said I wanted something also less European on the cover—my book starts with an Irish custom, but tries to go beyond Euro-centrism to investigate culture today in the United States. I said I wanted bright colors, and intensity, and he said something like, ‘Cool, let’s make it garish and almost absurd,’ which is totally my aesthetic.

To get a background to go behind that creepy mourning dress, I reached out to someone else I had the pleasure of working with before, Marielena André, who designed an issue of Hunger Mountain with me—each year the editorial staff would hire a Vermont College of Fine Arts Graphic Design MFA student to create the print issue, and she was mine for Issue 24, and it was such a satisfying cooperation. She made a journal that is truly an art object. Marielena is also a textile designer, so I asked if I could use one of her fabrics for my cover. I thought I could borrow something she already had, but she decided to make one for me!!!

Then, Gold Wake hired Dr. Paul Brooke, who made my interior. He created that wonderful Celtic tree of life, and researched the Gaelic for the words uttered as a chorus toward the end of the book—suffer, delight, darkness, light, ruin, madness, new—and he put them on the interstitial pages between chapters. He kept the font I’d written it in for the main text, which I was oddly attached to—I use a different process for each thing I write, and this one was first typed on a typewriter, then revised on a computer in Didot, this funny, big font, and Paul used it, but added other fonts, Stonecross, which looks mad Irish, and Futura, which is sans serif. Such a thoughtful design. So this has been a true collaboration.

And yes, I hope the looks of this book are a symbiosis of the kind I’m interested in in my writing: a little weird, a juxtaposition of things that might not be expected to be together, something that is gorgeous but not obviously pretty. So, that is a long answer, which can be summarized as: I feel so lucky to have worked with the brilliant minds and hearts that have so generously contributed their energy and intelligence to this material object.   

CF: I LOVE that the cover was a collaborative project—that feels so right for a book that is literally told from a collaborative point-of-view. To jump into the book itself, let’s start with this idea that your writing is a juxtaposition of things that might not be expected to be together. One of the first juxtapositions we’re introduced to in this book is our narrator(s), who speak to us in a plural first-person voice, as intoxicatingly enchanting as a Greek chorus. They sing: “At some point, we just admitted we didn’t know how to mourn” and “None of us could afford to hire her to mourn our dead.”

I remember the first time I read Julie Otsuka’s The Buddha in the Attic. It was my first introduction to the collective first person voice, and I was in total awe of how Otsuka could highlight both singular and collective histories and experiences through an omniscient we. And now I get to be in total awe once again with your book! How did this collective voice come to you, and when did it find its way into the project?

(I’m also curious: what did this collective voice look like to you in your mind? As you were writing, could you see individual entities as they spoke, or was it more a murmuring emerging from a faceless crowd?)

ES: That’s such a good question. I first fell in love with the plural first in The Virgin Suicides, and then in J. Andrew Briseño’s Down and Out. I think the we was there from the beginning in my project. I envision them as a crowd, though I can sometimes glimpse individuals. They’re basically the kind of white women who would be obsessed with someone like Maeve, fascinated with fame, living vicariously through someone they see as glamorous and profound. They have things in common, like buying Guess jeans with babysitting money when they were teenagers, but occasionally one steps away slightly: one woman gets brave enough to ask another woman on a date, one woman starts running. I see them furiously typing all the latest gossip about Maeve on Facebook fan pages.

And as the primary narrator shifts to Evelyn later in the book, I hope the we clearly shifts too, to a more inclusive group, one that cares about community more than celebrity.   

CF: I’m totally obsessed with that concept of celebrity that you’re investigating and deconstructing throughout the book: celebrity as idolized beauty, celebrity as a platform for activism, celebrity as performance, celebrity as a target of obsession and exploitation, celebrity and vulnerability, the dangers of celebrity and the loss of privacy. The narrators are total voyeurs, watching Maeve’s every move, reading every interview, clicking on every photo. (Are we the readers then also voyeurs? Do we have a choice?). The narrators adore Maeve, and yet they hold her to extremely high expectations: “She didn’t yet know that we would turn on her if she didn’t do exactly what we wanted; she didn’t yet know that our appetite for titillation was insatiable; she didn’t yet know how much money there was to be made from her suffering.” Was there a particular impetus to the writing of Maeve’s story, particularly this aspect of her rise and role in stardom?

ES: Oh yeah. Free Britney.

CF: This book is also a tribute to Irish history and spirituality. Were you born and raised steeped in Irish culture and keening traditions? What was your drive to write a narrative with such a central Irish heritage?

ES: I’m not Irish! I wish I was. I’m German and Swedish, but way back. The first time I lived anywhere but my hometown of Flagstaff, Arizona, was when I traveled abroad and lived in Limerick for six months. I studied James Joyce and Irish history and music and folklore. So the book is researched, but even though my name means “Ireland,” I’m only honorary Irish, as my flatmates dubbed me.

And yes, this does open a conversation about appropriation. I’m also not half-Jamaican, as the secondary narrator, Evelyn is. But maybe we’ll get to that later.

CF: You know this about me, I’m not huge on labels … but let’s chat about them for a minute. While most book retailers are probably categorizing Keen as a novel, you’ve said that readers can choose to read Keen as an ars poetica or autobiographical essay, if they’d like. In a world that often uses language and labels in limiting, unproductive ways, your words ‘if you’d like’ are a refreshing relinquishing of control. It seems as if you’ve freed this book to be what the reader needs it to be, and what that need might be is free to change over time.  Could you talk about your interest in the ars poetica as a form, and what draws you to the sort of slipperiness, or fluidity, of cross-genre and non-categorizable writing?

ES: You’ve heard me say that I don’t find labels helpful in the making of art, but they can be helpful in the consumption of it. I do read things differently if I’m told they’re fiction or nonfiction or poetry. I guess if a reader thinks, This just feels like a tribute to all the artists Erin loves, I’m basically saying, Yes, that is all this is. Go ahead and feel that way, you’re right. This is really just an elaborate love letter. Which I guess is my definition of ars poetica. And naming it autobiographical … I mean, it isn’t. But it’s the most vulnerable thing I’ve ever written, and I guess I want that label to reveal that. Maeve is way cooler and prettier than I am, and she’s famous, ha, but she feels most like how I move in the world. The book is tiny! It’s probably a novella. But the best compliment my writing has ever received is that it would make my poetry professor, Jim Simmerman, who died years ago, proud. So maybe it’s a book of poems.

I guess I’m not opposed to labels as much as I’m opposed to binary thinking, in all matters. I quote Irish postcolonial critic, Declan Kiberd, in an essay I wrote for Bending Genre. Kiberd applies Frantz Fanon’s ideas to the Irish context, and concludes, “But nationalism, as Fanon warned, is not liberation, since it still persists in defining itself in categories imposed by the colonizer. A revolution couched in such terms is taken away from a people even as they perform it: it is only in breaking out of the binaries, through to a third point of transcendence, that freedom can be won.” I’m always trying to break out of binary thinking, trying to decolonize my mind.

CF: Keen plays with speculative and alternative historical plotlines—for example, Maeve and Evelyn keen several current and former political and world leaders (e.g. the Queen of England, Barack Obama) who of course are still very much alive. And yet, Keen also mourns and honors the very real lives our world has lost: Trayvon Martin, Saheed Vassell, Amy Winehouse, Whitney Houston, Anthony Bourdain … Authors of fiction wield something close to godliness when it comes to deciding who lives and who dies in their work. Did you feel a responsibility to how far from reality you could stray in Keen? How did you navigate those decisions?

ES: Yeah, I killed Maynard James Keenan, who is very much alive, and who is the most important artist in my world. And Tommy Nolan, the bartender at McSorley’s, who I found out had passed last time I was there.

I ran a creative writing pedagogy course last summer with my boss, Rita Banerjee, and in the spirit of Felicia Rose Chavez’s The Anti-Racist Writing Workshop, we submitted our own work for workshop. I submitted the last chapter, where James Baldwin dies, of course many years after his actual death. And my brilliant students, who are my best teachers, wondered why, if I could resurrect him, why did I have to kill him again? Why couldn’t I leave him alive? Wouldn’t that be a stronger political statement? Especially as a Black, queer man, why kill him? And that was my intention, to revise to keep him alive. And I can’t quite explain it, but I couldn’t. I had the power to change time, but I couldn’t keep him alive. James Baldwin and Audre Lorde are at the center of this book, Evelyn quotes their conversation when she keens Baldwin, this book extends from their art, and I desperately wish they were still alive. We need them. I desperately wish Sandra Bland and George Floyd and Trayvon Martin were alive. I wish I had the godliness of that. But somehow the rules of this world are that I can make time weird and kill people early or late, but I can’t save anyone.

CF: Erin, you are such a wonderful ally to queer and BIPOC people, and the centering of different bodily experiences and identities is especially present and urgent in Keen. I’m curious about how you approached this intimate weaving together of characters that may or may not share your own identities, while also acknowledging what you may be unable to see.

ES: Well, here we are! I hope I’m not appropriating stories that aren’t mine. I am trying to imagine what it would be like to be someone other than myself. I’m always channeling the wisdom of my teacher and friend Robin Black who says no one can imagine her own life experiences that they haven’t had, but it’s worth it to try. I’m willing to be told I got it wrong. I ask for sensitivity readers. And when Maeve says, “I’m sure there are ways I’m a total asshole” in response to someone who says she seems like a nice white lady who’s trying to understand, that’s basically me talking.

CF: The keen as an art form and ancient mourning ritual requires rigorous training—there’s a reason why Maeve is the best at what she does. Yet, Keen is an exploration into the role of the transgressive artist, whose craft questions systems, disrupts patterns, and challenges traditions (cultural, political, artistic) and ‘the way things have been.’ The book asks: Who is allowed to funk with tradition? “Can only the greats disregard decorum? Can only the canonized violate convention? Can art only innovate when it’s personal?”

Who are some of the artists, authors, and thinkers that have inspired this notion of inquiry and pushing boundaries for you? Whose art excites you? Who challenges you to keep doing the important hard things?

ES: Well, I’m obsessed with Glennon Doyle’s podcast We Can Do Hard Things, and the way she thinks alongside her sister Amanda Doyle and wife Abby Wambach and guests like Luvvie Ajayi Jones about vulnerability and gender and sexuality and race is totally art. bell hooks’ Teaching to Transgress. Rage Against the Machine and Run the Jewels and Tool. Tony Bourdain is a better writer than I will ever be. Graffiti. I could go on and on. The truth is I don’t read nearly enough current books because I’m reading so much student writing and work for my magazine, but the work my students are doing thrills me. 

CF: Keen is inherently a book about grief—about everyday hauntings—about how individuals and cultures and bodies hold and acknowledge that grief and transform the pain. I so appreciated how you gave Maeve space to grieve her own personal losses, too. She who publicly mourns other’s losses must internally metabolize the worst days of her life, the son who was born and then wasn’t, the death of her parents, the worst days of her life. Who is mourning for Maeve? This line particularly struck a chord: “Some grief is formative, will forever shape who we become.” Damn. We’ve just lived through two extraordinarily difficult and painful years, years that will forever shape who we as a world are becoming. What was your experience assembling this book as the events of 2020 and 2021 unfolded?

ES: What a beautiful question. I wrote the first draft of this book in the summer of 2017, on a typewriter in the backyard of the first home I ever owned in Flagstaff, Arizona, where I was born and raised. I got a grant from the Arizona Commission on the Arts so I could just write that summer, and not teach. I’d had a child, who was born six weeks early but was never in danger of dying (that was actually the trigger for the book; her birth forced me to write about my new biggest fear, stillbirth, after I wrote in my last novel about my then biggest fear, my family land burning; Flagstaff is on fire as we speak, but the blaze is moving away from the land I grew up on, so my folks are good), I was blissfully happily married, my mom and dad were near, and I had a huge community of friends. I was the happiest I’d ever been. (Though, I guess it reveals my melancholic nature that even then, I wanted to write about grief, even when sitting in the sunshine.) Then, in 2018 I didn’t get a tenure-track job I thought I’d earned at Northern Arizona University, I applied for and got a job at Vermont College of Fine Arts, and I moved my family two thousand miles away from my mom and dad and my community. So I put the book away to build a life in Vermont, and then my life fell apart. During the global pandemic my program closed, so I lost the job I’d moved for. And I got divorced from my partner of 18 years. In 2020, in the midst of all of that, I pulled the manuscript back out thinking I’d abandon it, thinking all I was losing would show me that I had nothing worthwhile to say about grief—no one close to me died from COVID, but people I love lost people, so it just seemed like trying to make art about grief would newly feel silly.

I’m not sure why, but the manuscript still felt relevant. I still don’t understand grief, but it seems like a question I’m interested in continuing to think about. Even more than when I started this project. Thank you for asking.

CF: At her mother’s wake, Maeve is approached by Evelyn, a Jamaican-Irish trans woman from the Bronx, who soon becomes Maeve’s protégé. After years of studying under Maeve, and watching her along with the world, Evelyn begins to perform keens of her own, and something amazing happens. We are witness to Evelyn owning and honing her unique keening style, her ness, her flair. She expands the possibilities for what it means to keen. The collective of narrators says: “Instead of being a conduit for our grief, [Evelyn] channeled us into a chorus. We performed the catharsis with her instead of just watching it.” And yet, she can still screech and scream and howl and “sound like everyone who came before her.” That’s the great paradox of creation, isn’t it? As we innovate and become ourselves, we have a lineage, we carry voices forward, with us.

ES: I hope so! I mean, I hope I do. Invite people in, like Evelyn does, and honor all the ancestors. I know my students do that in their art.

CF: The blurring of the teacher-student (who’s teaching who) between Maeve and Evelyn reminds me of this incredible interview between Audre Lorde and Adrienne Rich from 1979. Adrienne asks Audre: “How do you feel writing connected for you with teaching?” Audre responds: “I know teaching is a survival technique. It is for me and I think it is in general; the only way real learning happens. Because I myself was learning something I needed to continue living. And I was examining it and teaching it at the same time I was learning it. I was teaching it to myself aloud.”  Erin, you also have an impressive career as a teacher, and in your Acknowledgements, you thank “my students who are really my teachers” and your colleagues and friends who have expanded your lineage. I’d love to hear you expand on your own experience of blurring the standard teacher-student hierarchy, and how you see lineage as extending beyond shared blood.

ES: My main pedagogical model is bell hooks, who says you have to bring your body and your heart and your spirit into the classroom, as well as your mind. And just because we’re laughing doesn’t mean we aren’t doing hard work. I blur the hierarchy with my students because they tell me it works for them, and because of Felicia Rose Chavez’s The Anti-Racist Writing Workshop. It’s important to me that I not act like I know more than my students; I have more experience, but not necessarily more knowledge. Yet, I’ve had to calibrate that in my 18 years as an educator. I don’t always get it right. My job is not to become my students’ friend—though I often become great friends with former students—and I need to keep in mind that I do have the most power in the room, and I need to honor that dynamic. A former-student now-friend recently said to me, “You have no boundaries.” And that’s true, I don’t. I can honor other people’s boundaries like a beast, but I don’t have them, and that can be hard for students who aren’t sure of their own. So. I have to be mindful of keeping my people safe. My goal is to honor the wisdom in the room, and learn from my students, and to change when I get it wrong.

CF: In the biz that Maeve and Evelyn work in, fashion and designer brands are not only gossip and TMZ material, the clothes you wear are a living art, it’s a self-proclamation, it’s pride. Your characters glitter and vogue in corsets, Mahnolos, black satin pantsuits, McQueen’s antlers-and-lace, Givenchy, purple knee-high Docs—you give so much attention to how people present themselves in the public eye. Why was emphasizing the glam, the outfits, the clothed body important to you in this book?

ES: It’s part of the performance! It’s what the United States would do to an ancient Irish custom! I hope it’s uncanny, like, why should it matter what we wear when we’re grieving, but if you’re hiring someone to perform, they gotta do the whole shebang. I’m someone who values my mind, not my body, but I still conform to the pressure to look good and feminine. In college I dressed like a boy and only wore thrift-store clothing because I think the gender binary and capitalism are bullshit. But as an educator, I find people stay out of my way more if I dress the part. So I both want to celebrate fashion—especially as it is made affirming and gorgeous and fun in queer culture—and critique the ways in which we’re expected to perform gender. Kazim Ali says in the brilliant anthology Bending Genre, “All gender is drag.” And sometimes that sucks, and sometimes that’s really fucking fun.

I’ve always felt female, but felt very pissed at what society thought that meant about how I should behave. So I’ve been mad at gender like my whole life. But trans friends have helped me realize that gender really matters to some people. So while I personally want to obliterate the binary, I also want to honor people who feel on it, and make space for anyone to be anywhere on the gender spectrum. I hope I’ve honored that in this book. I hope I’ll do better next time.

CF: I think that the beauty of Keen is that you remind us of our collective humanity, which also involves our collective mortality. We are not alone in our mourning. Death is not an experience that one has to navigate alone. Our narrative chorus recognizes this: “We are a community that is alive and vibrant, even as we lose members daily. Some join us. We are still here.” With all the hope Keen leaves us with, I hope this last question ends on a bright note. Looking far into the future, dream for us for a moment. What would you want your own keen/merry wake to look and sound like? Don’t hold back.

ES: I hope my sober friends would be sober and my drinking buddies would drink some whiskey. I hope I would be remembered as someone who was always trying to go toward love not fear. I hope I would be remembered as a good mom.

Cameron Finch is a cross-genre writer and editor living in Ann Arbor. Finch received a BA in English Literature at the University of Michigan and an MFA in Writing & Publishing at Vermont College of Fine Arts. Finch’s creative work has appeared or is forthcoming from Tiny Molecules, Menacing Hedge, Windmill, Entropy, Glass, Queen Mob’s Teahouse, Hayden’s Ferry Review, among others. Freelance interviews, reviews, and articles can be found in Michigan Quarterly Review, The Rumpus, The Adroit Journal, Electric Literature, CRAFT Literary, The Common, BUST, and elsewhere.

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