Mary Lynn Reed is a fiction writer and mathematician—but I’ve learned she’s also a photographer, shark-level pool player, and ace bowler. Her debut collection Phantom Advances has a bit of all that. It’s a deep exploration of questions of identity, sexuality, and gender—with a sharp focus and a lot of heart.
She and I talked about the camera lens as tool and as metaphor, how difficult and how revelatory it can be to turn that lens inward, and how her experiences as a weird kid in the seventies and a mathematician in the present have shaped her stories.
Allison Wyss: Let’s start with photography. Phantom Advances is a photography term, there’s a camera on the cover, and many of your characters are involved with taking pictures. I get the sense you are showing us realistic stories but the framing, the composition, the focus—that’s where the art comes in. How do you think about those elements when you’re writing? And how does photography work as a metaphor for the issues your characters are facing?
Mary Lynn Reed: I’ve always loved photography and dabbled with it throughout my life. So when I started writing stories, it frequently emerged as an obsession of my protagonists.
There’s a bit of alchemy, I think, to capturing a great photograph; and there are definite similarities with telling a good story. One thing I love about photography is the importance of the photographer’s eye. It’s their ability to see something unique (even in a familiar scene) that’s more important than the technical elements of taking a competent photograph. It’s the same with writing. It’s about where we aim our lens as much as how we tell the tale.
The photographic metaphor is probably strongest in the title story, “Phantom Advances,” but it’s also critical to Robin/Dean in “Leaving Boystown” and “Once in Florence, Alabama,” and also, in the “The Beauty Inside.” In all of those stories, the protagonist is more comfortable behind the camera than looking within themselves. Yet, they are all searching for something they aren’t likely to find on the other side of a camera lens.
AW: I love that the inner self is signaled by the idea of a camera lens and looking out versus looking in.
MLR: I do hope to spark some thought about our secret selves—how we all have pieces of ourselves we don’t readily let others see. Whether it’s related to our gender or sexuality, or some part of our past, or just a hidden talent or private pursuit, even in today’s “tell all” world, we never know each other as well as we think we do. There’s always another layer to be revealed.
AW: It also makes me think about being behind or in front of a camera as the difference between being in my head and being in my body. There’s a tension that exists there. And the book seems to be about that, especially in terms of gender and the way many of your characters are working so hard to figure out their identity.
MLR: There’s so much about gender in this book, about gender expression. That’s where a ton of it is centralized. In the first story, “Leaving Boystown,” the girlfriend accuses Dean of being in gender crisis. And characters keep falling in love with the wrong people, the wrong things. I think of it as a search for identity, a search for seeing yourself and being seen for who you are—maybe in a way that you couldn’t articulate.
So the arc of the book is weaving through identity and not time, in a way. The identity question and also the question of should I do this creative thing (such as photography) or analytical math thing—those were the writer’s preoccupations. Whether I was writing about a murder story or a coming of age story or a love story or a bowling story, all of that was bubbling underneath.
AW: It also bubbles up in the ways different stories speak to each other. My understanding of each one deepens as I read the next. And the first and last story are a pair.
MLR: The first story is the newest. I wrote that a year ago and it came out of the story “Once in Florence Alabama,” which is the book’s final story.
It’s interesting because all of these stories—literally everything except “Leaving Boystown” were first drafted before 2010. Some of them started in 2005 and 2006. Now, I’m about to turn 56. In 2005 I was 38. The world is a lot different for you at 38 than it is at 56!
So “Leaving Boystown,” which opens the book, helps frame the question of identity, to open it up in a way that I couldn’t have when I first started writing. I don’t think I could have written that story 15 years ago. Many of the stories in the book mirrored my own searching for identity and when I began that process, in my writing and in life, I didn’t have the conclusion to my own story much less my characters’ stories.
AW: But then other stories in the collection affect the focus of that search and how it is perceived. I’m thinking of how the story “Testosterone” speaks to the first and last story.
MLR: Social construction of language for gender and transgender issues has completely changed since most of these stories were first written. When I was writing “Testosterone,” there was nobody talking about pronouns. So, in the opening story of the book, I wanted to put this collection into today’s world with today’s language. It includes some characters who are older, and grappling to understand the shifting of their own queer culture on issues of gender identity.
But “Testosterone” is the story in the book that deals most directly, physically, with gender identity because it contains a character going through transition. It’s very physical but the undercurrent involves something else, an issue that the character is not facing. Something else is at play that is not about physical bodies or transition of gender, too.
AW: It’s the story that puts the ideas surrounding identity into the body.
MLW: Yeah. Many of my protagonists are stuck in their heads and are not in their body much at all. There’s a character in “The Beauty Inside” who specifically says, “I don’t think about bodies at all.”
AW: And yet, bodies are everywhere in this book. Sure, characters feel their identity though their brains. But the bodies we see are sexy and gritty and beautiful and sometimes really messy. I guess characters obsess about other people’s bodies instead of their own, almost denying their own body. That camera pointed outward again.
MLR: I think that’s true. They deny their own physicality while being entranced by someone else’s.
AW: And then the title story, too.
MLR: The title story was central to me because Allie is looking for knowledge and not getting what she needs. She’s always looking outward instead of inward. I think that’s a critical thing about the book. The characters are always looking for things beyond themselves until later when they get to the point of saying: “Some of this might be inside of me. I could just express who I am or someone could see me for who I am.”
AW: We keep talking about the characters being stuck in their heads, but the stories also have quite a bit of action, which makes them not only exciting to read, but enhances my understanding of what’s going on in their heads. How do you think about putting your characters’ internal struggles into external situations?
MLR: For some of the stories, the action or plot was the beginning. Each starts with a nugget and I write to find the rest of it. An early writing teacher told me to write as many stories as I could in a week and I wrote ten full stories. About half of these came out of that initial push to find something that I was preoccupied with and build it really fast. And then I revised it for the next 15 years.
AW: And then the deeper themes reveal themselves over time maybe?
MLR: Yeah. “The Gathering” also has an interesting backstory. I grew up in Florida in the 70s and we had horses and land and my dad almost got involved with a nudist colony of hippies called “The Gathering.” I was like—we’re going to do what? It ended up they didn’t get the funding and it didn’t happen in real life, but the “what if” was a vivid childhood memory. There’s a lot of what ifs. At least a third of this book is “it’s weird to grow up in Florida in the 70s.”
AW: That makes me think about how setting is just so alive in this collection. The first story starts out drawing this contrast between South Carolina and Boystown Chicago in really stark ways—maybe ways that change a bit later, but we’re still moving all over the country, both inside stories and between them. How do you think about place in these stories?
MLR: I am quite place-oriented as a writer (and in real life, too, actually). Many of these stories started with a specific setting, and the characters and situations formed themselves around it.
The story “Flares,” for example, started as my love letter to San Diego County where I lived briefly. I always marveled at how you could visit the Pacific Ocean and mountain-top towns like Julian and the Anza-Borrego desert, all in an afternoon, and all staying inside the same county.
“Once in Florence, Alabama” started from remembering a drive I took in the late 90s, from Illinois to Florida, using only the back roads—no Interstates. Most of the stops the protagonist makes in that story were places I stopped on the trip, often taking photographs with my Pentax K-1000 camera. (The same camera that appears on the cover of the book. If you look closely, you’ll notice that camera has a bit of wear and tear. It’s my actual old camera.)
I do seem to write about the places I’ve lived. I grew up in Florida, around the Tampa Bay area. So many of my stories feature tomboys growing up in Florida in the 70s.
The seven years I spent in grad school in central Illinois also seemed to burn themselves into my writers’ psyche rather fiercely. Several of the stories occur in Chicago or midwestern college towns.
I grow very attached to places I live, and they seem to burrow into my brain (and heart) in ways that are hard to articulate.
I sometimes worry that I can’t be a “place-oriented” writer because I don’t write about one place. I write about many places.
AW: I’ve never thought much about it, but you’re right that many of the books we consider place-centric are about a single location.
MLR: I find it interesting to think about the juxtapositions. To be somebody who grew up in the south but now lives in the north. How to inject that displacement and what it does to your identity when you have lived in a lot of places versus living in the same place.
AW: I like to consider setting as more than geography, but about the people of the place—the culture, the power dynamics, the various relationships of the characters in a room. That seems to be particularly true in these stories. Is it something you think about?
MLR: Yes, definitely. I grew up in the Deep South as a tomboy/queer/slightly-gender-non-conforming person. So, when I write about a backroads-only road trip from Illinois to Florida, the people and the cultures encountered are integral to the story, both directly and under the surface of the narrative. Similarly, my experience of the Midwest (and Midwesterners) is intertwined with a young adult quest for purpose in life.
I’m fascinated by the ways a place can impact the people who live there. The weather, the terrain, the history. It’s all working through us in ways that are rich for exploration via storytelling.
AW: Of course, I want to talk about math. And now I’m thinking about it as another thing that is abstract and in-your-head but somehow made tangible in this book. There are mathematical concepts I don’t understand, but you make them holdable and lovely. How do you approach that challenge? And why is it important to you to do so?
MLR: It helps that mathematics operates on its own vocabulary, and many of the words can be used to evoke images that can serve narrative purposes. Like the “schemes, sheaves, and alcoves” of algebraic geometry (from “The Beauty Inside”) or the “beliefs, equations, probabilities” of Bayesian statistics (from “Prior Odds”). I think about the words of math a lot, and how they can work metaphorically in stories. I aim both to evoke the mystery and beauty of mathematics and to normalize it a bit for non-mathematicians.
There’s also a tug-of-war in many of my protagonists between pursuing analytical/mathematical and creative/artistic pursuits. I spent a lot of my younger days in that tug-of-war and I’m extremely grateful that in my middle age, I found a way to just do both. When I talk to students and early career professionals, this is something I stress – if you have both analytical and artistic interests, don’t limit yourself. Open yourself up to the possibility that you don’t have to choose.
AW: And this again feels related to the struggle between outer self and inner desires, that question of which way to point the camera.
But even in stories and moments that are not specifically about mathematicians, the idea of math occurs in other stories, perhaps through the shapes that emerge or the sense of precision. I’m thinking of the angles and choreography of the bowling story, say. Or the geometry inherent in playing pool in “Angle Side Angle.”
MLR: I think it’s probably just a reflection of the fact that I am a mathematician—so, precision, clarity, and accuracy are pretty ingrained into my worldview!
However, I was a serious bowler long before I was a mathematician, so in the case of that story, I think it’s more of a reflection of how many hours I spent trying to perfect my game when I was a teenager.
And my parents did own a game room. I grew up in a game room of pool and foosball and Pacman and Space Invaders and pinball. So that was three or four years of my formative time. And I was the little math nerd. I was learning how to play pool while I was learning geometry in junior high.
AW: Let’s talk about endings. Most of your stories end in a moment of opening rather than closing. A character is embarking on a journey or has learned something new about their own identity or is, perhaps, dancing naked among horses. Even the final story ends on an opening. Dean has been seen in a new way and we don’t know for sure what that will mean. What do you seek in an ending and why might opening be more exciting for you than closing?
MLR: Endings are a real challenge. They are the place I spend the most time, and often the largest number of revisions. But my goal is usually to find the right way to open things up at the end instead of closing it all down.
For me, this collection is a series of love stories and obsessions—between people, yes, but also, with places and pursuits and things. I think it’s also about that youthful grappling to find—or to hold onto—oneself, amidst life’s constant longing for something else.
And so that style of ending works particularly well, because my characters are often searching for something. And sometimes, by the time they find it, it isn’t what they thought or it isn’t what they really wanted. So, it’s helpful if there’s a window—a new possibility for where the next search will lead.
Allison Wyss is the author of the short story collection, Splendid Anatomies (Veliz Books, 2022). Her stories have also appeared in Alaska Quarterly Review, Cincinnati Review, Water~Stone Review, Moon City Review, Yamassee, Booth, and elsewhere. She lives in Minneapolis, where she teaches and writes for the Loft Literary Center. Find her online at allisonwyss.com.
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