Zan Romanoff | Longreads | November 2019 | 13 minutes (3,494 words)
I first encountered Nina MacLaughlin on Tumblr: at some point around 2010, I stumbled onto her blog, Carpentrix, in which she was chronicling the transition from working as a full-time journalist to doing carpentry in and around her native Massachusetts.
I fell in love with the physicality of her writing, the force and attention with which she inhabited the world, and for years, I watched from across the internet (and the country) as she renovated countless kitchens and bathrooms for strangers, hand-built tables for her brothers, and, more recently, got into making spoons.
MacLaughlin published a memoir, Hammer Head, about her career transition in 2015; as it happens, we met in real life that same year — when my best friend married one of those brothers on a bright, cold Boston afternoon.
Wake, Siren is MacLaughlin’s first work of book-length fiction; it re-tells the stories of the female characters in Ovid’s Metamorphoses, reimagining a cast of mostly silent women as a chorus of voices who have plenty to say about the ways that they’ve been (mis)treated and (mis)represented throughout history.
MacLaughlin and I spoke by phone on a weekday morning in early October. The interview has been edited for length and clarity.
Zan Romanoff: So you mention in a note at the end of the book that you have a habit of dipping into Ovid when you’re feeling uninspired, or writing isn’t going well. How did that start? When did you first read the Metamorphoses?
Nina MacLaughlin: When I was working on Hammer Head, I was like, okay, I need to read something that isn’t going to affect the rhythms of my sentences, or be too similar to what I’m trying to do. I was like, ‘Why don’t I give the Metamorphoses a try?’ I’d studied classics in college — I double majored in Classics and English — but I hadn’t read the Metamorphoses. Maybe in high school, but I’m not sure.
It turned out to form the backbone of Hammer Head — it absolutely, completely influenced the book. It’s so beautiful, and so sensual, and the stories are great.
And then it just became a book that, when things aren’t landing, when I go through periods where nothing is hitting me, reading-wise, I’ll just kind of pull that out and open to any page and read.
So that was what was going on when this happened in February — a year ago February.
Hold on a second, you wrote this last February, and it’s about to be published? That’s very fast, for a book!
It’s very fast. I certainly have not had an experience like that before; part of me feels like I never will again. I feel really lucky for it.
I finished it, and I did a spell check, and I sent it off to my agent. I hadn’t told her I was working on it; no one else had seen it. And so it wasn’t until after it sold, and the first round of edits, that I read through it for the first time.
When I did, I was like, ‘Oh, fuck.’
I think there’s something to be said for the instinctual work that goes into writing a book. You kind of have to get past your conscious defenses, and speed can be a way of doing it.
That was the experience: oh, this is just coming, and coming, and coming. And not wanting to talk about it; not wanting to jinx it and come out of the trance.
Yeah! There’s also this thing that happens for me where, in a certain sense, writing is just sitting there, staring into the laptop glow. But when it’s really working, it feels physical; I’m like, this story is a thing that has been growing inside of my body.
Totally! So it took a few months to write, but in other ways, this was the result of everything that I’ve read, and everything that I’ve been reading since I was a kid. And everything I’ve experienced. It took me, in fact, 39 years to write.
So you write the book very fast, you read it over, you have this “oh shit” moment, but at that point, it’s too late. The book is sold. How are you dealing now with the fact that soon everyone else is going to be able to read it, this very intimate and vulnerable thing?
I think after the final round of copy edits, pressing send on that email was like tossing it into the wind. It’s just not mine anymore. Up until that point I was just like: oh god, oh god, oh god.
Honestly, having the first few reviews come in positive, that’s gone a long way: the fact that they weren’t like, ‘Is this a joke? This is a piece of garbage.’ Because in a deep place I was like, what I’ve done is good. I trusted that. But also in some ways, you don’t have any idea. So to have those early positive reviews went a long way.
But I will say, having written a book that was about my actual life, this does feel more revealing.
I had finished the book by the time the Blasey-Ford hearings were going on, but it’s sort of the same idea of just listening to that. And being like, this is awful. I feel sick.
When you were working on it, did you ever think about looking at other translations of the Metamorphoses, in addition to the one you already had?
I was really committed to the Alan Mandelbaum translation. At some point I was considering looking into the earliest translations, but I decided that would be a really different project.
That makes sense, particularly because one of the things I was struck by, reading it, is how these voices understand that they are characters in history. And they’re speaking out and saying, ‘I know you think you understand my story, but you don’t.’
You’re not trying to re-tell the Metamorphoses; instead, you’re kind of reacting to the way these stories have been told, over and over again, and imagining what’s going on underneath the telling. The way these stories have been repeated, but maybe not always understood.
Someone asked did I consult the original, was I looking at the original Latin. I haven’t translated Latin since I was 22 years old, so no. When I said that, the person was kind of like, ‘Hmmm.’ That’s a different project! I’m not a translator of Latin, I’m not a scholar.
But it is interesting that this is happening at the same time Emily Wilson is publishing actual new translations of those books. It feels like there’s this broader movement of women wanting to make their mark on the historical Western canon, to be in conversation with it in various ways.
It’s thrilling! She’s really exciting to me.
I’ve been thinking specifically about the sirens these last couple of days. The sirens have, over the course of history, been very sexualized and made into these seductresses. Emily Wilson pointed out that many translators of the Odyssey say something about the sound coming out of their lips; there’s a repetition of the word lips. She’s like no, absolutely not. The word here is mouth. Lips another word in Latin.
Those tiny choices on the word level are so much more significant than we realize. It makes such a difference in how these things are understood, and how these figures are understood.
Right! So it’s good that we have Emily Wilson saying, these translations are flawed. But you’re right that your project is different — you’re not responding to the original text. You’re responding to the translation that was handed to you, and that permeates our culture, sexist translations and all.
Do you have a favorite, or favorite stories in the collection?
I like Iphis — that’s the one where she shifts into 100 different animals. Not only the power of her taking her own shape, but it was super fun to write all the descriptions of all the little animals.
Procne and Philomela, that one was the most intense to write. It’s one of the longest ones, and it’s really violent.
Procne and Philomela, to me, asks one of the central questions of the book, which is: How much do you really want to know? How deep into someone else’s pain are you willing to go?
Exactly! Totally. Because these stories suck. They’re violent, and they’re gross. And it’s like, yeah. This is what’s been happening. These are the stakes, and you either want to hear it or you don’t.
I had finished the book by the time the Blasey-Ford hearings were going on, but it’s sort of the same idea of just listening to that. And being like, this is awful. I feel sick. This is horrible.
And also, this is important to know.
This is the cost of having the stories of the Metamorphoses, and stories like them, in the culture: we’ve been hearing them forever, so we kind of write them off, just go, ‘Yeah, yeah, it’s gross, she got raped, she got her tongue cut out, whatever.’ That’s Friday night at the movies.
It’s different, and powerful, to make readers sit down with the victims and hear the interior of their stories. Imagine what it was like to be the person who had to go through that experience, and then live with it, after.
When I do have my very vague high school memories of maybe reading the Metamorphoses, there was no discussion of the fact that this book is just rape after rape after rape. As though that was just as part of it. The euphemism that’s used — attained her love? No. Raped her. Forced her to have sex with you.
Especially when you’re talking about the gods! There’s this power differential that’s so palpable in your tellings, this feeling of being truly helpless in certain ways.
And not knowing what’s happening until it’s over. When you’re young and less sure what’s what and how things are supposed to be, things can happen to you, and at the time you can be like, ‘Yeah, okay, I guess that was fine?’ And in fact, a lot of this stuff isn’t fine.
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But then I don’t want to suggest that the whole book is about feeling powerless, and about violation, because after the violations, there are all of these transformations. And there are a lot of different kinds of transformation in the book. How did you find the balance between writing honestly about sexual violence, and also allowing there to be beauty, and all kinds of different things here, not just pain and suffering?
When I was reading the Metamorphoses when I was writing Hammer Head, I was reading it with completely different eyes. It was this idea of this actual change — being like, I was a journalist, and now I am a carpenter. How throughout life, there is change ongoing.
Looking at it again, I was reading it more alert to the way that change can be enacted both by choice, and not by choice. And that there are ways to come through. Not in an “oh my gosh, everything’s gonna be fine!” way, but this idea of ongoing growth. Which sounds woo-woo, but — man, everything’s changing all the time. There’s always stuff to learn.
So it was more the idea of transformation as: time is going to change you. Experience is going to change you. Inevitably. That’s what it is to be alive: to grapple with that, and not be crushed down. What is right now might not be tomorrow. That’s the sense we have to make from being alive.
Ultimately in writing, what I’m trying to do is make myself more at home with the fact that we’re all gonna die. Trying to reduce my fear, or come to some better understanding.
The thing is that the Metamorphoses is a history that goes from chaos, the primordial soup, to Julius Cesar. It’s about time. This shifting, this ongoing changing — physically, emotionally, intellectually — that time enacts on us.
This feels like a reductive thing to say at this point, but I feel like I have to note that physical change, especially for women, is thought of as a betrayal. If you show that you’ve lived through time — yikes! And the book is all of these women’s bodies just being like, whatever happened to me, I am not going to be unmarked by it.
Totally! There’s the Sybil story where she’s 700 years old, and that decrepitude, it was kind of fun to write. There was something curious to it, like, yeah, your boobs are going to look worse. You’re gonna sag. There’s a grief to experiencing the loss of that youth, but then to move beyond it, and say, okay, what’s here? What do I have?
It made me think also about survivorship, and how you’re going to have these difficult, maybe traumatic experiences, and you’re going to survive them, but you’re not going to be unmarked by them.
And that is allowed.
You can get through them, and be changed. And it’s not all you are.
That’s one of the things that’s so wonderful about the book, is that there are many, many, many stories of women being raped by men, or gods, but there are also stories about all kinds of female desire, and women enacting their desire.
It suggests that these things can exist alongside each other: this forcible change, and one-sided desire, can exist alongside, and does not negate, the existence of human people wanting things. It’s a lot of stories about how the gods can fuck us, one way or another, but there’s still joy in human beings being the very weird animal creatures that we are.
I hope there’s joy in the book! In some ways, the experience of writing it was — I don’t know if joyful is the right word, but there’s a deep pleasure in describing the natural world. The light in the trees and the forests, and women being strong in these places: women who are fast runners, great hunters, who are tough and competent and confident, who know themselves, and are able to locate joy even after these horrific things happen.
I think transitions are difficult for people; we have, as humans, a hard time dealing with change. So again, it was trying to get at home with this. Trying to get at home with beginnings and ends.
When I was younger, I had a mind that was like, if I make a decision now, this is how it will be for the rest of my life … It took me a while to learn, oh, everything’s changeable.
Telling the story of this is how I got from here to there is, in my opinion, the most mysterious and hardest thing to write. It started here, it ended here, but what the hell happened in the middle? How can I move you along that track in a way that feels natural, and not over-determined or stilted?
So then there’s this nice thing that happens with this book, where when you read all of these relatively short stories on top of each other, what you ultimately get is this sense of change as kaleidoscopic. That change can happen in any number of ways.
When I was younger, I had a mind that was like, if I make a decision now, this is how it will be for the rest of my life. Even though logically I knew that wasn’t true, that was the feeling I had. It made everything much harder. It took me a while to learn, oh, everything’s changeable. It can all be changed; it can all be altered. There are so many ways to start, or veer off. There are no dead ends.
Right! And in a novel, the traditional narrative structure suggests that there’s a story to things: it takes you from here to there in an organized fashion, and you end up better than you started. The collection of stories, of a million beginnings and endings says: nope! There’s always change, sure, but the change is just chaos.
It’s uncomfortable! I think we’re all familiar with those moments where it’s really frightening: we’re about to make a decision, or something’s shifting, or there’s a great loss. It’s not always negative, but there’s fear involved.
I feel like there’s a skill to recognize when that fear is telling you, this is the right thing. There’s a certain vibration of fear that signals ‘Yes, this is the right thing to do. The stakes are high enough that you should be nervous. If you weren’t, there’d be something wrong with you.’
Did you experience that kind of fear around publishing the book?
Reading it over for real that first time, I was shocked, I guess is the word. I was shocked about how violent it was. What does this say about myself? What does this say about my own brain?
In some ways, the writing of it was this way of not remembering what I’d done. Writing that fast was, like, I’m getting too intimate a look into my own mind. And that was uncomfortable!
But that fear, again, that really physical discomfort, it’s a good sign. It’s good that this is making me horrified in some way. The thought of it existing is scary to me. That meant I had done something that had stakes to it.
Can you talk more about your relationship to violence? I started boxing a couple of years ago, and it’s opened up this whole new conversation with myself, and the people around me, about my relationship to hurting and being hurt. Which is not something women are supposed to be interested in, much less actively want.
I think of myself as a physical person. I run all the time. Working as a carpenter for nine years, I’m aware of my body, and having a strong body. I’m engaged with being a physical force in the world.
The idea of pushing those limits of being a body, be it running, or be it spending eight and a half hours lifting heavy things up stairs to renovate a kitchen, or physical violence with another person in its various forms — any of those things can be a way of feeling your aliveness.
But with violence it’s extremely tricky, because violence with someone could feel unsafe and like a complete violation, whereas with another person it could feel charged and compelling in exciting ways, like when you’re in the ring. And that can get snarled, and it can get dangerous having to figure out where your limits are.
I’ve had to do a lot of work on understanding myself as a strong person. I like having strong legs; I like having strong shoulders. But I think that, in certain situations, that got a little bit twisted up for me, into: how much can I withstand, to prove to myself all the time how strong I am? I can be in an unhealthy situation, and know this is an unhealthy situation, but still be like, ‘Wow, I’m so tough. I can handle so much.’
I’ve been thinking about this so much lately — that women are not given road maps to explore the dark parts of our own desire. I mean, we don’t even get permission. Reading your book, and Miranda [Popkey]’s book [Topics of Conversation], it feels like they’re both about girls wandering off the path, and asking, How much getting hurt can I take? How much getting hurt do I want to take?
We’re in this moment where, thank god, finally, there is room to talk about what it means to survive sexual violence, and sexual assault. But it feels like there isn’t as much room yet for women to say, “I asked for something, and I didn’t understand what I was getting myself into.” Or “I asked for it, even though it was bad for me. And now I don’t know what to do with that.”
For me, that goes back to the idea of changing even in those moments, and finding yourself suddenly in over your head. Sometimes you don’t know until afterwards.
And you’re allowed to change your mind.
It doesn’t make you a weaker person. But how do you reinforce that in yourself?
It felt to me like part of the project of this book was clearing space for the idea that you can be a strong person who was weak in a moment. You can be a good person who did a bad thing. That you can be a person who isn’t sure what a good or bad thing is!
So much of this stuff is just murky. There’s murkiness to it, and there’s a mystery, and nuance and complexity that is not black and white, good or bad. It’s a lot of different things at once.
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Zan Romanoff is a full-time freelance writer and the author of the novels A SONG TO TAKE THE WORLD APART and GRACE AND THE FEVER, out now, as well as LOOK, which is forthcoming from Dial Books for Young Readers in spring 2020. She lives and writes in LA.
Editor: Dana Snitzky