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MFA Spotlight: Amy Lee Lillard

Amy Lee Lillard writes corporate communications by day, and by night explores the dark edges of the daily world through novels and stories. Her fiction was recently named to the 2017 Berlin Writing Prize Short List. She holds an MA in literature from Northwestern University, and will complete her MFA in fiction writing from the Pan-European Program at Cedar Crest College in 2018. She has been a professional writer for 18 years in advertising, communications, journalism, and medicine, and teaches writing and composition to college students.

Amy Lee Lillard

You were recently long-listed for the Berlin Prize for your short story "Baby Names" as well as short-listed for the short story “Head Like a Hole.” (Congratulations!) What is it about short fiction that appeals to you as a writer? (And as a reader?)

I’ve been a recent convert to the power of the short story! As a reader, I used to prefer the immersion of a novel, and viewed short stories as too compact for a satisfying reading experience. Then I found myself writing a multiple POV novel, and teaching a college composition class, and received the excellent advice from our MFA faculty to study the craft of short stories. I’ve found a thrilling playground, where the limited space is the perfect spot for experimentation with structure, language, and story, and the results often resonate with me far longer than a novel. Both the reader and the writer in me is inspired and satisfied in the short fiction realm.

"Head Like a Hole" is such an evocative title! Can you share how you came to it? What defines a great title for you?

I take many of my titles, for short and novel-length fiction, from song titles and/or lyrics. It could be a song that I have on repeat while I write that particular piece, or it could be a long-time or new favorite. So this title comes from the classic song from Nine Inch Nails. It’s dark, pounding, and moody, and that was the feeling of this story. I also liked the idea that the song comes from a male perspective and singer, but the driving beat and lyrics seems somehow transgressive of gender. The limitations of gender roles was a theme I was exploring with this piece.

What do you feel to be a catalyst for your writing? Is there a common theme you find yourself revisiting? What inspires you?

I’m drawn to women who won’t behave. The world is often unkind and unwelcoming to women who don’t fit into traditions and conventions, who won’t be defined by gender roles, who are angry or fat or loud or any manner of “other.” I’m fascinated by the women who push back. Who won’t be ignored, won’t fit the party line. So I find my fiction features the women who are all the things they’re not supposed to be. Things get messy and weird as a result.

As for what inspires me when I’m writing about these women, it’s really all of the artistic forms. Music will do it, especially boundary-pushing punk and indie from past and present that plays with structure and rebellion. Painting and art will also inspire, as will a  good film or show. Lately I’ve been revisiting David Lynch films and obsessing over the craft behind the “Twin Peaks” revival; the way he combines the absurdities of everyday life with horrific imagery from the underbelly of life is so fascinating, and I’ve been inspired to try a few things in my own work as a result.

In short fiction, of course, space is crucial. What do you feel is the key to writing compelling characters in fiction, and particularly in condensed spaces?

When I was a younger writer, I would read interviews with well-known authors who described characters speaking to them and surprising them. Frankly, I thought it was all a little too precious; I was a firm planner of my fiction then, and thought I could control every detail of the story and the characters.  

As I’ve grown up (as a person and a writer), I’ve been approaching writing in a different way, without that stranglehold of planning and control. I experiment more, and often start stories without a clear picture of where I’m going. My first draft, then, is getting to know this character, and finding that those authors were right – my characters surprise me. They take on life through details, dialogue, images. In the next drafts, I feel maybe like a sculptor does, looking at a big mass of stuff and chipping away until I find the form within. I try to cull down all those characterization elements to only the most potent and evocative to maximize the short space.

Could you share some of your favorite authors of short fiction?

Ray Bradbury is a master of telling a vast and satisfying story in a short space, one that includes sci-fi world building as well as full characters. His story “Kaleidoscope” in particular blows me away. I’ve been reading Amelia Gray lately; her collection Gutshot is full of crazy, dark stories lasting only a few pages. I also love sprawling novels that act as interconnected stories. Colum McCann’s Let the Great World Spin is a favorite example, as are The Bone Clocks and Cloud Atlas by David Mitchell.

What advice would you give to an aspiring writer? (Of short stories in particular, or of all genres)

The best and most freeing lesson I’ve learned in the past few years is this: it’s ok to let something go if it’s not working. It’s never a waste of time or energy.

I wrote a novel in my 20s, and although I have no doubt now it was terrible, I could not let it go. I revised that thing over and over until it was nonsensical, knowing it wasn’t working but not understanding why. When I finally gave up, I ascribed the project’s failure to my lack of writing ability and talent, and stopped writing for many years.

I needed to live more, and to write more. Only by writing and writing and writing, and growing up as a person, could I improve. So I have a couple novels now, and many short stories, that will never see the light of day. And that’s ok. I needed to write them to practice, and learn, and find my voice.


Interview Credit:  Rachel A. Phelps
Photo Credit: CB Photography