April Ayers Lawson and Clare Beams
Friday, Nov. 4, 7 p.m., free
Flyleaf Books, Chapel Hill

April Ayers Lawson made her surprise literary debut—her third publication ever—in The Paris Review’s Fall 2010 issue, with the smart, sensual, and devastating “Virgin,” a finely observed story of lust and infidelity that begins with the sentence, “Jake hadn’t meant to stare at her breasts, but there they were, absurdly beautiful, almost glowing above the plunging neckline of the faded blue dress.” In 2011, the publication’s board unanimously chose the story to receive its Plimpton Prize for Fiction.

Now “Virgin” and four more emotionally and sexually tense stories of intimacy, faith, and the desire to be known will be published in Lawson’s first collection, Virgin and Other Stories, out November 1 from Farrar, Straus and Giroux. The book has received a starred review from Publishers Weekly, and Huffington Post named it one of “20 New Books You’ll Need for Your Shelf in Fall 2016.”

Lawson is currently the Kenan Visiting Writer at UNC-Chapel Hill, where she is teaching and working on more stories. As she prepares to launch Virgin at Flyleaf Books—reading with Clare Beams, another author with a new debut story collection—We met up to talk about the writing process, healing, psychology, and sex.

INDY: Tell me how you ended up sending “Virgin” to The Paris Review. It sounds like maybe the whole process changed your life.

APRIL AYERS LAWSON: It radically changed my life. I was sending stories out, and I would get notes back, but assistant editors would want something, and then the main editor would say no. At the same time, I had been writing with Donald Antrim, and he had been reading [my stories], and he showed them to his agent at the Wylie Agency. I was really surprised that they accepted me on the basis of those stories.

I wanted to prove to myself that I could do this, because it was such a big leap. I was writing with a lot of anxiety. And then I wrote “Virgin.” The frustration and anxiety can actually drive you into a deeper state of flow if you keep trying to write instead of giving into it. It also makes you feel like your self is dividing, because one part of you kind of does give up, and the part of you that is maybe more determined or willful just keeps doing it anyway. So writing that story was an intense, feverish, weird sort of experience. Then it ended up at The Paris Review.

How long have you lived with these stories?

The last one in the collection [“Vulnerability”] I tried to write for a couple of years, and I just wasn’t ready to do it yet. In the meantime, I learned so much that informed the final writing of it. I had several life crises at the same time, and I kind of had a nervous breakdown. I was writing during that period, but if you know anything about how trauma works, you lose some mental flexibility, like your sense of humor and your sense of irony. It’s almost like you lose a little bit of a surface all together, and there’s this feeling of being submerged. I would end up writing into stuff that would be toxic, because I hadn’t dealt with it yet. Every time I hit something, instead of dodging it, I had to go all the way into it to try to get all of that sludge out. And then I had the idea: if I do this for all of it, I can write clearly again.

It seems that you, as a person and in your work, have a capacity to sit in uncomfortable places. I think of [the second story in the collection] “Three Friends in a Hammock,” and this acknowledgement of the sexual tension between these friends. You sit in it.

That story was post-nervous breakdown. And I think that having gone through that made it possible to be able to write about some of that stuff, because there’s a weird energy that’s actually good. Just because it’s uncomfortable, there’s this fresh pressure. And that pressure can be really productive, creatively.

It’s like you’re reintegrating the trauma into the rest of the life you have to live, the rest of the person you are.

You create more possibilities for emotional honesty when you make it fictional. And then it will feel like the past. For me to be able to write, to finish a story and to work, even if I’m making it up, I have to make it real, so that when I’m done it’s like, “Oh, that happened, that’s my past.” I just don’t feel like the same person.

I noticed in the stories where sex is a primary theme that there is a very fine line between romance and violence, between consent and assault. That’s another uncomfortable place you bring people: you’re not writing about sex to be sexy.

Yeah, definitely not writing about sex to be sexy.

So what are you doing with sex? Why did you choose that as a theme?

[In “Vulnerability”], there’s a betrayal bonding experience, basically. But some people don’t realize that. And I wanted it to be confusing. I wanted to enter into how confusing a thing like that actually is. Because it’s catastrophic in terms of your psyche.

So you’re getting into the psyche through the action of the story.

The psychological stuff interests me more than the sex. What’s interesting about the sex is what it brings out about people: what it says about their way of being intimate or avoiding intimacy. What does it actually say about their psychology and their character and their approach to bonding?

I think about Flannery O’Connor and how when you read her stories you’re like, “Well, that wasn’t attractive. I’m not sure I want to reread that.” But she manages to dredge some grace out of those stories. Do you feel like you’ve tried to dredge some grace from your stories?

I do. In “Vulnerability,” for example, even though it goes to a really uncomfortable place, she’s telling it in retrospect. And then it ends with light. She’s reaching some illumination about what really happened with this person and about accepting it. And I do feel that there’s grace in that.