Featured Fiction Writer: Molly Earner
This issue's featured fiction writer is Molly Earner, author of "The Thing That Crouched in the Corner of the Basement." Read on for a discussion about subverting fairy tails, the power of domestic spaces, and whatever it is that turtle shells are made out of. Ethan Brightbill: Despite featuring a basement-dwelling monster, this is a profoundly quiet story. There’s little direct dialogue, and the protagonist takes almost no overt action — she doesn’t even have a name. Can you speak to that a bit? And what led you to tell the story this way?
Molly Earner: I imagined this story as a modern fable or fairy tale, with correspondingly spare dialogue and simple action. Fairy tales often take the reader away from home, away from the domestic space — but by keeping the plot focused on the home, almost claustrophobically so, I wanted to subvert the idea that Important Things happen far away. Sometimes what is most important is the thing we choose not to look at, the thing that is too close for comfort, but is always there, out of the corner of our eye.
Additionally, even though the protagonist has no name, I wanted to be intentional about my use of description for her. In fairy tales, women are always wives or widows or stepmothers. I wanted the main character of this story to simply be “the woman” and her husband to be “the woman’s husband.” It’s a small choice, but to me there are implications in how we position our characters in relation to each other. The woman is wholly herself — always has been and always will be.
EB: This story begins with a classic horror moment — descent into the basement only to find a monster waiting there — yet it also immediately subverts that trope by showing the monster to be benign. Is genre something you explore often in your work? And what narrative opportunities have you found in subverting horror tropes that might not be available in other kinds of writing?
ME: Growing up, I was the kid who cried during scary movies, so people who know me may be surprised by my interest in horror. But in recent years I’ve felt a deep pull toward exploring the genre, and that has been encouraged by friends and colleagues who’ve shared their reading and viewing lists with me. I love that “horror” is the genre name because it’s literally defined by the emotion it elicits. As a writer, my main goal is quite simple: to make my reader feel something. When horror works, the emotion is inescapable — whether it creeps up or jumps out at you — and I am fascinated by the ways in which these feelings are brought about by certain conceits and tropes. What is the horror inherent in an empty, dark basement? What do we really fear when we enter a space alone? As far as subverting tropes, this story is about recalibrating our focus away from victimhood, away from monstrosity, and toward the reality that we often refuse to see. Funnily enough, genre, unlike realist fiction, allows me to be quite literal in that regard.
EB: What works, fiction or otherwise, influenced this story? What about your writing as a whole?
ME: I wrote this story not long after reading Shirley Jackson’s The Haunting of Hill House, which remains a classic for a reason. With Hill House, Jackson manages to create a unique and fascinating character from a piece of architecture. With that, she also creates a place for her characters to uncover their own deep-seated distresses and desires. Jackson’s work shows me that there is immense literary power in these domestic spaces, and I wanted to play with that in some small way here, with the routine of basement laundry trips. Stylistically, I was inspired by Rosario Ferre’s “The Youngest Doll,” a short story which is hauntingly spare. The characters are nameless and there is very little dialogue. But in creating such spare prose, she lulls the reader into a distinctly uneasy and grotesque world.
As far as writers who influence my work as a whole, I was initially drawn to the short story form by George Saunders, whose work captures both immense humor and humanity in a short amount of space. Since discovering Saunders in college, I have become enamored with short fiction by writers such as Carmen Maria Machado, Kelly Link, Karen Russell, Ottessa Moshfegh, Ursula K. Le Guin, and Brian Evenson, all of whom demonstrate just how varied and surprising short form fiction can be. None of these writers are constrained by concerns of genre or realism, but rather play in the spaces between and beyond.
EB: What projects are you working on now? Where do you want to go with or in your writing?
ME: Right now, I am focused on short fiction; I have been writing and revising a themed collection for my MFA thesis, and am in the process of submitting these stories to various places for publication. Short fiction has allowed me the space to experiment and try on new genres and styles with reckless abandon. So that’s my project, I suppose: to write stories I can be proud of! Maybe I’ll settle down eventually to write a novel, but not just yet.
EB: Finally, the most important question: what’s your favorite bone?
ME: I remember reading somewhere that a turtle shell is a bone, or made of bones, or something bony, at the very least. Turtle shells are amazing. I wish I had one.