Born and raised in Houston, Texas, Lisa Levy works as an interfaith chaplain, providing emotional and spiritual support for people with a lived experience of homelessness. She has an MFA from the Syracuse University Creative Writing Program and a Master of Divinity from Yale Divinity School. Lisa’s work has appeared in Killing the Buddha, Opium Magazine, The Newtowner, and The Perch, and she was recently nominated for a Pushcart Prize. Her story “Magnolia” appeared in Potomac Review issue #62. Lisa currently resides in Houston with her pack of rescue animals.
In the spring of 2019, Potomac Review intern Kelci Weiman interviewed Lisa Levy about her writing process, inspiration, and ideas of life and death in her short story “Magnolia.”
Kelci Weiman: “Magnolia” is such a touching story. I was intrigued to know what inspired you to write this story?
Lisa Levy: There was a 2007 article in the Houston Chronicle about an 11- or 12-year-old boy who was on a quest to get a proper burial for his stillborn sister. He was living with his grandmother because his mother was misusing drugs, and no one in the family could afford burial in a cemetery. “Fetus Girl Holloway” was headed for the “pauper’s cemetery” for the indigent and unclaimed until the boy stepped in and claimed her. He asked a cemetery near his house (nearby so that he could go visit her) to donate a plot of land, someone else to donate years’ worth of weekly flowers, someone to donate a headstone—and he found a funeral home who agreed to do the funeral for free. He named his sister Rachel. This story stuck with me for years. “Magnolia” is a result of my obsession with that story.
KW: With such a realistic plot, I started to think of Cedric as the protector of Magnolia. Where his mother had problems of her own and as a result Magnolia losing the chance at life because of this. Cedric being a child, I’m curious to know what the situation might have looked like from his point of view?
LL: I think there’s a moment in the hospital—the moment where Cedric’s mother turns away from him in bed—that his mother begins to feel like less of a person to him than Magnolia does. My impression is that Cedric feels his aloneness, and Magnolia’s, most acutely in that moment. I don’t know if he thinks of himself as Magnolia’s protector so much as he thinks of her as his sister, someone who, under different circumstances, could have eased his loneliness, and he can’t let that go.
KW: A certain quote made me believe that the story took place in the South. “His mother in the kitchen in the house Cedric couldn’t remember, making shrimp gumbo or sausage jambalaya.” I instantly thought of Louisiana when I read this sentence. Being someone that was raised in a household filled with blues, Cajun food, and sweet tea, I hoped that my guess was correct. I wondered if the setting played a role in the development of the story?
LL: I think it’s just a case of writing what you know—my maternal grandmother Rita was raised in New Orleans, and, even though she moved to Victoria, Texas as an adult, her family still lives in and around the area. I’m from Houston, but I grew up eating her cooking and imbibing her culture.
KW: I found that Cedric as a character was captured perfectly when he tried to find a place to sit Magnolia and settled with an empty fishbowl that his pet Lucky had past occupied. Some might think of this as a shocking turn or a creative idea. I thought it was beautiful as it really captured his innocence. When it came to your readers, what did you want your story to accomplish?
LL: Writing this story was more a process of exorcism than anything else—as I mentioned earlier, I was obsessed with the Houston Chronicle story and this is just how it emerged. If I said I had a reader in mind for it, I’d be lying. I actually wrote this story several years before I imagined an audience for it, so there wasn’t anything I wanted it to accomplish, per se.
KW: Through the mystery of Cedric and Magnolia I could feel the buildup of an innocent ending. Out of all the places Cedric could have put Magnolia, what made you decide for Cedric to put her in a fishbowl?
LL: I think Cedric’s decision to put Magnolia in the fishbowl (and not the shoebox, or the pajama drawer) is an instinct toward connection, a pull toward a container that once held something alive, something that had kept him good company. He is seeking her companionship, and he is hearkening back to a time where he felt a flicker of that with his fish, Lucky, who wasn’t supposed to live but did.
KW: Fetus Girl #2567 is what Magnolia would have been named as her body would have been picked up and sent to the cemetery of the Unclaimed. After hearing this, Cedric felt the urge to hold her which later lead him to take her away from the hospital. I believed that Cedric knew completely that his sister had passed away though I don’t believe he understood the full extent of the situation. What were your thoughts when creating a setting like this from the viewpoint of a 10-year-old child?
LL: I think that’s right—he knows and understands logically that his sister is dead, but he can’t let go of the deep longing to have her presence. I imagine that this is what grief looks like for a very specific ten-year-old (I’m sure not all ten-year-olds would grieve this way, but this is how Cedric grieves).
KW: I believe that one of the ideas that is shown through your story was that life should be cared for even after death but then I believe that the story was to show the maturity and childlike innocence from a child’s point of view while dealing with a situation that is difficult and, in a way, life-changing. How do you think the story could have impacted your readers?
LL: I think—I hope—that writing moves both the writer and the reader to a place of greater compassion. In some ways, I think good writing activates an empathy that’s alive and engaged, that makes the reader and the writer move toward a more expansive headspace and heart-space where love becomes an action, a work.
KW: To shift the subject a little, I’m curious as to other pieces you’ve worked on and if they held plots such as the one we see in “Magnolia” where the story holds waves of emotion and deeper meaning?
LL: My fiction tends to be about permutations of grief and loss, how grief manifests itself in the heart of a character and in the world, and loneliness. So, in that way, I think, “Magnolia” fits in with other pieces I’ve written. Sometimes I’d like to choose a different topic, but it feels as if this topic has chosen me.
KW: Often, authors like to throw themselves into the role of their characters to better understand them. Did you take any measures or perform any exercises to help yourself get into the mind of what your characters might have been feeling or experiencing?
LL: I have what one of my friends calls an “empathy problem,” where I tend to empathize, or, in her opinion, over-empathize, with people, animals, inanimate objects, and characters in literature. When I write, I tend to be thrown into the shoes of my characters whether I want to or not, so I don’t generally take any particular steps to move me any closer to the mind and emotions of a character than I already am.
KW: After I finished reading your story, I felt the tears well up and the remorse I had for Cedric left me sad but thoughtful. In a way, it must have been hard for him to go through such an ordeal. After finishing “Magnolia,” did any feelings stick with you?
LL: I think the best part about writing this story was that the feelings didn’t stick with me—they had been lingering with me for years, and this purged those emotions about the incident I read about in the paper in 2007. It was a relief to put them on the page, to be able to contain them and put them away.
KW: Finally, what work do you have planned from here?
LL: I just finished a really long story called “Five Altars,” about a young woman with a mental illness who builds Day of the Dead altars to call back those in her life who have died or been lost to her in some way. Again, a story about grief—I can’t seem to get away from it! Now I’m taking a little break from fiction and working on a series of personal essays, the most recent of which is about loneliness and the Hallmark Channel.