Slow Apocalypse: A Conversation with Mary South

By Yohanca Delgado

Mary South’s debut story collection, You Will Never Be Forgotten, came out in March, at the very beginning of the COVID-19 lockdowns in the U.S. and around the world. When we talked this summer, it was clear, even then, that life as we knew it had changed forever. Looking back on our conversation now, in September, one thing remains the same: the singular pleasure of reading South’s stories and careening through the realms of her darkly brilliant imagination. 

South’s stories speculate on domains we think we know—on nursing homes and real estate, on hospitals and fandoms—but many of these stories live on the precipice of the known world and look out just beyond: a factory that produces bodies for organ harvesting, a summer camp for internet trolls, a mother who replaces her murdered child with a cloned double. 

Though they often depict worlds that seem unrelentingly entropic and bleak, these stories leave me feeling replenished. South’s characters insistently seek higher ground in environments that threaten to engulf them completely. Her ability to recast dystopia as malleable reality imbues these stories with a quiet, tenacious sort of hope. 

Mary South is an editor at NOON and holds an MFA from Columbia University. Her work has appeared in American Short Fiction, The Baffler, The Believer, BOMB, The Collagist, Conjunctions, Electric LiteratureGuernicaLARB Quarterly, The New YorkerThe Offing, The White Review, and Words Without Borders.

In July, I talked to Mary South over the phone about the apocalypse, about the process of building a speculative fiction collection, and about moments that break you open.

The theme for this issue is going to be “apocalypse.” I’m an earnest seventh grader, so I looked up the definition and it’s, “The complete and final destruction of the world as described in the biblical Book of Revelation,” and, “events involving destruction or damage on an awesome or catastrophic scale.” Given the past six months, and the fact that we didn’t even see this shutdown coming at the turn of the year, I wonder how you’re thinking about the concept.  

It’s interesting, first off, that the definition of apocalypse is a big, grand, sudden event, when one of the main worries that could cause huge shifts in how we live our lives is a slow kind of apocalypse. I’m thinking of climate change, which maybe makes it harder for us to confront it, because it isn’t like a big sudden event. It’s an event that accumulates over time. 

Coronavirus, too, is interesting in that respect. It was very sudden in terms of how we had to respond to it when it was here and then people got sick very quickly because it spreads very quickly, but it’s something that we will have to endure over the long term in terms of distancing and we have to have some stamina to deal with it. It’s not something that can be confronted in a week or a month or even two months.

I remember when it got normal. It sort of started to feel normal for me to go outside wearing a mask. I’m still in New York City and have been in New York City throughout the pandemic. At first it was strange and unsettling and I was very frightened just going to the grocery store. But then after a certain point it got normal. When I realized that, I was like, “Oh, this is normal for me to put on my mask and stay far apart from people.” That was a new moment of: “This is a bit disturbing.” Some of the collection arose from those kinds of observations: that we sort of get indoctrinated and come to accept certain things —so much so that they become normal or habitual, and then we stop seeing them as unusual.

A lot of these stories imagine, in a not-too-distant future, a breakdown in our value systems. I see that in stories like “Keith Prime,” where clones are raised to be harvested for their organs, or in “Camp Jabberwocky for Recovering Internet Trolls,” where internet bullying is so prevalent that a camp exists for people who can’t stop doing it. These stories read as speculative—but not by much. I wonder how this collection came together for you. Was that idea of gradual breakdowns part of your unifying theme?

In the story “Keith Prime,” the nurse who’s tending to these clones, one of whom she develops feelings for, never really stops and questions, “Is my job terrible?” She does, but it’s never like, “I have to break this system and make it so that there’s no more Keiths. This is wrong.” It’s mostly her figuring out how to survive within the system. She’s sort of accepted the overarching reality that she’s immersed in. I’m interested in exploring characters who get habituated either through an experience that’s personal or through a world that they’ve been immersed in a very long time. [Their] having to navigate that, or often having the realization: “I’ve been indoctrinated in this way and I have to break myself of certain things I’ve come to expect.”

The mother in “Not Setsuko” also takes on this project. At first, I’m sure it was very strange to try to mold her daughter into the former version of herself, so to speak, but after a while she becomes indoctrinated into her own project and accepts it as normal. By the end of the story, she has to break herself of accepting that project as healthy or acceptable.

There’s a comparable breakthrough, I think, at the end of your title story,“You Will Never Be Forgotten.” There are dehumanizing, depressing moments, but there’s also this magnificent internal pivot in the protagonist, a moment of deep human dignity where she thinks, “I have to take control of my own life,” that I found immensely reassuring. 

That’s a good example of what I’m talking about, a character has to break herself of, in her case, not how she’s been indoctrinated but behavior patterns that are toxic to herself, like stalking this man. It’s something that she’s engaged in because of her immense trauma, immense pain, what has happened to her and how it’s never been seen. She hasn’t gotten justice for it. This man is still very successful. He’s out in the world. He’s enjoying his life. 

He’s going to bars and having drinks and dating. It’s really painful, and the thought that he might be doing this to other women, too, is extraordinarily painful, but she has to accept that she can’t control that. She can’t retroactively fix what happened or change what happens and she can’t control him. She has to break out of her own coping patterns that are harmful to her.

And she’s enmeshed the world of content moderation. She’s surrounded by coworkers who makes jokes about it and often treat it as a game because it’s a form of gallows humor. They need to figure out a way to cope as well because it’s extraordinarily traumatic. Everybody, including her, just sort of accepts this toxic environment as quotidian or normal, and I think her walking out of the office she’s in—it’s not said in the story, but it’s Google— is a sort of waking up to the toxicity around her. She sees her coworkers playing this game and she’s just tried to confront her rapist and it didn’t go well and this is a sort of waking up to seeing, “Enough is enough. I have to break out of this.”

I see that pattern throughout the collection and I wonder, did you find yourself writing stories that seemed to be in conversation with each other? Or did you find a thematic spine and build the collection around it? 

The collection was built over many years. It took ten years to write, starting when I was in an MFA program. “Not Setsuko” was one of the first stories, and that story is interested in technology in that [the protagonist] recreates her daughter via cloning. The sci-fi element is not the important part of the story. It is what enables the story to take place. “Architecture for Monsters” was written right after my MFA and, again, the premise of buildings that look like body parts or damaged body parts, those would be unbuildable without a computer. It’s a technological thing that enables the story.

I started to notice that I had these elements that were threaded together via tech or certain dystopian facets of a story and I started to write deliberately toward them. “Keith Prime” was one of the later stories. “Not Setsuko” is so personal. I thought: “What if I had a story like that but it became very impersonal?” It’s set in an Amazon-like warehouse where none of these people are someone you’re related to or know. They’re just stock clones, stock Keiths, but [the protagonitst] develops a relationship with one of them. That has doubling in it. The last story in the book has doubling and the first one has doubling and I put them at opposite poles of the book so they could then be in conversation with each other in that way. They open and close the collection.

What’s wonderful about the universe of this collection is that everything feels like just a little turn of the dial from what we already see in reality. Terrifyingly, because in some cases, just a tiny bit. The way things are going, given how alarmingly quickly Amazon is taking over the world, we might read about the opening of the first Keith Prime factory in our lifetimes.  

I know. I hate to say it, too. I was writing with rancor: rancor towards Amazon. The way they treat their employees is very dystopian to me; they don’t allow them to have human-sized bathroom breaks. It’s strange how fast things can change, too. Like you said, I wouldn’t have foreseen a pandemic happening six months ago. That just shows you how fast reality can switch on you, how things that you didn’t even dream of thinking about doing suddenly become normal, just part of your daily life. We don’t have clones yet but it could happen fast.

Oh my god, have you seen—this is perfect fodder for the likes of us. There’s this pod experiment. You can gestate a baby in an artificial pod, or at least that’s what the technology is exploring with sheep, I think? 

I think I’ve seen that. I’ve seen videos of a sheep in a plastic enclosure that’s being gestated instead of in a ewe. It’s so interesting, all the things that happen to human beings because they’re in the womb. This is a piece of information that’s in the collection that’s real, too, from “Keith Prime”: the reason we have fingerprints is that when we’re in the womb we press our hands up against our mother’s uterus and those develop ridges that become our finger prints. Keith doesn’t have fingerprints because he’s gestated in an artificial womb. His fingers are smooth. It makes you wonder—all the things we get from being inside a body.

A lot of these technologies that become scary to us begin on a principle that feels good to us. In the “Keith Prime” story, for example, I could see a world in which you could make the argument that many lives could be saved if transplant organs were available. 

Absolutely. I used to live in Los Angeles. I lived there for a couple of years, so I had friends who were taking acting classes. I guess in the Meisner acting technique, one of the things you do is figure out your character’s justification. 

If your character commits a murder, in order to play that character convincingly you would figure out, “How does he rationalize it? How does he make it okay so he’s not a terrible person?” Nobody goes through their day thinking, “I’m a villain.” They rationalize how they deal with reality or how they’re positioned in reality. So they say, “It’s not up to me. I can’t really stop the world from making Keiths.” Or they say, “Yes. They’re not conscious, so they don’t suffer, and they’re not really people because they’re never really alive and they save lives.” Even though it’s monstrous and horrible, they would justify it. I think that happens in small ways and big scary ways because no one wants to see themselves as morally ambiguous or morally corrupt.

Some of these stories take ideas and instincts that already exist in our consciousness, but turn the dial just enough that they feel unreal in a psychological sense. I’m thinking here of stories like “The Promised Hostel,” which feels both possible and not. I wouldn’t call it sci-fi. There’s that adult breastfeeding situation— 

It doesn’t seem like it’s in the world even though all of it is technically possible.

Right! Psychological speculation?

That would be a cool genre: speculative psychological fiction. No matter how much we mature, we have a childlike need and wanting for nourishment underneath it. 

I thought: “What if people had either been so traumatized or were so lost that they didn’t know how to deal with that [need]?” So this woman comes along who’s also grieving and they use her to palliate that need. Sometimes stories can originate from a real thing that is then pushed to its furthest extreme— in order to see it better.

That story, too, feels like a story that ends with a character being able to see beyond the system of the story. The central character finally gets what he wants from this woman and he’s able to see her clearly for the first time. In a sense, he pushes her to an extreme and as a result is able to see her better. 

It’s important to me that there’s that moment where things are broken open. Up until that point, he’s focused on his own pain and he’s inside of his own bubble, his own reality. He loves her but it’s a very infantile sort of love in that he’s not considering her and her needs. Then there’s a moment between her and another woman. 

I’m against the idea of epiphanies: of a character having a realization and they’re suddenly a different person and life is totally different. That’s not necessarily true to how life actually works. You can definitely have these moments of insight but then afterward to maintain them it takes work. You have to continually work to keep [those changes] going and to be a better person or to change your life. 

The same with the woman in the title story, realizing, “I have to change my life.” I don’t give her a pure epiphanic moment because there’s nothing that could ever happen that would suddenly make right what she experienced. It’s going to take work to get over it and unfortunately, in her case, the work falls to her. It doesn’t fall to the man who harmed her. She’s the one who has to put in the work, which is invisible in the same way that the work she does in her job is invisible.

For that story, to take an example, how much of that realization appeared in the first draft and how much of that did you work into it as you were revising? What did your process look like for “You Will Never Be Forgotten”?

I often outline stories. I don’t outline them super specifically, but I do have bullet points I’m following to know where I’m going generally. I had all of the different moves that were going to happen: that she would create a fake online dating profile and interact with [her rapist] and that he would get a girlfriend. This would be upsetting because not only is he happy and seemingly thriving, but he could do to the girlfriend what he did to her. Then, the ultimate confrontation in the restaurant. All of those moves were mostly plotted out.

I think the one thing that came in later was the mountain lion, because I started to draft the story and there was some activity on Twitter as well as some articles about these random mountain lion sightings in Silicon Valley at the time. That was one of those more serendipitous things. It triggered something in my brain: “I’m going to put this in the story somehow, as this promise of this moment with nature, and getting out of the bubble of technology, and having this epiphanic moment that will work out how you think it will.” 

I knew that she was going to see the neighbor kids at the end of the story but I didn’t know [the encounter] was going to be subvert the expectations of this beautiful moment: that she was trying to set up this beautiful moment that she then couldn’t have.

That was a shocking moment in the first read. I don’t want to give more away, so let’s switch gears a bit. I noticed that motherhood appears in almost all the stories, or some version of mothering. Is that a pattern that you wrote towards as well?

I do see mothering appearing a lot. The stories are concerned with women, mostly, women’s lived experiences and realities—though they’re also concerned with tech and dystopia. I think mothering just naturally came up a lot for that reason. 

Sometimes there’s beautiful, loving mothering and sometimes it’s very dysfunctional mothering: often very dysfunctional mothering, or well-intentioned mothering that somehow is turned against itself or inverted somehow, very painfully. The mother of “Not Setsuko” is wanting to do this for her daughter— not only for herself because she can’t live with the pain of confronting what really happened to her first daughter and having lost her. She also thinks she’s doing it for her daughter: that her [first] daughter was so happy and the perfect child, that she wants for her [cloned] daughter to have that, that reality that she was living out until she died. It’s good intentions that are then inverted and have the opposite effect than what she intended.

I’m thinking, too, of “Architecture for Monsters,” which has two very different, dysfunctional representations of motherhood: one that’s a lot healthier than the other. That’s, incidentally, where two of the characters stay at “Motel Apocalypse,” which you describe as, “A science-fiction vision of the future from the past. Each room a unique calamity.” They end up staying in a “virus-ravaged colony on the moon: a lunar Roanoke, though the rapture was debated.” 

The Apocalypse Motel in particular is a 1950s future-esque motel. It’s what people in the fifties thought the future would look like, which is something I’m fascinated by. You have hover cars but you don’t see any Black people anywhere. 

I’m a Star Trek fan and I’m re-watching some episodes in quarantine. One thing I noticed about that version of the future is that it’s wonderfully utopian but it’s not so great about parenting, or making it easy for the characters in the 24th century to have children or be parents. In The Next Generation, Picard, for example, says, “I couldn’t choose to be Star Fleet captain and a father. It wasn’t really possible.” There is a school in the ship and Worf’s son is enrolled but eventually he can’t deal with the stresses of being a parent and an officer, so he puts his son in the custody of his parents.

Similarly on Deep Space Nine, the captain goes to the station and there’s no school there, even though he’s bringing his adolescent son. I’m like, “How does he expect his son to get an education?” And the chief engineer’s wife, who’s a botanist, decides, “Okay, I’ll start a school.” 

I was a little disappointed that they hadn’t figured out a better way to raise children in Star Fleet in the 24th century. It’s interesting to me to see how people conceived the future and how sometimes it’s revealing of our current issues. 

Absolutely eerie how contemporary those Star Trek episodes seem in the current moment! Is “To Save the Universe, We Must Save Ourselves” based on Star Trek?

It is and it isn’t. I mean, I grew up watching Star Trek, I’m a Star Trek fan. I’ve never been to a convention or anything. But [the story] is taking the show and making it a little bit different, but the same vibe of a crew on a ship exploring. There are different types of aliens banded together. 

I took that idea of Star Trek and then used it to explore the internet, online toxicity, and online bullying in that way. How people can take something they love and then tear it apart and tear apart the people who make it. They have this weird sense of ownership about it. They lose perspective that these are actual human beings who made this thing they essentially love.

How do you even find the courage and energy to make art when that’s the potential outcome?

I know. That is a really important question to ask. I think in some cases, it does shut down art-making, or people doing it, if that’s what happens. That’s why I wanted to critique it, because I think that that toxicity can make people feel unsafe to try and make art.

When you were assembling this book and thinking about it as a whole, did you have a sense of wanting to leave the reader with a general feeling? Was there a question you wanted to ask with the collection? 

I think we talked about this a little bit, but one of the things that I did try to do is show that change is possible. A lot of these characters are paralyzed or stuck, or they’re going along on these trajectories that are really toxic. But then, as we’ve spoken about, there are moments that prominently, often at the end of the story, break them open. They realize, “Oh, I can be different,” or, “I have to be different.”

And that to me is very optimistic. A change is possible. Even after you experience something deeply traumatic, healing is possible. That, to me, is an overarching element. The tech is as horrible as it can be; we’re raising clones for body parts. There are moments of tenderness and connection that are also life-giving and possible, even amid the worst of it.

This interview has been edited for brevity and clarity. 

Yohanca Delgado holds an MFA from American University. Her work has appeared or is forthcoming in STORY, A Public Space, The Believer, and One Story. She is writing a collection of short stories and a novel. She lives in Maryland, but you can find her online at @yodelnyc.