'A Liminal Creature'
By 11:30 AM, the May marine layer is just starting to burn off above UCSB’s infamous lagoon.
A cool breeze rustles the palm fronds above my head and wiry metal spokes distantly whirl along bike paths winding through campus. The sun is out and it’s a nearly idyllic day, or at least it seems to be from what I can tell by the view from my COVID isolation room. After five days of staring at the same miscellaneous hotel room art, it’s hard not to reflect on the drastic ways our world has changed over the past two years and how it may continue to evolve in the coming days. It seems a strangely fitting moment to interview Oliver Nash, author of "The Maggot," a fiction piece published in the sixty-fourth edition of Spectrum. From stagecoaches to climate change riots, "The Maggot" follows the development of an American town as it expands, withers, collapses, and transforms over the course of several hundred years, all alongside a giant maggot. As the ocean mist dissipates in the midday heat, Nash and I discuss second-person narration, eco-anxiety, and the constant state of evolution that characterizes communities everywhere.
My name is Mikayla, I use she/her pronouns, and I'm an editor for Spectrum Literary Journal. My first question is just a bit of the intro: your name, pronouns, who are you, general background?
In publishing, I go by Oliver Nash and my pronouns are they/them. I'm currently in my second year as an MFA student at the University of Alabama. I’ve worked as an assistant editor at Black Warrior Review, been on the visiting writers committee, and been involved with a few other campus graduate programs. I went to the University of Cincinnati for my undergrad, where I did an English Creative Writing track with a psychology minor. I've been writing since I was about eighteen years old and actually went into school for psychology, but I ended up switching into writing after I started taking a few classes and things like that.
That's such an interesting background, the intersection of psych and creative writing. What inspired this piece? Is this something that's part of a larger project or is it a stand-alone?
I actually wrote "The Maggot" a long time ago and I definitely think I've improved a lot since I first wrote it, but I've always believed in the piece. I’ve been submitting it for a couple of years before Spectrum finally picked it up. I wrote the first draft of this piece in one of my first creative writing classes. We had been reviewing different tenses in stories and I was really intrigued by second-person stories. I wanted to write a second-person piece, but I also had this ethos when I first started out writing where I wanted to try very ambitious things knowing that I was probably going to fail at most of them. I felt a little bit behind because a lot of people that were really serious about writing had been writing since they were kids or teenagers, and I’d really only been doing it a year or two. I thought, “Okay I'm going to write a second-person story and if it’s going to be a second-person story, it will be about a community of people.” I thought it would be really interesting to write a story from the perspective of a community and who defines the “we” that the story is speaking from changes over time. In this piece specifically, it goes from a couple hundred people to a few million, then down to four people at the end. One of my classes was in this building that overlooked one of the football fields and every winter, they put this huge, white cover over the football field. It’s the same cover they put on every year and it's never cleaned. It had been up for years at this point and I had been looking out on it, this massive white dome, dirty and grayed and chipped. I had this thought one day as I was trying to think of a story where it looked like a giant maggot. I thought, “What if, similarly to what the white cover does at the university, a huge maggot showed up in a little community? What if it didn't do anything for the entire story?” The maggot is almost standing in for the reader as witness to this community growing and changing and shrinking over time.
I’ve been working on Spectrum for two quarters, so I've been thinking about this piece for several months. It's so interesting to hear the origins of it. I legally have to ask, since it came up all the time in our discussions, was there ever a moment where you considered if this creature could be something else? Is there a reason why the maggot, in terms of symbolism or representation, stuck with you throughout the piece?
It's one of those things where I had an idea of what it was all supposed to be about as I was writing it and, through later drafts, as I was really thinking about it, the different elements really started to coalesce for me. If you think about it in a metaphorical sense, a maggot is this sort of liminal creature. It's something that is in a state of about-to-become-something and it stays that throughout the whole piece, even at the end when it fully changes and we’re down to these four people, who find their new maggot at a gas station. To me, that's saying something about community in general and about the ethos of community that is represented in this piece. There isn’t necessarily a point to community and what defines it can change over time. It's morally gray. The maggot never hatches into something because the community just is what it is. There is no ultimate state of community, there is no point. It’s just that state of becoming.
You talked about it a little bit in terms of the second-person evolution of this piece, but this story has such an interesting relationship with time. It covers several hundred years in just about twenty pages. Why did you choose these time periods to focus on? Was there something specific about each time period that connected with the theme?
I was thinking about it partially in terms of the evolution, or common evolution, of an American town into a modern metropolis. Specifically, there's also a climate-change angle, which comes through in a lot of what I write. It is maybe not as present in this piece, but it was in the back of my head. We start in this very small, pre-industrial farming town and then the town gains an industry, and then it comes into the early 20th century, beginning to be post-industrial and entering World War I. Then on from there, we go into modern-day and then post-modern, almost post-apocalyptic-esque. I was following major economic points and major points in industrialization and development through time, and therefore, major points of different population sizes. I wanted to explore the community at vastly different sizes of people.
I’m wondering how the physical structure of the piece, the italicized intros and longer sections, informed your process of writing it? Was it always going to be structured like that or did that naturally evolve?
This is a piece where I definitely planned a lot, but when I put down the first draft, it was structured like this. I think this is probably the only piece I’ve ever written where I do these italicized intros and I'm sure it's something that I read in class that entranced me. I was dealing with the problem of, “Okay I want to try to make a story work over three hundred years in twenty pages.” The only way for me to do that would be to have individual little scenes. I figured if it was all just a summary, it would come off as preachy or didactic. It wouldn’t really be giving that visceral experience of being in a community or glimpsing into a really intricate community at several different points and feeling like you can get a grasp of the sense of the time, the zeitgeist at that moment. The italicized sections really solved the other side of that problem, which was getting a more summarized view of that whole area of time. They ended up being these very sense, impressionistic, montage-y views of that community in that time period. In earlier drafts, the last section, which I believe is by far the longest one, was a lot shorter. My readers in my workshop class as an undergrad said, “We really like how in the scene we are here and we really liked the characters.” If there's ever a modern point in the story, it is the last one. The rest of them are a sort of build-up. I gave that one more space. But it was definitely a chicken-or-the-egg situation. The type of story I wanted to write presented a weird problem and so the weird solution kind of came all at once to fit around itself.
Throughout this piece, several characters come and go with varying degrees of importance to the overarching narrative. Towards the end of the story, we really get a closer look at this group of four survivors. You mentioned that in the workshop process, people were intrigued by this group. Was the process of writing this smaller family group different than how you'd approached the rest of the story?
Definitely. I feel like I’ve gotten better at this over the last couple of years, but I think most of the characters in the early parts serve a plot function more than they are really developed characters. Especially in the first section, a lot of the people in the hamlet in the late 1700s feel a little caricatured. They’re representing archetypes of people at that time more than I think the story needed. Honestly, in that first section, they’re played for laughs a little bit. I was particularly excited to write about this small group of people and I remember that allowing those characters to be more than just parts of the plot came very naturally in writing scenes. Who they were and how they interacted with each other came very easily and I really liked that. In a way, those four people are a character. Their interaction, their form of community I think is the most successful execution of that in the piece. They felt the most like people and in a way, they're representing different reactions to this evolution. You have some people clinging to this older idea of community that the city represented, which is now gone. Then you have some people who see this small little group–this found family and found community through accepting each other's differences and accepting the little quirks. That is very important to me, as far as how I see human interaction. It’s really about finding people and letting judgment fall to the side. You can make community and find love anywhere if you're willing to do that.
There are moments where that narrator sometimes seems closer to the individual people, other times a little bit closer to the broader story. How did the choice to have a second-person narrator fit in with this piece specifically?
I am a firm believer that the rules of writing are made to be broken, but everything you break has to be for a reason. I love ergodic fiction like House of Leaves that really messes with the rules of fiction, but it works because you're messing with it for a very specific reason. You're doing it for effect. You can, of course, take any story and rewrite it in second-person because that's trendy or that’s what’s interesting, but if it not does not align with what the piece is trying to do, you’re only going to muddy the waters. For me, if I wanted to write a second-person piece, I had to write a piece that had to be second-person. There’s a reason that most stories are in third or first, and it's because that is a much more natural way of telling stories. We really infrequently tell stories in second-person. When we do, they are almost invariably about community in some way. Who is included in that community, who is excluded, what voices take hold, in what ways can singular voices pretend to be the voice of an entire community.
There seems to be a strong commentary on political and social change in this piece, particularly in relation to climate change. I noticed in your bio you mentioned eco-anxiety as an issue that you consistently tackle. Is there like a message or lesson you’d like readers to take away from this piece or is eco-anxiety a broader subject that you're interested in commenting on?
I hope I'm not so didactic that I’m leaving too strong of a message or a moral outrage thing. What I am trying to impress a little bit is exemplified in the turn where this apocalypse comes to the town, this is end with the military bombing the city out as climate change rages around them. When it comes to climate change, when it comes to eco-anxiety, the type of discourse that I really don't like is this apocalyptic discourse. It feels almost like a secularized religious view of disaster and of climate change in the sense that if we don't get our act together, the world ends. The language that is used does feel very apocalyptic to me and the way that I view it is that, ultimately, probably not. Just like the effects of humanity on the climate are inequitably distributed through the world and on different communities and nations, so too will its negative and knock on effects. Even if the world, or parts of the world, end or things change excessively, there still will be community. You can't rely on everything ending, this absolution. To me, it feels like when some people view the negative effects of climate change, there's almost this idea of deserved punishment for our actions, that it will wipe us out. What I want to show in this piece is that our species will have to live with those effects. You’ll still have your communities, even if things are irrevocably changed. There is no escaping that, which I feel like helps to make you feel like you have more of a responsibility, if you know that you might make the world terrible but your grandchildren are still going to have to live in that world. You don't get the simple ending of, “Oh, this is going to wipe us all out.”
This story ends on a somewhat ambiguous, but not necessarily pessimistic note. Do you view this story as a hopeful one?
In some ways, yeah. In a very drawn back sense, I think it is hopeful. But it feels, in reading this about climate change or reading this about discrimination or the negative effects of human beings on this planet, the story is not hopeful. It’s not saying that we’ll necessarily figure this out or that human beings will become better or that, even if we do solve this problem, we will become inherently better as creatures. But it is hopeful in the sense that not all is lost. More than likely, there will be human beings and there will be environment and there will be community no matter what, even if that changes. Sometimes, it's easy to think that our way of life changing or the world changing to where it's unrecognizable to us is equivalent to everything being lost, but it really isn't. If you were to show somebody from a thousand or two thousand years ago what the world looks like today, they would probably have a similarly panicked reaction to us imagining how the world could look in two hundred years, changed as much as it appears it might change.
[Interview has been edited for clarity]
"The Maggot" is available to read in the sixty-fourth volume of Spectrum.