Lauren Erin O'Brien


Winner of the Goldenberg Prize for Fiction, 2018
Selected by Geraldine Brooks
Read the story here


Lauren Erin O'Brien

What inspired you to write “Atrophy”?

It started with the farm. My mother grew up on a farm, as did her parents, and theirs. When I was born, there were just a few pieces of that history left. One horse, an overgrown field, a rundown stable, no barn in sight. My mother told me many stories of the animals, the work, the tragedies, and the landscape. Whenever I would visit my great-grandfather, he would spend hours doing the same.

So I built the town of “Atrophy” and populated it. Small things, like Luca helping pick weeds in the rock garden, the nearby railroad tracks, the horseflies, were based on my experiences as a child. The characters were not.

The inspiration for the boy came from a child I’ve never met, but one I know through my niece. She is one of four siblings, the second oldest, all from different fathers. Her younger brother was born with severe health problems and put with a different family. She talked about him often, wondered about him, his whereabouts, and his loneliness. She only met him one time but remembered vividly the image of him hooked up to hospital machines. She was quite open with her pain at first. After a while, she began to hide it.

I never learned the mother’s reaction to his birth, but I imagined it, and the lengths a mother would go for the health of her child.

Yarrow’s character leaves room for interpretation. What would be the significance of his presence in the story according to you?

One of the most rewarding results of publishing this story has been the response to Yarrow’s character. Readers have debated whether or not he is real, whether he is a magical figure able to transfer his life to the boy, or whether he is an antagonistic figure preying on the vulnerable Luca with false and harmful promises. Regardless of those interpretations, Yarrow is an interrupter. He sets the story in motion by appearing in front of Luca with an object that challenges her rejection of the boy and prompts her to consider what it means to mother.

Yarrow is, like Rhonda, a builder. But where Yarrow believes in building anew and replacing through the use magical objects, Rhonda is deeply grounded and committed to rebuilding what was lost.

Was there a particular reason you chose crocodile eggs to be the introductory element in “Atrophy”?

Atrophy is a story with many things in opposition. The living boy vs. the wooden doll, Luca’s destruction and Yarrow’s constant constructing, the decaying farm in the center of growing industry, etc. The eggs are meant to set this up early, while also introducing Yarrow, his influence over Luca and the precision of his offerings.

Crocodiles have incredible innate immune systems, in contrast to Luca’s ailing boy. Depending on the reader’s interpretation of Yarrow, the eggshell words could be a taunt, or words conjured from Luca’s own mind, or perhaps as part of a spell/incantation. I intended for the eggs to appear off and on throughout the piece as an indicator of where Luca stood with her rejection and willing replacement of the boy, with the destruction of this particular talisman a key moment in her moving beyond the stage of denial and finally accepting his existence.

Do you have a favorite passage? Which one?

If I ever forgot what my home looked like, I’d be reminded in the feeling of horsefly bites. The pinprick pain of them always centers on my neck or my head, creating a halo of chewed-up red skin. Rhonda bats them away from her hair as we start towards the yard, keeping a hand on my back.

I can tell by the way she’s muttering under her breath that she’s bothered by the leaves, the lack of raking. She’s always had a clean streak in her, the scent of bleach filling whatever room she’s in. When my husband passed away in the house, she spent a long time scrubbing his death from the walls and its stains from the carpet.

“Ah, well, at least you’ve got the wood pile nice and full.”

“I like chopping it,” I say. It’s one of the few things.

Luca is remarkably clear in this section. She’s a keen and detailed observer throughout the piece, but doesn’t offer much on how she feels about what she sees. There’s a purposeful distance on her part, to take in the surroundings without being too close to them, but she offers a glimpse to the reader here. Most clear, perhaps, is her insight that there is not much in the physical world that she enjoys or spends time doing, except for chopping the wood.

There are, of course, many moments where her descriptions of setting and the details she chooses to focus on inform the reading of her feelings towards something (in this passage, for example, she recognizes her home from the pain of insect bites). But she is clear on her enjoyment of the repetitions of wood cutting and returns to that at the end of the piece when she makes the conscious decision to destroy her talismans and confront the reality of her boy.

Other moments in the story I am particularly fond of are the sections where Luca describes her boy as an ethereal and godlike being.

Family is an important theme in the piece. What is your insight on its relationship with illness and healing?

In my experience with illness, when illness becomes a central part of a person’s life, it can cause them to create certain rules. For example, a rule of I will never recover from this can seem absolute to a person deep in the throes of their illness. A single setback, a harsh statement, a moment of loneliness and pain can all seem like “proof” of the rule. The occasional progress, kind word or painless moment are easy to call an anomaly.

Rhonda’s bluntness and rambling are there to challenge Luca’s rules and offer a countering voice that breaks through her short sentences and lost sense of reality. Rhonda keeps her grounded in the present and helps her envision a future, rather than allowing her to dwell on her tragedies. Family – and that doesn’t need to be blood relatives – are uniquely positioned for this. They know or have seen enough to be a reliable perspective, and are able to continuously challenge the rules of the illness.

Which writers have inspired you? What are you currently reading?

There are many, but to offer a shortlist: Lydia Yuknavitch, Sabina Murray, Dana Green, Ann Carson, Toni Morrison, Aimee Bender, Kelly Link, Julie Orringer, Richard Brautigan, Maggie Nelson, Robert Bolano, Lance Olsen and Han Kang.

I am currently reading Alice Notley’s The Descent of Alette as part of my personal research on the verse-novel, as well as the Dracula retelling-in-erasure R E D by Chase Berggrun.

What is the best piece of writing advice you’ve received?

For fiction: Lie. I think it’s natural for writers to pull inspiration from their surroundings, their upbringing, people they know, situations they were or are currently in. But in many cases, the truth doesn’t make the best story. So, lie. Exaggerate. Remove details that add nothing. Don’t be afraid to change details for fear of losing an authenticity that only you know.

More generally: I was encouraged early on to read and write in other genres. Before I wrote my first short story, I had written a considerable amount of poetry. I would skip my lunch period in middle school to go to various classrooms with English teachers and discuss poets (I didn’t know many at the time, which of course led to many lectures about how I need to read more and also explore other genres). So I did. I read widely and became interested in prose poems, verse-novels, flash fiction and eventually short stories. My prose was, in many ways, a product of my poetry. This has been both wonderful and not so, as there are certain elements of poetry that don’t easily translate to prose writing. But while I work on certain parts of my fiction (like plot) I recognize that my language, imagery, and overall style/aesthetic would not be so without the influence of poets.