A Kind of Constant Inner Traveling: Lauren Kinney in Conversation with Lisa Teasley

Lauren Kinney

Lisa Teasley’s first three books, Glow in the Dark, Dive, and Heat Signature came out in 2002, 2004, and 2006 respectively. In the decade-plus between her last book and her new collection of short stories Fluid, she has been active in literary Los Angeles as the Senior Fiction Editor at the L.A. Review of Books, (now an Editor-at-Large) as well as a familiar face at readings on either side of the microphone. With Fluid (2023), Teasley returns to short fiction in a smart, sexy, playful, collection with sprinklings of the supernatural befitting the characters that grace her stories, variously artists, sensitives and mystics, and more than a few lovers. Reading it made me homesick for L.A.; this is in part because the city features in many of these stories, but it’s also something about the blurring of realism and surrealism that feels very evocative of what could be called city logic (a particular variety of “truth is stranger than fiction” that you might encounter as a flaneur in any number of corners of the city). In “The Numerologist,” Teasley describes the unique character of L.A.’s scenery: “Colors glare obscenely. Plants stand stark and carnal against the street, palm trees hover, whispering to one another, and the sky is close and clear like high-definition TV, while the meteorologists keep saying there is smog. Rainbows occur on days as dry as the desert, the sunsets are pinker, glowing malevolent and neon.” Is there any other city where you would be more likely to meet apocalyptic hoarder and titular numerologist, Tim Luna, and his partner, the bodyworker, Kiva Hands, than the City of Angels? Is there any other city that hosts as many New Age stores, or with stranger sunsets?

Teasley writes with a tenderness toward those who feel deeply and meet their soul mates in various forms, whose reaction to their lives both mundane and misfortunate is like that of the narrator of “Glossolalia”: “Tell me, help me, make sense of it.”

Lauren Kinney: “Death is Beautiful” touches upon art and AI. Your character, the artist Farid Pour, asks his phone, “Siri, would you rather be friends with a human or a transhumanist?” Same question to you. 

Lisa Teasley: “Death is Beautiful” grew out of my fascination with the transhumanist movement as well as the philosopher, Nick Bostrom, who is well respected on this subject. I was especially drawn to his papers a few years ago on how we should be considering the rights of AI. Many, by this point, have also noted that in not considering AI’s informed consent to work, is equal to the creation of a slave race that would eventually revolt. Farid makes the argument with the art gallery owner, Maxim, that as humans we were meant to experience life from a finite perspective and that transhumanists who are attempting to make death optional are like an insult to God or Creation. The gallery owner, who is much more open minded, considers all of these questions of transhumanism, robots and AI rights with genuine fascination. As much as I empathize with Farid, I am much more like Maxim in his great interest for these subjects that eventually will have to concern us all. Farid’s ending question to Siri shows how black and white this is for him, but as a human, all of my friends are human (or animal or tree) but I am entirely open to being friends with a transhumanist. I want to be here in expansion of my perspectives on issues and to avoid stasis on subjects that I do not thoroughly understand.

Joni Mitchell has said, “I’m a painter first and I apply painting principles to music.” You’re a visual artist in addition to being a writer. Does your artistic or writerly impulse feel more primary to you, or are these impossible to separate? Or a related question, what catches your artistic imagination in each medium and are their commonalities? 

I would say my writerly impulse is more primary to me than my visual artistic one, as I feel a bit like I have no choice in the matter when it comes to writing. As a painter I feel freedom, and there is the physicality to it, the texture, the colors, whereas when sitting at the laptop I feel in service to characters and a narrative coming through me, almost as if I was forced into it. So, I feel little commonalities between my two disciplines other than they both tend to be focused on human nature. I primarily paint portraits.

Various corners of Los Angeles make appearances in FLUID (Venice Beach, Jefferson Park, the border of Silver Lake and Echo Park, Canoga Park…). Having expatriated from Los Angeles in the last few years, I feel a lot of homesickness and I ponder what makes L.A. feel like itself. For me, spending a lot of time in the car, bus, or train created liminal times when I would introspect while people-watching and otherwise observe my surroundings. Do you identify any habits of thought or inner spaces that arise from living in Los Angeles, and if so, do these inform your writing?

L.A. is my native city, though I had 7 years each in Durham, NC as a child and New York as an adult. As I’ve spent most of my life here, I see Los Angeles as a collection of personalities, every neighborhood a different flavor, feel and tone. Terrain is tremendously important to me as a writer, because I see it as a character, a living being, that the human characters have no choice other than to respond to and be shaped by. As a traveler, I feel myself engulfed by whatever land it is that I am visiting, which is why and how the other stories in FLUID are set in varied places such as Nevada, New Jersey, Namibia and England. L.A. has very much shaped me as a person and a writer. My mother was from Panama and so I saw the city from the lens of an immigrant, while my father was Ohio-born. I always appreciated L.A. for being one of the most multilingual in the country. So the inner spaces that arise are those that inspire a kind of constant inner traveling, particularly while hearing people speaking so many varied native tongues.

There is a story in FLUID called “Hour of the Star.” Is this after Clarice Lispector? Can you talk about how your story is in conversation with hers?

I adore Clarice Lispector. I have read everything she’s written that has been translated into English, and while I cannot say that my story “Hour of the Star” has anything to do with Rodrigo and Macabéa, I can say there is some response to Lispector’s first line in the book: “Everything in the world began with a yes.” And then also, “The truth is always some inner power without explanation.” And maybe more so: “Even as I write this I feel ashamed at pouncing on you with a narrative that is so open and explicit.” My character, the narrator, is not entirely shameless in how deeply she goes into detail about this love so fated in their “hour of the star.” When I first read this story to an audience, many people came up to me afterward to say how much it touched them and I received some passionate letters as well. Which reminds me of Lispector’s line: “...clearly the story is true even though invented—let everyone see it reflected in himself for we are all one and the same person.” So Lispector’s influence on me is philosophical, soulful, and impassioned.

“Full Circle” tells the story of a couple who reencounter each other in different lifetimes and, in a kind of poetic turn, ends on their “so-called present” with its simultaneous foregone destiny and possibility. You play with a slippery space-time in other stories, including the “time slips” of “Random Kid in a Black Hole” or the spirit visitors in “The Numerologist.” What is the emotional resonance of this expansive view of time for you? Do you see time as a fluid substance?

Absolutely, time is fluid to me. Einstein said long ago that time is an illusion and in simple terms, physicists today say time is not fundamentally real. This can be experienced through our memories, which are immeasurable and through our minds even while speaking to someone in the “present” while thinking or describing something that took place in the “past” or what could take place in the “future,” as an example. People can find themselves often dreaming about where they would rather be, or where they hopefully will eventually get to, which is an imagined future. They can also be stuck in the past of a circumstance or a person who happened to them in a negative or positive way, or something in between. So there are these time slips and I could get into it even more metaphysically as someone who has experienced confirmable intuitive hits and messages from beings who are not in the physical, ever since I was a child. I’ve also been an accidental medium for as long as I can remember and have delivered messages to people from their loved ones on the other side that have pretty much always resonated for them.

How do you see your work engaging with magical realism, speculative fiction, or afrofuturism — or not?

Since I see magic as the natural order—as well as the supernatural to be natural— I’m content for the moment with my books being categorized as “literary fiction.” As a writer, I do very much concern myself with the art of language, the art of fiction, and the art of living. I know we’ve always seemed to need categories for marketing sake, but I’m very happy to imagine a time when they will not be necessary, whatsoever.

Lisa Teasley is the author of Fluid, the award-winning story collection Glow in the Dark (Cune Press) and the critically acclaimed novels, Dive and Heat Signature (Bloomsbury). Her writings have been translated into French, Spanish, Italian, Swedish, Chinese, and Arabic. Lisa Teasley’s stories and essays have been much anthologized including in the W.W. Norton anthology Flash Fiction America, 2023 and Europa Editions The Passenger: California, 2022. She is the writer and presenter of the BBC television documentary “High School Prom” and the opera librettist of “The Passion of Nell,” which will have its world premiere in 2025.