Of late, the combination of anti-LGBTQ and anti-book bills coming out of the Iowa legislature has had me thinking about my 2020 conversation with Andrea Lawlor about their astonishing novel, Paul Takes the Form of a Mortal Girl. The book and the author are steeped in Iowa-ness—or at least the kind of Iowa-ness I believe in. Here’s that interview.
Andrea Lawlor and I spoke by phone a few hours before it was announced that the University of Iowa alum had garnered the prestigious Whiting Award, given annually to ten emerging writers, along with a $50,000 prize. It’s a big deal anytime, of course, but it had a bit of extra weight, perhaps, in that moment of social distancing.
“It’s such an honor to be recognized in this cohort,” Lawlor said from home in western Massachusetts. “The writers who are also getting awards this year are just phenomenal writers and heroes of mine, and the writers who have been Whiting Award recipients in the past are really some of my favorite writers on the planet. So it’s incredibly encouraging to me to have this vote of confidence in my writing and my work and the support for making more work in such an uncertain time.”
Lawlor and I, it turns out, were English majors at the University of Iowa around the same time in the early 1990s. I discovered this when I asked when the writer was in the Iowa Writers’ Workshop.
“I never went to the Workshop. Ha ha! I was an undergrad! . . . I absolutely was one of those undergraduate English majors who was walking around the halls of EPB just being like, ‘Eh, creative writing. MFA programs are so bourgeois.’ I’ve gotten my comeuppance. I now have two graduate creative writing degrees, so I have to hang my head about that.”
Early 1990s Iowa City is the setting for much of Paul Takes the Form of a Mortal Girl, a rollicking novel in which the titular character is a shapeshifter with a voracious sexual appetite and a taste for adventure. It’s an original and thrilling book in which Lawlor takes any number of narrative risks, and each and every one lands as if the author were an especially skilled magician or trapeze artist who can make the audience gasp in a way that starts as shock and ends as delight.
Lawlor’s time in Iowa City involved a huge number of jobs and a wide social circle that encompassed much of the writing scene. “I was a bartender at the 620 Club, and from being a bartender, I just knew tons of writers, and I met a lot of writers who were in the Workshop and a lot of writers who weren’t in the Workshop. I was good friends with Tayari Jones, who was not in the Workshop—she was an English graduate student—and now she’s everywhere.
“So there were a lot of friends of mine who were writers and I made those kinds of connections socially, and I stayed in touch with a lot of people. And that’s been amazing for me. Watching the careers of old friends like Alex Chee or Emily Barton or Rebecca Wolff, that’s been really cool. So I feel like I benefited from going to college in the town with the Workshop. I went to readings all the time. I used to go to Open Mic at The Mill every time. I was into it.”
Through Lawlor’s writing, 1990s Iowa City certainly sprang back into existence for me, and Paul occupies the space with a blend of angst and panache. As the character came into his own, the book’s various settings, including Iowa City, were extremely important to the author.
“As I let the autobiographical piece fade away or become less important, I was still always going, like, ‘What would the options be for this person in this moment in time?’ The relationship between setting and character is sacrosanct for me.”
Speaking of moments, Lawlor mentioned early in our conversation the ways in which the Covid health crisis intruded on thoughts and work. “I’m having a really hard time concentrating on anything—writing a sentence, reading,” the author said. Lawlor had been reading Severance, a novel by Ling Ma, another of 2020’s Whiting winners.
“It’s phenomenal and I’m obsessed with her writing and it’s also really difficult,” Lawlor said of the book, which features a fever-based zombie plague. “It’s a little much for right now.”
Still, Lawlor was interested in how Ling Ma’s work—and Lawlor’s own—interact with the present. “Writers who are speculating about the near future can be so prescient. It makes sense to me that she’s another one of the winners this year because I think she’s doing the thing that the best science fiction writers and social realist writers do, which is sort of extrapolate. What would happen if this happened? And one of the things that’s strange about writing, or even thinking about writing, in this historical moment is just that it’s beyond anybody’s extrapolations.”
Lawlor’s thinking about an ongoing project centered on a near-future, queer, anarchic, utopian society was fluid as well. “Every minute, my thinking about that project is changing because I’m seeing what people are doing in real life—the kind of mutual aid that’s springing up and the ways that people are taking care of each other. . . I do think another world is possible, a better world, so hopefully the things that we’re seeing right now can replace some of the predatory structures that already exist.”
As Lawlor dreamed of a better world, they remained committed to some core principals and audiences, even as their work was about to reach a broader audience as a result of the Whiting Award.
“What’s important to me is to write what I know to be true about the world in whatever way I can get it out there. And then, if it’s interesting to people, awesome. It’s most interesting to me to write something that queer and trans readers respond to, but then what’s been amazing is getting response from readers and reviewers who wouldn’t identify themselves as queer or trans who are like, ‘Oh, I identify with this’ or ‘I find something in that.’ . . . To me, that flicker of recognition that you get when somebody writes a thing that you haven’t necessarily seen in wide, mainstream cultural representations, that’s important to me.”
Lawlor was, of course, pleased to receive the money that comes with a Whiting Award because it provides increased security and opens up time to write. But the money wasn’t the most important thing.
“Even more important than the financial support is the feeling of encouragement and validation. It’s like a ‘keep going,’ kind of a feeling for me,” Lawlor said. “As someone who has really struggled with a lot of insecurity about whether or not I had something to say or whether anyone would want to read anything I had to say, this feels life changing. . . . It’s so moving and heartening and it’s an amazing thing to be happening right now in a disheartening time.”