While I was reading Marisa Crane’s elegant debut novel, I Keep My Exoskeletons to Myself, I thought a lot about how much of ourselves we hide from other people. In Marisa’s speculative near future, punishment is a constant public spectacle, surveillance is everywhere, and those deemed wrongdoers by a totalitarian U.S. government are given multiple permanent shadows so that their perceived crimes follow them everywhere. Narrated in first person by Kris, who has a second shadow and is a single parent to a new infant (who also has a second shadow) following the death of her wife, the novel stands out in its poetic reporting on the everyday experience of living under incessant observation and enforcement.
Over email, Marisa and I discussed point of view, dystopian fiction, tinkering with sentences, and the connection between writing and playing sports.
This interview has been slightly edited and condensed for clarity.
I Keep My Exoskeletons to Myself isn’t an epistolary novel in the traditional sense, but your first-person narrator, Kris, directly addresses their deceased partner, Beau, for most of the novel’s duration. Can you talk about writing from this perspective? What opportunities and challenges did you find in this style of narration?
I tend to be drawn to this POV, first-person direct address, for its intimacy—what could be more intimate than speaking directly to your beloved, no matter the audience? I like to think of it as a love letter through time. As a private conversation turned public, one in which the reader gets to voyeuristically peer in on. I’m a nosy person, and I often assume the same of other people, so in some ways, I think it can satisfy that desire for the reader.
Moreover, this form fills a need for Kris. When Beau dies, she feels all alone, and desperate, with no one to confide in or talk to. It made sense to me that her grief would manifest in such a way. Plus, Kris’ life continues to go on, and in lieu of Beau being there to witness it, she wants to tell her every little thing, including who their baby is, who she’s becoming. If I don’t see my toddler for a day, I ask my wife to tell me every minute, tragically dull part of his day, just so I can feel like I was there—that’s what I imagine Kris doing for Beau.
Also, on a practical level, this POV allowed me to control what I disclose to the reader and when, such as how Kris got her extra shadow, considering she’s talking to Beau, who of course knows the story already. In the same breath, an ongoing challenge with this form is balancing the disclosure of information to the reader with a believable address to Beau. Beau knows almost everything there is to know about Kris—during editing, I spent a lot of time removing things Kris wouldn’t have felt the need to say to Beau, given that Beau already knows. One of the ways around that dilemma was framing a lot of the flashbacks as a sort of “remember when,” an opportunity for Kris to reminisce with a deceased Beau.
One of the central emotions of this novel is grief, but filtered through a dystopian setting where people are recorded at all times, publicly shamed for breaking fascist laws, and permanently marked with extra shadows. How did you come up with the central concept of multiple shadows for this novel? What was it like for you to write a speculative American landscape that in many ways resembles our current political climate? And, in what ways did writing in this genre help you connect to themes of parenting, political violence, shame, and control?
The central concept of multiple shadows came to me over a period of years. Back in 2013 or something, I shared a snippet I wrote on Instagram. I’ve since lost the draft to the hole of the internet but it went something like this: “If the shadows of everyone you’ve ever hurt followed you around day in and day out, would you be so reckless with people’s hearts?” I’d written it to shame myself for those I’d hurt in the past. A form of self-flagellation, if you will. And for some ridiculous reason, I actually thought shaming myself would work. What I didn’t realize was that my life already reflected the essence of this poem. Maybe literal shadows weren’t following me around, but my brain never let me forget those I’d hurt. Self-forgiveness wasn’t an option for me. I was convinced I needed to serve my penance.
Several years later, the first line of the novel came to me: “The kid is born with two shadows.” It sort of just followed me around for a while, tugging at me, begging for attention. And eventually, I connected it to the shaming poem and the idea sort of grew from there. I wanted a place to process our society’s harmful relationship to shame and punishment, the very attitude that had made me write that snippet in the first place.
Shame is one of my favorite things to write about because I can’t think of a more powerful emotion, at least for me. Shame makes us view ourselves, the very core of who we are, in a negative light. It follows us around, stuck to us like a shadow. When approaching Kris’s character, as well as the other people that populate her world, I thought about the far-reaching consequences of shame, how it can keep people passive, afraid, and avoidant, how it is the very antithesis of growth and healing.
For me, writing speculative fiction always creates a necessary distance from our world that actually allows me to dig deeper and access more difficult and complicated emotions, fears, and behaviors than if I were writing realism. Because of the distance, I can then close the gap and get even closer to the thing, if that makes sense. The notion of parenting has always been terrifying for me, and I wrote the first few drafts of this novel before I became a parent myself—in the very definition of the word, I was writing speculative fiction related to what it might be like to raise a child in a corrupt, oppressive, and violent setting. And I think without the distance speculative fiction grants me, I would have shied away from some of the more difficult themes and conversations related to parenting, many of which mirror my own fears and challenges.
I don’t want to spoil any of the novel, but there’s one character, Siegfried, whose arc stood out to me more than most books in recent memory. With his character in mind, can you explain how you develop complexity in the people you imagine? And, perhaps related to the above questions, does imagining a speculative near future help with that process?
When populating the world of this novel, it was important to me to create flawed, lovable, complicated characters who all had things in their past they were ashamed of, whether they were a Shadester or not. And with Siegfried, in particular, I knew I wanted to explore complex ethical questions related to blame and personal responsibility vs. societal responsibility. I wanted to spend time in the gray areas of questions that may not have actual answers, especially without contextualizing them against the greater political landscape and systemic factors that influence people’s lives. And I wanted to see Kris struggle with these questions and how they might change or not change her view of her friend.
As for complexity, I like to give characters histories that aren’t so palatable. And have that history be at odds with how they are received by others in the present tense. Like Siegfried, Kris and the kid just adore him, and for good reason—he’s a sweet, tender, funny person. Upon meeting him, Kris automatically assumes his extra shadow is bullshit and that he didn’t deserve it, whatever that word “deserve” means anyway. And I think, in part, this is because Kris, like so many people, feels the need to separate people into “good” and “bad” categories. So when these categories get disrupted or blurred, she must reconcile her experience with her friend and what she learns about her friend.
There’s much more I’d like to say about Siegfried, but I think it might ruin his arc so I’ll end it there.
In whole, the novel is structured in three parts, but these are made up on hundreds of smaller sections divided by ornamental dividers, so that many sections are a brief scene, short paragraph, or even a single sentence, as well as pop quizzes and word searches. How were you thinking about those divisions? At what point did you decide on the novel’s architecture?
I never really decided on the novel’s architecture, to be honest. I’ve always been drawn to fragments and white space on the page, maybe because I started out as a poet. The meandering, associative style of fragments also mimics how I think, as well as how I imagine Kris thinks, especially as she grieves. In my experience, grief has a fragmentary nature to it. Memories come back to me in small flashes. Sometimes they aren’t even whole memories—they’re just scenes or images. Or something that person once said, though I can’t place the time or context.
As for the pop quizzes, word searches, and the like, those came really early on in drafting as well. They felt like the most natural but also playful way to challenge Kris and interrogate her way of thinking about the world and herself. Much like speculative fiction, experimentation gives me the distance to examine complicated, painful things in a way that I think can feel more accessible and engaging for the audience.
I say all that to say that my default mode of writing is always to find a way to play and experiment, even when, or especially when, the themes are heavy and emotionally devastating.
When I read this novel, I thought about an idea Garth Greenwell poses in his critical writing about Raven Leilani’s Luster: “it’s not the artist’s job to be conscious, to have explicit awareness of patterns of syntax or diction; the artist’s job is merely—merely!—to write and rewrite, to tinker and fidget and be generally and insufferably obsessive, until the thing they are making feels right.” One thing that has always stood out to me about your writing is how much rhythm and emotion you seamlessly develop on the sentence level. Are you conscious of that when you’re writing? What tinkering goes into the sharpness of your sentences?
I loved that essay by Garth! And thank you, seriously, for this huge compliment. I am very conscious of rhythm when I’m writing, and I think that’s connected to my roots in poetry but also in basketball (another interviewer posed a question about the connection between rhythm and basketball that I haven’t been able to stop thinking about!). When writing poetry, every word is vitally important, of course, but it’s not just word choice—it’s a marriage of rhythm, delivery, breath, and surprise. And I think I just carry that over into my fiction and nonfiction work, though most of the tinkering happens in revision. I write my first drafts fairly quickly just to get the idea, emotion, and shape down, and then in subsequent drafts, I interrogate every word, and try to find new ways to bring life to a line, even if that means inserting punctuation where you might not expect to find it or using a word in a surprising way. (I have a particular affinity for “verbing” nouns).
At Tin House several years ago, T Kira Madden also taught us about what Charles Baxter calls “rhyming action” or “echo-effects,” repeated images, objects, scents, colors, gestures, etc. that highlight or enhance the theme in a subtle way, barely perceptible to the audience. T Kira encouraged us to track rhyming action in a piece during revision. Often, we inadvertently use repetition without even realizing it. And our job during revision is to use the rhyming action in a very deliberate way to create a sense of cohesion and even readerly satisfaction. Ever since, I’ve committed to this revision practice, which guides me when I’m tinkering. Like, if I realize I’ve been using water imagery (which I use in my novel), then I’ll be sure to insert it subtly into places that I may not have otherwise thought to.
To quote your Twitter bio, you’re part of the “jock to writer pipeline.” I’d love to hear about how being an athlete influences your writing process.
For the longest time, I internalized the idea that sports and writing were at odds with one another, especially because I felt like “intellectuals” considered sports to be low-brow (which, come on, we all know how problematic that phrasing is). As such, it took me many years to come around to the idea of letting my athletic experience inform my writing process whatsoever. I viewed the two as separate, impenetrable entities, which is a shame, because I also spent a lot of time thinking sports weren’t a worthy theme for my work, and I’m only now giving a big middle finger to that falsehood.
Your question about how my experience as an athlete influences my writing process—I’ve been thinking about that a lot over the past year or so, and I think, for better, for worse, elite sports have prepared me for the rigor of writing, for the everyday commitment that no one sees, the drive to return to the page even when I don’t feel like it. Sports, which are basically a master class in being screamed at, torn down, and criticized, have also prepared me to deal with mass amounts of rejection. When I was in high school, I wrote countless letters to the best of the best college teams explaining why I’d be a great fit for their team, including a copy of my AAU schedule for that year, highlighting my strengths, etc. I’m talking, UConn, Notre Dame, Duke, UNC, Stanford. No one ever responded. And while that may not be the same as a direct rejection, it still stings all the same. And you have to find a way to keep going regardless. I knew I was delusional—and maybe that’s it too, sports taught me to carry that same delusional ambition over to writing, no publisher is too big, no ambition is too lofty. I don’t know, I’m sure I’ll find new connections between basketball and writing as time goes on.
In a game of pick-up basketball, you’re team captain, you can pick any writers you want, living or dead, who’s on your squad?
Okay, okay, so the first two people I thought of are Ross Gay and Hanif Abdurraqib, both for their intense love for the game, because that love shines through when you’re playing, and it’s beautiful to witness. I am thinking about Gay’s essay, Have I Even Told You Yet About the Courts I’ve Loved? and Abdurraqib’s Paris Review column, Notes on Hoops, which includes some of the most moving essays about basketball (and life) I’ve ever read.
Then, my mind went to Jean Kyoung Frazier, who I’m fortunate enough to call a friend and a fellow basketball lover. The first time we ever spoke, we talked on the phone about basketball for like an hour or something, so that was cool.
In thinking about the height of our squad, Ross seems pretty tall, but I do know that Hanif is like 5 ft. 6 in., based on some tweet of his a while ago about how people have said he has tall energy. I’m only 5 ft. 4 in., and Jean doesn’t seem overly tall, so we are looking at a pretty small line-up right now. As such, I cheated and Googled who are the tallest writers and discovered that Michael Crichton was 6 ft. 9 in.?! So, he’s my center. Who wants to take us?
I Keep My Exoskeletons To Myself
By Marisa Crane
Published January 17, 2023
Aram Mrjoian is a visiting assistant professor in creative writing at Pacific Lutheran University, an editor-at-large at the Chicago Review of Books, an associate fiction editor at Guernica, and a 2022 Creative Armenia - AGBU Fellow. His writing has appeared or is forthcoming in Catapult, Electric Literature, West Branch, Boulevard, Gulf Coast online, The Rumpus, The Millions, Longreads, and many other publications. Find his work at arammrjoian.com