The Third Person by Emily Anglin
Emily Anglin is the author of The Third Person, a collection of nine uncanny stories. This interview took place over email.
Catriona Wright: The characters in The Third Person struggle to maintain professional, personal, and even corporeal boundaries between themselves and others. Slippages between the public and the private, the society and the individual, the self and the other, the exterior and the interior animate the tensions in these stories. Based on my google searches (the easiest way to cross boundaries), I know that your doctoral thesis addressed these blurry distinctions, though in an early modern English context rather than in the present—or some version of the present—context of these stories. How did your ideas and research about the public vs. the private inform The Third Person?
Emily Anglin: Thanks for looking up my research! I like our online archives of past lives. The messiness of that layering is a much more human picture than the streamlined profiles we sometimes feel we should try to present online. My doctoral research was on the history of the early modern English university as a kind of protected public sphere for debate about authority, which was carefully watched and controlled by authority for that very reason. I think we see a related tension now, with the drive to conform to market pressures and customer service models at contemporary universities encroaching on a space that should be safe as a sphere for critiquing those same forces.
My dad was a professor and I grew up wandering the halls of the Brutalist building where he worked, and I spent a long time in school myself, and then working as part-time contract faculty before moving on. So university halls are a space loaded with personal and other meaning for me; I think for that reason some of these stories are about the overlapping circles of the university sphere and the private lives of the characters.
CW: I’m glad you brought up the private lives of the characters, because they are often quite opaque in this collection. In the story “Eidolon,” a former employer tells the narrator, “It’s like you’re here, but you’re not.” This description applies to most of the main characters. Even though their names and jobs are different, these women seem almost interchangeable, like disembodied brains who offer slightly skewed, and often hilariously deadpan, visions of the world. It’s also worth noting that despite being called The Third Person, this collection only features first-person narrators. Why did you choose to use these ghostly (or “unmoored”) first-person narrators throughout?
EA: I’ve always loved an unreliable narrator. In my reading, I really enjoy the slow realization that the intimacy of a first-person narrator is hiding rather than revealing the full picture. I’ve read too much Poe and Shirley Jackson, probably. I also love in Beckett how his narrators are sometimes brain-like, floating consciousnesses. I think a first-person narrator is the most compelling access point to a fictional world, but in my own writing I’m interested in that narrator being more vehicle than tenor.
I also tried to imply something about the narrators’ relationship to the defining contexts of their lives through their relative silence about it. I think the expectation of complete and genuine presence in some inauthentic contexts needs to be named and questioned more than it is. For instance, customer service exchanges between a lower-level worker serving someone with more power than them, or in the context like the passage from the story you mention. That was based on an actual experience of a manager I had at a call centre telling me I needed to be more present so that people would trust me. The emotionally shut-down narrators in these stories are trying to be present in their contexts, but as a result are only able to express a thin layer of person-ness, and that’s what the reader sees, though from the inside rather than the outside.
In my reading, I really enjoy the slow realization that the intimacy of a first-person narrator is hiding rather than revealing the full picture.
CW: I think it’s something anyone who has worked in customer service has had to deal with. Speaking of inside vs. outside, in these stories, buildings often act as manifestations of the characters’ psychological states or inner lives. I’m thinking of the Mind Institute in “Eilidh” with its “halls [that] look designed, not to cure the haunted mind […] but to confront it through imitation.” Do you think of the short story as a kind of building? How are architecture and story structure related?
EA: In “Eilidh,” I was trying to capture how Brutalist university buildings echo a worldview that created an earlier vision of the university that still stands, crumbling, kind of incongruously holding the new forms of work and thought that both aren’t and are in line with what the architecture is saying. I think that same kind of incongruity is what I hoped to convey in expressing the characters’ experience of work and other people: the disjuncture between the form of the containers that we are given for holding things (job titles, buildings, relationship categories like boss and employee, romantic partners, etc.) and the lack of fit between what actually happens and the size and shape of those containers.
Moving away from the university to a more personal place, I think I envisioned these stories working together kind of like an apartment building, with stacked lives unfolding simultaneously in parallel, while the characters are oblivious to each other in their adjacent stories. Apartments are interesting spaces because they’re often temporary, and borrowed, and sometimes doubly-borrowed, like in the story “Fortified Wine” where the narrator is apartment-sitting a space owned by a friend’s landlord. And in “Alden,” the narrator lives in a space owned by her employer, a Victorian mansion repurposed from its already suspect glory days to serve a shady new post-downturn reality. The temporariness of the space inhabited in the stories is also a reflection of the segmentation of the narrators’ lives by temporariness of their various relationships, with friends, partners, and employers. But the segmenting is as thin as the walls of an apartment building. During the time that I was revising these stories, the building I live in has been for sale, with people walking in and out, forgetting a purse, coming back for it, learning and maybe remembering our names or noticing a knick-knack or family photo, and I think that odd experience of interchange between public and private shows up in the stories.
CW: I love that image of a story collection as an apartment building. I felt shades of Ben Wheatley’s High Rise in your story “Anya’s Painting.” Speaking of film, in Johanna Skibsrud’s blurb for the The Third Person, she mentions Hitchcock’s Rear Window, and I think I detected some traces of Villeneuve’s Enemy, Kaufman’s Being John Malkovich, and Lanthimos’ The Lobster. How has film influenced your writing?
EA: I watched a ton of movies while working on these stories, including Lanthimos’s The Lobster and Dogtooth. And Enemy, which I love, because of the amazing play with expectations for scale with the reappearing spider imagery (and the doppelganger motif, and the Brutalist architecture!). I’ve had an eye ailment for the past few years which has reduced the amount of time I can spend reading physical books, but movies I can manage more easily, so I think the volume of them that I’ve taken in definitely had a huge influence on the development of these stories.
So much of our culture is focused on keeping things apart, trying to keep terms and ideas stable and discrete, when it’s so much more exciting to say, I was wrong about what I said or thought.
The relationship between Vertigo and Mullholland Drive was on my mind while writing these stories, and the two movies’ use of doubling, especially through the characters’ hair colour. I’ve watched Vertigo a few times since it was named the best movie ever by Sight and Sound, trying to sort out what I think of it. It’s about and also is the male gaze, and worse. But I can never get over the scene when blond Madeleine first appears in her new disguised identity as red-haired Judy, which I think takes on a new meaning for viewers who have seen the movie many times. Visually that’s such an arresting scene, the way her hair kind of glows and she’s freed from the grey suit/white-blond Hitchcock constraint. The scene almost unwittingly undoes the later, incredibly disturbing scene where Scottie forces Judy to dress up as Madeleine. I tried to work with and reinterpret aspects of those scenes a bit in the story “Fortified Wine,” which shows a character being layered with meanings imposed by different people that show up visibly on her, including in her changing hair colour, but which she uses to disorient the observers around her.
CW: I have the same fraught feelings about Vertigo, a movie I adored as a teenager but became very suspicious of later in life. In the story you mention (“Fortified Wine”), everyone keeps giving Cheri, one of the main characters, sherry to drink “because it’s pronounced the same.” Wordplay, puns, and etymological riffs appear throughout the collection. How do names free or confine your characters?
EA: My sister Ellie and I are almost twin-like and have a bit of a secret language based on lots of wordplay. I’ve noticed it shows up in her visual art, and I think it shows up in my writing, too. I think I hoped that the repetition throughout the stories—similar characters under different names, similar buildings showing up in different contexts, the same things (wine, especially) playing a prominent role in each story—would make the stories continuous, but through signs and words rather than plot or character. I always liked Gertrude Stein’s line in Tender Buttons, “the difference is spreading.” So much of our culture is focused on keeping things apart, trying to keep terms and ideas stable and discrete, when it’s so much more exciting to say, I was wrong about what I said or thought. Quitting can be so powerful; leaving a situation, an idea, admitting “I was wrong.” I wanted the power of that moment of realizing, this isn’t true anymore, or this isn’t my narrative anymore, to be embodied in small ways. Mainly through moments when words start clearly causing rather than just describing things, like the sherry for Cheri or the person acting out their job description.
CW: I finished The Third Person very quickly (and then re-read several stories), and I want to read more of your writing soon. What are you working on now?
EA: I’m working on a couple of projects. One of them is a novella called Remembering How to Talk about a multi-generational family living together on an eroding ravine in a 1950s bungalow. Each of them has just hit a turning point in their lives—a lost job, a change in health, a divorce—and it’s about them holding each other back by helping each other, and vice versa. I’ve also been working on a mystery called Jupiter and Io over the last few years, about a pair of women who realize after one reads the other’s email that their lives are entangled in unexpected ways.