Luke Rolfes: Mary Lynn Reed’s first book, a collection of stories called PHANTOM ADVANCES, is out from Split Lip Press, and I am excited to talk to her today about this wonderful and captivating project. Congratulations on your publication, and thanks so much for spending time with us, Mary Lynn!  
Let’s start things off with a wide look. PHANTOM ADVANCES is your debut collection of stories. How long has this book been in the making? Can you walk us through the genesis of this collection and how it came to fruition?  
Mary Lynn Reed: First, thank you so much for the opportunity to talk with you today about PHANTOM ADVANCES. It’s an honor for me, and I sincerely appreciate it. This book represents many years of effort, going back to the mid-aughts, when I first began writing fiction seriously and seeking publication for my short stories. Most of the stories in the book were originally drafted between 2005 and 2008. Some of them were published in literary journals right away and others were revised over the next decade or so before reaching their final form. I began focusing on the collection as a book project around 2017 and the manuscript took its final shape in 2021 when I did a thorough revision of the individual stories and wrote one additional story (“Leaving Boystown”) which fleshed out the backstory of the book’s finale (“Once in Florence, Alabama”). Together, those two stories helped the book find its narrative arc. 
LR: There is a camera on the cover of this book---a Pentax K-1000. As well, cameras and photography pop up quite a few times in the pages within, including an actual Pentax K-1000 in the wonderfully written title story. One could describe these fifteen stories as snapshots of people’s lives. Can you talk about the theme of photography and how it plays into the pieces inside this collection?  
MLR: As an amateur shutterbug, when I began writing short stories my protagonists were often found behind the lens of old film cameras. I never consciously thought about the camera as a literary device until it started to work that way in a few of my stories. The “phantom advances” of the title story are when the protagonist, Allie, presses the shutter release without any film in the camera. It was something I used to do, too, because film was expensive “back in the day.” It’s such a different experience now, taking digital photos on our smartphones, than it was with a 35mm camera on film. If you were on a tight budget (which I certainly was), every shot mattered. And even those “phantom advances” could burn a strong image in your mind. That theme comes up also in the story “The Beauty Inside” where one character tells another to be sure to see the glaciers with her eye, not just the lens, since photographs can’t completely capture the beauty of being there, in that moment in time. 
Fun fact: the Pentax K-1000 on the cover of the book is a picture of my actual camera which inspired several of the stories in the book! 
LR: Most of these stories are written in first person, and the protagonists are often young, queer folks who are on the hunt for love or companionship. What drew you to these narrators? What about this particular perspective appealed so much to your sensibilities as a writer?  
MLR: I suppose I’m drawn to love-seeking young, queer folks because I was one myself (not that long ago). The youngest protagonists in the book are growing up in the wilds of Florida, where I grew up myself. The twenty-somethings looking for love are often in the Midwest, and not so coincidentally, I spent most of my 20s in central Illinois. The stories in this book represent the topics and settings that most preoccupied my mind when I first began seriously writing short stories. Many started with a spark from my real life, but they are most definitely fiction (not memoir or creative non-fiction). 
LR: As a follow-up to that, it’s no secret that politicians and political commentators across the country are drawing battle lines around LGBTQIA+ issues and narratives, which, to me, ratchets up the urgency for these stories to be told. How much do you think about that when writing your stories? Do you sense an extra weight pressing down on these characters?  
MLR: I don’t think about politics when I write (and I’m grateful for that!). I write stories and characters that compel me and given my own queer/lesbian/somewhat-gender-nonconforming identity, the lived experience of queer people is often found in my work. Given the politically charged moment in LGBTQIA+ history, I do feel some pressure on my writing, I guess. In some circles, my book may be deemed “too queer” while in others, it may not be “queer enough” (or perhaps, not political enough). I suppose that divide is appropriate since I’ve spent much of my life balancing on that very same line. 
LR: Sexual desire is a driving force in many of these pieces, and you tap into this current of motivation incredibly well. Sometimes the act of sex affirms whatever the character is longing for. Sometimes the act of sex confuses them. Can you talk about the experiential nature of your characters and how they are often driven by physical desire?  
MLR: Yes, there’s a fair amount of sex, or at least, longing for sex, in this book. I think that goes with the youth of the narrators. They are coming to grips with not just their own identities but also the nature of their attractions. Experiencing infatuation for the first time is a powerful thing. When we’re young it can be all-consuming, and it is, for many of the characters in this book, certainly. 
LR: In that vein, many of the moments of physical desire/lust in this book happen quickly and without the narrator knowing they are about to happen. I’m thinking of “Angle Side Angle,” “Once in Florence, Alabama,” and “Sitting for Wanda.” What are your thoughts on unexpected moments of love/lust? Why do they make for such good stories?  
MLR: Again, I think some of this comes with the youth of the characters. I never thought of any of my characters as being “lustful." They are often infatuated with, attracted to, or having desire for someone. But lust has a singular connotation that I don’t identify with these characters. They are searching for a human connection; they are often longing to be seen, more than to be touched.  In “Angle Side Angle” and “Sitting for Wanda,” the characters are teenagers, grappling through the first round of their desire turning into physical action. For those characters, it’s not necessarily the quickness that surprises them but rather, their emotional responses (both positive and negative). The characters in “Once in Florence, Alabama” are a bit older, and what they experience is more emotionally mature, I think. In general, I’m interested in how attraction between two people moves from mental to physical. I don’t think a fast transition from desire to sex is necessary for a good story, though. Prolonged (or unfulfilled) desire is quite interesting, too, and there are a few stories in this book that hit those notes as well. 
LR: One of my favorite pieces in here is “Flares.” In it, Jess, grief-stricken after the loss of her mother, drinks heavily and is befriended by a neighbor named Lindsay. This story, unlike the others, seems to circle the idea of self-love and friendship. What prompted you to move from grief to friendship in this narrative?   
MLR:  The particular alchemy of how “Flares” was born involved conflating a glorious, beautiful place (San Diego County) with a character experiencing profound grief. I don’t think I knew the story was going to bend toward friendship (versus romantic love) when I started writing it, but something happened in the drafting process that showed me friendship was what this character needed, far more than a lover. From that, the story found its proper footing. I’m not a planner when it comes to drafting stories. I usually start with some kind of spark (a place or an experience) and a character’s voice. The rest happens rather organically as I write. 
LR: You have fascinating settings: a bowling alley, the breathtaking glaciers of the Canadian Rockies, a nudist ranch, etc. There is a significant push and pull between the rural landscapes of these stories and the cityscapes. Can you talk about setting in your writing? At what point in the process of creation does place come into play?  
MLR: Setting and place are enormously important in my writing. The first impulse for most of my stories centers on the place it occurs. I’ve lived in a lot of different places across the U.S., spanning rural, urban, and suburban. So far, it’s been the rural landscapes, particularly in central Florida, where I grew up, and a handful of American cities I know fairly well, that have called to me when I sit down to write fiction.  Other places I’ve visited, like Banff and the nearby glaciers, made a huge impression and thus, found their way into my stories. The thing I love about letting place guide my writing is that it’s like traveling in your mind. I’ve only been to Banff twice in real life, yet I feel like I’ve lived an entire lifetime there, having spent so many hours inside the world of that story. 
LR: Speaking of bowling alleys, another favorite of mine is “When Perfection is at Stake,” which features a woman trying to join the Ladies Professional Bowling Tour. I’ve often been intrigued by sports like bowling where the difference between a perfect score and a good score is so infinitesimally small---a bowling ball missing the mark by a single inch. What gave you the idea for this piece? Why did you decide to foil Jossa’s bid at a perfect game in her professional debut?  
MLR: I was a serious bowler myself when I was young but when I wrote this story, I hadn’t bowled in almost two decades. When you’ve spent an enormous number of hours doing something (like a sport, or making art), and you achieve a certain level of skill, there’s muscle memory knowledge that kicks in. I could still feel what it was like to bowl even though I wasn’t using that knowledge anymore, in a physical way. I started writing that story to try to experience that feeling of bowling really well again. The plot of the story came later, and Jossa’s falling short of perfection was much more in sync with the narrative (I thought) than if she’d actually bowled a perfect game. Falling just short of perfection is so much more character-building than just being perfect out of the gate, don’t you think? 
LR: I’m curious: Did one of these pieces come to you more easily than the rest? On the flip side, was there one story in here that you really had to wrestle with to get it exactly how you wanted?  
MLR: Great question! I’d say the one that came easiest was “The Gathering." I wrote the first draft of that story extremely fast, and the ending felt like a real gift from the writing Gods. I did some revision throughout but there was no struggle involved at all to get that one ‘right.’ On the other hand, there are several pieces in the book that took a lot of effort and reworking to find their final form. The three that readily spring to mind are: “Flares,” “Downtown,” and “Sitting for Wanda.” Each of these stories posed particular challenges. In “Flares” it was both the ending and the scene where Jess encounters the teenage boy (and his family) at the top of the mountain, overlooking the desert. For “Downtown” and “Sitting for Wanda” it was primarily the endings that took a long time to get right. But I really believed in all three of these stories and I refused to give up on them. That’s important, I think. Even when we aren’t satisfied with a story, if there’s something important to us in them, we must stick with them, until what’s needed is revealed. 
LR: What’s next for you and your work? Any new projects in mind?  
MLR:  Yes! I’ve been focusing on a literary fiction novel project this year which I’m very excited about. It’s called Singularities and I like to think of it as a “queer mathematical ghost story.” Fingers crossed that it’ll be widely available for reading in the not-so-distant future. :) I also have a transgender YA novel project in mind but that’s in an earlier draft stage at this point. 
LR: Thanks so much for taking the time to talk with us, Mary Lynn. Best of luck to you and your writing! ​​​​​​​
MLR: Thank you, Luke, and Laurel Review

Bio: Mary Lynn Reed's prose has appeared in Fourteen Hills, Mississippi Review, Colorado Review, Laurel Review, and many other places. Her debut short story collection, Phantom Advances, is available from Split/Lip Press. She has an MFA in Creative Writing from the University of Maryland. She lives in western New York with her wife, and together they co-edit the online literary journal MoonPark Review

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