Mary Grimm talks mother-daughter relationships, ghost stories, and flash fiction with managing editor Lauren Furman.  

Mary Grimm has had two books published, Left to Themselves (novel) and Stealing Time (story collection). Her stories have appeared in The New Yorker, Antioch Review, and the Mississippi Review, as well as in a number of journals that publish flash fiction, including Helen, The Citron Review, and Tiferet. Her book of short stories, Transubstantiation, is forthcoming in Fall, 2024. Currently, she is working on a series of climate change novellas set in past and future Cleveland.

Lauren Furman: Hi Mary! Thanks for taking the time to talk with me today. “Ghost Heart” is your new short story that appeared in the Spring 2024 issue of the Colorado Review, and I thought it was wonderful, so I wanted to talk to you more about it. To start, can you tell me how the story came about and what your writing process looked like? 

Mary Grimm: Yes, I can! Originally this was meant to be a short story, and then as I was writing it, I thought maybe it would be a novel, and I still think it might. There’s a good deal more of it than is in the short-story version that appeared in Colorado Review. But the initial urge I had to write was that I had again read Doris Lessing’s Memoirs of a Survivor, which is maybe a lesser-known novel of hers. It’s a little bit magical realism, a little bit political, and she wrote it in the seventies after she had been involved in counterculture movements and the Aldermaston marches that were against nuclear power. I had read that book again because I was teaching it, and it’s a book that had a big impact on me and I thought maybe I would like to do something like that. The thing that interested me most about it was the fact that the main character, a woman who lives alone, has a child left with her. What happens in Lessing’s story is very different from my story, and I don’t want to make any claims about being the writer that Lessing is of course, but that was the impetus for “Ghost Heart.” When I started writing it I wanted it to be more contemporary than Lessing’s story, I didn’t want to go way back, but then I found as I was writing that Marlene, the main character, was telling it from a present, which is more or less our present, but looking back on some twenty or twenty-five years. So, I still found it stuck in the past—not Lessing’s past, but my past. 

LF: That’s so interesting to know that it came from the seed of a different book and turned into its own thing, and also exciting to know that there might be a novel in play at some point!   

MG: I’m really hoping that there will be.  

LF: I think I speak for most of our readers when I say we’re hoping as well; that would be great. In my reading, the heart of the story hinged on interrogating the relationships between women, specifically mother-daughter relationships. It was just so interesting to me how this narrator, Marlene, has very little experience either being a daughter or a mother, and over the course of the story she comes into this motherly role for Jancy. It felt both organic and revolutionary based on her character. Could you talk a little bit more about her as a character and how you developed that relationship on the page?  

MG: In a lot of ways, Marlene is both like me and not like me. I’m a much more settled and ordinary person than Marlene is, but though I had children—I have two daughters—I wasn’t one of those girls or women who was always thinking that they were going to get married and have a family. It wasn’t that I had anything against it, I just hadn’t thought about it as happening to me. And when it did it was a little bit of a shock, and I think that even the women who are looking forward to it and maybe plan for it find there’s no way you can actually plan for it. Any of the plans you do make are going to be to some degree undone because children and life are unpredictable. So that was a part of what I wanted to bring out in Marlene—the uncertainty of motherhood. Hers is an extreme case, because she doesn’t even bear this child, instead Jancy is unexpectedly left with her. I wanted that uncertainty of motherhood to be played out in Marlene in this more extreme way to explore how difficult it is to become the main protector of this vulnerable person. I think that was what really interested me. And I also found it interesting to make Marlene this marginal person; somebody who, as you say, had not much experience being a mother or a daughter—none being a mother, not much being a daughter. The person she was closest to was her grandmother, which doesn’t play out much in this part of the story, it’s explored a little later, but her grandmother doesn’t come into her life until she is already a teenager, so she doesn’t have this experience that most of us do of having our socialization make us into this mature and hopefully responsible person. She has no concept of that. So when it becomes obvious she has to do that, she doesn’t handle it very well at first. I found it interesting to explore how somebody who was basically a good person but not fitted for this role would deal with it. 

LF: That’s really interesting, and the next question I want to ask you is about that unpreparedness, because I feel like Marlene achieves a conventional life through unconventional means—she becomes part of this family unit, but she doesn’t take the traditional path, as you said, through marriage and planning for children. It really is just thrust upon her, and so much of her internal dialogue contemplates the double-edged sword of attachment, where it is both a gift and a burden. The line that stood out to me was when she was talking about her relationship with Gerard and how in the beginning, she wanted it to be free and fun, but then by the end, she admits, “I wanted a sense of something constant. I wanted to know that if I put out my hand, there would be someone whose touch I knew.” That broke my heart and made me wonder how you developed Jancy and their particular relationship on the page to be that constancy for Marlene.  

MG: That’s an interesting question, and it’s not something I really thought about, so I’m probably going to be making this up as I go along. This is not something I thought when I was writing it, but now I think that Marlene comes to see, consciously as subconsciously, that Jancy is like herself—somebody who has been abandoned, somebody who has not had a conventional family or nurturing. Marlene doesn’t see Jancy that way in the first place, just because she doesn’t see Jancy at first. She keeps expecting that Jancy will be gone. And Marlene has made herself into a person who doesn’t expect a constancy of relationships. She wants it, but she can only imagine it in the sort of relationship she has with Gerard, which to most people, most women, would be a very unsatisfactory relationship because he’s kind of an asshole. Not kind of, he is an asshole. He’s not very nice. But for Marlene, that relationship partially satisfies what she thinks she wants or needs. And then when Jancy comes and worms her way into Marlene’s life, it’s not on purpose, since Jancy is a survivor child, somebody who has had to learn to rely on herself. She doesn’t ask for very much. There are two times when Jancy asks Marlene a question in the story.  The first time, Marlene thinks Jancy is going to ask about Anita, Jancy’s mother, and Marlene is terrified because she has no idea what to say, but then it turns out that Jancy wants to know about going to school, and Marlene is so relieved that she handles the going to school thing, which you could see maybe as the beginning of her mothering Jancy. The second time Jancy asks a question, in the mall, Marlene thinks she is going to ask for more money, that she wants to buy more glittery barrettes, but this time Jancy asks about her mother. Both times, Marlene is not prepared, but the second time—and I really am making this up, interpreting my own story—the second time her answers to Jancy’s questions about Anita are more motherly. She tries to be honest but to soften it for Jancy so it’s not so shocking. So, in between those two questions, the two times Jancy expresses a need, Marleen has changed. She has started to become the person who could be a mother figure for Jancy. And then there’s the final event, where Jancy is bullied and does not ask for anything, in fact she tries to take care of it herself, but this time Marlene is ready. She’s terrified, but she manages to do what a mother would do in those circumstances. 

LF: I think the development between those events is so striking, and one of the things I noticed about Marlene’s character is that she tends to react instead of take action. So with the questions she’s reacting, but in the final situation, she steps up and takes action even though Jancy doesn’t ask her to. The character development is so clear, even in a short piece like this. So anyway, I thought that was a great answer, even if you didn’t feel prepared.   

MG: I tend not to think so much about my stories when I’m writing them. I think about what’s going to happen, what the next thing should be, the setting, and all those things, but I don’t tend to think about the deeper meanings when I’m writing   

LF: It just comes naturally!  

MG: When things are going well, it comes naturally.  

LF: To pivot a little bit, and maybe this is something you address in the larger story, I was very intrigued by the setting of the house that Marlene has inherited from her grandmother and the way it functions both as a way for people to come together but also a way for Marlene to keep her distance from the world by filling it with these strangers. I’m curious how the setting came about, and what it was like juggling that place with the characters developing inside it.   

MG: I’ve always liked old houses, and I live in an old house, although not a giant house like that, but I like houses that have a history. So it was a pleasure to create this house. I get very attached to the settings of the stories I write; I can imagine them as if I have walked in them and lived in them, as much as places I have actually lived or been. That was part of it—this idea of an old house that has history. But also the idea of a house where all of these people are living. I have never lived in a commune but I am from that era. I’ve always been fascinated, although I don’t think I would have liked to live in a commune because I would have been pretty annoyed with people who didn’t pick up their socks or do their dishes or who made too much noise. I like to be alone a lot, so I probably would not have liked it. But the idea of a commune was always interesting to me, the idea of people who had come together with some philosophical idea or maybe just out of convenience. I’ve actually written another story that has a farm commune, so obviously it’s something on my mind—but there’s something about people who are not related who would come together and would have this artificial family that would sometimes be wonderful or sometimes be convenient. This particular one, Marlene’s, is about convenience in the beginning. It doesn’t have much to do with love or attachment or community, but Jancy coming begins to change that. One of the people who comes to live in the house after Jancy has been there for a while is Micky, Marlene’s cousin, and he becomes a more important character as the novel goes on, and Marlene becomes more nurturing toward him. There are also the brothers, who she maintains a relationship with in the longer novel. And Marlene gets rid of Gerard, who is the festering sore. I had so much fun writing Gerard, and he comes back later and does some annoying things. There’s something fun to me about writing about difficult or annoying people, which probably says something deeply unpleasant about my subconscious. But Jancy’s arrival changes the house from a group of misfit people into something closer and more familial.   

LF: Absolutely, I can see that. And that’s great that you talk about enjoying writing Gerard because it also makes for an enjoyable read when you have that tension and that kind of character. And Marlene is letting him string her along and the house is such close quarters too, it’s so different living with someone versus just dating them. It all comes together beautifully in the setting of the house and I appreciated that.   

MG: Thank you!  

LF: The title, “Ghost Heart,” made me think that although this is literary fiction it might also be a kind of ghost story. Between the house, Marlene’s unfulfilled desires, and Anita’s absence, it does feel like some specters are on the page. Can you talk about how you chose and title, and also the role of that haunting or quasi-haunting when you put the piece together?  

MG: About the title, I honestly don’t even know. The longer piece had a working title that I knew would not be the final title, which was “Memoirs” because of that original impetus from Doris Lessing’s book. It was kind of a dumb title, except in the sense that Marlene is looking back with this memoiristic aspect to her narration. But I never liked it as a title. And where “Ghost Heart” came from I really don’t know, I feel so lucky that I thought of it. When I came up with it, I was just doodling titles and those two words came together and I thought “That’s interesting, I think that’s it.” A lot of times when I title something one of two things happens—I often come up with a title I really really like, and I will keep it in an ideas file and perhaps eventually find a story I have written that fits that title. And the other way is that my sister comes up with the title for me, because my sister is a poet and she’s good with that kind of thing. But this one I came up with all on my own!   

LF: Okay, good work, reserve the poets for another day.  

MG: But that idea of the haunting, I like what you said about that. I think of the ghost heart as being Marlene’s heart in a way, that her heart was insubstantial or starved or not fully living and that Jancy’s coming changes her. But that idea of the hauntings is interesting because Anita haunts this story because of her significant absence.   

LF: Yeah, and I think Marlene is very reluctant to step into the mother role because she says explicitly she doesn’t want to try to be Anita. So in a way, Anita’s absence becomes more of a barrier than her presence, which was interesting to me. I’ll be curious to see how that comes around in the longer work. One of the other parts I loved about this piece, which sits a little differently now that I know it’s a longer piece, is the ending. I thought it was striking because it happens at the point of breakthrough for Marlene and Jancy, but Marlene also tells us “It made no difference in how we lived our lives, except that I now felt love and pain I hadn’t before. That I didn’t know what to do with.” That is our final note, and it’s both honest and a little bit unsettling, making us nervous about what might come for these characters. It turns that expectation of their new relationship on its head. I’m curious how you chose this as the ending point, and how you approach writing endings in general, since it’s such a tricky business.  

MG: It’s horrible! I’m envious of writers who know what the ending is going to be when they start writing.  

LF: Me too. 

MG: There is no way, I have never known that. I think it must be comforting to write toward that. But on the other hand, I feel that if I knew the ending some of the pleasure I find in writing would be absent for me, because I like how a story can unfold in ways that I had not at all expected. If I knew the ending I don’t think that could happen. But this ending was the end of a chronological section, and then there’s a skip in time that comes after this to when Jancy is a teenager. There will be different issues going on—Gerard comes back, and the problem of Anita rears its head in a number of ways. But I guess if I think about this as a story in and of itself, it’s important for the ending of this story, separate from the larger work, to bring some kind of resolution to the main issue of the story which is the relationship between Jancy and Marlene, and also some resolution to Marlene’s view of herself as a certain kind of person. Both of those things change over the course of the story and they change parallel to each other and then come together at this point where Jancy has been injured. So the ending event-wise makes sense. What Marlene says at the end, now that I think about it, I’m not sure that it’s true, that things in their lives went on as they had before, though maybe Marlene thinks that. Here I am trying to interpret my story again. I think the important part of that last bit for me is this awakening of pain. We don’t welcome pain, we don’t want pain, and Marlene has been damaged in the past. Even though at this point we don’t know too much about what her childhood was like, we know it was unsatisfactory. So she has felt pain but has chosen to insulate herself from pain for a long time. So this, if not the welcoming of pain, but admitting and allowing of pain in response to what has happened and in her relationship with Jancy, is an important step for Marlene to take both as a person and as Jancy’s “mother.” 

LF: Yeah. I loved the ending since it didn’t wrap things up too neatly, but as you said, it did bring together those threads. I’m always curious to know how writers approach endings!  

MG: You know, endings are so important. When I’ve read a novel or story that I like as I go along and the ending is bad it can really ruin it for me. So I feel this tension when I’m approaching the end of my own stories. I’m writing something now that is a little bit longer than a story, it’s a climate change novella, and I’m getting toward the end and I’m starting to get almost visions, not to sound weird or new-age, but the story is starting to talk to me. I’m being directed toward the end and starting to have ideas, and these ideas come with worries—will they be good enough? I don’t know. I won’t know until I get there.   

LF: Yeah, I know that feeling as well. And all this segues beautifully into my last question for you: what are you currently working on, and what can we expect next?   

MG: Well, I was working on a novel and in January I came to this difficult part and had to stop for a while, so I’m not working on that but I’m going to start working on it again in May. But I put it aside so I could work on something else, and in the last couple of months, I worked on the climate change novella, which I’m planning will be one of four that take place in a suburb of Cleveland. I actually lived in this suburb, so this is another of the things I’ll be inhabiting and describing which I like to do, as I said. It takes place there in both the past and the future, the novella I’m writing now takes place in 1972 and then there is one that takes place about forty or fifty years later, and then another one takes place twenty or thirty years after that. They have some continuing characters. So I’m working on that now, and I also just finished a flash exercise during March. This wonderful flash writer Sarah Freligh started me doing this two years ago, doing March micro-fiction. So I did that last year and I also did that this year in March. I didn’t quite get one every day. I think I have twenty-five.   

LF: Woah, that’s still pretty good, that’s a lot of days.  

MG: Yeah! It’s really fun. Have you ever written flash?  

LF: No, not really.   

MG: Oh, it’s so fun, because it feels like play. It’s not 8,000 or 100,000 words, it’s 500 or 300 words. I don’t know, I really enjoy it. During the time I was doing that, I found I was writing a lot about these two characters, Tom and Evie. I think that fourteen of the short things I wrote were about them. I may write some more of those so I’ll have a chapbook of Tom and Evie micros   

LF: Wow, that sounds like you have a little bit of everything! Some flash, some novellas, and then a novel to return to. That’s awesome!   

MG: I like to have a lot of different things to work on because if one thing is not going well I can just do the other.  

LF: Yeah, it means the brain always has something else to think about when there’s a block on one avenue. Well, thank you again for taking the time to chat with me, I know our readers are going to be so excited to see this!   

MG: Thank you! It was a lot of fun.   

Lauren Furman is the managing editor of Colorado Review and a third-year candidate in fiction at Colorado State University.