BY SARAH CAVAR ’20
On Tuesday, Nov. 14 at about 10 minutes to 7 p.m., Mount Holyoke English Professor Andrea Lawlor arrived at the Odyssey Bookshop to a buzzing crowd. Packed tightly into metal chairs, audience members waited impatiently for Lawlor to read from their debut novel, “Paul Takes the Form of a Mortal Girl,” which was published on Nov. 1. Odyssey Bookshop’s owner, Joan Grenier, thanked the audience for coming and fellow Mount Holyoke English professor Valerie Martin made beginning remarks. Martin extended them generous praise for their work as a writer and as a professor. “Lawlor’s goal,” she said, “is to get students beyond ‘received ideas’” and toward the ability to put those ideas into practice.
Lawlor’s novel is the product of years of on-and-off writing; they knew the novel’s concept would be stuck in their mind until it was released into the world. Producing a novel-length work posed a challenge for a self-proclaimed slow-writer like Lawlor. Though a longtime reader, they are “not a producer” and cannot churn out works at a rapid pace. Much like their novel’s content, Lawlor’s writing method also challenges norms of time and space, highlighting the beauty in deviations from the norm. What’s more, Lawlor encourages readers to do the same: they laughingly reassured fellow slow writers by sharing their own experiences.
“Paul Takes The Form of a Mortal Girl” is a novel as multifaceted and flexible as its titular character, who in Lawlor’s words is a “queer shapeshift[er].” The linear progression of the story is interrupted by fairytales interspersed throughout. Lawlor noted that the entire novel was at first going to be a retold myth; that structure “gradually fell away” as they continued the writing process. The story that has emerged is a tribute to the gay community of the 1990s in all its complexity. Reading aloud from “Paul,” they shared a passage on Paul’s memories, which represent the collective memories of the LGBTQ community that have been passed down through generations.
In a reading voice both gentle and compelling, Lawlor guided their audience through selected passages of their novel, finishing to prolonged applause. They walked the listener through an array of intimate passages on AIDS, friendship, sex and confusing bodies with more confusing genders. Part of the reading’s beauty came from the selected passages’ lack of larger context within the novel. Without time to share the background for each selected reading, Lawlor laughingly told their audience, “I think you’ll be able to follow this [passage]...maybe not. Just let it wash over you.” The audience had an opportunity to absorb the passages exactly as they were read.
Questions followed the reading and Lawlor invited audience members to try to “stump [them]”. The first question raised was simply, “Why Iowa?” The state in which some of the novel is set is a refreshing deviation in a genre that focuses on coastal experiences. Lawlor explained that they sought to paint the experiences of “queers everywhere” and not simply in “coastal hubs” like Provincetown and San Francisco. Contrary to Iowa’s specificity, some aspects of “Paul” were purposefully left undefined and unexplained. The full “origin story” of Paul the shapeshifter goes unsaid, a direct response to the cultural demand that LGBTQ people share stories that essentialize their experiences and follow a certain expected narrative. Lawlor wanted to “wedge open possibilities” for Paul’s history and future without thinking in absolutes. They note that sometimes these “queer origin stories” are simply not the most interesting stories to tell; this time, Lawlor wanted to write about something different.
Although “Paul” is Lawlor’s first novel, it is not their first published work. They published a chapbook (a short paperback work which usually contains fiction or poetry) titled “Position Papers” in 2016, and their individual poems have appeared in such publications as jubilat and OccuPoetry, among others. They are considering writing a more traditionally structured three-act novel in the future, but between now and then plan to continue writing poetry, which they enjoy partially because a poem can be “finished in a day.”
Lawlor still bookended their talk with the phrase “I don’t really know what I’m doing,” and littered their reading and Q&A session with the same assertion. As they sat to sign audience members’ recently purchased copies of their novel, Lawlor again noted their own nervousness. With their newness to novel writing, fear and ultimate success, Lawlor hoped to send an inspiring message to audience members, all of whom, they said, should write a book someday.