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[Interview] with Mary Otis

Updated: Dec 15, 2023

By A.M. Larks

Mary Otis took time out during her holiday travels to catch up with me via email. Her debut novel Burst is a buzz and after attending a reading on her book tour, I wanted to know more. I wanted to know how. I wanted to know why. And true to form, my former professor did not disappoint.


[Kelp Journal] The structure of Burst—with the nonchronological arrangement of chapters—is so interesting, and as you know, I am partial to a fragmented narrative. But I was particularly taken with the fact that in Burst certain chapters act as flashbacks, while the main narrative is moving forward in time. I know it may be simple and is likely well-known, but the fact that a chapter could be a flashback blew my mind. It made me wonder, How did this novel come into being? Specifically, was this arrangement of fragmented time part of how you drafted your novel in the first place, or was this structure determined later in editing?


[Mary Otis] In many ways nonlinear storytelling can illuminate the truth of lived experience more powerfully than one that moves forward chronologically. For example, and this speaks to interior life, a person or character might be waiting in line at the post office, but mentally they’re submerged in a day twenty years ago. If you were to unscrew anyone’s head, you might be surprised by where their mind resides because so often it is not the present. Additionally, while Burst is a novel, I’ve written many short stories and am naturally pulled to begin a narrative in the middle of things rather than at the chronological beginning.


I often talk to my ninety-nine-year-old neighbor, who has led a remarkable, beautiful life, but one that is not without tragedy. She frequently recalls significant memories, and they’re never chronological in terms of actual dates, but there is always a throughline in terms of the emotional connections. I think this is also the case with characters relative to memory.


A lot of the initial material in Burst came to me out of order, and then once I connected those passages, I built the structure to support it. While there are a few flashback chapters in the novel, my aim with each one was to provide further crucial information only when necessary and when there was a natural springboard or subtextual link. This was particularly helpful in terms of illuminating a character like Charlotte, who is troubled and troubling. When a reader gets a glimpse of her earlier life, it helps put some of her behavior in context. Lastly, by using a nonlinear structure, I was able to cut back and forth in time and cover a sweep of three decades more easily than if it had been linear.


[KJ] Another interesting part of your book is the addition of an author’s note, which is basically a reference page of the nonfiction resources you used as sources of not only information but inspiration. I loved Joan Acocella’s Twenty-Eight Artists and Two Saints as well, and you mention that Vivian Maier’s Untitled, 1956 was a particular source of inspiration. How did these other art forms aid and inspire Burst?


[MO] There is a Lorrie Moore quote about writing a story that I love: “First comes some idea, then things fall in from the world, things that have correspondence to the first idea and eventually there’s a moment when the story closes or shuts and becomes a hothouse of a fictional world.” I find this to be very true whether the things that “fall in” are from real life or from the inspiration and timing of a piece of art one encounters while writing. So much of a writer’s job seems to be about intention and availability, and when I’m working on something, the world can begin to take on a porous aspect in a very beneficial way.


During the writing of Burst, I discovered Maier’s photography, and Untitled, 1956 had a profound effect on me and served as an artistic talisman during the writing of my novel. The subject, a woman in a red dress, stands with her back to the camera, hands clasped in a way that on different days seemed to signal different things—anticipation, longing, atonement. The photo prompted me to write an entire chapter of my novel. I’m grateful for this kind of mysterious convergence when it occurs, this cross inspiration of art forms.


[KJ] I was taken with the seamless narration of Viva in Burst as she ages from a child just on the verge of middle school to a full-blown adult. That seems to be a particularly hard task. What did you consider in order to achieve that I-am-old-but-still-me voice? Was that any different than your approach to the variety of narrators you employed for Yes, Yes, Cherries?


[MO] I did theater when I was younger, and I often approach creating a character in the same way as if I was playing that character (in terms of background, desires, hang-ups, secrets, and what is most at stake). Not all of this will be apparent on the page, but it will inform the actions my characters take, what they reveal, what they hide. Whenever I’m writing a character, I’m always on their side in terms of what they want even, and especially if, there are numerous characters with whom they are in conflict, as is the case in this novel. I don’t think you can write what you don’t understand, so I always need to have some kind of inner appreciation or empathy for a character in order to write that character. If I can sustain that throughout a short story or novel, then it’s possible to illuminate the entirety of the character’s life on the page.


[KJ] One of the things that struck me about both Burst and Yes, Yes, Cherries was the complexity of the relationships you describe. Everything is constantly in flux, pushing and pulling, ebbing and flowing, like the tides. Everything also builds on what has come before, exponentially. Do you think all of our relationships (friendships, lovers, family) are subject to these same mathematical and scientific forces?


[MO] I do. When I write, cause and effect are always in the back of my mind. What does a particular action or line of dialogue engender, and how does that link to the next emotional pivot point? It’s also one of the most organic ways to approach plot and structure rather than trying to jam a preconceived idea or template on top of the writing.


When you’re young, it’s hard to comprehend the extent to which things can change and how truly elastic and unpredictable human nature can be. I enjoy exploring that, and fluidity is central to the novel not only in terms of shifting alliances but quite literally in terms of dance. I think it would be rare to find a relationship that is completely fixed and unchanging, although it might be an interesting exercise to try and write about one!


[KJ] Burst tackles the issue of substance abuse head-on without being derivative or cliché. When conceiving these characters, did you always have in mind something like this to connect them? Something both genetic and environmental? Something attributable to both nurture and nature?


[MO] One of the things I explore in the novel is genetic predisposition as it intersects with artistic purpose. I always knew that Charlotte grappled with addiction, but I initially didn’t plan that her daughter would as well. But as the plot developed, it seemed like it had to happen, particularly as the character has in some ways defined herself against her mother. Ultimately, she must face the question of whether she’s able to change her own genetic wiring. While Viva is an artist, a dancer, one might say that her mother, Charlotte, is an artist without an art form. I was interested in looking at what happens when an artistic impulse is thwarted and how that can play out in dangerous ways. When the novel opens, we’re in a car with Viva and Charlotte barreling down the “suicide lane,” a lane in which cars can pass going in both directions. That opening image speaks to the risk and inherent danger of addiction and the necessary risks that need to be taken to flourish as an artist.


[KJ] Humor is always apparent in all of your writing, and Burst is no exception. In my own experience, it can be easier to wield in a shorter work than a longer one. Is this your experience as well?  


[MO] That’s an interesting question, because humor often hinges on specificity, precision, and brevity, and those aspects are integral to any short story. However, I didn’t experience a significant shift relative to humor as it works in a longer form. A friend of mine has synesthesia—a phenomenon where one sees letters in colors—and this is something like how I see the world relative to humor. I find it fairly difficult not to see the humor in something, even in the most trying of circumstances.


[KJ] I was particular struck by one part of Burst: Viva is in her classroom, meditating on teaching, and the passage begins, “Viva worked hard to locate something within each girl—a fierceness, or sorrow, or anger, and wake her up to the fact that she could use that energy as a vehicle.” The paragraph ends with this singular question: “What good was an inner life if no one could see it?” It felt like a call to arms. I think about this line every time I sit down to write, for what else are writers doing but sharing their innermost selves? I have to know: Whatever inspired this haunting insight?


[MO] Interestingly, the dancers in that scene are more invested in the surface of things, the presentation of the art form and its outward appearances rather than what they might specifically bring to it. So, I meant that line—in this particular context and in view of our very outward-facing culture—ironically. However, I love your interpretation, and it’s a good reminder that all art is interactive. There is an artist who creates something, and then there is the reader or viewer who receives it and brings their own impressions to the table. The goal of transmuting inner life through words or paint or movement is a very worthy one, and certainly, it’s a rather alchemical process.

[KJ] Burst is such an interesting title. Things burst at the seams, others burst forth, and of course, bubbles burst. Where did this wonderful, enticing one-word title come from?


[MO] The title came to me in the middle of the night, and while it appeared like a blinking light in my subconscious, I didn’t initially know how it applied to the novel. Those things took some time to discover. Readers have pointed out to me that characters are bursting, busting, imploding. The first use of the word burst in the novel refers to Viva dancing and feeling like she’s left the confines of her body. When Charlotte departs this Earth, there is a line that she “bursts free of the human cage.” There is also a theme that runs through the book relative to the exploration of the things from which numerous characters must break free.


Prior to the title Burst, I employed two other “ghost” titles, both of which served me well in writing aspects of the novel. Each of those titles seemed to “wear out” once I’d written certain passages, but they were very helpful in pulling me forward. I love thinking about titles, and there is something about seeing any title day after day that works in a mysterious, energetic way. It’s like when you’re in grade school and write the name of a crush again and again on a piece of paper. The words seen to grow in power and depth.


Lastly, while a bubble might burst, as it does for Viva, bubbles can also be confining, and I think that in her case, as painful as it might be, once this occurs, her landscape of possibility expands exponentially, and hope becomes manifest.


Mary Otis is the author of the novel, Burst (Zibby Books), which is longlisted for the 2024 Joyce Carol Oates Prize and won the 2023 Silver Medal in Literary Fiction from the Independent Book Publisher Awards. Burst was chosen by Good Morning America, the New York Post and The Orange County Register as one of the Best Books of Spring 2023. Mary has also published a short story collection, Yes, Yes, Cherries (Tin House). Her stories and essays have been published in Best New American Voices, Tin House, Electric Literature, McSweeney’s, Los Angeles Times, Los Angeles Review of Books, and in many literary journals and numerous anthologies. She has recently published poetry in Zyzzyva and the Bennington Review. The New York Times has said of her work, “Sadness and humor sidle up to each other, evocative of the delicate balance of melancholy and wit found in Lorrie Moore’s stories.” Her story "Pilgrim Girl" received an Honorable Mention for the Pushcart Prize, and her story "Unstruck" was a Distinguished Story of the Year in Best American Short Stories.  She was a Walter Dakin Fellow and received a Getty Foundation Scholarship. Mary has read her work at Lincoln Center and was filmed for the PBS Program “Brief but Spectacular.” She attended Bennington College and previously taught creative writing in the UCLA Writers’ Program in addition to numerous writing conferences. Mary was a founding fiction professor in the UC Riverside Low-Residency MFA Program where she taught for twelve years. Originally from the Boston area, Mary lives in Los Angeles.



A.M. Larks’s writing has appeared in NiftyLitScoundrel TimeAssay: A Journal of Nonfiction StudiesFive on the FifthCharge Magazine, and the   ZYZZYVA  and  Ploughshares  blogs. She has served as a judge for the Loud Karma Productions’ Emerging Female and Nonbinary Playwriting Award and has performed her stories at Lit Up at Town Hall Theatre in Lafayette, CA. She is the managing editor and blog editor at Kelp Journal. She is the former fiction editor at Please See Me, the former blog editor at The Coachella Review, as well as the former photography editor at Kelp Journal. A.M. Larks earned an MFA in creative writing from UC Riverside at Palm Desert, a JD, and a BA in English literature.






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