A few things about author Mairead Case: She’s a Denver writer shaped by Chicago. Her first name rhymes with "parade." She teaches English in Denver Public Schools and at the Kerouac School of Disembodied Poetics, the Colorado School of Mines and the Denver Women's Jail. She’s also a legal observer, a yoga instructor and an associate editor of the magazine Maggot Brain. Yeah, she’s busy, working the multiple jobs required of most in the creative community in 2021. So busy that the only way to really cover all the things she’s doing is to flat-out list them one after the other.
One thing to add to that list: her latest novel, Tiny, what her publisher featherproof calls a “contemporary, poetic retelling of Sophocles's Antigone, set in the mossy greens and foggy grays of the Pacific Northwest.” We caught up with Case over email to talk about this latest book, her place in Denver’s artistic landscape, and how much all of us want to go back to a world where we can read in the front window of My Brother’s Bar.
Westword: You recently brought out your second novel. Can you talk a little bit about how the idea for the book developed?
Mairead Case: I wanted to write about death — in a clinical way, since the U.S. is so afraid of death, even as it causes it, and as an extension of that, about what happens afterward. I don’t mean this in a “Where do we go?” sense, but an embodied one. Our culture, and our government, is so afraid of getting old, or not being pure, or identical, that often we just don’t continue the narrative; we erase it. Or if we do continue it, the person (or their family, their party) is piteous (sacrificed), or monstrous, or permanently damaged. They don’t belong, or they need redemption. I wanted to write a book that didn’t do any of that.
The format of the book is extremely alternative, using uncommon narrative and poetic devices all over the place. How did you come to choose how to communicate each idea, each element, as a separate entity?
The still point of it all is Tiny. Everything is through her eyes and felt in her body, whether she’s on a roof or the dance floor. So my hope is that it is alternative in a way that offers life and growth, as it is also a story about trauma, abuse and, most importantly, healing. I needed it to be non-linear so that readers can sense, intimately, that these things are non-linear, too.
Your list of acknowledgements/inspirations at the end of the book is long and broad. Did you start with this list, or did it grow organically over the construction of the book itself?
The book list is straight from my comps lists from the University of Denver. It felt important to include, not only because the books have been healthy and wonderful for my brain and heart, but because Antigone is such a tentacled story that it would have been wrong to pretend like this version just sprouted out of nowhere. I get why people do that, even unintentionally — it’s time-consuming to track down and code every source — but particularly as someone with a doctorate, it felt important to de-mystify my path.
Is mine the only one? No. Is it one that I walked, very personally and transformatively? Yes! And that was hard enough; I don’t know why I would make it harder for the next similar person or pretend like my book is a distillation of everyone else’s work. The paintings, photos, songs and rooms I include are a part of all that. Finally, well, I love saying my friends’ names out loud. It is important to say thank you.
Your publisher is featherproof books out of Chicago. How did you find that press, and what was the experience like in getting this book in print?
I lived in Chicago for almost a decade. It is a huge part of how I understand home and family. Forever, probably! Featherproof published my first book, See You in the Morning (2015), and over the years we have worked on tons of projects together, like the Pitchfork Book Fort. I’m very lucky to be on such a team whose grandmothers and kids I know, too, and to have two independent, hardcover, high-gloss books designed by my friend Zach Dodson. But this is also kind of like asking “How did you meet your family?” Sometimes when people say, “Oh, I’ve known them forever,” it feels like hopeless gatekeeping, or like they owed me, or didn’t actually read the manuscript, and that’s not the case here. Rather, we’ve all been in it together for a long time, and we care a lot about the politics and ethics of small, independent books and music. In some ways, I wrote a book specifically for that space, because I am of it, too, but even so, featherproof was not obligated to say yes. I’m glad they did, because I got to make a book about some of the things that scare me the most with some of the people I’ve loved ever since I became an adult. There are definitely less intense ways to write books, lol, but this was the right way for Tiny.
You have your irons in a number of fires, including serving as a legal observer for the National Lawyer's Guild for the purposes of equity and equality. Can you explain how you got into doing that and what it entails? And how has that experience played into your writing?
Legal observers are trained volunteers who support the legal rights of activists. I am very careful to separate my NLG work from my writing, as they are different kinds of attention and documentation, but I will say that the militaristic elements of Tiny are haunted directly by what I’ve experienced in the streets. I will also share that when I first moved to Chicago, the first action I took part in was a response to the death of Malachi Ritscher, a person I knew from the jazz and experimental worlds who self-immolated to protest the Iraq War. This moment ultimately led me to become a legal observer and to write a book about veteran suicide.
I mean...I grew up in Seattle in the ’90s and followed Punk Planet to Chicago; I have never known politics and music to be separate. This has taught me a lot about exhaustion, to be fair, but also love. Tim Kinsella, who first said “Yes” to Tiny, is someone I have talked with about this space, and in it, a lot, so that was a natural fit for Tiny, too. The mindset dovetails a little with his book Sunshine on an Open Tomb, which is about the Bush Family.
You also have a graphic novel forthcoming. Can you talk a little about that idea, and how it's coming along?
I do! The Seattle Office of Arts and Culture, along with Seattle City Light, commissioned cartoonist David Lasky and I to make a graphic novel about the historic Georgetown Steam Plant. The book will be distributed for free to local libraries, museums and schools. It's such a cool, accessible way to engage with a historical structure that quite literally brought power to the city. I’ve known David since the early 2000s, when we worked on the magazine Bandoppler, and later we worked on comics for Light in the Attic Records. I love telling stories with David, because we get to combine so many elements into a dynamic medium that can reach so many different people.
So as part of the Denver creative class, how do you see the city progressing in terms of both art and equality? Are the two connected, do you think? Should they be connected more?
They’re absolutely connected, and I will always wish they were connected more. In my world, making art is essential work, not leisure, and the wonders and escape it offers are not necessarily leisurely, either. So I want art workers to have safety and security just like any other essential worker. I want this because I am an art worker. It’s political, too. I am sad and angry about the city sweeps, the rent increases, the closures, the extra jobs we all work to stay afloat. While I’m more of a wallflower here than I was in Chicago, I miss Glob, I miss Rhinoceropolis, and I am wary of art brands that rush in as brands and saviors, not least because I know of the fractures this causes in community. I admire the ways people like Bree Davies, Derrick Velasquez and Hillary Leftwich talk about this struggle while also lifting up the art.
Where in Denver is your favorite place to write? Or be inspired?
My favorite place to read, which is a part of writing, is the front window corner at My Brother’s Bar. I miss sitting there and am so excited to do it again, and again, in the not-too-distant future. Meanwhile, I am taking lots and lots of walks. The other day I walked by GEORGIA [Art Space] to look at the word sculpture by Anuar Maaud, which is also a Marvin Gaye lyric: TO SHARE IS PRECIOUS PURE AND FAIR. The all of it made me cry. That felt good.
Mairead Case's novel Tiny is available now.
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