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April 1, 2010

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A closer look — Karen Lillis

In her decidedly nontraditional novel, “The Second Elizabeth,” Pitt staff member Karen Lillis takes her readers on a mesmerizing trip into the psyche of a young woman searching for a new identity through an understanding of language and meaning.


Written entirely in the first person and featuring a hypnotic style of repetition that borders on ritualistic incantation, on the surface the novel gives the reader a two-month portrait of a friendship between two young women working summer jobs in a delicatessen in Charlottesville, Va.

Deeper inside the novel’s workings, however, are themes of re-fashioning the language of the past, and rejecting the many names and nicknames the narrator has had attached to her over time but that fail to capture her emerging essence.

Lillis, program assistant for the graduate program in cultural studies, demurred at specifying how much of her novel “The Second Elizabeth” is autobiographical.

“Does anyone ask a poet how much of a poem is autobiographical? It’s writing, and it’s writing from the heart,” said Lillis, who started in the temp pool here in January 2006 before being hired in her current position that July. She earned a master’s of library and information science at Pitt in 2009 to add to her MA in studio art from New York University/International Center of Photography, and BAs in English literature and studio art from the University of Virginia.

“In this case, I’m comfortable saying that the novel is part creative nonfiction; it’s part meditative poetry. It’s really a meditation on language and names as much as anything else,” said Lillis, a self-described compulsive writer who has penned several other novels, as well as shorter prose, chapbooks and poems.

“My connection with Virginia was these experiences that happened in the present tense, as well as my family names, and my family’s ties to Virginia through these names. I love writing about place: How you describe the feeling of a place through its people and experiences,” she said.

Regarding writing in the sometimes frowned-upon first person, Lillis said, “It’s almost as if instead of deciding to write from an “I”, I allowed myself to write from an “I,” which normally is a taboo. It came out with an “I” voice and I didn’t censor myself. I think doing that, though, pushes people’s buttons. I’ve gotten real love-hate responses. I’ve gotten a couple reviews that tore the novel down to the ground, and when that happened usually the reviewer didn’t understand it at all.”

While the words Lillis employs are simple and straightforward, occasionally her images intentionally are imprecise or disjointed as she carries the reader along on her narrator’s quest for redefined words that capture their newly understood meanings.

“Some of what the novel is doing is gaining a cumulative power,” Lillis explained. “Some people who don’t like it think it’s not narrative enough to be a novel. I would argue that it’s not really a prose poem, but even if it was, so what? The narrative part, the story part, has to do with this unfolding, and unfolding in a nontraditional way with language, of what these words mean, so it’s a process of discovery for the narrator.”lillis book

The key to the novel, which took Lillis nine months to write, is the relationship between the narrator and Beth, her much-admired friend, confidante and co-worker whose influence on the narrator eventually leads to catharsis, a cleansing of the old “I” into a figurative second Elizabeth.

“I see because Beth opens my eyes, I see because Beth moves in front of me and shows me things I have never seen before. I am still sitting here in my seat, my eyes and hand are still running much faster than my feet, but my blood is beginning to move like when I was expecting my love on the tracks, like when I was standing on a dance floor on Water Street, because I am seeing things I have never seen before. I will dream in new images, after knowing Beth, Beth has a different rhythm to her blood, I see it in her dancing, like I hear it when she calls out in the deli.”

What cements the women’s friendship is a similar, though unspecified, traumatic event in each one’s earlier life and the subsequent way in which Beth helps the narrator cope with her trauma.

“We are walking down Valley Road, past Valley Circle, around the blind curve, and Beth is telling me her story. Her story is terrible, wretched, the worst I have ever heard. I have heard this story many times, from women friends before Beth, and this is the worst story I have ever heard. It is the worst story I have ever heard because it is MY story, and it is worse than my story. I have heard worse stories before, have read the cold accounts written by newspaper reporters who were far from the scene, and tragic accounts written by women as a special to Glamour magazine, but this is the worst story I have ever heard because Beth is here walking next to me. Beth is not Elizabeth but she is here walking next me to me on Valley Road in July and she is telling me her story which is my story which is the worst story I have ever heard.”

Had Lillis considered describing the women’s experiences in more detail?

“To me, that doesn’t matter. There’s enough in there that says there was a traumatic event that happened to these two people. It’s probably female-specific. I think there’s enough information about that,” and that explains some of the affinity between the two women, Lillis said.

“Otherwise, this is a story about losing your voice from that trauma and then gaining it back, and possibly gaining it back in a strange way: a new language, a poetic flow where you need to go over your own ground several times. It’s the ‘gift’ of trauma, maybe, that affects this character. This narrator has a an unusual language that comes out of losing her voice and having to start over again.”

One of the ways the narrator’s trauma is manifested is in images of her body in discomfort, sometimes outright pain, Lillis noted.

“In one sense, it’s like a twisted larynx, something inside is twisted enough so that thoughts are not coming out clearly. I’m symbolizing it by talking about it as physical, though. It’s emotional: It’s the fears, the trauma from the unnamed incident,” she said. “The only point there is that I was trying to show that her real story wants to come from deep inside. Her story is not a ‘heady’ story, it’s a deep inside-the-belly story, but it has to come through the body, and the body symbolizes the facts, the material facts, of what has happened. Or it just symbolizes life itself: The body is what decays, the body is what carries us toward death,” Lillis explained.

Similarly, the recurring image of blood is meant to highlight the transcendent extent of the narrator’s personal trauma, she said.

“I think of the blood as an extremely interesting symbol: It’s matter and energy at the same time. Blood has the advantage of conjuring up: Oh, blood, yuck! But the blood that’s actually under our skin means that we’re alive. The fact that it’s flowing is incredibly material and mystical at the same time. Blood is the flow of life. I’m very interested in it as a symbol in writing as one of the things we can’t see but nonetheless rules our lives,” Lillis said.

With Beth’s help, the narrator gradually overcomes her trauma at least to the extent of being open to the possibility of finding love, which is codified in the narrator’s reflections on the nearby railroad tracks that lead to an unknown end. The narrator fantasizes that the communiqués she writes on the cars of stopped trains will reach her unknown love like a message in a bottle.

“I need a love so that I can send words TO. I need a love so I can leave him alone and he can let me send him words. I need him to love me from the other end of the train track that is the color of my hair, so I can send him words that are love that is words-that-flow that is blood-that-flows that is love that flows down the tracks to him. Will I find a love to love me but will stay at the other end of the train tracks? Will he let me go to him with my words written on me because I once wanted to be a tree? Will I get on the train myself, carry the words along the tracks myself, to him who will love me and will keep the words flowing thorough my blood?”

Lillis said, “Early on, there is that obsessive need for the narrator to talk about names or to talk about circles or talk about the family. The train tracks and the love is more like finding that space inside of her being that’s not as filled up with family and the past. But she’s still in this bubble of unreality. She’s talking about this love that’s so far down the train tracks that it’s not in danger of coming any time soon. Her character is still pretty traumatized. So it’s a wanting to hope, to yearn, but still wanting to be in a safe place. She feels safest with Beth and doesn’t want the guy to come into her life too soon.”

Lillis acknowledged that the end of the novel also could be considered nontraditional.

“Things happen and they don’t get wrapped up at the end. You pass through a bunch of things. That’s how I think of life. As a writer, I think you gain a lot of consciousness — if you put your mind to it you know that you can write your way into self-understanding or insight about the world — but on a plot level, I don’t really like plots that wrap up. I’m much less interested in them. On that level, it’s a novel that just stops going. I’m fine with that; it’s absolutely what I meant to do. Beth takes her on this journey. Unwittingly, she follows Beth, and then all of sudden they ‘drop off the cliff’ because you’re at the end of the book.”

—Peter Hart

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