Monica Brashears Interview
House of Cotton, the debut novel of Monica Brashears, follows Magnolia Brown, a woman who—after the death of her grandmother—takes a job from a stranger to work in his funeral parlor. There, she is tasked with impersonating the deceased for those who seek a living reconnection. As Magnolia assumes the roles of the dead, her grandmother’s apparition appears, imploring her to reflect on a previous trauma.
The strength of House of Cotton is its protagonist. Brashears animates Magnolia through her distinct voice—brash, sometimes angry, sometimes playful, her mind a contrast to the powerlessness she feels in the external world. Through her, House of Cotton comments on race, gender, power. We relate to Magnolia through her dreams, fairytales in which she often flattens into an object, a secondary figure subsumed in the primary:
“I am straw. I am sunbaked straw in Germany, locked in a quiet room … A pretty woman in a deep blue velvet dress sobs. She say to the little man: You can’t have my first born. … The pain got to make me brand new. I am shining. I am a heap of gold. I don’t feel nothing but the glimmer.”
Monica contributed 3 Stories to LIGEIA almost three years ago, and I knew then she was one to watch. House of Cotton is a surprising, unconventional novel, and I was happy to talk with Monica about her influences, process, and future.
House of Cotton is available via Flatiron Books.
The protagonist, Magnolia, takes an unusual job working for a strange duo, Cotton and Eden—body nostalgists at a funeral home. How did you develop the character of Magnolia and the concept of Magnolia impersonating the dead for grieving families?
The idea for House of Cotton began as a short story for an undergraduate fiction workshop at the University of Tennessee, Knoxville. I hadn’t found my voice, and I didn’t know how to revise, so I shelved it. Once in the MFA program at Syracuse, Magnolia’s voice returned in a piece of flash fiction with a blue flamed urgency. I think the development would not have been possible without the years between the short story and the first draft of the novel. Discovery (in both craft and what exactly I wanted to say) was necessary before sitting in that expansive-book-length space.
The novel’s tone is in the Southern Gothic tradition, sometimes at the corner of noir. Near their early meeting, Magnolia describes Eden like this: “Her smile got a pout to it. She keeps rubbing my wrist like she got all the answers in her touch. Pity in her green eyes, a stagnant lake with algae and duck shit.” Can you speak to the role of this tone in House of Cotton, especially with dark fairytale elements? Were there any particular authors or works in the genre that influenced this one?
Yes! The writing I was first introduced to was Stephen King, fairytales, and Bible stories (scary, scary southern Baptist delivery)—all of these having a dark underbelly that will always be present in my writing. Later, I fell in love with Toni Morrison & Gayl Jones & Jesmyn Ward & Gloria Naylor & Carmen Maria Machado—writers who work with similar dark tones that align more closely with my lived experience and interests on the page.
In the novel, the living and dead seem to exist in a state of co-dependence. Can you discuss the significance of this intersection in the world of your story?
Yes! I haven’t heard the relationships framed as co-dependent before, but there’s something there that hits the right note. While drafting, I wanted to explore the thought of healing (collective trauma, personal trauma) and the grieving process. Both are typically framed as linear with some vague yet tangible end. Writing this novel taught me that it isn’t that at all—it is more cyclical. Like learning the same lessons and growing just a little with each repetition. Mama Brown’s deterioration is not unlike what Magnolia experienced of her in her last days, only in the present, this deterioration is asking Magnolia to confront how various traumas affect her responses to her environment. The co-dependence at its core, I think, is a statement of the importance of holding space for the past to 1.) make sense of the present and 2.) set in motion what’s needed for a little more softness in the future.
Mama Brown is a particularly effective figure in the novel, appearing in increasing states of decay (reminding me slightly of the undead friend in An American Werewolf in London). How did you approach her presence and her relationship with Magnolia?
In initial drafts, the decay was slower and sometimes reversed for humor. Magnolia avoids Mama Brown’s request to reflect, naturally. But I realized I needed a bit more urgency for Magnolia to take Mama Brown’s request seriously which is how the decay in the final version came about, how Cricket was born (and by doing this, there was revelation in Mama Brown’s past—even in afterlife, whiteness remains insidious and taking).
There are several instances where Magnolia uses her sexuality as a means of power/survival. Can you discuss how those scenes reveal her relationship with herself and the world of the book?
Because Magnolia is a Black woman living below the poverty line in the South, she’s so accustomed to being robbed of agency that even in her fairytale daydreams, she takes the shape of objects. I wanted Magnolia to have her own space in which she decided what intimacy should feel like. Sometimes taking power through these hookups looks like complete domination, and sometimes she longs for a bit more tenderness but becomes frustrated when she can’t achieve that—her sexuality grants her the power she deserves but also becomes a scrambling way of determining what she lacks.
How has the experience of publishing your first book been for you?
The first draft came quickly and desperately—the revisions, not so much. Publishing my first book has been so lovely and strange, and I’m still waiting for the world to blink to black and restart (Pinch me??)
Do you have any advice for aspiring writers who are trying to develop their own unique voice and perspective in their work?
I think reading broadly is important, as is sitting with the works that most resonate and studying closely how they achieve what it is that the aspiring writer admires. Also going out into the world and keeping an eye out for images that linger, making note of everyday absurdities (and creating them when they fail to appear).
What's next for you as an author? Are there any other genres or types of stories you hope to explore in your future writing?
I’m currently revising my second novel—a trailer park noir!
Monica Brashears is an Affrilachian writer from Tennessee. She is a graduate of Syracuse University's MFA program. Her work has appeared in Nashville Review, Split Lip Magazine, Appalachian Review, The Masters Review, and more. House of Cotton is her first novel.
by Anne Noonan
... Create a believable narrative weaving together the following elements ...
Lindsay Lerman and David Leo Rice Interview
by Lindsay Lerman & David Leo Rice
... After I finished my last book, I wanted to never speak or write again ...