Interview with Lucas Southworth
1. Is “Europe” nonfiction?
I don’t consider the story to be non-fiction, even though I was twenty-two when I went into a similar museum in Belgium. It was just an awful museum, but very strange, and it did leave as great an impression on me as some of the Rembrandts I saw in Amsterdam. This story began as a section of a longer piece I wrote about ten years ago and continually returned to and attempted to revise. When I finally decided it wasn’t working, I pilfered it for flashes. This was one of my favorite moments and so I cut it out, changed it to first person, and revised it.
2. This story focuses in on a very specific place in a city in a country, but the title is pulled out and generic. How is the microcosm related to the macro?
I like to think the story is about travel and displacement and how many Americans go to Europe at a young age hoping to experience that displacement. It is also about how we collect memories, and how media helps us do so. Europe here symbolizes something, and that is the macro “Europe,” but when you’re there, it’s always something that’s always brought out in the micro—a moment in a strange museum, for example: a place that’s supposed to be comfortable and safe, yet there’s also something really off about it, something displacing and not quite right, something the narrator does and does not want to touch at the end. I think we seek this kind of conflict when we travel, but we also seek to avoid it at the same time.
3. Why do you think people are fascinated by torture?
Good question, and I’m not sure I can begin to answer it. But I think there’s two things about torture that interest me in particular. The first is the way we look back on it, the way we remember. We always hope the memory will enlighten us, that it will ensure it never happens again, but it continues to happen all the time. The second is that torture has to do with a fascination with pain—what people can endure and what people can endure doing to one another. As a kid I couldn’t even punch my brother in the mouth because I was afraid I’d hurt him. In a sick way, I (and others, I think) am enamored by people who can separate themselves from that kind of empathy—people who are able to torture others. Are they even people anymore? Are the people being tortured people? I imagine these strange displacements happen in torture. That’s one of the reasons I picked the setting of the torture museum.
4. Do you want people to draw any parallels to America or their own lives?
Maybe. When I was working on the story, I wasn’t thinking about recent political debates or what constitutes torture and what doesn’t. The torture devices in the story are all pretty brutal (and real), and, in a sick way, show a great amount of imagination. Human ingenuity works in many ways, of course. When I wrote the story I was thinking more about historical torture, but I think readers can’t help but make comparisons between something like the Spanish Inquisition and what’s still happening around the world today. The story title, “Europe,” hopefully indicates that the story is really about Americans in Europe—what Europe symbolizes to Americans, and how they attempt to understand it, especially in light of these awful things America still takes part in.
5. What European language would you most want this story translated into?
I just bought a book of translated Russian poetry, mostly so I could just stare at the alphabet on the Russian side of the page. I think Russian and Greek are beautiful in a kind of hieroglyphic way. I would say that I’d love to see it in a language that uses an alphabet I’m not that familiar with. I like the double displacement of that.