Lee Murray is a multi-award-winning author-editor, essayist, poet, and screenwriter from Aotearoa-New Zealand. A USA Today Bestselling author, Shirley Jackson- and four-time Bram Stoker Awards® winner, Lee is an NZSA Honorary Literary Fellow, and a Grimshaw Sargeson Fellow. Lee’s essay in A Vindication of Monsters, called “Mary Shelley: Pandemics, Isolation, and Writing”, has its foundations in the Australian bushfires and the COVID-19 pandemic. It begins with the following passage:
In November 2019, on my return to New Zealand from a family vacation, I stopped over in Brisbane, Australia. The airport halls were full of men in overalls, firefighters heading to or from the fire fronts to battle what would turn out to be the worst bushfires in that nation’s history. Although we were some distance from the hot zones, a sepia wall of ash and smoke tinted the air outside the terminal. Plucked from beaches, Australians were evacuated to safer regions, where they were forced indoors, away from the clouds of stinging smoke. In New Zealand, some three thousand kilometres east, a haze of soft-focus pink ash shrouded the sun for weeks, and it was late February 2020 before the fires abated, early March before the last flames were stamped out. By then, COVID-19 was on the rise and my compatriots abroad were rushing home to self-isolate ahead of the plague.
A month later, my father was dead.
Welcome to the blog, Lee. Can you tell us about the inspiration for your essay? How did you approach the writing?
LM: Rather than an academic essay, or even a truly personal essay, the piece uses a ‘messay’ format, an explorative approach which draws on published sources, fiction excerpts, conversation snippets, reflections, and also poetry. It’s a term I didn’t have a name for at the time of writing, only discovering the concept in 2022. Book Riot blogger Laura Sackton explains: “A messay is a messy blend of memoir and essay. Messays can be messy structurally, thematically, emotionally. The important bit is that they’re not straightforward. They often meander. They go off on tangents and then circle back in surprising ways. They shake things up.” (Sackton, 2022)
As the world rushed headlong into an apocalypse, I was forced to come to terms with the death of my father, just one of many losses in that dreadful period. But how do you make sense of unfathomable loss? And when the world is at an impasse? Unable to write more than a few scribbled words, I searched for answers, reaching out to my writing colleagues for their insights and understanding. Writers are, after all, observers of the human condition. My friends didn’t disappoint. Among those who responded were Australia’s Alan Baxter and Lee Battersby, the UK’s Heide Goody, and Canadian horror author and commentator, Steve Stred. More than twenty writers sent me messages, comprising some 20,000 words of grief and reflection, their shared understanding consoling me and giving me hope. And strangely, I also rediscovered a connection with the mother of horror, Mary Shelley, re-reading her novel, The Last Man (1826), which depicts the author’s own tragic losses against the backdrop of apocalyptic events occurring during the now-famous “year without a summer” at Lake Geneva. So, using these sources, I meandered through the topic, processing my feelings on the page and trying to make sense of a singular moment in time—both for me, and in terms of global events. I now know I wrote a messay, which seems appropriate.
Anything in particular in your messay that readers should look out for? Any takeaways?
LM: The essay features two poems, including this one by me, which first appeared in Stephanie Wytovich’s blog, Join me in the Madhouse in May 2020, written just a month after my father’s death:
the pestilence followed us
in ragged, haggard lungs
We ejected the dead,
sent them gentle into the night.
Imagined the starry fireworks
glimpsed on far-off porches.
We saw only darkness.
Bereft, we drifted on.
I’m thrilled to announce that the other poem in the text is an exquisite dark poem by Dirk Flinthart. Published in its entirety, Flinthart’s piece, “The Eschaton”, conveys all the desolation and despair of Flinthart’s personal apocalypse. The imagery is stunning, the poet’s underlying sentiment perfectly reflecting my own turmoil at that time, and perhaps, if my hunch is correct, also revealing the depth of the trauma experienced by our beloved Mary Shelley. And as far as takeaways go, on the other side of those bushfires, the worst of the pandemic, and the immeasurable losses, I hope readers will come away with a sliver of hope, that even amid global and personal despair, even when we feel our most alone, there is still something to strive for.
Thanks for dropping by, Lee!
To learn more about Lee and her work:
Sackton, L. The Messay: An Introduction. Book Riot. January 2022. Retrieved from: https://bookriot.com/what-is-a-messay/