Write Toward Compassion: Lia Woodall Interviewed by Kelly Thompson

A book about a brother’s suicide that takes the form of a puzzle.

Remove To Play

When I opened the envelope and Lia Woodall’s small book slid out, I was surprised at the compact efficiency of it, the way it fit snugly in my hands. The cover is starkly simple, featuring a grid of sixteen black squares, each numbered one through fifteen except the sixteenth—a blank and unnumbered space. The title of the book, an instruction: Remove To Play (The Cupboard Pamphlet).

I opened the book to find an insert, a stiff piece of cardboard featuring a photograph of Woodall and a mirror reflection of her twin brother (who we see taking the picture). A grid is superimposed on the photograph with instructions on the back that read, “Cut into sixteen squares. Shuffle face down. Flip each tile over. One by one.” The idea comes from the original puzzle game Fifteen to Play, where you have to reorder a scrambled number grid one move at a time so all the numbers appear in order. In a digital age full of apps and screens, Remove to Play is tactile, immediate, and visceral.

In the book, Woodall (the latest winner of The Cupboard Pamphlet’s annual Cupboard contest) tells the story of mystery, love, and twinshipof the unthinkable loss of her brother, Larry, to suicide. This is experiential writing at its best, and the image instructions hint at the nonlinear structure of the story. In addition to the narrative itself, the book continues the puzzle structure throughout by offering other numbered grids, positioned at various angles, with words on them. We watch as Woodall plays the solitary game of fifteena puzzle that requires no partner–and we play alongside her, caught in the text as though it were a three-dimensional Rubik’s cube of a heart.  

Woodall’s work has been published in or is forthcoming from under the gum tree, Literal Latté, Sonora Review, Crack the Spine, South Loop Review and Best American Experimental Writing 2020 (digital edition). She is also working on a multi-genre collection called Leaving Twinbrook.  

—Kelly Thompson


Kelly ThompsonYou bend and morph the traditional linear narrative by using a puzzle structure. Why did you choose this structure?

Lia WoodallThe puzzle structure is inherently movable. The tiles move up and down and sideways—kind of like how the stories I’m writing present themselves. There was a lot of energy in this photograph that had haunted me for many years, and I felt it had to be released in a non-traditional way, a way that allowed for a non-linear approach. You could tear the book apart, pull pages out, and play the puzzle. Once solved from one angle, flip it over and play or read it that way. 

KTAs a reader, I was not only captivated with the dilemma of loss but engaged on a tactile level in the impossibility of it; specifically, the loss of a twin to suicide. You write, “Today is a gray fall day in Houston. My breakfast counter is uncluttered and cleaned. My world is quiet and unscheduled, and I am missing you. I’m finally willing to experiment, attempt to see.” I really liked the way the book starts out by telling the reader that this is going to be experimental.

LWYes. Experiential, immersive, performative, mostly because that is what my body needed to do with the photograph. I hoped the moving structure might unleash the story as I deconstructed and then reconstructed our twinship. 

KTThe puzzle Fifteen to Play first came out, to great acclaim, in the 1880s. In addition to structure, would you agree the puzzle serves as a story object and defining metaphor?  

LWYeah, I think it came to me as a form by way of structure, but it is part of the content too. The Fifteen puzzle game was a toy we had as children. In my various stories and essays, toys and games often come up. I experimented with a few game forms, but the slide puzzle, which is meant to be a solitary game, seemed ideal because I can play it alone. It’s something we got as children at Halloween or that my mom gave us for the occasional long family trip. It evoked a nostalgic and happy time. I am always looking for form as a kind of architecture or container to distract myself from content I struggle to write.

KTWould you say the process of discovery for you begins with a form that gives you a way into the story from the outside in, versus a more organic process?

LWI think that’s a fair assessment. I’m certainly open to organic processes that may do something entirely different, but my more recent work has relied on finding that container or form as a way in. Then, at some point, it mutates into being part of the content itself. It has a different kind of conversation with my stories.

Lia Photo

Photo of Lia Woodall by Mimi Snow.

KT You wrote, “I’ve done it. Slid us back together…This essay emerging in the movement. Pieces into wholeness. Form, a distraction that opens.” Why was movement integral?  

LW I’m glad that comes across, because that was something I felt in my body. I needed to be in movement. Larry was a prankster in some ways, so the idea of play was important to me also, especially as a kind of emotional balance to what I was going to discover. That balance didn’t work so much. I thought it was really hard. I had all these “aha” moments. Originally, I wanted to find an app where I could upload this photograph and create my essay in the application form so the reader would experience the tiles moving three-dimensionally. That was something beyond what I was able to achieve. I couldn’t find an app like that, so I had to do it the old-fashion way with paper and scissors and words.

KTFor me, the actual experience of cutting up the insert card and moving the tiles around made me really empathize with the experience of the narrator as she processed the loss of a twin to suicide. It was very visceral and impactful. You have said that, beyond the story of grief, Remove to Play is a love story.

LWIt has been thirty years this January since I lost Larry. What I accomplished by writing this is the ability to externalize that love story. In our grief—because we learn to survive and bear it in our way—we experience a removal, a distancing of feeling, of remembering how someone’s voice sounded and that kind of thing. That was the gift to me in putting this back together.

KT Maybe this is obvious, but what was the question that drove you?

LWOne question I’m at peace with for the most part, that readers seem to want an answer to, is the “why.” Why did he do it? I think it’s a misdirected question, because the nature of suicide often is that you never get to know. There isn’t that kind of resolution. In many ways I was taking a big risk in writing in a form that reflects that searching, the not knowing. As it turns out, how I randomly laid out the tiles could have led to an inability to complete the puzzle or put us back together. There’s an impossible aspect to doing any of these slide puzzles.

KT Many different elements of the book are centered around the photograph, like the use of black-and-white shades. Tell me about the image. You included the line, “As if the fixative had never been processed.”

LW Larry had set up his own dark room in a closet in our family home. The developing process is all about the revelation. He used chemicals to develop the film, but he also was prescribed chemicals, the medication lithium, to control his illness. He stopped taking his lithium because it made his hands shake, and he couldn’t be a photographer and do his art like that. There’s always the question in my mind about how things could be different if medicine and science had been more advanced, about what could have happened instead.

Two people in a black and white photo

Photo from Remove to Play by Larry Woodall.

KTWe sense Larry’s presence in his absence, in the play of dark and light throughout the book. The impossibility of separating the two individuals. How does that speak to twinship?

LWPart of what I’m exploring in my twin-loss story—and I run into this with other twins—is the question of what our new identity is? Do we get to say we’re still twins when we’ve lost a twin? Do our lives move on so we don’t share the same things anymore? There’s a different layer, a new dimension of identity. I’m still here. In many ways I am the same person I was. Obviously, we grow and change as we get older, but I definitely have this very deep sense of loss, not just of Larry, who he was and could be, but also this relationship that is even more perplexing to me, because we’re fraternal twins, and it’s not always so obvious to the rest of the world like it is with identical twins. It was a profound loss when he died because of the nature of our relationship as twins, not just brother and sister.

KTYes, and that comes through strongly in the writing.

LWI do believe it’s the last photograph of us together in the same picture before he died. We don’t have any picture of just the two of us after this evening.

KTYou include text on the tiles, and we have various samples that we can play with interspersed throughout the book. One configuration I’m thinking of is centered around the photograph, which you say haunts you. It ends with, “I want to haunt it back.” And then the tile that indicates his suicide follows: “removed with intent.”

LWIn writing a first draft and revising it and then progressively pushing the form, I realized what the act of playing the slide puzzle was about. That “remove to play” tile, I renamed “removed with intent.”  It allowed me to access my anger over what Larry did by abandoning me and family members and friends. Anger’s an emotion that I was not allowed to feel growing up, so it comes out in my writing. That was a moment for illustrative anger for me. That felt good.

KTThe actual flash of Larry’s camera is in the picture, and made me think of the moment in which he pulled the trigger and shot himself.  

LWI definitely experienced and thought of those moments of misguided action and wondered what he was thinking in that moment, what he felt and how that bullet has echoed its way through the years, in some ways always chasing me.

KTYou describe having a frozen shoulder years after his death. You write, “my body most felt the loss of you as you yanked [the shoulder] again and again across our death canal insisting I follow.” Then, “Was that gun flash lighter than the camera?” That gutted me. You wrote about the act of suicide as a permission slip.

LWYes. It was difficult that first year. Suicide was everywhere, any book, any TV show, any movie; it followed me to work. I was not in a good place, mostly because having someone close to me die by suicide really meant it was something I could consider, whereas I never would have considered it before. It was a constant battle. I did feel very much like I would prefer to be with him wherever he was, then even to stay with my family, my new children. It was just difficult. In many ways, I don’t write about that a lot, but toward the end of my revision process some of that text on the back of the slides started tapping words out to me, and I ended up highlighting words that reflected that. Obviously, I got through it, and I do encourage anybody struggling with suicidal thoughts to get help.

KTIf you had a thesis statement for your writing, what would it be?

LWI don’t know if this is a thesis statement, but something that I try to remember when I sit down to write is nuance, the gray edges of characters or people in my family who I largely write about, to see the love story and to write toward compassion for all of us, including myself.

Remove to Play is available for purchase here.

Kelly Thompson has been published in LARB, Guernica, The Rumpus, Brevity, VIDA Review, Yoga Journal, Fatal Flaw, Proximity, Manifest Station, and other literary journals. She is also curator and editor for the Voices on Addiction column at The Rumpus. She lives in the sunlight of the spirit in Denver, Colorado. Find her on Insta @kellyblog or Twitter @stareenite

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