Building a Fire for Yourself: Lillian Paige Walton by Katie Ebbitt

The writer on her debut short story collection, making the insentient sensual, the rewards of silence, and developing a mature creative practice.

Meter Wide Button by Lillian Paige Walton

Cover of Meter Wide Button on light blue background. The cover is a black and white graphite drawing of a woman wearing a hat.

Lillian Paige Walton’s debut collection of short stories, Meter-Wide Button (Sapp Press, 2021), is a brilliant flight of imagination that dissolves the borders of fantasy and reality. The stories contained are a mix of flash, chaptered, footnoted—a decadence in structure woven together through a distinctive style and engaging dialogue. A visual artist before turning to fiction, Walton’s work is atmospheric, arguably cinematic. She is a writer with a deft precision to direct a reader’s focus despite her absurdist, unexpected, storytelling. Most impressive is Walton’s imagination: Meter-Wide Button includes the terrain of an alien planet, a polyamorous kleptomaniac with an obsession for organic food, and a soak in a bath that defies gravity. Meticulous, terrifying, and humorous, this collection is enduringly vibrant.

—Katie Ebbitt

Katie EbbittMeter-Wide Button is both a surrealist and science fiction text to me. I wasn’t always sure if the stories were taking place in this solar system or somewhere beyond. 

Lillian Paige Walton I see what you’re saying. Though I do enjoy reading science fiction, I don’t consider myself to be someone who writes a lot of it. I wonder if people would still read my stories as surreal if they didn’t take place on Earth. In order for something to be surreal or absurd, there has to be an established logic for the weirdness to brush up against. I think of René Magritte’s painting, L’Empire des lumières. You have this nocturnal suburban street scene, illuminated by a streetlamp––but then the sky above is clear and blue and full of clouds. The behavior of the sky isn’t absurd in itself; it’s the sky’s deviation from the logic of the nocturnal scene below. Science fiction, on the other hand, is defined by the tools and technologies that exist within it. I think they are different, but can coexist. 

KE I am curious about your inspiration for the titular story, “Meter-Wide Button”—a story, for me, that epitomizes your ability to blend science fiction with surrealism.

LPW The idea for “Meter-Wide Button” came from the writing portion of an aptitude test I took at a tutoring center as a teenager. Essentially the prompt was, “write something about this image” and there was a drawing of a person in a space suit standing on rocky terrain, probably the moon. I wrote something about the person calling out into the emptiness. Then the timer ran out. Funny that ten years later when I sat down to write, it felt natural to continue where I’d left off. The writing process of Meter-Wide Button started the same way, with someone calling out a name into the void. The name necessitated a second body, an additional presence. Slowly, the world and the characters all grew out of this single scene––this yearning.

KE Talk to me about your writing and process in developing this collection. 

LPW Many of the stories within the collection started with a body in a space. The characters and worlds grew outwards from there. I wrote the titular story almost five years ago, when the idea of having access to a therapist with the swipe of a finger wasn’t nearly as prominent as it is today. Now, there’s a very visible app culture based upon that demand. Teletherapy is standard. While writing the story, I was listening to archived pirate radio broadcasts. Lots of Jungle, D&B, slow jams. The character of DJ Massive X and the XXX Factor radio station were definitely influenced by my affection for it all.

I like to push past the discomfort of the initial stages of writing by entering it through a meditative state, by placing a thought or a figure in an atmosphere and letting it stew for a while. It’s rare for me to have a very defined idea of a character from the outset. I see stories as a series of moving parts or bodies. The action begins to unfold when these parts bump against one another. I try to work on several pieces at a time until one takes over. It’s the same with painting. You mix a color and it might not fit where you thought it would or you mix it and it’s not the exact color you wanted, but it works well somewhere else.

In “Real Teacher,” Mr. Grey’s peeling of a clementine was inspired by my attendance at the CRUSH Reading Series. I found myself standing next to Eileen Myles at this event. They had this clementine that they were peeling and the skin wasn’t coming off easily. They kept missing the trash can. Their aim was fine, but the fruit peel just wouldn’t go in. It was really absurd because the trash wasn’t even that far away. They reached down to pick up the pieces and we sort of shrugged at one another. The whole thing was really quite frustrating to watch. The trash was right there. Eventually, I had to just look away. There’s a real discomfort that arises when an object behaves contrary to expectation. I explore this idea in a few of the stories Meter-Wide Button.

Photo of Lillian Paige Walton wearing black in front of a green wall

Photo of Lillian Paige Walton by Amanda Jasnowski Pascual.

KE In addition to working with children, you come from a visual arts background. What was the transition like from visual art to writing? How do you understand writing, visual art, and care work in confluence with one another? 

LPWWorking with young children has made me very aware of the language that I use. Silences are key. Waiting is key. You will be rewarded for waiting. Like any visual art or writing practice, teaching requires a great deal of self-reflection and criticality. I’m never exempt from my own observation. I have to consider my own tendencies, my words, my approach. People talk about the importance of detachment in a creative practice, but a degree of it is necessary in teaching too. The best teachers build the framework for a classroom that allows students to experience autonomy, independence, and community with one another. You want to be available to your students, but your goal is to make yourself obsolete. Is this a commonality with other forms of care work? Perhaps teaching is also like writing or art making in that it is an ongoing practice of learning how to design an experience for someone else. A subtle operation.

I got back into writing in my mid-twenties, in my final semesters of graduate school for painting. It was an escape, an exercise. I think I hadn’t made space for writing in my life for so long because I didn’t see how it fit into my art practice. Once I gave myself permission to do it, I was writing obsessively. Writing is my dominant practice now. Though I regret not starting earlier, I’m glad I didn’t start seriously writing or sharing my work any sooner than I did.  

KE Tell me more, why are you happy in coming to writing later?

LPW I’m glad that I lived another life first. When I was younger, I felt that I hadn’t cultivated enough experience in the world to be able to comment upon it. Perhaps that’s the wrong way to have looked at it, but I feel now that I’m able to approach my practice from a more grounded and sexually sophisticated place. The expression is more aware. It also felt significant that I was able to pursue this new practice in the dark, outside of any kind of academic training or peer surveillance. Even though I’m still learning, it feels like a mature practice because of this. This isn’t something I was taught. It’s mine.

KE I love the writer’s ability to own their writing. I am a huge advocate of autonomy. Writing, in my mind, is an embodiment of this politic. 

LPW Absolutely agreed. Writing is like building a fire for yourself. I’m thinking about this passage from Sleep Has His House by Anna Kavan in which she talks about roaming the streets at night and writing in the safety of the night-world. Writing for me always feels very much like entering a night-world. A place of heightened senses. Writing as a sort of prowling. Perhaps this feeling of power lies in the ability to control what is hidden and therefore, what is touched. 

KE Writing is no easy task, though. Throughout Meter-Wide Button, the act of writing is featured in the lives of some of the characters. Tell me about the room in which you write.  

LPWThe room in which I write is very modest. It’s a sort of half-room. There’s a window, but it faces a brick wall. Sometimes I hear birds but can’t see them. In the room is a flat file full of drawings. On writing-heavy days, I might switch between writing at my desk and laying on my side, on the ground. I’m on the ground right now as we speak, actually. No snakes or sand here––just wood floor. Sometimes a man comes in, but thankfully never to complain. To sneeze, maybe. 

KE I want to return to your comment about sexual sophistication being a part of your ability to find yourself as a writer. Meter-Wide Button is extremely visceral in its description of sweat and heat, and beautifully describes the dishevelment of bodies. You also make the insentient, sensual. A favorite line: “The fan was working overtime, lurching back and forth as though it, too, were being fucked.”                                                          

LPW Thank you. Sex carries such weight and significance, but it is also one of the most animal and mundane things in the world. It felt natural for it to float into the stories––to add something fluid where things felt dry. It’s so easy for sex to linger in the subconscious or enter through a physical environment––especially if you live in the city. The neighbor’s moans traveling through the ceiling and floor in “Residency”… Both “The Bather” and “Residency” are so much about privacy also. I guess you know it’s fiction because it takes place in a Midtown bathroom and the person is able to fit in their bathtub to begin with. 

KE How do you feel now that Meter-Wide Button is entering into the world? Is it like you’re geared up to give birth? What new projects are on your horizon?                                  

LPW It feels more like sending a child off to college than giving birth. “Well, I can’t control what you do out there, but I hope you won’t embarrass me too much when you come to visit.” Inevitably they’ll come back with some unsightly tattoos… airbrushed fractals on their car…

Some of the stories in the collection are some of the first stories I’ve ever written. The titular story is among them. I’m grateful for the book to be out in the world, but am very eager to keep working, evolving, and publishing. Right now, I have a few new stories and a chapbook-length work that I’m looking for homes for. I have a novel in the works, too.

KEI want to note that the cover art for Meter-Wide Button is your own. 

LPW Yes! The upside of working with an independent publisher was that so much of the decision making surrounding the book was mutual. Everything was discussed. I was happy to provide a cover image for the book, but felt strongly against making an image that directly illustrated a story within the text. In the image, there’s a sort of wink, but in the end, I hoped it would stand alone.

Meter-Wide Button is available for purchase here.

Katie Ebbitt is a poet and clinical social worker based in NYC. She is the author of Another Life (Counterpath Press, 2016), the chapbook Para Ana (Inpatient Press, 2019), and has contributed poetry to the anthology Rendering Unconscious (Trapart Books, 2019).

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