Mant Bares speaks with Alain-Jules Hirwa about her story “Lady Sings”

When I read Mant Bares’ “Lady Sings,” winner of the Porter House Review’s 2019 Editor’s Prize in Fiction, I was impressed by the precision of her writing. Her characters are vulnerable in a way that makes the reader feel vulnerable, which evokes an eagerness to consume more of Bares’ work as the only possible medicine. This kind of literary prowess is what led me to reach out to Bares, so that she’d share with me a little bit about her writing life.

Alain-Jules Hirwa: First, congratulations on winning Porter House Review’s 2019 Editor’s Prize in Fiction! From your Twitter account, I learned that you started working on “Lady Sings” in 2015. Can you share with me how the piece came to be? 

Mant Bares: The story started at the beginning, with the bug that turns out to be a star. I was in Greece with my now-husband, on the island his family is from, and you can see just about every star in the sky out there, along with every bit of refuse burning up in the atmosphere. I immediately transcribed my own bug-as-star experience and soon connected that to the Louisiana execution research I was doing (out of curiosity). The big turning point for the first draft was realizing it’s Clementine’s mother, not her father, who is going to be executed. It’s my favorite story of mine, partly because it evolved over so many drafts. I finished the final draft in late 2018.

Hirwa: That leads me to ask if there were any major shifts or difficult obstacles in the process of writing “Lady Sings.How do you go about the process of revision?

Bares: Endings! I had over a half dozen different endings for this piece before I landed on this one. I knew I didn’t want to include the actual execution, but how to stop short? Now I tend to only start stories once I know the ending.

Hirwa: The title, “Lady Sings,” references Billie Holiday’s, “Lady Sings the Blues.” I’m interested to know your personal relationship with Billie Holiday’s life and music, and to what extent does music inform your writing?

Bares: I have a theory that everyone, at all times, has a song stuck in their head. It may be at the back of their mind, but it’s there, in a loop, waiting to be recalled. This piece came into focus when I realized the narrator listens to Billie Holiday while doing her research. I do love Holiday—I was as upset as Clementine when I found out how she died. But her prominence in this story has a lot more to do with Clementine loving her. There are other musical references in the story. I had to leave out a surprising number of great tuberculosis-adjacent songs, and the characters’ names tie into songs—but Holiday’s expression of pain, her voice but also literally the tortured look on her face when she sang her blues, is what Clementine can’t get out of her head. She has “God Bless the Child” stuck in there most of the time.

Hirwa: Inside the visible or obvious hate relationship between Clementine and Randal’s families, there is an invisible love, Clementine’s crush on Randal. Did you at some point compare this to the situation of racism in the USA?      

Bares: All I can say to that is Black lives matter. We take for granted that Randal’s does. If Bonnie had killed a Black boy leaning on her car, she could very likely have been acquitted—which is a different story altogether.

Hirwa: What are you working on now?

Bares: I’m working most on my novel The Trouble You Do Not Name and a currently untitled story collection.

Hirwa: Final question, a cigarette or a cup of coffee, what’s your preference? I base this question on Clementine, when they smoked in a car. I like to drink coffee so I just thought I’d ask.

Bares: That’s an easy one! Coffee, because I don’t smoke cigarettes.