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10 Questions for D.K. Lawhorn

D.K. Lawhorn

"Caught between Sister Eustace’s fingers, my ear is close to ripping off as she drags me through the schoolhouse and toward the steps that lead to the Mother Superior’s room. This is the only part of the morning that hasn’t gone to plan. I focus on the comforting weight of the silver dinner knife tucked into the waistband of my skirt. Its cold length digs against my hip bone and reassures me. My trip upstairs won’t end like the others. All those girls who have gone before me. I will come back down. I will slay the monster waiting up there. I will kill the Mother Superior, ear or no ear."
—from "Mother Tongue" by D.K. Lawhorn, Volume 64, Issue 3 (Fall 2023)

Tell us about one of the first pieces you wrote.
In elementary school, the counselor was convinced I had ADHD because of how disruptive I was in class. I remember having a conference with the vice-principal and my parents, who recommended my parents try to get me on medication to help bring my energy down. As we left, my first grade teacher told my parents to wait before taking me to a doctor because she thought she might have a solution. She saw that I became disruptive when I finished my work faster than the rest of the class. So she gave me a notebook and told me to write her a story whenever I finished my work early. I began writing an epic tale of me and my friend John in the army fighting zombies and tornado monsters and a very poorly hidden rip-off of Freddy Kruger, every page illustrated by my own hand in colored pencils because I’ve never cared too much for crayons. That year, I filled up two journals with my zombie story. I still have both of those journals, and I like to look back at them to remember how far I’ve come since I started writing fiction.

What writer(s) or works have influenced the way you write now?
Two writers and their work really pushed me into taking writing more seriously. The first is N.K. Jemisin. On the podcast LeVar Burton Reads, he did the story ‘Valedictorian’ from Jemisin’s collection How Long ‘Til Black Future Month?. Everything about this story blew my mind, and I listened to it three times that day, goosebumps overtaking me with each listen. A month later, LeVar read ‘Staying Behind’ by Ken Liu, another brain breaking read that reworked how I looked at writing and the art of fiction. These two stories spurred me into applying to an MFA and treating all my speculative stories as serious works of literature. Since I’ve taken on the burden of ‘serious writer’, the works of Alix E. Harrow and Stephen Graham Jones have been indispensable to my prose. Stephen’s short story work is highly reflected in ‘Mother Tongue’, and is P. Djèlí Clark’s novella Ring Shout.

What other professions have you worked in?
I’ve been a machinist for the last ten years in the same factory my dad has worked in since I was born. I also do professional acting and theater directing in the central Virginia area. Way back in the day, I was a groundskeeper for a Seventh-Day Aventist day camp. They never cared that I wasn’t part of the faith and never said anything when I ate pepperoni pizza. To this day, I still quite love mowing grass and doing general yard work, even in the dog days of summer.

What did you want to be when you were young?
Professional baseball player. I played baseball from when I was five years old until I was eighteen. I played first base and could do a full split stretching out to beat the runners to the base. I never tried to play college baseball because I started taking theater and writing a bit more seriously there.

What inspired you to write this piece?
Oglala Lakota poet Layli Long Soldier teaches at the MFA program I went through. My second semester there, she gave a reading of an unpublished poem she was working on that was inspired by her work in Lakota language restoration. In this poem, she did many breathtaking turns around the phrase ‘mother tongue’, and it stuck deep inside me long after the reading. Then I read Ring Shout by P. Djèlí Clark and all the pieces fell into place for the story that had been brewing in the back of my mind since that Layli Long Soldier reading. I have to give the appropriate props to the show Reservation Dogs for the general inspiration that gives me for all the stories I write. I cannot give enough thanks to Sterling Harjo and Dallas Goldtooth.

Is there a city or place, real or imagined, that influences your writing?
Central Virginia. As a member of the Monacan Indian Nation, this place has a ten-thousand-year hold on me. I can’t think of any place I’d rather write in or about.

Is there any specific music that aids you through the writing or editing process?
The Arctic Monkeys. Many of my stories and the first proper novel I wrote are inspired by random lyrics plucked from Alex Turner’s mind. When it comes to listening to something while actually writing, though, I like having on a lo-fi playlist of some sort. Either that, or the general home screen music on my PS5. I have tinnitus, so me and silence don’t do too well together. A little noise helps the ringing subside, and that noise might as well be some chill beats.

Do you have any rituals or traditions that you do in order to write?
I really don’t. I’m a bit of a guerilla writer. Some of my best work saw its first draft written in the bathroom at work on my phone.

If you could work in another art form what would it be?
I really want to make movies. Writing, directing, acting; I’d love to do all of it. I have one screenplay for a horror short film sitting in my trunk, I just am not sure exactly when the next steps from producing it would be, since my background is more in theater than film, and it’s much easier to put on a play than make a film.

What are you reading right now?
The Guns of August by Barbara W. Tuchman, as research for the World War I novel. The Water Dancer by Ta-Nehisi Coates, which I picked up because I loved Ta-Nehisi’s work in the Captain America comics. It’s a beautiful story, and is also giving me a lot of inspiration for how to write a historical novel. I’m also reading one story a day from the anthology The Book of Witches, which I was reading one day at a taco truck and scared a man so bad with that he felt like he had to pay for my dinner and pray over me, but, hey, I’ll never say no to free tacos.


D.K. LAWHORN (he/him) has stories that have appeared in ANMLY, khōréō magazine, and Flame Tree Press’s First Peoples Shared Stories Anthology, with pieces upcoming in the fall 2023 issue of the Massachusetts Review and Baffling Magazine. He was part of the Tin House Fall Workshop 2022 cohort and will be attending Clarion West in the summer of 2023. A citizen of the Monacan Indian Nation, D.K. lives on his ancestral land in Virginia with his legion of rescue cats. He is a graduate of Randolph College’s MFA in Creative Writing program, where he concentrated his studies on Native American speculative fiction.

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