In “The Prairie Wife,” your story in this week’s issue, a woman named Kirsten is obsessed with the Twitter feed of Lucy Headrick, a social-media celebrity known for her approachable evangelical religiosity, her homeschooling of her children, and her down-home recipes. It’s clear why Kirsten is fascinated by Lucy—they used to know each other—but why are the rest of us so interested in figures such as Lucy? Is it the combination of what often seem to be opposite worlds—those of social media and traditional skills and values? Is it the apparent effortlessness and happiness of their lives?
Obviously, different people have dramatically varying levels of skepticism. (Not that this was ever a secret, but it seems to have been highlighted by the 2016 election.) So I imagine that some followers of a person like Lucy admire her in a sincere and uncomplicated way, trust that her self-presentation is accurate, and would like for their own lives to be more like hers. And she specifically, of course, taps into fantasies of idyllic rural life held by urban or suburban dwellers. Then I think there can be a more skeptical follower who still admires her, but more as a shrewd businesswoman than for the values or the life she ostensibly embodies. Yet another category of person is a kind of hate follower, who doesn’t like her but enjoys being annoyed by her. In general, when any of us get outraged by relatively minor pop-cultural phenomena, I suspect it’s a way of relaxing and not focussing on more daunting and intractable problems, whether personal or social.
Kirsten and Lucy were once counsellors at a summer camp together, where they had a brief fling. Kirsten thinks that this makes Lucy a hypocrite, because she’s now married to a man and embodies what some people might call traditional values. What makes Kirsten burn with such desire to have Lucy exposed? What kind of frustration is she experiencing?
I think Kirsten isn’t particularly happy, and she’s funnelling her dissatisfaction toward Lucy, though it could just as easily be funnelled elsewhere. It’s more a confluence of circumstances that makes her focus on Lucy—the fact that Lucy is famous and appears to be very happy combined with the fact that Kirsten once knew her combined with the fact that Kirsten sees a discrepancy between Lucy’s public persona and past combined with the fact that Kirsten’s co-worker Frank shares and encourages Kirsten’s preoccupation combined with the fact that Lucy’s social media creates a narrative structure that unfolds little by little every day. Lucy’s life is like an unresolved story Kirsten is hooked on rather than an incident that’s finished, which might allow her to leave it behind.
Lucy and Kirsten’s sexual experience together is something of a revelation for Kirsten, though she’s somewhat confused, at the time, about what the nature of that revelation is. She thinks it’s preparation for “real” sex, with a guy. Is writing about sexual situations, for you, different from writing about other human interactions?
Writing about characters having sex isn’t very different from writing about characters doing anything else, but it would be disingenuous to act like I don’t know that it can be received differently by readers. The kind of fiction I like to read and write is very specific and detailed about everything—settings, moods, smells, textures—so to me it’s kind of silly or coy not to apply that specificity and detail to sex, and I don’t see the point of coy fiction. Therefore, I write the scenes that I think serve a particular story or novel, and in the moment of writing, I sort of exist in a parallel universe and don’t consider what, say, my uncle or my former co-worker might think of my description of a blow job. Right before my work is published, I do think about it and the truth is that I feel queasy and think, What have I done? Because I’m not usually someone who defies social norms. Then again, I suspect from feedback over the years that at least 75% of readers find a story more entertaining (or more something) with sex. It’s just that when I’m interacting with my readers (including a nun in a recent book club), I don’t know who’s in what percent.
At times, I myself have wondered why I include sex in fiction and whether it’s just a hassle and not worth it. In 2012, I read these lines in an article in the New York Review of Books, by Elaine Blair, about Lena Dunham’s “Girls,” and they helped me understand something about my own work: “If all you want to do is convey an erotic tension between two people, you can leave out explicit depictions of sex acts. But if you are interested in the psychological implications of what happens between people during sex, you need to show something of the sex.”