The narrator of “A Love Story,” which is published in this week’s issue, is an occasional pot dealer, a writer, a wife, and a mother of three. When did she first enter your mind as the subject for a story?
My working title for “A Love Story” was “The Middle of the Night.” I had three children under the age of three, and a very intimate acquaintance with the nighttime. I convinced myself of horrors alone in the dark, a hazard of my job. This narrator comes out of that experience. She’s someone who knows more than one reality to be true. I want “A Love Story” to dismiss hysteria and to be honest about the truth that exists in fiction, mental illness, love, hormones, the night, postpartum anxiety, drugs, and motherhood.
Early on in the story, the narrator observes, “The last time my husband and I had sex was eight months ago.” Why did you want your narrator to be so explicit about this?
Humiliation offers a shortcut to honesty. When fear comes, we shut down the boundary to our body, creep our shoulders up the neck, fold in around the heart. It would be wiser to turn to another body for help, but it’s not what we do. In the period of overwhelming motherhood that I’m writing about in “A Love Story,” the boundaries between bodies fail. Lovers and kids constantly break the rule of skin, make us porous. What protection is there for the porous? There’s none, and ideas of protection, of “Be safe!,” only create more fear. Better to open the door. Can another person save us from the dark of night? Temporarily, yes. Permanently, no. Growing up, my mother kept a quote from Pascal on our refrigerator: On mourra seul—everyone will die alone. A strange message for the fridge, as if the O.J. will kill you! But there it always was, still is.
The story is riven with anxiety and desire, and the narrator is both explaining those feelings to herself and, it seems, to some third party. Sometimes it might be her husband, at other times it feels as though she’s directly addressing us, the reader, as she jumps from one thought to another. Were the tone and the structure of the story clear to you as you were working on it?
I had hoped that the explicit talk of night terrors, hormones, even marriage would ring so true to some readers that I’d be able to simply address them, to confirm the existence of odd places they already know. Some sense of saying, “We all agree that fiction tells the real truths, right?” Also, fear can be an out-of-body experience. Nothing ever seems as scary as it did in the middle of the night. So, she’s being her own mother here. Cracking open the fear, then saying, “Sh-h-h. Calm down. Everything’s O.K.” She’s talking to herself. Lastly, I wrote this piece by collecting chunks of evidence. I then presented the evidence, as if to a jury. That doesn’t sound very graceful, but I do feel as if the universe often colludes with me in making this kind of writing. When I focus on one question, say fear, or rhinoceroses, soon stories of rhinoceroses are appearing everywhere around me and all I have to do is collect them.
The narrator is demanding some kind of reckoning with the complexity of being a woman and a wife and a mother, something that goes beyond the simple bromide of how a woman might juggle career and children, say. Is it rare to find that kind of reckoning?
The part of sexism that bores and angers me most is the culling, the simplification of women into Hallmark cards of femininity. When I became a mom, no one ever said, “Hey, you made a death. You made your children’s deaths.” Meanwhile, I could think of little else. It’s scary to think of mothers as makers of death, but it sure gives them more power and complexity than one usually finds.
Are there any particular writers (or other artists) you’ve turned to when thinking about motherhood and identity?
I am one of six children. My friend Tricia is one of nine. A few years ago, she gave me the mothering books of ShirIey Jackson, “Life Among the Savages” and “Raising Demons.” There’s Jackson, the mother of four, being both things: the horror and the humor. I only wish that she’d lived long enough to bring the horror and humor even closer together, under one cover. Many of the books written about mothering are created by people with one child because, I suppose, women with more than one child never find time to write. I can behave like a real jerk around these books, like, Oh, one kid? I could do that with my eyes closed. It’s not kind or right, but it’s how I feel.
At one stage, the narrator observes, “From one small body I made three new humans. I grew these complex beauties. I made their lungs and their noses.” At another point, she reflects, “My body’s coursing with secret genes and hormones and proteins. My body made eyeballs and I have no idea how.” So much about childbirth is taken for granted, yet these sentences draw out both physical and metaphysical questions about what it means to create another human being. How significant is that aspect of the story?
How can we be honest except to say that we don’t understand? While I enjoy being overwhelmed by the wonderful, the magnificent, I also wouldn’t mind having more information. Nobody was telling me what I wanted to hear when I was pregnant. There’s a lot of focus on the selfishness of birth: Do it at home! Do it underwater! You are important! What would have helped me more is if someone had said, “Here’s how your body just built an eyeball.” I still have no idea. And I chalk that ignorance up to sexism. If men made eyes, we’d learn how it happens in second grade.
The narrator fears potential predators that may be outside her house: coyotes, gangs, an intruder searching for a way in. You’ve given her husband a shortened version of your own name, Sam, and at the end he’s both the feared intruder and the person she opens the door to. Why did you want to give him your name? And did you always know that she’d open the door?
I could have named every character here Sam. As a story about fear, it is a story about the tales we tell ourselves. I create my worst fears myself. The coyote comes from my life. I had postpartum anxiety after my kids were born. I called a friend one night and told her that there were wolves and coyotes outside my house and they wanted to eat my babies. She thought that I was speaking metaphorically, because there are no wolves where we live. There are, however, loads of coyotes, and I hear them howling at night. I love that now, but when my babies were little, it was chilling. So, I was not speaking in metaphors. I was under the influence of an expanded reality. I knew that I’d leave the door open in the end of the story. As a young adult, I lived in a geodesic dome on a remote mountain in Vermont. One night I woke, terrified. I couldn’t move, but I also knew that if I didn’t move I’d be forever scared. So I got out of bed. I was wearing only a T-shirt and underwear, and I went outside and told the universe that if it was coming to chop me to bits, would it please come now, because I couldn’t stand being scared any longer. I stood outside in the night and waited to be chopped up. Nothing appeared besides stars and darkness. Eventually, I went back to bed.
You’re publishing your first collection of stories, “The Dark Dark,” in July. This comes after three novels, “The Seas,” “The Invention of Everything Else,” and “Mr. Splitfoot.” Were you writing stories alongside the novels? What was it like to consider the stories as a whole, when you were putting together the collection? Were you surprised by anything?
I write stories alongside my novels as a place to turn temporarily when the novels head south. I am pleased to think of the stories in “The Dark Dark” as a whole, or siblings, or even points on a map. The map is titled, “Humans in the Middle of the Night.” That’s a map I like to consider.