Your story in the Fiction Issue, â€œClean, Cleaner, Cleanest,â€ is about a motel maid called Marie. When did you first think of her as the subject for a story?
This story began as a reaction to the Trump election, in general. But, in particular, I was angry that I could be thought of as being part of the â€œliberal Ã©lite.â€ Even inside the literary world, I did not follow an Ã©lite path. I am a poor, public-school kid who got lucky. The only non-minimum-wage job Iâ€™ve ever had is writing. And writing is a minimum-wage job for most writers. So, yeah, I grew up in poverty and worked as a doughnut maker, pizza man, dishwasher, secretary, and janitor. I was never a motel maid, but my younger sister worked as a maid for a year and would tell us these horrific stories about the messes she encountered. Based on her experiences, I would guess that being a motel maid is among the most dehumanizing and demoralizing jobs out there. And, since motel maids are overwhelmingly female, there is also an epic degree of misogyny. I wondered what it would take for a woman to work as a maid for decades. And Marie was born out of that question.
Motels are transient places for most of usâ€”we stay for a night or two and then move on. Over the years, Marie has worked with countless cleaners who all moved on, too. In the midst of all this turnover, why did you want to write about someone who remained in one place?
I wanted to honor the physical, emotional, and spiritual strength of a blue-collar workerâ€”of a woman in the service industry. I also wanted to write about a poor white person who, contrary to societal assumptions, is a kind and empathetic person. I grew up with tons of poor white Christian conservatives, but I also knew, and know, a few poor white liberals. So, yeah, I enjoy being the Native American writing favorably about poor white liberals in the pages of The New Yorker.
When you started the story, did you know how Marie would clean a room? How did you look at a motel room through her eyes and imagine the steps by which she might clean it?
I knew about the basics of motel-room cleaning through my sisterâ€™s work experiences. But I also knew a lot about maids because every American writer is basically a travelling salesperson. I have spent hundreds of nights in motels and hotels of widely varying quality, and I pay attention to the lives of people around me, especially the folks who are working in service. I am the guy who will clean and organize his roomâ€”towels piled in the tub, garbage in the bins, stray hairs gatheredâ€”before checking out so that the maid has it a bit easier. She will spend less time in my room, so sheâ€™ll have more time for the messes left behind by the inconsiderate guests. I also tip ten bucks for each night I have been in the room.
Marie is a Catholicâ€”though flexibly Catholic, she thinks, rather than strictly Catholic. How significant is her faith in the story?
There is such a thing as a liberal American Christian. I am married to one of them. So I am constantly irritated by their exclusion from the national dialogueâ€”from the theological debate.
And, since liberal Christian theology is all about social justice and service to others, I think itâ€™s fairly easy to think of service workers as being Christlike. Think of Jesus washing the feet of the poor. So maybe Marie is Jesus as a motel maid.
Youâ€™re publishing a memoir, â€œYou Donâ€™t Have to Say You Love Me,â€ in June. It explores your relationship with your family, in particular with your father, a Coeur dâ€™Alene Indian, and your mother, a member of the Spokane Tribe. Your fiction has sometimes drawn on events from your own life or tales you heard. But this is the first time that youâ€™ve written a memoir. Did it feel like a different undertaking? Did writing the book change your understanding of your parentsâ€™ livesâ€”and your own?
I have never felt more vulnerable in my writing life than I do now. I have never written about my difficult mother in such detail, in fiction or in nonfiction. In writing this memoir about her, I have come to understand for the first time that she, and not my father, is the primary source of my storytelling life. My late father was easy to love; my late mother was never easy to love. My love for her is contentious, as is my love for my own writing. My mother and my books are all siblings.
The Fiction Issue this year is centered on the theme of American jobs. When you were a child, what did you think youâ€™d grow up to be? Did you ever imagine that youâ€™d become a writer?
I had planned on becoming a pediatrician, and started college as a chemistry/math double major. But then I took human anatomy and quickly learned that I was more interested in the heart as metaphor than as an actual body organ in my hands. As for my life now as a writer? It constantly seems like a miracle.
If you could have any job in the world, what would it be?
In another life, I am a high-school English teacher who also coaches the basketball team. And that life would also be a miracle.