Your story in this weekâ€™s issue, â€œHerman Melville, Volume 1,â€ is about a young woman who has been drifting from town to town in Oregon with her boyfriend, Evan. The story opens as sheâ€™s carrying all their stuffâ€”â€œtwo skateboards, two backpacks, the banjo in its scratched-up caseâ€â€”and searching for Evan, who has disappeared. Did you always know youâ€™d start the story this way, with your homeless protagonist carrying the equivalent of two homes on her back?
Honestly, I never know where Iâ€™m going to start a story until I start. For me, a first sentence is often like a crazy blob of paint that my subconscious throws down on the pageâ€”and then I work from there toward a greater understanding of the picture. Of course, I quickly recognized the origin of this girlâ€”and realized that sheâ€™d been lurking at the back of my mind for some time. I live part of the year in Ashland, Oregon, where there are a lot of drifters passing through townâ€”and, a year or so ago, Iâ€™d seen a young woman, quite dirty, obviously homeless, who was carrying this very beautiful but worn banjo case. At that point, I didnâ€™t make much of itâ€”but then, there I was, much later, sitting at my desk and writing the first line of this story. The girl was back, but this time I pictured her burdened with all this stuff. I suppose I may have seen the weight of some sadness on the real girlâ€™s face, and so when I wrote about her I physicalized this feeling with the two backpacks, the two skateboards. As for the boyfriend thatâ€™s missing, he just came to me as I wroteâ€”again, maybe because the real girl had looked so alone, so lonely.
Of course, I can see now that the girl and I have some things in common. Iâ€™d run away from my life in Arizona, to hide out in Oregon and finish my second novel. Iâ€™d left Tucson with two suitcases, and then lived out of them for a couple of years. Like the girl, I was in a strange new place, trying to find my way. I suppose this similarity helped me find my way into the character. I started out observing her, but then I became her. And thatâ€™s always the most fertile place for me to write fromâ€”from inside a character. I think it helps keep me truthful, emotionally, and prevents me from writing anything just to be clever. I donâ€™t care for stories that come across too blatantly as something written by a â€œwriter.â€ I prefer stories in which the characters seem to exist on their own. Maybe thatâ€™s because Iâ€™m also a playwright.
The story takes its title from a book Evan has picked up along the way, a thousand-page biography of the first thirty or so years of Melvilleâ€™s life. Why did you choose this particular book?Â
When I was listing the books in Evanâ€™s backpack, the Melville biography just popped into my head. At that point, I was simply thinking of big books, heavy books that might weigh the girl down, slow her progress. But, as I continued to work on the piece, Melville and â€œMoby-Dickâ€ began to resonate with the storyâ€”almost to haunt it. At one point, the girl says that sheâ€™s never read â€œMoby-Dick,â€ though she knows itâ€™s about a whale.Â Man against nature,Â she thinks, recalling the phrase from school. Of course, here itâ€™sÂ Woman against natureâ€”nature being not only the natural world but also the world of men and their natures. I liked the way the masculine mystique of Melville and â€œMoby-Dickâ€ stood behind this girlâ€™s story. Though I donâ€™t like to think about these things too much as I write, I sensed the whale as being somehow connected to the girlâ€™s griefâ€”this great, wild thing inside her. And then, at the end of the story, she seems to become this creatureâ€”powerful, and immune to the savagery of men.
The last story of yours we published, â€œJack, July,â€ followed a boy in Tucson who is also living on the margins of society. Like Jack, the protagonist in â€œHerman Melville, Volume 1,â€ is originally from Tucson, although the setting of this story is a long way from the dryness and heat of Arizona. Are these two stories linked for you in any way?
Yes, I think they are. Iâ€™ve been working for a number of years now on a series of Tucson stories, a place I lived for many years and still spend some time. Whatâ€™s funny is that I didnâ€™t start writing these stories until relocating to Oregon.
Rilke, I recall, once romantically said that living through something isnâ€™t enough to be able to write about it. He proposed that one had to forget thingsâ€”and then have the patience to wait for oneâ€™s memories to return, and that only then, when these recollections arise unexpectedly from deep in your blood, can one make them into a story or a poem. From my own experience, there seems to be some truth in that.
Tucson, for both the girl and me, is a lost home. This was another way I was able to connect with herâ€”through our longing for a world that no longer exists. Longing is a very powerful place to work from, as a writer. It can create an interesting emotional tension.
Jack gives his name to the title of his story; here your protagonist doesnâ€™t have a name. Was that a deliberate decision?
Good question. I rarely write pieces in which the names of the characters are not given to the reader. In fact, I donâ€™t think Iâ€™ve ever done that before. But, in this piece, even though the girlâ€™s name occurred to me at one point, I decided not to include it. Perhaps thatâ€™s because no one in the story ever asks the girl; no one seems to care enough. Of course, we learn many other names: Evan, Kathryn, Lawrence of Arabia. At the end of the story, in the final exchange, thereâ€™s a sense that the girlâ€™s name might soon be revealedâ€”but the story ends before this occurs. It just felt right to leave her unnamed. It seemed to give her a kind of power, a kind of pride, even, to allow her to keep her name to herself.
Initially, the girl doesnâ€™t know whatâ€™s happened to Evan. Without him, sheâ€™s vulnerable, and at the mercy of the strangers she encounters on the streets. An older woman saves her from an attack, yet itâ€™s unclear whether this woman is her savior or represents further danger. How important is that sense of uncertainty in the story?
I would say itâ€™s very importantâ€”and isnâ€™t that true of most stories? You always want there to be some kind of suspense in regard to what will happen next, or even in regard to understanding the motives or morality of the characters. Of course, for me, thatâ€™s easy, because I never really never know whatâ€™s going to happen next when Iâ€™m writing. I never work with a plan or an outline of any kind; I just figure things out as I go along. For instance, while writing this story, I was unclear for a while about the older womanâ€™s motives. Was she a Good Samaritan or was she another predator? I had to keep writing to find out. Hopefully, the drama of my writing process, this tension of not knowing that propels me forward, translates into a kind of drama for the reader. In regard to the missing boyfriend, Evan, I wasnâ€™t simply withholding information as to where he was at the beginning of the story; I had no idea what had happened to him. The girl and I edged toward the truth together. Itâ€™s this sort of detective work that keeps me interested as I work, and, again, hopefully it does the same for a reader. I think at the core of all writing and reading is mysteryâ€”the ultimate mystery being, who are other people? One writesâ€”and readsâ€”in an attempt to answer this question, or at least to get closer to an answer. Itâ€™s a very humanizing endeavor.
Early on, the girl thinks, â€œItâ€™s a pretty little townâ€”sheâ€™ll give it that.â€ It has â€œfairy-tale pines,â€ and â€œsquirrels cheeky with nuts and autumn roses poking through fences. Some of the houses look like the witchâ€™s cottage from â€˜Hansel and Gretel.â€™Â â€ Later, when the girl is invited by the woman into her home, do you want us to remember that description? Did you always know how the story would end? Is it a fairy-tale ending?
First of all, yes, I think there is a connection between the â€œHansel and Gretelâ€ cottages and the womanâ€™s house. Of course, the womanâ€™s house doesnâ€™t smell like cookies, but like â€œmold and flowers and snuffed-out candles.â€ And itâ€™s not really clear, at first, if the woman wants to feed the girl out of kindness or if thereâ€™s something else going on. Does she want to fatten the girl up only to devour her?
As for the ending being a fairy-tale one, I can say that it feels like one of my more hopeful endings. The last bit of the story is quite a swerve, and I wrote it quickly, and decided to keep it short. I remember laughing when I wrote itâ€”and then suddenly crying. The characters in most of my stories are havingÂ veryÂ bad days, but as I write these tales, Iâ€™m always hoping that I can arrive at some measure of grace or dignity for them. That doesnâ€™t always happen, of course. Grace isnâ€™t something that can be forced.
I wondered whether there was any particular book or film or TV show or piece of music youâ€™d been reading or watching or listening to recently.
Nice change of subject! Well, I never listen to music while Iâ€™m writing. But, in the evening, lately, you might hear some Belle and Sebastian in my house (mostly â€œIf Youâ€™re Feeling Sinisterâ€) and probably some of DvoÅ™Ã¡kâ€™s â€œPoetic Tone Pictures.â€ As for books, Iâ€™ve been rereading the â€œOld Filthâ€ novels of Jane Gardam. They have hideous covers, but donâ€™t let that stop you from reading them, if you havenâ€™t. Theyâ€™re wonderful.
Youâ€™ve just published your second novel, â€œEdgar and Lucy,â€ this month, about an eight-year-old albino boy named Edgar and his mother, Lucy. The first lines of the novel read: â€œHaving a life meant having a story. Even at eight, Edgar knew this.â€ Edgarâ€™s story spools out over the next five hundred pages. How do you find the movement between short stories and novels? Whatâ€™s it like to keep a character in your head for the length of a story versus a novel?
Well, â€œEdgar and Lucyâ€ is definitely more complicated, structurally, than anything else Iâ€™ve written. Itâ€™s more symphonic, in that there are a lot of characters and various intersecting stories. Before coming to fiction, I was (still am) a playwrightâ€”and when I work on a play, I can keep every bit of the story in my head. And so as I make changes and adjustments I understand immediately the effect theyâ€™ll have on the rest of the piece. This is true for my short fiction, as wellâ€”and was even the case with my first novel, â€œMathilda Savitch,â€ which is much shorter than my new book, and is written from the perspective of a single character. With â€œEdgar and Lucy,â€ I became overwhelmed after a while by the sheer number of details and events I was processing, and I needed to put notes up on the walls of my officeâ€”so many notes that the room started to look like the cell of a lunatic, with taped-up pages saying things like â€œRemember Orion!â€ or â€œWhere are the acorns?â€ Writing a good short story, though still difficult, is a less chaotic undertaking. Even if thereâ€™s chaos within a story, it happens in a small space. The writer Hortense Calisher once described a short story as â€œan apocalypse in a teacup.â€ Because of their brevity (compared to a novel), thereâ€™s something particularly moving to me about the short story form. You get only so much time with the situation and with the characters. With a novel, thereâ€™s a feeling of living a life with the charactersâ€”and that can be a lovely thing. With a story, youâ€™re having a fling, an affairâ€”and itâ€™s an opportunity for a different, sometimes wilder, kind of passion.