Q: There’s a striking mixture of the mundane and the weird in your stories that defies categorization. What are your most important influences?
A: I adore writers who explore the weird, like Aimee Bender, Kelly Luce, Matt Bell, Amber Sparks, Sarah Rose Etter, Laura Ellen Scott, and of course, the inimitable Margaret Atwood. Whether it’s speculative, magical realism, or science fiction, I love investigating good world-building techniques, weaving magic into the fabric of reality, and balancing detail with mystery. I’m also enamored with art that achieves a similar purpose. Recently, I was looking at sculptures by Ellen Jewett that are whimsical, surreal, and completely enthralling.
Q: Your stories express a profound ambivalence -- not just about sex and parenthood, but also about the fundamental possibility of self-actualization and social belonging.
A: At the end of Flannery O’Connor’s “A Good Man is Hard to Find,” the grandmother has just experienced a profound religious epiphany, where she tells the Misfit, who has just murdered her entire family, “Why, you’re one of my babies. You’re one of my own children.” After shooting her, the Misfit famously remarks, “She would of been a good woman if it had been someone there to shoot her every minute of her life.”
This portrayal of transformation, no matter if it is religious or secular, feels right to me. We all experience epiphanies, sometimes on a weekly basis. We stare at the archaic torso of Apollo and realize we must change our life. It’s time to exercise; it’s time to go back to school; it’s time to find someone who will treat me right. And our culture reinforces this idea of instant transcendence, whether through a pair of shoes or yoga classes or getting an advanced degree. However, like Flannery O’Connor shows us, we have to re-experience these epiphanies again and again. Very rarely do they create actual, lasting change. If the grandmother had survived that encounter, would she miraculously be a good person? Probably not.
Plus, what do we do when we are not only told that we can change instantly, but also that we should change? I’m interested in exploring characters as they try to live the best version of themselves while navigating conflicting cultural messages on who and what they should be, from the kind of sex they should be having to the kind of parenting they should do. Staying in that murky gray area often produces the most interesting stories for me.
Q: Your work depicts problems faced by the 35-and-under crowd: bad employment prospects, relationship disillusionment, and the loss of faith in social structures. Yet it’s never harrowing, self-pitying or self-deprecating: in fact it’s often subtly upbeat, with the characters retaining their inner dignity in surprising ways. Tell us where this optimism comes from.
A: Generally, I’m a pretty optimistic person. My mother has imbued me with inner strength, an insane work ethic, and the belief that people, as a whole, are generally good. We don’t always do good, but when we act in a shitty manner, most of the time we feel badly about it. I’m more interested in figuring out why people do what they do than bemoaning what they did. Whether it’s the former employer who, under the guise of mentorship, told me that my students wouldn’t respect me because of my youthful female appearance or the ex-boyfriend who told me “it takes a village” as justification for his indiscretions, I like to dig deep into the blood and guts and viscera and see what makes people tick. Plus, it gives me a chance to investigate my own shitty behavior, the moments I most feel shame about.
Q: Your stories cover a wide range of techniques and subjects, but share a common trait—a quietly powerful ending that suddenly calls into question the reader’s preconceived notions of what the story was “about.” Why?
A: In addition to fiction, I read a lot of poetry, and one poetic technique I really admire, besides those effortless associative leaps, is the final moment, the turn, when we end in a place fundamentally different than where we began. In “Cold Glow: Icehouses” by David Wojahn, the speaker describes watching “White Bear Lake freeze over/ twenty years ago in Minnesota, the carp oblivious below,” and in the next stanza, the Ukrainian rabbi Solomon Petrov, “afflicted with total recall,” whose wife’s death was “not remembered, but continually relived.” In the final stanza, we discover what brings these seemingly disparate elements together: “Last night you described for me/ our child pulled dead from your womb.” This child is the ghost that haunts the speaker, leading to the final lines of the poem:
Or our child whose name is ash,
is only a thought too hurtful to free.
Mornings like these, he floats at the window, waiting
and mouthing his name, there through a tangent of ice,
his face and hands ashimmer.
If I could ever create an ending as powerfully affecting as that one, I could die happy.
Q: Do you consider your writing to be autobiographical in any way?
A: While I’ve sadly never found a baby growing in the ground or watched my father turn into an angry storm cloud, these stories do reflect my own struggles and obsessions. Like most reasonable adults, I’m interested in parenthood while being absolutely terrified of it. Both “Protest” and “A Haunting” reflect that ambivalence. Like every female on the planet, I’ve struggled with issues of self-worth; concurrently, I enjoy Sharon Olds’ unflinching portraits of the body. Those two inclinations influenced “Roadkill” and “Barley.” And while I may not have the navigational ineptitude of the narrator is “Lost,” I still get turned around fairly often, even in my own hometown.