By Nicole Lassen
Nicole Lassen: The title story, “What You Are Now Enjoying,” is about a group of women who struggle with the ethical problems of breastfeeding orphan infants as a form of therapy. What is the relationship between the themes in this story and the themes in the rest of the collection?
Sarah Gerkensmeyer: When I was trying to think through how to organize the collection, I decided to begin with “What You Are Now Enjoying” because I liked the idea of beginning with younger characters (20-something-year-olds who are finished with college and trying to figure out what their lives might look like now) and ending with “The Cellar”--a story that features an elderly couple near the end of their life together. I liked the idea of following some kind of lifespan arc in that way. I've also realized that all of my characters, no matter how different they are from one another, are facing some kind of emptiness in their lives. And I noticed that beyond the somewhat superficial aesthetic of beginning with younger characters and ending with elderly characters, the first story introduces people who are trying to grapple with and even recognize that emptiness and loneliness, etc.--while the two characters in the final story have faced that emptiness head-on and challenged it and even shaped it into something to cherish and hold onto and protect. A kind of “been there done that” experience, but in a much more lyrical fashion, I hope.
NL: Because your characters often cannot pinpoint their inner conflicts, your stories seem to subvert traditional understandings of narrative arc. Your stories’ resolutions seem more like explorations of the purposelessness of the characters’ inner conflicts. Do you ever worry about disappointing readers with your less traditional form of conflict resolution?
SG: I have just fallen in love with this bold question. And I won't answer it, directly, because I'm too scared to think about how these stories might disappoint readers. Writers are too vulnerable for that kind of reflection.
I often look at Charles Baxter's fantastic essay “Against Epiphanies” with my students. He doesn't exactly argue that all fiction writers should rule the possibility of epiphany out at all times. But he throws up so many wonderful red flags for us to consider when it comes to that impulse that we all have to help our characters “figure it out.” He tells us to be wary of language like “Suddenly I realized...” and “I finally recognized...” He tells us to be wary of that neat and tidy moment, often a couple pages before the end, when the cogs and whirligigs in a character's brain neatly click into place and she “gets it.” Her problems are suddenly accessible to her, easy to identify and easy to understand and easy to slide beneath and fix up with a little hammering and screwing and bracing and ratcheting into place. I agree with Baxter that we should be wary of the impulse to give our characters complete access to understanding, even after running them through the horrible, emotional wringer of our stories (although I do identify with that impulse—to nurture them after the things we put them through!). But aren't we suspicious of neat answers and neat resolutions? Shouldn't we be suspicious of sudden tidiness after a massively destructive storm?
I align myself with Flannery O'Connor's ideas about “grace.” She said that she wanted to give her characters the opportunity to recognize and make sense of their screwed up lives, but that those characters didn't have to take that opportunity (and they often didn't even recognize that it was there, staring them in the face). So I guess I'm glad if my characters' inner conflicts come off as “purposelessness,” in a way. I'm terrified of giving the reader a character who suddenly just seems to get it. Because then I think that character becomes something less than human, and I don't want to take that authenticity away from her.
NL: Your collection is full of extraordinarily ordinary—dare I say, “SuperNormal?” —characters. Some of which include a superhero, a talking baby, a ghost, and a monster. All of them struggle with everyday problems. What made you decide to create these types of characters?
SG: The first few times I dipped into magical realism and the fantastic in my stories, it wasn't a conscious decision I had made. I had no idea what I was doing, at the time, or even what someone might call it. The strange and the weird and the bizarre sneaked up on me and insisted on sticking around. For a while, I felt like I had two sets of stories with a horrible chasm running between them, setting up what felt like an uncrossable boundary between the real and the unreal, the ordinary and the unordinary.
I was worried for a while there, thinking I had two separate writerly voices and personas and hearts. It took me a few years to recognize (beware—the language of epiphany!) that I was writing the same kind of story over and over again, in very different ways. Recently I've found myself gravitating toward the fantastic side of that chasm, but I also know that there is a very solid bridge between the ordinary and the unordinary in our lives and in the stories we tell. I'm writing about real characters using a surreal slant because to me that's become the most effective way to focus in on their lives and get a good, thorough look.