Searching for Artifacts: An Interview with Sara Majka

Author photo credit: Chris Ward

Author photo credit: Chris Ward

In the opening piece in Sara Majka’s haunting debut collection of linked stories, Cities I’ve Never Lived In, the narrator announces that she is in the middle of a divorce and about to board a train into a city. Her solution to her problems is “to move from place to place, trying to thread together, if not our marriage and our lives, then something in ourselves.”

In their attempts to find themselves, the characters in Cities I’ve Never Lived In drift through towns that look like they belong to faded photographs of a lost New England. In one story, a character’s parents disappear and his island home can’t be found on any maps. Later, he befriends a woman who looks like his missing mother. In another story, a man sees a younger version of himself in a painting found in an attic. In yet another story, the narrator sees herself as a child in an old museum security tape.

This is a world of doubles and lost artifacts. “Perhaps I like the magical qualities of not being able to find a place again,” the narrator says at one point. And yet, Majka’s characters keep searching for a familiar view, for elusive childhood mementos—as if they “had all gone somewhere in a dream together.” If these characters travel in order to find themselves, they are successful in their endeavor: they find versions of themselves again and again.

A few weeks ago, Sara Majka and I exchanged long emails about what draws people to places they’ve never lived in, motherhood, and New England folklore.

Bruna Dantas Lobato: Tell me about the moment when you realized that your stories were thematically linked.

Sara Majka: I had a hard time finding an agent (I finally got my terrific agent, Sarah Levitt, through lucky circumstances just as the book deal with Graywolf/A Public Space was coming through), and so I had a finished manuscript for a year or two on my hands, and I would work on it a little bit each time I sent it out, and it changed dramatically from a loose association to linked stories. I’m a purist by nature so was resistant to pushing it into linked stories, but when I finally committed to it (about a year before it was published), it was easy and made the whole thing make more sense. Once I made that decision, I also wrote two new stories very quickly.

Jonathan Lee—who was at A Public Space and is now at Catapult—helped me think about ordering it, and then my editor, Brigid Hughes, who is also what I would call a purist, would sort of ask how the stories went together, and I figured she was suggesting that they might be more closely linked with a few changes.Continue Reading

Review: PRODIGALS by Greg Jackson

Greg Jackson
Farrar, Straus and Giroux, Feb 2016
240 pp; $25

Buy: hardcover | eBook

Consisting of eight short stories that focus on the inner lives and small experiences of (mostly) white thirty-somethings, Greg Jackson’s debut collection, Prodigals, is one that stands out for its mental acuity and philosophical athleticism. A former fellow of the MacDowell Colony, Jackson puts his gifts on full display here. No minute human experience is too small to unpack with high diction and zeal, for pages, until it gives way to revelation, and ultimately, the humanity resting at the core of these stories’ protagonists.

When reading, it’s easy to make comparisons between Jackson and David Foster Wallace or F. Scott Fitzgerald—writers who are generous with their interior world-building and can spend pages upon pages describing the journey of one particular feeling as it needles its way into something resembling transcendence. However, those comparisons are a bit short-sighted, as Jackson, unlike DFW or F. Scott, seems to be genuinely investigating life as someone in between the stations of youth and middle age via his characters.

Jackson goes about these investigations with a prose style that is equal parts ivory tower intellectualism and genuine pathos. Sentences read as a potent mix of the breathtaking and unsure, questioning as much they answer any question they’re hoping to navigate. Take this sentence, for example, from “Amy’s Conversion”:

What I see now is the twilit lake, soot clouds in the distance, sky that faint humid orange blur it could be some summer nights, a burning calico, heat rising from the water like the ghost life within it.

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bright shardsBright Shards of Someplace Else
Monica McFawn
University of Georgia Press, September 2014
176 pages

Buy: book

Every writer has faced the age-old question, “What makes a story?” History has provided us with plenty of satisfactory answers—in the excitement found in novelty or the resonance found in the ordinary. Monica McFawn’s short story collection Bright Shards of Someplace Else somehow encapsulates both. It features a world we simultaneously recognize and have never seen before. The collection was recently awarded the Flannery O’Connor Award for Short Fiction. Its eleven stories differ in length, in location, and in perspective. They tend to feature imperfect characters trying to solve complicated personal problems, and most of the stories take place over the span of a few hours. A much more poignant commonality between them, however, is the precision with which they are written.

A frequently irritating job of the writer is to describe fleeting, often inchoate day-to-day experiences. Bright Shards of Someplace Else is full of deftly captured moments: thoughts and feelings that we all have likely experienced but which might never have previously been expressed with such clarity. The stories in this collection, without seeming the slightest bit too long, manage to create worlds in which each passing thought or environmental detail lends itself to a greater significance. In one story, “The Slide Turned on End,” an artist asks a skeptical reporter to view the aesthetically pleasing aspect of amoebas on microscope slides. For a split second, the reporter sees and understands the beauty, and then the images shift. The artist mutters, “I know. It’s beautiful for a moment and then it’s garbage.” This capriciousness is inherent in art in many forms, including writing. McFawn’s collection manages to highlight individual moments in the instant when each is most unexplainably beautiful.Continue Reading

One Year In—Writing the Novel: Rebecca Makkai

After one year of writing my novel, I took stock of what I’d accomplished—which seemed like very little. Would writing always feel like flailing? How do novelists find their way through? For guidance, I turned to published novelists, whose interviews are presented in the One Year In: Writing the Novel series. 

Today’s novelist is fellow Ploughshares blogger Rebecca Makkai,  the author of the novels The Borrower and The Hundred-Year House (forthcoming in 2014), and Music for Wartime, a story collection (forthcoming in 2015).

ImageRumor has it The Borrower developed over the course of nine years. Not to sound like your mother, but what took you so long? 

It’s funny, I’m actually a very fast writer, so the “nine years” thing is kind of misleading.

It was really nine years start to finish, the first few years of which were just wimpy outlining. I refused even to refer to it as a novel for about five years—just “this longer thing I’m working on.” I was very young (21) when I started it, and I was fortunately smart enough to realize I had no real business writing a novel. It took nine years not because I was drafting, but because I was growing up and figuring out how to write.

Did writing your first novel prepare you in any way for writing your second?

I think that if your first novel fully prepared you for writing your second, that would be a very bad sign. If it doesn’t feel completely foreign and new and like you’re working without a net, then you’re probably repeating yourself.Continue Reading

The Immanence of God in the Tropics

The Immanence of God in the Tropics
George Rosen
Leapfrog Press, September 2012
167 pages

George Rosen performs a neat, almost anachronistic trick in his new book of seven stories, The Immanence of God in the Tropics: he plays it straight. When writing about exotic locales, the temptation is to mimic the lush strangeness in prose, but Rosen does the opposite; he writes with such stark, unadorned clarity that distant places snap into focus, no matter the vegetation or the weather.

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Four New Messages

Four New Messages
Joshua Cohen
Graywolf Press, August 2012
208 Pages

One may as well begin, before getting to the ignoble task of judgment, with the facts: Four New Messages is a collection of stories by Joshua Cohen, who, according to his biography near the book’s back cover, was born in New Jersey in 1980. It consists of four stories narrated by narrators aware that they’re narrating (“I described things, I made things up and described them” is a typical line); at least one of these narrators calls himself ‘J,’ is from NJ, and was born in ‘annus Reaganis.’ Mostly the stories occur in the era when “climate change was being called a sort of temperature socialism…redistribut[ing] warmth to colder months”—that is, now. They’re set in, or stem from, a nation filled with McDonald’s, Ford Escorts, banks unwilling to loan, university campuses with trees blooming security cameras—that is, a recognizable America.

From these facts one might now venture more comfortably into murkier, subjective terrain.

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Birds of a Lesser Paradise

Birds of a Lesser Paradise
Megan Mayhew Bergman
Scribner, March 2012
240 pages

In the twelve stories in Megan Mayhew Bergman’s debut collection, the past is always present. Children live in the failing light of dying parents. Lovers make their beds on inherited sheets. The furniture in a rented house smells of a previous tenants “chicken suppers and cigarette smoke.” Continue Reading

Drifting House: an Interview with Krys Lee

For this blog post, I am interviewing Krys Lee, author of the short story collection, Drifting House, published this year by Viking/Penguin. Drifting House follows the lives of Koreans both in their homeland and in the United States. According to the book’s website, “Alternating between the lives of Koreans struggling through seventy years of turbulent, post-World War II history in their homeland and the communities of Korean immigrants grappling with assimilation in the United States, Krys Lee’s haunting debut story collection Drifting House weaves together intricate tales of family and love, abandonment and loss on both sides of the Pacific.”

TL: First of all, congratulations on the publication of Drifting House. The reviews have been deservedly positive, and it is generating buzz and praise rarely seen for a short story collection. Many Ploughshares readers are writers of short stories who, like me, are submitting to literary journals with the hope of publishing a short story collection some day. I’ve noticed that you have published in several prestigious journals, i.e. the Kenyon Review, Narrative, and Granta (New Voices), prior to publishing Drifting House. At what point did you think you had more than just a group of stories? When did the stories you were writing start to gel together in your mind as a collection that could be published together in a book?Continue Reading

In-Flight Entertainment

In-Flight Entertainment
Helen Simpson
Alfred A. Knopf, February 2012
176 pages

This post was written by Caitlin O’Neil.

Waiting for a Helen Simpson short story collection is like waiting for a teenager to open up; it’s going to be a while. Yet even though she puts out a brief volume—under 200 pages in this case—only every five years or so, she still manages to command a place in the culture’s conversation.Continue Reading