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

Do-Overs: Worth doing?

bridge-452568_960_720It isn’t cool to like archetypes anymore. Utter a name like Carl Jung or Joseph Campbell out loud at your MFA program and you’re likely to get a healthy dose of side-eye. Or, a knowing look that says oh, cute. I remember when I thought it was that simple, too.

It’s not that simple, but I would contend that archetype is still worth mentioning. Like it or not, we live lives dictated by the simplest of structures: birth, coming of age, connection with other humans, expression of faith in principles, procreation, and death. Life is, itself, organized into a basic narrative pattern. We are driven by common impulses ranging from healthy to destructive. We fear the other, the beast hiding in the dark, the loss of our station in life or the loss of our loved ones. It makes sense, then, that stories, which Didion so famously said we “tell ourselves in order to live,” appear in repetitive patterns. But as in life, there’s as much interesting storytelling in the rejection of structures—or the departure from the historic, the patrimonial, the exclusionary, or that which we think we can assume—as there is when we follow the pattern.

The problem—and why I think archetype gets such a big groan—is when we can’t let the pattern evolve.Continue Reading

Chucking “Art for Art’s Sake” – Writers and Social Impact

will write for social changeOne morning in late September, I found myself backstage at the “Annual Day of Peace” in Covington, KY—an event that kicks off October as Domestic Violence Awareness Month. I’d been asked to perform a song I wrote about my family’s history of domestic violence, and was listening as speakers urged the young audience to find—and use—their voices to prevent violence. I wondered how many listeners were writers, performers, artists, and how many might go on to use their art as voice, changing their communities in the process.

audrelordeLeaving that day and re-entering the media binge on the word “shutdown,” I couldn’t help thinking about writers around the globe: how we use our voices; whether (and how) we’re heard. I also couldn’t help thinking of Audre Lorde:

We lose our history so easily, what is not predigested for us by the New York Times, or the Amsterdam News, or Time magazine. Maybe because we do not listen to our poets…

Creative writing has the potential to change perceptions, elevate public discourse, inform, protest, and/or bring awareness to difficult issues and situations. Could we do more with this potential? Should we?

is this gonna get political

(No.)

Before anyone gets politi-scared, hark! I don’t believe writers should start “politicizing” all our work, or Woodie-Guthrie-ing our poems for the greater good. But I do believe that if we’re moved by any current economic, cultural, political, and/or social suffering, there’s a place for us—and our craft—in the fray.

But how? Where? If you’re interested in finding your writerly place in this kind of work, here are three steps even non-“activist” writers can take to dive in:

  1. Identify Our Stories
  2. Re-imagine “Going Public,” and
  3. Chuck “Art for Art’s Sake.”

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