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.