Of all the possibilities to explore this kind of relationship, what made you decide on parallel universes?
There was something concrete about parallel universes. Sarah had to be real, just impossible to only Jenna and her world. So Sarah becomes tangible; not a spirit and not some sort of Resurrection Stone shadow. Making it science fiction fantasy instead of just straight up fantasy, to me, made Sarah alive of her own accord and not because of Jenna’s actions or wishes. I also think I’m not the only one comforted by the idea that maybe in a parallel universe the people we don’t find or can’t meet are still okay.
Which ideas fed into this story, or did it start fully formed on its own?
This is a really hard question for me, because I can’t answer it straightforward. I don’t think I’m there yet. But it’s a story I’ve thought about for a long time. I think everyone has that secret story of an unspoken person who is supposed to be here but for some reason is not. I started thinking about the what ifs: What if that person was here? And if that person was here, would she understand me more than those who are here? Would she have not fit, like me? But as I wrote the story, thinking it was going in that direction, I realized that sometimes the missing are the ones we can mold the most to fit ourselves. That’s not true. Everyone is their own individual. Just like the living.
I also have always wanted to return to junior year of undergrad, because Chicago 2008 was such a specific time in history that not everyone got to see. Obama had his Victory Rally in Grant Park, the winter was really pretty, and there was this feeling like things were getting better; we were coming into our own. And we know now that . . . wasn’t entirely true.
But our double-decker couch, Wilbur? He was entirely true. And I can totally talk straightforward about Wilbur. He was awesome. We pulled him out of the alley, my roommate made stilts for it, and it sat about five feet up in the air behind the regular couch.
Is this thematically familiar or new territory for you? Is there a common thread in your work we can trace through other stories?
I think most of my characters are trying to find the people they belong to. They are looking for that family, that home. “Marley and Marley” (F&SF Nov/Dec 2017) has a similar reality-bending concept for the heroine to find home. But it was much more insular and focused on the self. This one I think expands into family and community. Both stories show family trauma and how we deal. But this one was less about bringing to light those who exist and instead giving voice to those who are not in the room anymore.
With the caveat that no one story can be all things to all people, what do you hope readers will take away from Sarah and Jenna’s relationship?
I think it’s a sad one. Sarah and Jenna don’t fit together. And they weren’t raised together, so they don’t even have that family bond. But I guess it’s less what I hope readers take away from that, but what the readers add to the reading experience with the love and people they have in their own lives. I’m curious if anyone else can relate to these sisters, and how so? For me, this story is me standing up and trying to start a discussion that I’ve never been able to have, and maybe someone else can chime in. Even if it’s just in their own inner monologue.
What are you working on next?
I’m currently working with the Institute for Holocaust Education and Circle Theatre on a new play called “When We Go Away”, which follows a braided narrative of Holocaust survivors who ended up settling around the Omaha area. I’m also finishing up a few projects, including a book about a magic circus. You can follow my twitter at @j_r_dawson and check out my website at jrdawson.org to stay up to date on all the things!
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