This piece has a great reversal of character types in regards to what is often presented for gender roles—the father is nervous, insecure, self-conscious, and the mother is unflappable and strong. Is this a deliberate choice in terms of gender representation? Or was it just the way the characters came out, with no specific intentions?
In the first draft of the story, the protagonist was a woman. Readers found her to be unsympathetic. Our society is so grateful to see fathers making an effort that fathers are celebrated for even small acts of parenting. Conversely, mothers receive constant judgement, regardless of their actions. I switched the gender of my protagonist so that readers would have greater empathy for the character. I made him the character who I needed to explore, and made the mother contrast him as much as possible.
Both the mother and the father in this story are good parents. I would like to live in a world where we give grace to both men and women.
One of the things I really enjoyed is the father’s particular insecurities: “I stand before my competent wife, my belly hanging out, oafish, a waste of space.” He feels specific and real: He’s relatable. What sorts of steps do you usually take to make characters plausible?
For me, writing is largely about listening. I listen to the characters and to the world around them. And I listen to the people around me. While I don’t base characters on specific individuals, the protagonist of this story is informed by numerous kind, open-hearted, complicated men who’ve touched my life. I think this is what happens each time a character works: The voices of many people alchemize into something new, and I have to sit with the character and listen to who they are.
For me, the use of setting to reflect character moods and story transitions is elegant and effective. There are many examples of this, but one of my favorites is, “New blossoms sweeten the air.” Is this a style you often use, or do you experiment a lot with style and form?
This story shows a quintessential style for me. My stories can largely be summarized with, “Someone is melancholy in a beautiful place, and then there are snacks.” Most of my stories have more experimental forms, though. I love seeing how writers like Kelly Link, Kij Johnson, Jeffrey Ford, and Daryl Gregory experiment with structure, and I try to learn from their short fiction.
Thematically, there is this concept at play of parents who live out their fantasies or desires through their children, even if this puts the child in a risky or dangerous situation. Is this something drawn from your own life/childhood?
The tragic irony of being a parent is that, since everyone dies, bringing a child into the world means issuing your child a death sentence. Yet raising a child consists largely of doing one’s best to protect the child from all harm and fear—an ultimately impossible task. I want to give my child a life overflowing with wonder and adventure, and this means allowing him to engage in an inherently dangerous world. The tightrope between experience and risk, between life and death, is at the center of parenting.
The ending is simply gorgeous. When you started out, was the narrative always driving towards this ending, or did you play around with different potential outcomes?
I’m drawn toward the idea of simultaneous truths. I like stories that can be interpreted as both magic and not-magic. We interpret our world through an ambiguous mess of the things we can see and the things we can’t see. The things that we can’t see are the hardest to prove, but often the most important. I wanted the ending to reflect the ambiguity of our reality, in which the mundane and the wondrous coexist.
Is there anything else you want readers to know about this piece?
Karen Joy Fowler won the opportunity to name one of my characters through the Clarion Write-a-Thon, so Cruz is named for her grandson. My Clarion classmates offered their names for a previous project. It was a period piece, so although Alyssa Wong offered her name, it didn’t work with the setting. So her name appears here.
What are you working on now that your new fans can look forward to?
My creative partner, Jamaica Zoglman, and I have been working on a novel set in an alternative Scandinavia. It involves collaborative magic made through singing, thermal vents, bees, and what happens when a child is born into the wrong family.
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