How did this story come about?
I was telling a story at dinner about the first time I met a magician, which happened at a children’s birthday party when I was in kindergarten. My friends had many questions about why I hadn’t written the story yet, and I figured out that it was because I was the angry magic-denied protagonist of the original, and that the story I wanted to tell was the story of the magician, not the audience. I’d had to grow into that story of middle age, of longing, of disappointments, of attempts at change. The real-life birthday party was much like the one that happens in “You Pretend Like You Never Met Me”—except in that case, I was the little girl who asked the magician to raise the dead.
One of our classmates had very recently died in a motorcycle accident, and I believed in magic. It seemed absolutely plausible to me that the birthday magician would be able to bring my friend back. The balloon animals he tried to give us instead launched a revolt with a whole lot of tears and meltdown. We were all smashed cake, grief, and fury. I’ve been thinking about that moment for thirty-five years, apparently, because I’ve really never gotten over how the teachers told us about death. It was during story time, the day after our friend died, and the teacher cupped her hands with a small ball inside them, shaking around, to help us understand how his helmet hadn’t protected his brain. We’d thought a helmet would keep you safe. And then to have someone throw a birthday party for their kid in the same week as a funeral of another kid? It’s not a good plan.
Of course, as a parent myself, I think now about the parents of the boy who died, as much as about the boy. What kind of terrible trajectory of a mistake, to take your child on a motorcycle, to have him die, to live yourself? That dynamic is something I’ve written about a lot (The End of the Sentence, for example, has a story like this in it) and it all comes from this incident in my childhood, though it’s likely been made more profound by my own experiences with parenthood. I was a constant wreck, thinking about bad things that might happen to my stepkids, and I had worst-case plans for every kind of danger to them. My new novel, The Mere Wife, which is an adaptation of Beowulf, begins with Grendel’s mother being terrified for her small son’s safety, and for her, every decision she makes is about the horror of giving birth to someone even more vulnerable than she is.
I don’t know what happened to the family that lost their son. I changed schools soon after, but before I did, the father visited my classroom and sat in the corner weeping. I don’t know what happened to that poor magician either, but here are some thoughts on a painful, unexpected, Hail Mary pass of a redemption for everyone.
Caro and Wells, so beautifully drawn: Did the characters develop in your mind separately or was one honed in counterpoint to the other?
The other origin of this story is an ongoing semi-comedic wrathriff by an Englishman in my life. His fury at American tea-brewing practices is so significant that for years now, I’ve been forced to conclude that properly brewed tea is magical, and improperly brewed tea equally magical, but in the opposite way. “THE WATER MUST BE BOILING!!!” is a direct quote from him.
I’ve been wanting to put it in a story about magicians for ages—in truth, tea-brewing is a deeply fantastical topic unto itself, and it really wants to be thrown into the guts of a novel about colonialist invasions involving expeditioneers in pith helmets, in which the brewing of tea is an act of taming the witchery of the tea leaves themselves, as well as an act of trespass into tea-free cultures, and maybe I will write it, because it begs for a take, but I so digress.
In any case, the notion of a rage about tea was the genesis of Caro for me, and somehow it made perfect sense that an Englishwoman would be raging about tea in a biker bar somewhere in America, so I started digging into why her rage would be as dire as it is. The story hinges on loss of status, loss of privilege, loss of love, for both Wells and Caro, and they embody those concepts in different ways. We all have grief in our lives, and more often than not, the things we grieve and rage over are similar, no matter where we come from.
I had the notion of Wells traveling with his magician father, the son of someone much more magical than he is, and of Caro and her own son traveling together with her husband, who ultimately makes this horrible mistake. In a world that has magic in it, this one, our own, I’m always interested in the ways that characters are not saved by magic. My characters are always still their flawed, fucked up, drunk and disorderly selves, no matter the magic in the mix, and that’s what I was interested in when I was writing this story.
The bright yellow lemon car, the lemon suit: Where did they come from? (It made me expect clowns and pratfalls. Thank you for not succumbing.)
This interview is apparently a course in writer-brain and the way writer brains transform entire histories into fiction! The lemon elements here came originally from a lemonade stand in Idaho, one that, when I was a teenager, was a huge draw, because of the girl who worked at it. The stand was lemon-shaped, and the girl was gorgeous, dressed in lemon yellow, and had lemon yellow hair. She somehow managed to be both voluptuously innocent and palpably good, and also, you know, a living lemon.
Every man in Idaho wanted lemonade that summer, and the next summer the lemonade stand was gone. I kept wondering, as a teenager, how that girl, the lemon, felt about being the most desired lemon in the desert. So, my brain dipped that in reality and here we have the remnants of a repossessed lemonade stand business, repurposed into the life of Wells the Magician.
The car comes from the idiom of a bad car being a lemon, and I suspect my brain was having fun tracking that back into Wells, already frustrated and fucked up, driving the most undignified theme car.
Somewhere also in my teenage years, my father set me up on an unexpected date with the thirty-year-old son of his former business partner. This was an obvious mess, but I have memories of asking this guy what his biggest dream was, and him telling me that it was to own, with his beloved, a hotdog stand shaped like a hotdog, and also to drive a hotdog-shaped vehicle. Some people’s best dreams are other people’s nightmares. The idea of a lemon suit worn as ice storm gear is just rural America in my mind, Norman Rockwell tilted into the back of the screen version where everyone’s pretty much wasted, horny, and trailing the remains of several failed attempts at Great American Normal.
All the unanswered questions, I want more: Will there be more?
I’m thinking about adapting this into a film script, actually. So, maybe! I’d like to see this onscreen. A magician is something that is as pleasing to see on a screen as to imagine from prose, and I’d love to see the failures and the glories—at one point Wells’ father floats naked over the heads of a casino, looking at people’s hands in order to cheat at cards. I’d like to see more of that relationship, possibly, and maybe more of Caro’s life before her son’s death.
There are things you can do in a film that you can’t do in fiction, in terms of the feeling of a lost former life invading your present, you know what I mean? I love the way cinema can layer stories, the same way memory can. Different mediums can reveal a lot, and it’s always fun to use the same story for more than one form.
Any news or projects you want to share?
My new novel, The Mere Wife, is out in the world, and I’m very excited for that. It’s a different take on Americana than the one in this story, but has some things in common with it. I’m always interested in divisions between the hopeful and the hopeless. That one’s Beowulf, police violence, gated communities, feminist fury, and class hierarchy in the suburbs.
And next summer, my new translation of Beowulf itself will be published by FSG, so that’s thrilling! I’ve been very lucky over the past few years to see several massive, unlikely dreams actually becoming reality. I have two novels in progress, and another one that’s still totally secret, but ready to be started.
I think part of the reason I’ve written this story about Wells and Caro changing their lives at forty or so is that I’ve spent the past few years really changing my own life, or rather doubling down furiously on the best parts of myself from when I was a teenager, when I had no limit on my dreams for joy. Experience is a teacher, but can also be a limiter, and one of the glories of the past few years for me is that I find that I believe in magic again.
My magic has always been the same kind of magic—the magic of hard work and devotion, of treating my work like I’m learning sorcery and like it is as powerful as a huge spell for raising the dead, but hey. It still feels like magic in the end, when you get to publish books and stories like the ones I’m getting to publish these days.
I’ve been so lucky to be supported by some of the fiercest and most amazing people in the business, very much including John Joseph Adams, who’s taken risks on this strange mind over and over again. I feel very damn grateful.
It’s especially cool to publish this story in the 100th issue of Lightspeed, because it is an echo of the first story I published in Lightspeed, back in 2012. “Give Her Honey When You Hear Her Scream” also has a magician in it, and a lot of working class magic, messy magic, magic done in diners and car seats. I have a jones for working class magic. I don’t like the notion of nobility, of legacy magic. I want it to be the dirty thing it looks like from broke America, poverty-level dustbowl sorcery, in fact, and that comes from my own history, but also from a lot of rebellion against structures that say miracles are only possible for those with money.
It also has love, but the lovers in that story are not the main characters. The magician and the witch, the dumped partners of the lovers, are the ones who do major action throughout the story. In this one, two people who aren’t lovers or even partners, but could be, attempt to change everything about the rules of life and death, in order to save someone. I like that here a magician delves into miracles. I like that love is the reason throughout my work, for trying to make the impossible possible. It’s that way in my life, too. That’s why I do this thing.
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