Even though the portals are the speculative star of this story, I feel like it’s really about relationships, and about how imperfect our relationships can be. That disconnect between what we think we should be together and what we really are. In particular, the moment where the mother doesn’t want to proceed without her husband is really striking while ringing true, revealing so much about the protagonist and her family, but also touching upon the fallibility of perception and judgment in general. Are these people and their relationships familiar to you, or representative of specific individuals? Are these ideas personally important to convey?
I do feel like there is a very narrow and repetitive definition of what love can look like if it’s still to be considered love. I’m talking about all sorts of love here, including a love for one’s children and also a love for one’s partner. We seem to slowly be expanding who can participate in this dominant vision of love, which is so great, but I get frustrated that the vision still pretty much contains the same things, only with different people thrown into the mix. I see this kind of narrow definition in popular culture, certainly—movies, songs, books—but also I feel its judgment in my own life, in my complicated marriage and in my relationship to my children. That there is this checklist of things that must be present in one’s significant relationships, and if those things are not there, it doesn’t qualify.
I hate such checklists. But it’s difficult not to internalize such messages and start focusing on what you think needs to be in a relationship rather than focusing on what actually is there. And I know I’m guilty of applying my own version of a checklist to other people and to my family as well. When I look at my parents’ marriage of many decades, I don’t always totally understand their love. At times, it has looked like unhappiness to me, and when I was younger, I certainly was more dismissive. But why can’t unhappiness be part of someone’s love? And maybe it’s not unhappiness to them anyway. I’m also certain I’m missing something beautiful about their relationship, something only the two of them can see, something I sense from time to time at the edges.
What love is, what it contains, really should be defined, and redefined, and reimagined, by the people involved in it, not by the bystanders and observers. So yeah, this is kind of an important idea for me to explore in my writing.
I like how the story plays with the notion of the dirty white van and what it signifies, making it similar but very different in its threat, and in doing so, toying with the assumptions (and potentially the emotions?) of readers. What sorts of risks, if any, are involved in evoking these images? Did you consider not utilizing the concepts of luring people into vans and framing the threat in a different way?
I began this story after my annual visit home to see my parents, and during this visit I remembered for some reason this sign we used to have in our front window declaring us a Ronald McDonald “Safe House.” The sign meant that if a child was lost, or being chased by someone, the lost/chased child would know it was okay to knock on our door and ask for help. No child was ever lost or chased in my neighborhood, to my knowledge at least, but I grew up in the ’80s and everyone back then was worried about child abductions. That memory of the little sign brought back a whole slew of memories, of school assemblies where we were told about the strange dangers of the world—poison overdoses, and people who would pressure us to use addictive drugs, and strangers who would lure us into their vehicles, which were often described as white vans. We were never told what would happen to us if we got into such vehicles. There was only this atmosphere of fear and danger, but it was unclear what the adults around us were actually afraid of. What happened to the children who got into those vans? No one would say. I doubt I was the only child intrigued by, or attracted to, the idea of this hidden and dangerous world surrounding the mundane world where I lived. I wanted to write about how it felt growing up in an atmosphere like this. During the writing process, rather than focus on the reality and tragedy of actual child abduction, I tried to zone in on the limited way I understood the world in elementary school, as a place of fear, and mystery, and strangeness.
There is also the notion of fear and, on the one hand, being drawn towards something that terrifies other people; on the other hand, related but different, the idea of not really seeing a threat where other people see one, perhaps because the threat isn’t what all the terrified people think it is, or perhaps because an individual can’t/doesn’t/won’t perceive a threat for what it is. In the story (as is often the case in real life) this perceived and misperceived threat is accompanied by misinformation and partial truths. Are these divergent and contradictory experiences of fear common to our culture; are they common or meaningful elements in your own relationships and experiences?
I do feel like we as human beings are often drawn to complex things that contain both attractive and damaging elements (and a lot depends on who is allowed to define “attractive” and “damaging” here). So I think you’re right: Frequently, the things we want can terrify other people, sometimes for good reason, and other times for misinformed reasons. A few years ago, I was writing a lot about cults, and reading about them rather obsessively. I wanted to understand what people were getting out of cults, including damaging cults, that they couldn’t get from the ordinary world. That part of the narrative is often overwhelmed and silenced by our focus on the damage cults can do.
But what I was thinking about when writing “How To Find A Portal” was suicide. I had been struggling with depression and suicidal ideation for a while and was having trouble figuring out how to make this world feel like enough to keep me here. Suicide seemed as attractive to me as any portal would be, a path to another life maybe or at least the absence of my current life. Because suicide is such a scary topic for many people, the attractiveness of suicide is so rarely acknowledged: that it can contain this great beauty and relief to someone who doesn’t want to be here anymore. I don’t know if that beauty and relief can be understood by someone who hasn’t considered suicide for an extended period of time. My husband was frightened, of course, and my therapist was adamant that nothing good will come of killing myself, and I realized there was this huge disconnect here. Well, there were a lot of disconnects, but the one I was interested in exploring was my feeling toward suicide versus most other people’s—the attraction that resides in something forbidden and damaging. (The question can be raised, I suppose, whether the portals in my story are damaging? I imagine that depends on who is being asked).
I appreciate greatly the courage of our conversation, the honesty, and the personal nature of these answers as well as your story. Is it difficult to bring these aspects of yourself into public light? Did you always address these sorts of ideas in your work, or is it something you developed or grew into?
Writing is a space where I try to be as honest as I can with myself and, in doing so, be honest with whoever will end up reading my work. So much of life can feel like a performance, to me anyway, and I’m uninterested in keeping that performance going when I sit down to write. I’ve tried to keep writing as a place without shame and judgment, where I can explore whatever light or dark thoughts I want or follow the passageways that aren’t part of my public self. I guess I wanted to apply that same honesty to this interview.
Was it always this way? When I first started writing seriously, I was a poet, and I remember writing a lot of poems about the TV show Dawson’s Creek. I also remember my poetry teacher asking me to please write about something else. Of course he was right. These were not great poems. But looking back, I think I was drawn to writing about that show for legitimate reasons. My childhood was very different from the childhood the characters were experiencing, and I was interested in that gap between the messiness and strangeness of an actual life versus an accepted narrative. The stories that are easier to hear versus the stories we might hesitate to tell.
So I think I’ve always been interested in the way lives—my life, but also other people’s lives—differ from society’s main narratives. Becoming a parent did complicate my life and make this disconnect more obvious, but it also gave my writing a clearer purpose—that by offering alternative narratives of motherhood, or relationships, or whatever, maybe I could normalize my own experience as well as other people’s experiences that fall outside of the main narrative.
What are you working on now that we can look forward to?
I’m finishing up a story on marital rape, a topic I rarely see addressed, maybe for obvious reasons, as I think it will be a difficult story to read. And I’m planning to delve into some non-heroic end of the world stories soon.
Spread the word!