Your title character skulks at the borders of the imagination, between dreams and reality. Where did the inspiration for your story “The Sympathy” originate?
I’m really fascinated by the way certain myths transform or cross-pollinate over time—fairies and grey aliens are both little people from Elsewhere who abduct innocent folks for mysterious reasons. And the giant nerd in me really likes the idea that there’s a sort of ur-myth or ur-monster behind those stories, some old truth that different cultures articulate in different ways. So the Sympathy’s another iteration of that whole concept.
You take particular care with describing the motels, diners, and roadside shops that the characters pass along their journey, and there seems to be a certain familiarity with the locations. Are these places you’ve seen and chosen to write about or are they just representations of an unglamorous slice of society?
They’re definitely places that interest me. But for this story in particular I thought it was important to ground the reader in an everyday-yet-liminal sort of landscape of Holiday Inns and truckstops, partly as a way to suggest Lauren’s emotional state, and partly to contrast that world with the weirder (or maybe just differently weird) one she encounters later.
In “The Sympathy” there are strong questions about god, faith, pain, and healing. How much of this was intentional and how much simply seeped out of the subconscious?
I didn’t sit down and decide to Say Something, but I wanted to portray a very specific emotional space, Lauren’s numb point of estrangement from her own life, and she’s asking (or avoiding) some of those questions. Hopefully she feels real enough that the questions ring true.
As a follow-up, when writing a story for the first time, do you prefer to write with a plan, or write with only a basic idea, and let it grow?
Depends on the story. I like George R.R. Martin’s idea that some writers are gardeners and others are architects, and I’d amend that to say that some stories are gardens and others are architectures. “The Sympathy” was definitely more of a garden. I knew who Lauren and Madison were from the start, and I knew I wanted to take some urban fantasy tropes and give them a sad, alien, wrongfooting feel, but that was about it. I didn’t have an outline or an endpoint in mind.
Labyrinths dot the literary landscape from Pliny the Elder to Jorge Luis Borges, with nearly every location imaginable. How did you come to decide on the Labyrinth existing in a treehouse?
The Crossville treehouse is a real place! I invented or embellished some details, but it’s one of those weird, wonderful true things that belongs in a fairytale. A maze in a tree. A divinely-inspired maze in a tree. It was too good to pass up.
Is there more to this universe—the Sympathy, its Kin, the Queen, the Folk on the other side—that you’d like to explore with other stories?
It could be interesting to spend some time in Madison’s head. I have a few ideas about how that would go—the whole voice and tone would be very different, and it might be fun to see the stranger side of this world through eyes that are more familiar with it. Maybe!
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