What I love most about “No Matter” is that it’s very much an upside-down time travel story. We don’t see the events from the point of view of the person who travels, but the one who has to live with the results. Can you tell us about how that idea for the story developed?
One day, when I was hiking alone, I was seized by the certainty that I would round the next bend and encounter my parents—not my parents as they are today, in their sixties and living several states away, but in their twenties, not yet married. Would they recognize me? Would I want them to? What would I want them to know? And what of my telling might undo me?
I carried the seed of the idea to the Clarion workshop in summer 2016, where instructor Ted Chiang sat us down and—succinctly, without consulting any notes—explained to us precisely how time travel could work, and the issues this poses for free will.
I was also reading Jenny Offill’s wonderful collage novel Dept. of Speculation at the time, which explores, among other things, the pain and helplessness of being cheated on by a partner. Ted’s articulation of the effect of time travel on free will breathed a new, strange life into the subject for me, which is to say: Jealousy is terribly unattractive, which puts you in an awful, helpless conundrum when your partner begins to stray. If you don’t object (playing the part Gillian Flynn brutally correctly named “the cool girl”), you’re at risk of being complicit in the slow dissolution of your relationship. If you do object, you’re at risk of seeming petty, demanding and unattractive, thus pushing your partner away and into the arms of the (now even more comparatively) attractive other. A trap, in other words, with no escape from the inevitable, no matter what agency you think you may have.
And here comes our girl in the woods, a time traveler (perhaps) herself. Was there ever anything our heroine could do?
If this is grim, I apologize. Jealousy is the least kind emotion. I have no solution for it, beyond what lies in this story.
The format of the story is almost epistolary, being addressed to someone outside the story in a conversational nature. Did you always know it was going to have this format or was it something that grew with the story along the way?
In early drafts, the story was straightforward first/third person. But as the piece developed, and I began to understand that the narrator would be undone by obsession, the intimate “you”—a “you” to rage against, to plead with—emerged on the page. In early drafts, “you” addressed the narrator’s husband, but really, the husband isn’t a terribly interesting character. Man begins to stray is a story we’re exhaustingly familiar with. But the relationship between the narrator and the absentee, disinterested agent of her doom? Well.
I love writing in second person, and I love especially how this piece challenged and stretched the bounds of the form for me. When we address an absent “you,” we evoke them, and therefore grant them presence, a form of power. The narrator, an obsessor and confessor, could avoid her doom altogether if she could just stop believing in “you” (where “you” means, specifically, the daughter the narrator’s husband will one day have without her) and nonchalantly assume that the whole encounter was a prank. But she can’t. And as she sinks deeper into the fear that her husband’s future doesn’t include her, she increasingly, pleadingly addresses the “you” that disrupted it—granting the hypothetical “you” greater reality in her mind, increasing her own paranoia and poisoning the marriage she wants more than anything to save.
“No Matter” is a story with layers. The genesis of a relationship. The strangeness of time. Causality. Was it difficult to get all of these threads woven together in a way that held together so well? Were some of these added later or were they always pieces of the narrative?
Like all Clarion stories, “No Matter” was written in the course of a week, and on very little (I say with great fondness) sleep. By necessity, the stories crafted in that crucible are a lot of elemental spaghetti thrown at half-dreamed walls; by the fifth week, you just write frantically, hoping something will stick. You also become, by necessity, a loving collector of your own experience and ideas as you prod every cell in your brain—Can I use this? Can I use this? The various threads in “No Matter” were the obsessions plaguing/delighting me in that strange week.
And again, this story owes a great debt to the collage form of Jenny Offill’s Dept. of Speculation, which brilliantly weaves seemingly disconnected pieces together (how antelopes have 10x vision, that Edison called memories “little people,” a steak the narrator once spat out at a restaurant) to give rise to an overarching, painfully personal story. Offill’s form gave me permission, I think, to scatter my plot elements a bit further afield. The fact that they came together as they did (the story has changed almost not at all since then) is due entirely to the magic of Clarion and the writers I was there with.
There’s a moment in the story where the narrator and her husband go back through his former girlfriends on social media to figure out who might be responsible for the prank. This brought to mind how difficult it is to escape exes in the strangely interconnected online social circles of our modern world. Do you think this story could have taken place in the past in a world without the lingering connection of social media or is this a uniquely now story?
The story easily could have taken place before social media—the Facebook profiles could have been photographs in an album, or letters. It’s harder to escape our exes in the social media age, but our aching human hearts and the lure of the what-might-have-been are timeless.
The first time I read this story, I was sure it had a happy ending, but on additional readings, I think the balance of loss and potential leaves that largely up to the reader’s interpretation. Was that something you intended or in your mind is it more firmly one way or the other?
Your reading of the ending will depend on you, and on your answer to Cher’s eternal question: “Do you believe in life after love?”
(Happily, I do.)
Can you share something you’re working on now? Where else can our readers find your work?
I’ve had a story recently on the LeVar Burton Reads podcast. I got to meet LeVar in Austin for the live recording! It was absolutely astounding, and he is every bit as kind as you could dream. And my novel for young adults, Hole in the Middle, debuted in the US last fall from Soho Teen. I’m currently at work on my second novel, a ghost story about sex education in Texas.
Spread the word!