The title can be read so many different ways, from a gentle request to a command, and it sets the stage beautifully. How did you choose it? What was the seed for this story?
I wrote this story during Clarion West last summer. The first thing I knew about it was the first line: “Nora is a serial becomer.” All the students were out together one night when someone mentioned serial monogamists, and that just lodged itself in my head, the idea of serial becomers, and I wrote the story for the next week’s workshop.
The title came to me pretty quickly after the first draft and felt like a natural fit. I like the way it can be read as pleading and reliant on the one hand and assertive, even demanding, on the other. I think Nora experiences both of these ways of being, though it takes some time for her to get to the second one, to realize who she is, what she wants and needs, and to speak up for it.
Finally, I just love the word “tender.” As an adjective, it expresses this wonderful softness, maybe the kind that requires special care. And as a noun, it’s one who gives care. Those two things in one word—it’s like the word takes care of itself.
This story was so matter-of-fact in its strangeness Nora was easy to relate to, and I found myself layering all kinds of meaning onto its images. The idea of a serial becomer was especially potent. What’s the difference between that and, say, a polymath in this context?
The serial becomer comes from this phenomenon that I’ve heard called “relationship chameleoning.” It’s the practice of changing yourself to accommodate a romantic partner, then doing it again for the next partner, then the next. Adopting their interests, friend groups, mannerisms, etc. until you forget you ever had your own.
Nora is that to the extreme. This story is, in part, about the dangers of that kind of shapeshifting, the risks of being subsumed and losing yourself in someone else completely. And the freedom, of course, when you stop neatly filling whatever space is left for you and take up instead, say, the space of a full-grown saguaro.
Was Nora’s final form always a saguaro? Would it have worked as any other plant?
I knew she would be a saguaro from the beginning. I grew up in Tucson and have these distinct memories of driving through the desert in the back seat of an old Toyota Corolla with no AC. Joan Osborne’s “One of Us” was really popular at the time and it was always on the radio. Something about the heat and that song and being a kid with a kid’s imagination and having just learned square dancing in gym class . . . Whenever we drove by a cluster of cacti, I couldn’t help but see human-like figures with their arms held up like they were dancing. I thought the same thing about the transmission towers along the highway, the way they were all lined up in a row and had triangular bases that looked like skirts.
Anyway, saguaros are really cool. They can grow to be sixty feet tall. They can live to be 200 years old. They support a ton of other species in the ecosystem. They have such a commanding presence, and I wanted that for Nora. I wanted her to take up space and a whole lot of it.
There’s the fact, too, of the specific care succulents require. It’s counterintuitive. Often people show their love for one another with attention: the time they spend together, the work they put into nurturing the relationship, a devotion to maintenance. And while there are plenty of high-maintenance plants, you can’t fuss over a cactus. Care means something different for them. They are remarkably good at taking care of themselves, and the best thing you can do for them is leave them alone and let them do their thing.
And I wanted that for Nora too.
But before the beginning—that is, before I typed the first line—there’s this from the scribbles in my Notes app: I thought the premise might be that the serial becomer would, in her latest relationship, realize she was dating some type of monster before becoming a monster herself. But that didn’t stick for long. And really it would’ve been a very different story.
In several of your other stories, the drama seems to play out across tools and materials, like the glass art in “A Tour of the Galesburg Glass Museum” or the ladle and pitchfork in “Fight Fair.” Do you practice art yourself? Does it feed your writing or is its own thing?
Yes! I also do some weaving on frame looms of different sizes. The largest one I have makes tapestries around four feet by four feet, while the smallest is about palm-sized—it’s good for woven necklaces and bracelets and the like. Weaving feels similar to writing to me, in that it’s slow and solitary and sometimes painful, and you leave a bit of yourself in every piece. Tying off the warp on the biggest pieces after you’re done, one after the other down a line of a hundred-plus—man, let’s just say there’s some blood on those threads. Weaving is different, though, in that it feels more meditative to me, and I can have crummy reality TV shows playing in the background.
I’ll go through periods where I’m writing a lot and, less often, periods where I’m weaving a lot, but I find it tough to dedicate serious time to both at once. More often, it’s my writing that feeds my weaving. I made a series of tapestries a couple years back, in Oakland, inspired by folktales from around the world. The anchor piece was this big, colorful, textural interpretation of the story of Baba Yaga and Vasilisa the Beautiful.
In general, I’m fascinated by objects and interiors—by the spaces we live in and how we choose to fill them—and I find a lot of my stories are set in and around the home.
What can we look forward to next from you?
Another story I wrote during Clarion West, about close-up magic and consumption and obsession, is due out from Witness Magazine later this year. As soon as I’ve polished up the others, I’ll try to get them out into the world as well. I’m also working on a novelette about a magical Russian banya and thru-hiking culture and what can happen when grief finds the wrong home.
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