“See The Unseeable, Know The Unknowable” is a lyrical, lovely story filled with poetry. It invokes poetry and shadows, hints of Ray Bradbury and Ursula K. Le Guin. Tell us about the inspiration for the style and story.
Thank you! I wrote the first draft of the first half of this story in 2012, while I was in the middle of leaving one life and trying in vain to imagine another. I wanted to write a path: a story about escape, about fleeing the world that everyone else thinks is normal. All I could imagine was a woman in a little house in a woods, a cat, and the feeling that horrible things were on their way. Back then, all the stories of escape I could think of ended in the protagonist being lost herself, or dying in misery. I guess I believed, at that moment, that this was what was going to happen to me. And now, four years later? It really, really didn’t. I ran away to feed the elephants, to brush the lions, to climb onto the high wire, and I lived. It was the right choice to leave. Here I am. It wasn’t stupid. I wasn’t wrong. I picked the story back up, and gave it the ending it always needed.
As much as it came from a moment of abject misery, it also came from a childhood reading of Bradbury, of course. The temptation of writing about the circus, specifically, the way it can cover all kinds of things, horror, hilarity, weirdness, freaks, animals, runaways. I’ve always been interested especially in adult runaways, which is what this story is about. This is the second time I’ve written a story about that—the first one was eighteen years ago—a children’s musical in which a mother runs away from her children to be a disappearing lady. It was lighter than this story, which didn’t mean anyone would produce it! But for me, the notion of writing a story very much for adults, based on a thread typically sold to children, that’s an interesting notion. What if you ran away from home? As an adult, you might run away from home because you’ve committed a crime, or because a crime was committed against you. Maybe you’re a fugitive. Where do you go if there’s nowhere to go? What do you bring with you? (I guess it’s obvious that I’d bring my cat.)
The kid version of stories about running away to join the circus is almost always a morality tale, not a heroic journey. Frankly, the adult version is, too. You’re not supposed to leave things behind, not in this culture of holding onto what you’ve got. You’re emphatically not supposed to leave people behind. I wanted to write a kind of American, lost, fucked-up person on the run story, and see what happened if I pressed that together with a circus. I feel like I’ve talked somewhere about the great Buddy Mondlock song “The Kid”—which I learned from a recording by the trio Cry, Cry, Cry. It’s so bleak and also so yearningly magical. It’s one of the great heartbreaker hopeful songs about running away and discovering the world is both smaller and larger than you thought. It kills me. Go listen to it. The style came from years of listening to that song, combined with years of reading Denis Johnson, whose novel Already Dead: A California Gothic has haunted, frustrated, and inspired me for twenty years, combined with yeah, as you say, Ursula K. Le Guin, whose characters are never not complicated, who writes moralities that stretch my soul out and make me imagine painful and wonderful things in equal portions.
You call upon a number of images that speak to the lives of many modern readers: the strong man pushing the pencil across the desk; the sword swallower walking through the metal detector; the guilt of information that is too much to bear as the world comes crashing down around you; the fear of being spied upon by the government. What fuels your writing? Are you drawn to specific elements of the world around you, or do you piece specific moments together with strands of silver thread?
I have a file in the back room of my brain, and a real file of miraculous weird things, too. The brain’s back room contains panic, poetry, news, headlines, songs, weeping heard on corners, dogs barking, chunks of text from everyone from Shakespeare to Springsteen to Octavia Butler, and as I’ve said before (always trying not to seem entirely crazy), when I’m writing, I just try to sit in the quiet and listen to the voices of whomever happens to be talking in that room. Then I write them down. It’s my job to keep the brain room full of interesting guests, and that’s why it’s necessary to read all the time. It contains everything I’ve ever thought and read, and it recombines regularly, but if I don’t give it new guests, I end up with nothing good to write. My process is that of a frenzied bar owner, constantly trying to keeping the brain’s guests well fed and well lubricated so that they can tell stories, constantly inviting new guests in. It’s basically the Tabard Inn back there, and I’m the sprinting barmaid with a typewriter hidden under the counter. Generally when I tell people this, they just look at me, kind of blank-faced. I know. This is how I’ve always been, though. That’s first drafts. Revisions? The back room shuts up and I’m on my own. That part is much harder work.
I wouldn’t call it silver thread, necessarily, though that’s flattering! I generally pull pieces of story with sutures. I feel like every little scrap of story is a living thing, and the ones that aren’t just one thing? Those are living things stitched together. Sometimes they have a definite Frankenstein’s monster quality. Sometimes they end up bigger and more difficult than I meant them to be when I was sitting there originally. Sometimes I make a mess. Sometimes I write something I didn’t mean to write. Here, I wrote a story I didn’t mean to write. I was trying to write a damnation and instead I wrote a redemption. I didn’t know that there would be people throughout this story wishing they were back with this circus, people pushing pencils instead of lifting the universe. I thought they’d want out. They wanted back in. I didn’t know that when I started. I didn’t know anything would be joy.
How much of Maria Dahvana Headley is on the page with this story? Did you ever want to run away and join the circus?
As noted above, so much, and also none. I grew up in a family that was very circus-y. My little brother actually made a part of his living as a fire juggler for a while. My sister was a dancer. I’ve always been a writer, and my writing has always been wild. Artist mom, newspaper editor/sled dog-breeding dad? I didn’t need to run away to join a circus. They had nothing on us. I think I ran away to join the normals, and then I didn’t belong there. But running away? Yeah, that’s a thing I’ve both thought about and done. I’ve never been good at goodbyes. In this story, Wren does the worst version of running, but maybe the only version that leaves her among the living. She’s had worse luck than I’ve had. It’s coming to me now that some of this story came as well from my hearing the Beth Orton song “Central Reservation” back in the late ’90s. It’s a joyful song about a one night stand, and the chorus is “Today is whatever I want it to mean.” This story begins with the dark reverse of that song, wearing last night’s dress, but on the run, having to start over fast, elsewhere, after something’s gone horribly wrong. Still, it’s about starting over as wholly oneself, surviving. There’s something in that that appeals to me every time. Today is whatever I want it to mean.
Many use genre labels as a means of sticking stories in neat little boxes, categorizing a writer’s works for the sake of comfort. “See The Unseeable, Know The Unknowable” slips in and out of such constraints—here fantasy, there horror, magical realism somewhere else, science fiction tightening the weave. When writing, do you assign a story a given genre or label to your fiction? Why or why not?
Ha! Yeah, nobody knows which category I belong in, including me. All of them. I don’t care where I go. My stories are weird ones. I write them and then I send them off, usually with a note that says, I dunno, do you? I think the world is inherently strange and wonderful, and that’s the way I try to write. I want to write about things you don’t imagine happening, and then, when they happen, you see that they were always there, that everything is possible. That means my work is a wide spectrum of every kind of story about possibility, and that’s how I like it. I try to write wonders and aberrations, monsters and ghosts like they just happened before my eyes, like they’re the headlines, like they’re the person beside me at the bar, telling me a casual story about a bird that burst into flame or popcorn falling from the sky. I try to live that way, too. I listen to liars. I listen to ferocious truth-tellers. It’s all part of the same wide category of story. Sometimes I listen to the people on the subway and pretend all the things they’re saying are part of one huge love letter to one person, their stories of lost dollars and weather, their stories of cheating girls and stupid boys, their stories of stalled trains and benders, of political anger and that one time they kissed a stranger. If you do it the way I do, it swiftly becomes clear that there is no such thing as genre separation. It starts to make very little sense to separate anything from anything.
A playwright, screenwriter, fiction genius, editor, essayist, and now one of the forces behind an upcoming theater musical. Your words are everywhere! Is there a particular writerly pipe dream lurking in the shimmering depths of your imagination?
The musical is being developed right now, and it’s epic. I’ve been having so much fun working with my friend Lance Horne, the composer, on three centuries of story. Next, I want to write an opera. I have career ambitions, too, things I’d love to have happen, but really mostly I just want to write new kinds of things. I’d also really like to write a TV series, but only if I could do all twelve episodes alone, with no one bothering me, and that’s a very unlikely version of reality. You never know, though! I have a thing in mind. That’s like an opera, really, the way TV is now, and it’s so cool to write a twelve- or fourteen-hour narrative, to be able to get to something that huge, in a form that’s not a novel. Which isn’t to say that I don’t have novel ideas, too. I have a draft of a new beast mostly done, and it’s full of creation myths I made up, legends of lost manuscripts, and volcanoes. More to do, though. I think I thought it was a small novel, and really it wants to be a huge, time-traveling multi-century epic. Welcome to my typical mutterings.
To whom do you turn when you want to get your fiction on? What writers excite your sense of wonder?
I could go on for ages here, but a few, all over the map. I gobble, and I just gobble what I like. Which is everything. All these writers are different kinds of stylists, whether poetry or prose or mash-ups, and all deal in extraordinary specificity, which makes me happy: Kelly Link; Victor LaValle; Inger Christensen (especially her book-length poem “Alphabet,” which I just read over and over in perpetuity. It brings me back to life); Helen Oyeyemi; Ali Smith; Kathryn Davis; Joy Williams; Gayl Jones; Liz Hand; Jeff Ford; Frances Justine Post’s collection of poems, Beast; Yusef Komunyakaa; Alice Sola Kim; Carmen Maria Machado; Sarah McCarry; Eduardo Corral; the Icelandic poet and novelist, Sjón (From the Mouth of the Whale, OMG); Ada Limón; Brigit Pegeen Kelly; Lauren Groff; Alice Munro; a billion more, ending up at Shakespeare, who keeps me obsessed.
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