The twisting and double-back hallways of academia are an essential part of the milieu and the meat of this story. From the mentions of Foucault, Borges, Velázquez, and Baudrillard, to Gupta and Shaw being grad students themselves, to the format as an academic paper or journal article complete with reference list. I love the way that creating a world where this text exists in conversation with other texts makes the story itself into a mirror of those other stories, both fictional and non-. What role did this format and the academic setting play in your conception of the story?
The format actually sort of came out of nowhere, in that I don’t recall ever sitting down and saying “let’s write an academic essay/lit review about something that never happened.” I do like unusual formats in general, and I think this was strongly influenced by Sarah Gailey’s amazing story “STET,” which really expanded my notion of what a story can be and do.
I feel like it also grew out of the fact that I was just concluding work on my doctoral dissertation as I wrote the story, and a big component of what I was doing had to do with theories of physical space and how people exist in those spaces, using Foucault’s writing from The Order of Things in particular. When something like that is taking up that much real estate in your brain, it’s going to come out in lots of ways you maybe didn’t anticipate. And a significant part of the process of writing that kind of dissertation is placing texts in conversation with each other in order to tease out your own ideas. You start seeing reflections everywhere.
Plus I was reading Jorge Luis Borges’s Labyrinths at the time, and a number of his stories are written like academic essays in terms of their voice and structure. So that was probably also a big part of it; I feel like I was channeling some of that voice when I was writing.
The horror of mirrors, either quantum, fun house, or mundane, is perhaps an anxiety about the integrity of the self—how we can be changed, shattered, misconceived, or lost in the act of being reflected and perceived. In the case of Sapna Gupta, she’s literally overwhelmed and eradicated by the mass of her mirror-selves. What was it about this connection between perception, being perceived, and loss of self that interested you, and what led you to the idea of mirroring as a way to explore that?
I’m not totally sure where that came from. Probably some of it was, again, the dissertation work I was doing, which wasn’t only about physical space but more specifically how existing in the space of a particular collection of Nazi extermination camps was to experience a process of dismantling and erasure; victims weren’t merely murdered but were elaborately dehumanized beforehand, and the ultimate goal was to excise an entire people from reality and then erase the mechanisms of that mass murder. When you’re writing about that kind of thing, there’s also a difficult tension between approaching at a macro level and a more finely detailed, intimate micro level. I think that tension is present in this story as well—one vs. many.
Losing oneself/losing oneself in oneself is also a personal fear of mine. I’m mentally ill, and the experience of no longer being able to trust one’s own perception of reality is one of the things that scares me most. It’s not the first time I’ve written about it.
Are there other stories about doppelgängers, clones, or mirror-selves that have fascinated you, or that left open questions and possibilities that you explored in “Note to Self”?
I think it’s less about literal clones or doppelgängers for me as it is the idea of split selves, of part of you internally encountering and engaging with another part. Not necessarily actual multiple personalities but more the sense of being fractured that a lot of us have at least sometimes. We’ll be a certain kind of person in one context and then perhaps a very different person in another context, and in extreme situations we may find ourselves behaving in ways we barely recognize.
So I can’t think of any specific stories I had in mind when I was writing and I’m having trouble thinking of any specific ones now, but it’s a general idea that tends to resonate whenever I encounter it to any degree.
Is there anything you’re working on currently that you can tell us about?
I wish there was! Something I could talk about, I mean. I’m actually working on a number of things at the moment, and they’re right on the edge of being something I can talk publicly about. I’ll probably be able to say something about a couple of them soon, and for a couple of others it may be a while. But there are things very much in the pipeline. Possibly by the time this is published I’ll already have announced something, given that I’m writing this in July.
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