What inspired “Nine Bodies of Water”?
This story came about because I was fretting about what body of water I’d most want to live next to, if I had a choice. Living by the ocean is wild-and-lonely; living by a stream is cozy-and-pastoral, and so on. It might seem a strange problem, but it’s one I’ve mulled since childhood, and I think it has to do with the larger issue of feeling overwhelmed by possibility – how one must choose among a thousand visions of life.
So the story was motivated by a very abstract idea. It could have gone in a very Borges-like direction (and still might, in its next incarnation). But this one became a personal story about Alba, who’s in a very different situation than I am. Instead of feeling liberated in every one of her futures, she feels trapped. It’s pretty cynical. I think it’s because it’s one of the first stories I ever wrote–I thought narrative tension required gloom, which I now know is not so.
I really liked the way you used the titular “Nine Bodies of Water” as mentioned in Simon’s nursery rhyme to structure this story. How did this structure come about?
Something in the present moment needed to anchor the “journey” upon which Alba was about to embark. A nursery rhyme seemed like a good device to accomplish that. I looked around the room Alba was sitting in, and there it was on the table.
Do you outline your stories or do you typically write in a less structured manner? Would you mind explaining the process behind this story?
For this story, I definitely outlined beforehand. The plot points had to line up. Later stories evolved much more organically. The more I wrote, the more I learned to trust the process.
What was the significance of the missing finger?
One Christmas, my sisters and I were painting our hands in homemade henna. I drew an elaborate design on my palm and showed it to my sister, Clare. “It’s not finished,” I said, referring to a big open circle on the heel of my palm. “I have to fill this hole.” Clare said, “No! Leave it open! Then, every day, you can put something different there.”
To me, that’s what the missing finger is. It’s the way-not-determined. Alba sees nine visions of the future in which, despite having (literally) won the lottery, she’s still trapped. But her visions are determined by the moment she’s in: poor, desperate and feeling like a bad mother. Inez is trying to tell her that it just doesn’t have to be that way. That there’s a tenth possibility–another kind of future that is radically different than anything she’d imagined.
The internet is full of literary discussions regarding writing “The Other.” The story indicates that the protagonist, Alba, is a migrant worker from Mexico. What kind of research or preparation went into creating this character? How do you think authors should go about writing characters which are different from themselves?
Oh, big question!
Well, the story is about imagining possibility beyond any you’d previously allowed yourself. Since I wrote the story with the immigration controversy in the background, and given the concerns about how much immigrants’ lives are constrained by their legal statuses, I think Alba came to fulfill the protagonist’s role naturally. I do wonder whether my subconscious suggested her as a privileged white wish-fulfillment thing, i.e. “See, even those in the most desperate situations Have A Choice!” Which is not a statement I consciously agree with. In any case, I don’t wish to suggest that this story is prescriptive of illegal immigrants or the choices they face. Humans within a group always have individual experiences, and “Nine Bodies” is meant to be the story of one person’s reality.
In terms of writers writing characters different from themselves, I’ll first say that I’m a white American coming from a privileged background, and my sense that I can write about whatever I want – including people unlike me with regard to class, race, culture and privilege–might well have to do with that privilege. I welcome any feedback in that regard. Having said that, I think the key is just to do research. A lot of it. Both on (1) the cultural background of people whose lives you’re trying to portray (to the extent that it’s important to the story–it might not be), and (2) on the very practice of writing Other. Who’s done it? Who’s failed and who’s succeeded, according to whom, and why? What are your assumptions and intentions in writing about someone unlike you? It might be a lot of work, both emotionally and logistically, but to me it’s worth it. I want human literature to reflect human plurality. Period.
Thanks for answering my questions. One last thing: What’s next for Monica Byrne? Do you have any upcoming publications you would like to announce?
Indeed! My story “Five Letters from New Laverne” is coming out in Shimmer #12 and my story “The Comedy at Kualoa” is coming out in Electric Velocipede #21/22. My first play, Nightwork, is debuting at Manbites Dog Theater in Durham, NC this January; and I’m completing my first novel, The Girl in the Road, at the Vermont Studio Center this spring.
Spread the word!