Starting with the Problem: An Interview with Sara Majka

Sara Majka author photoSara Majka’s Cities I’ve Never Lived In is my favorite kind of story collection—one that strikes many, many delicate balances. It’s both comforting and spooky, dreamlike and surprisingly frank, clear-eyed and slyly supernatural, and often all simultaneously. Majka’s stories follow a common narrator—recently divorced and adrift in a reflective, tonal sadness—into new towns and old relationships, through recalled and overheard stories of death and doppelgängers. “Settlers” and “Four Hills,” both of which appeared in Issue 61 of ASF, are two remarkable distillations of the power and shifty grace of Majka’s storytelling, but every story in the collection offers the reader a new variation on the themes of longing and loneliness—a girl disappears from day care and is never seen again; a man tries to return to the island on which he was raised to find it gone; our familiar narrator tries to work out the truth of an old relationship and its secret staircase. Sara was kind enough to answer a few questions over email; she talked about working out problems in narratives, how we get to real intimacy, and how the last minutes of a great NBA playoff game can approximate the best endings in short fiction.

Callie Collins: While I was reading Cities I’ve Never Lived In, I found myself thinking more than usual about time. The way you use and reference time in the stories seems all your own and very elastic; it dilates often to cover long periods of years, but it also snaps in tightly around small moments. One of my favorite scenes in the collection is the last page of “White Heart Bar,” after they find the body of the missing girl—the narrator just sits still in a very intimate space with her husband while rice cooks in the kitchen. How long did you spend writing the stories that make up Cities and at what point did you start to think of them as a collection, a unit?

Sara Majka: You know, some of those stories go back almost ten years. Every time I say that, I think to myself: I must get serious work done now on a new book if it’s really going to take me that long. But actually, though some of the stories are from that long ago, I don’t think of the book as taking that long, as I only started to think of them as a unit for the last three or four years. Which is still a long time. I remember reading an essay by Stephen King in the Times in which he points out how writers aren’t as prolific as they used to be, and he talks about well-known writers today who are publishing less, but the writers he mentions seem very prolific to me! It was one of those moments that breaks your heart a little.

CC: You wrote an essay I love for Catapult about autobiographical fiction, and specifically about the complex relationship you have with Knarsgaard’s My Struggle. You said the strength of the Knarsgaard is in “accumulation, and his directness, the way he keeps at something.” The same could be said of Cities I’ve Never Lived In: the book’s progression is subtle, a sort of accretion of character and feeling, and of longing, I think. What are you “keeping at” in Cities? What are the things you find yourself drawn back to again and again, the particular currents that carry your fiction along?


SM:
Often with a story I’ll start with a problem in my mind—a problem that I enjoy thinking through. For instance, in the story ASF published, “Settlers,” I have this poor artist trying to survive a winter in Maine with a young daughter. So I’ll think concretely about that problem: How would he get food? Clothes for her? How could he get these things without any money? What if he wants alcohol? I’ll research this. Someone told me about a place where you can buy out of season beer at a discount. I wrote pages about this, and I think in the final story cut it down to one line. I wrote reams of pages about his trips to thrift stores, and again cut it down to one line. I think I cut completely his trip to the surplus food store. I got into the imagination of it. The story ends up being about his isolation, but that wasn’t what I was trying to do—that wasn’t something I could really think about as I wrote, and we have to give our minds something to think about, something more concrete.

I’m trying to think if that’s the way I did it with all the stories, and I don’t really know. What propelled me through some of the more abstract ones I wonder?

Sara Majka - Cities I've Never Lived InCC: There’s a line in “Miniatures” that I keep going back to: “We felt disconnected unless we were in the presence of something beautiful, something still, something that called to us. And because of this we often treated people with a delicateness that wasn’t appropriate.” That’s so, so good. I think it recalls the way we so often talk about an author’s relationship to their characters, too. Can you tell us a little bit about crafting your characters, especially when it comes to taking details from real relationships or people in the world? Or just talk to me more about that fine line between being too delicate and not delicate enough with people!

SM: If you’re delicate with people, if you listen to them just right and give them the space you think they need and are always kind to them, then that’s not closeness, not intimacy. But I can’t help it, I want to be delicate with people. Life is so hard, you know? Or maybe that’s just a safer tack to take. You can’t mess up or do something you regret if you are careful with people. I don’t know. Reviews about this book talk about the isolation of these characters and maybe this carefulness is some of where it comes from.

I’m a single mom (I have a five-month old boy, and I am getting to the point where I probably shouldn’t keep mentioning it, but I can’t help it, it’s what I’m doing right now, almost completely) but since I have him I can’t listen to people well at all, and I can’t give or keep my space in the same way. I can barely notice other people sometimes because I have this wacky squirming thing on me at all times, but I realized that despite every possible blockade to closeness to others this has presented, in some way I feel I have gotten to know people in a different way, maybe a better way—if I wasn’t too stretched to enjoy it. I have a distinct lack of carefulness right now.

CC: Your endings are, across the board, some of my favorite pieces of the stories that make up Cities. You refuse the typical retrospective, epiphanic thing in favor of something quieter. There’s not often big closure, I mean—and I think that for that reason the book flows much more seamlessly than many collections do. How do you know when to end a story? What muscles do you use to get these lovely last moments?

SM: Thanks. I’m not happy with a story or proud of it unless I think the ending is good. I don’t think of myself as good at endings; I always think I won’t write a good ending while I work on a story and I hold my breath and feel relief once again if it turns out right.

I think these stories rely in many ways on a particular movement in the end; without that movement they are probably too quiet, so I think of these endings as going big, which seems to be how no one else sees them. My scale skews small, so going big for me is not perhaps going to lead to the biggest thing. But I am a huge admirer of the endings of others, and in those delicate lines in a story that transcend the other lines of the story. That’s in many ways why I read. I’m thinking now I should go to my bookshelf and pick out some books that have these lines. And later, when I am not so comfortably situated on my sofa, I may try to do that . . .

. . . I have since learned I can’t find my copy of Jesus’ Son. I have some guesses on where that may be. But that book rests on those beautiful, beautiful endings. Walser’s The Walk also has that lovely ending that the whole book moves toward. I just pulled out Gass’ “In the Heart of the Heart of the Country.” Surely there is a line that that story hinges on? I have pulled out Alice Munro’s Moons of Jupiter and flipped toward the end of the last story: “I saw how the forms of love might be maintained with a condemned person but with the love in fact measured and disciplined, because you have to survive.” She keeps digging through her work until she finds those sentences. It must have been exhausting. I love Carver, but only those stories that risk one of those lines, otherwise his stories are too boxed-in for me. He usually, if he’s going to do it, does it a page or two from the end.

CC: I want a peek into your reading life! What books are you most excited about right now? And what’s next for you?

SM: Well, there is said baby. And so at night when I have an hour or two to myself, I’m so insanely interested in catching up on clips of all the baseball games—I subscribe to MLB and so get all the box scores and video clips and game archives. There is a lot of minutia to research at the end of the night. Nothing feels better to me right now than my one beer of the night and getting the NBA playoffs going on my iPad and then switching over to check the MLB box scores, and then watching some clips, and seeing then how the NBA playoff game has progressed, if it’s going to be one of those games that has those amazing endings, which I seem to watch, I realize as I write this, in the same way as I read. The whole game can plod sometimes and then there’s this ending that it has all worked toward.

I used to have a great big old TV where I got broadcast channels with an antenna, but I had to make room in my apartment, so I found the place in Queens where you drive those old things to. Now I’m trying out streaming TV on my iPad. For years I didn’t have internet at home, and you can see why that decision may have been necessary, but I got it because I had to be home with the baby and not at a cafe doing internet, but I look forward to not having it again.

I know I haven’t answered the question very well. I’m, for one, trying to be honest with what my life actually looks like right now, and also I have never been able to read at night as it puts me to sleep. I’m a big morning reader, before I start interacting with the world and when my mind is at its quietest. I will stay in bed for a few hours and read, and so now with the baby, that’s not going to happen, so I will—I imagine when I feel ready—find some way of reading seriously again.

 

When she was young, Sara Majka‘s family moved along the New England coast, living in Martha’s Vineyard, Nantucket, Maine, and even for a time in a lighthouse. She received graduate degrees from UMass-Amherst and Bennington College and was awarded a fellowship at the Fine Arts Work Center in Provincetown. She now lives in Queens with her young son. Cities I’ve Never Lived In is her first book.

Callie Collins is a writer and editor in Austin, Texas. Her work has appeared in places like the Rumpus, the ToastMidnightBreakfast, the CollagistPANK, and NANO Fiction, among other venues. She is the co-director of A Strange Object, the fiction editor of Covered with Fur, and the cohost of the Five Things reading series.

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