In The Hotel,” your story in this week’s issue, a woman’s trip gets
rerouted with a layover somewhere in Europe in the middle of the night,
an experience that becomes increasingly disorienting for her. Is it
based on something that happened to you?

About fifteen years ago, I ended up on a layover in a German-speaking
country. I got two hours of sleep. Breakfast was laid out at
four-thirty, but service didn’t start till five o’clock, which was too
late for me, so I stole some food from the buffet. (It was a fairy-tale
feast, like something out of Grimm.) The chef saw me and lost his
temper. He went into a complete rage. It was a very good hotel. I have
no idea where it was.

The woman is looking for a hotel so that she can rest for a few hours
before an early-morning flight. What she finds instead is a line of
refugees, waiting to be processed. Or does she? Does that really happen
or is it a kind of nightmarish hallucination?

I remember travelling with a small baby and understanding something new
about vulnerability. Even with all the supports and safeguards of a
settled life, I was consumed by love and fear for this tiny person. I
think I understood, briefly, what it is to be merely, and absolutely,
human.

In this story, I wanted to catch a feeling of pity that was not
self-pity but a sorrow for mankind. The shift may feel nightmarish, but
it should also be transcendental. So if you put a medieval cast on the
word “hallucination,” then, yes, it might do. How about “vision”?

As to whether it really happens, the page is a free space. Anything can
happen on the page.

Is it possible to travel in Europe these days without confronting the
refugee crisis?

I had a book out in translation last year, and everywhere I went in
Europe I found racism and anxiety about racism. “These refugees, they
are always pregnant,” a driver in Munich said (“Diese Flüchtlinge, sie
sind immer schwanger
”), but I did not see many likely refugees, let
alone ones who were pregnant. It’s possible I was in the wrong part of
town. Late at night, people with education, jobs, and homes worried
about the rise of the right wing. They talked about passports, the ones
they had, the ones they would like to have. Some of these people came
from families that had been displaced by the Second World War or, later,
by the rise of anti-Semitism in Eastern Europe. Travelling makes you
realize how few of us have a stable history—and yet we manufacture myths
of stability all the time, we find them irresistible, as though everyone
had always been white, right, and here.

The woman in the story is, presumably, a business traveller—someone
with a comfortable life style, who craves beige stone shower stalls with
scented soaps. Did you want her to seem frivolous beside the severity of
the refugees’ situation? Or is she also, in a different way, displaced?

There is nothing frivolous about good soap, and (as the well-off like to
insist) she works damn hard for it. I am not sure I wanted to judge her,
to be honest, or her life style. I was more interested in showing how
quickly people can be dehumanized. We need nice soap because of the
appalling fact that the body sweats, shits, and becomes shameful. It is
so easy to take dignity away from people and then despise them for their
lack of dignity.

When you first sent me the story, back in June, you mentioned that
you’d been working on it for a long time. And also that this character
existed in many drafts and versions. Why do you think the story needed
that long gestation period? And do you often work and rework characters
in that way?

Many of my early short stories were about women trapped in some kind of
system or machine—there was a woman distracted by a pair of escalators,
the wife of a Victorian scientist, a pregnant woman in an elevator. I am
also drawn to the in-between, impersonal places in which we spend so
much of our lives: supermarkets, hotels, conference centers, airports.
So I am always writing this woman, one way or another. She was walking
toward those doors for months, in my mind. I think I needed to connect
with a readership to find out what was on the other side. I finished the
story for an event in Australia. I was influenced by a controversy about
the detention facilities for refugees there, and also by Trump’s comment
to the Australian Prime Minister: “I am the world’s greatest person that
does not want to let people into the country.” Ireland’s numbers are not
inspiring—we also like to discourage refugees by giving them a
punitively hard time.

Are there are any stories or novels that you think of as psychological
or emotional guides to the political and humanitarian realities of the
twenty-tens?

The real world is a very big story right now—epic, folkloric, huge. A
lot of novels, meanwhile, are kind of . . . small. I was heartened by
the recent surge in popularity of Margaret Atwood’s “The Handmaid’s
Tale.” We needed a fiction for the times, and there it was: just about
the right size.

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