In your story this week, “Stay Down and Take It,” a couple have to evacuate ahead of a storm. Was the piece inspired by last year’s devastating hurricanes in the U.S.?

I wrote this story, last May, before the summer of destructive storms. But the most recent storms weren’t new in the way they disrupted people’s lives, and it didn’t take much to feel the urgency of people chased from their homes by calamity. I am not particularly adept at writing from the news, or the moment, or even the decade—at least on purpose. But occasionally I do try to chain myself to the here and now, not to be timely, if that’s even possible, but instead out of a fatigue with more fantastical terrain, which sometimes hijacks what I write and sometimes gives it a useful transfusion. I can feel a certain queasy vulnerability if I can’t tweak the surroundings of a story with some kind of vaguely impossible oddity, or a mild haze of futurish difficulties. It unnerves me to avoid such dramatic interventions, and therefore I try occasionally to do just that, to test the waters of unassisted reality. For this story, I had written a little bit about a woman who was finding her circumstances wanting, but there wasn’t much there. I think I needed to put these characters into a vehicle, in flight from something, and a storm felt better than a car full of bandits chasing after them. They needed to be on the move, but not for preposterous reasons. Of course, I didn’t think any of this at the time. This is hindsight, which should probably be regarded with suspicion.

One thing the story gets at, for me, is how disorienting it can be to lose one’s social trappings—for this couple to leave their comfortable, presumably wealthy existence and find themselves on a level playing field (or, rather, in a high-school gym) with evacuees from all socioeconomic strata. Their assumptions about themselves and where they belong have to be questioned; either that, or they can leave, which others can’t do. Was that disorientation something you meant to delve into with this story?

This story wouldn’t have been interesting to me if James and Alice were at home drinking, cheerfully tolerating each other, hiding from their feelings in their sunny back yard. Or, I don’t know, maybe that would have been better. But we’ve read those kinds of stories before. The story does seem to want to take comfortable characters and worry their vulnerabilities, which really have less to do with the absence of physical comfort and more to do with how they face a crisis together. They are forced to need each other in new ways, and this maybe gets them to flip on themselves and discover feelings they didn’t know they had.

The narrative is driven by an external threat—Hurricane Boris bearing down on the protagonists—but there seems also to be an element of internal threat. Or perhaps the storm is a metaphor for whatever is or isn’t brewing between this husband and wife?

I cleaned the story of metaphors before I submitted it to you, I promise. But I see what you mean. I feel sorry for weather in a work of fiction. Any weather. Storms, sunshine, fog. It is never just weather, is it? It’s so susceptible to interpretation, auditioning to mean something, waving at us in the background with all its symbolic flags. I am sort of embarrassed sometimes when I read about weather, when it punctuates dramatic action as obviously as a soundtrack in a film. I guess the manipulation in this story is that I use weather to keep James and Alice in their car, and that proximity puts steady pressure on them to surrender their various defenses. So weather is used not as a repository of meaning but as a literal plot device to entrap the characters as they unravel. Or perhaps that’s not it at all.

The story is told by Alice, who is cynical about just about everything, including her husband and the state of her marriage. What has driven her to that point?

Is she cynical or realistic? Her insights about her relationship and her life are not especially pleasant, but they seem relatively clear-eyed to me. I hope that she’s been driven to that point by simply surviving her life and paying attention. She’s not exactly paranoid or a conspiracy theorist. She’s just found limitations in what her life has become, and, because we can listen in on her thoughts, we get to know the side of her that she hasn’t shared with the world. I don’t want to claim that there is something universal to her point of view, but wouldn’t it be weird if she were happy, listing off everything that was great in her life? And meaning it? Wouldn’t we smell a rat? Wouldn’t her happiness be an obvious disguise for some kind of more brutal assessment? If it were not, if it were true and literal room-clearing happiness, would we keep reading?

Early in the story, she talks about longing for her husband to die so that she can proceed with whatever her life will be when he’s gone. But by the end of the story she’s desperate for him to stay alive. Would you call this a love story?

It does have a sweeter, softer ending than I was expecting, and it could be as close to a love story as I’ve come. Although maybe it’s not so happy, depending on what you think the body count is at the end. Alice is imperfect at keeping her true feelings secret. She leaks out clues. But maybe she has consoled herself with a darker view of her marriage in order to escape action. Her certainty with regard to her feelings is upended, I think, the way most certainty probably can be, if you fuss at it enough. Maybe it’s convenient to sustain a kind of stable animosity toward people we rely on. But, if we might lose them, we are threatened. We can only wish someone gone when he or she is still here.

You often write characters who are misanthropic or otherwise deliberately alienating to the reader (the soft-hearted reader, at least), and yet you still want us, on some level, to root for them. How do you find that equilibrium between sympathy and repulsion?

This is an interesting question. I think of these points of view—misanthropy, or alienation from the world of people—as vulnerabilities. Maybe there’s a terrible and unmet longing behind such ways of seeing. (Do I sound as if I am speaking from experience?) Or perhaps it’s just a lucid take on one’s surroundings. We do a lot to medicate against these bleaker perspectives—or at least I do. But they are pretty durable and familiar to wake up to, and they don’t feel particularly artificial after a while. Someone recently said to me that most people read to be comforted. And maybe that’s true, but is it comforting to be told that all will be well and things happen for a reason and life has a way of working out? Or is it deeply offensive because it’s just not even close to being true? What I find alienating is when people in fiction, or elsewhere, for that matter, bring a highly lacquered cheer to their lives that deflects the mortal facts that surround us. Or when people present attitudes that are heavily scaffolded in denial. I am comforted and entertained and brought to fits of tears and laughter when the complications of our world—or even the complications between two people who need each other—are not hidden. It’s beautiful and it’s necessary and it weirdly makes me want to live another day.

“Stay Down and Take It” will be included in your next collection, “Notes from the Fog,” which comes out in August. Is there a unifying theme to the book?

All but one of the stories in “Notes from the Fog” were written in the past three years. My last book, “Leaving the Sea,” gathered stories from a much longer period of time, which was interrupted by the writing of a novel. There’s no conscious theme in this new collection, but there are some patterns I can’t help noticing. Several characters are the subject of deviant medical experiments. Other characters navigate treacherous families, treacherous jobs, or the kind of awful self-knowledge that causes them to unravel in a heap on the floor. Technology causes sorrow. Sorrow leads to desperate acts that only deepen the sorrow. There’s a math equation for that, I think. Sex is not so sexy. Drugs are sprayed into a public space to assist people’s feelings. Solitude is sought and then resented when it comes. A lot goes unsaid, unthought, unfelt, and awareness of this comes suddenly and with discomfort. Pretty basic stuff, in the end.

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