Your story in this week’s issue of the magazine, “Likes,” is a father-daughter narrative that takes place at a particularly fraught moment in the daughter’s early adolescence. She’s eleven, and “difficult to talk to.” She’s most comfortable communicating through posts on Instagram. Do you get the sense that social media and the Internet do more to assuage the pain of the early teen-age years or intensify it?
This question appeals to all my Luddite impulses! My automatic response is that social media absolutely intensifies the pain and anxiety of early adolescence. It’s the age at which you are the most vulnerable to the fear of being left out, yet the unending stream of visual updates never lets you forget all the fun that everyone is having without you. It’s the age when you are the most hungry for affirmation and approval, and social media’s obsession with metrics only makes that hunger more insatiable. Sometimes I can’t help thinking that apps like Snapchat and Sarahah—and even “positive” ones like TBH—are diabolically designed to prey on teen-agers’ insecurities.
But, in rare moments of calm detachment, I can see how social media and the Internet and smartphones might be useful tools for surviving adolescence, in that they offer a ready escape from the too immediate present. I can remember what a relief it was to put on my Walkman headphones and enter into another world for a little while. Listening to my music wherever and whenever I wanted was more comforting than reading a book, as much as I liked to read. So I do wonder if all this new technology could be providing that same kind of solace, just with greater variety and speed.
For the father, who didn’t grow up with the Internet, the insertion of it into the parental relationship is difficult, even bewildering. There’s a great moment when the father criticizes his daughter’s online presence as clichéd: “She kept talking about her personal ‘style’ and her ‘vibe’ and her ‘aesthetic,’ but nothing about it was actually hers.” Do you think this is a common reaction for parents faced with teen-age phenomena, or is it specific to the Internet age?
Speaking very generally, I’d say that parents always have been, and always will be, bemused by their children’s predilections, especially when it comes to pop culture. When I was a teen-ager, my parents couldn’t understand why I was drawn to stuff that struck them as unrelentingly dark. And as someone who grew up in the nineteen-eighties, during the heyday of independent music and the rise of independent film, I am often mystified by the younger generation’s enthusiasm for what I perceive to be cynically packaged and heavily marketed. For them, the adjective “commercial” doesn’t seem to have any negative connotations at all.
I think what might be different about the Internet age is the possibility that it’s made parents better versed in their kids’ cultural lives. “Responsible parenting” now takes the form of monitoring children’s online activity and regularly checking their various social-media accounts—so parents are reading their kids’ texts, following Snapchat Stories, looking at Instagram posts, seeing what’s been recently viewed on Netflix, etc. And, in the process, they end up acquiring, involuntarily, a partial fluency in teen tastes. If my parents had had this kind of window into what I was absorbing as an early teen, they may have concluded that my personal style—wearing secondhand dresses and listening to the Smiths and wanting to go to art school—was somewhat clichéd, too.
At times, it seems as if this story is heading in a pretty dark direction. But the ending is lighthearted, even redemptive. Does this mirror your feelings about adolescence itself? Parenthood?
Emotional volatility, darkness and light, extreme highs and lows—this has always been inextricably wrapped up in my understanding of adolescence. And now there’s a lot of research on the developing brain that says this turbulence is in fact very normal, and to be expected. What takes the dad by surprise is not his daughter’s ups and downs but the intensity of his own feelings as he watches her go through them. He thought he was just tagging along for the ride and now finds he can’t get off the rollercoaster. He knows that he should be down on the ground, waving and smiling, a stationary figure, feet planted—but instead he is up in the air right beside her, clutching the lap bar and screaming. My sense was that by the end of the story he could use a little break.
With all its technological trappings, this story is a classic parent-child saga, in a rich tradition. Are there stories or novels you were thinking of while writing this? What are some of your favorite parent-child narratives?
As soon as I read your question, the very first thing that popped into my head was Atticus Finch. Which is funny, because I really wasn’t thinking at all about “To Kill a Mockingbird” while I was writing this story. But I suspect that the dad is thinking about it, in some obscure way, and that Atticus Finch is tucked away somewhere in his deep-seated notions about parenting. Atticus is the kind of father that the dad aspires to being: steady, courageous, rational, wonderful at talking with his children. And, though the dad may not be consciously thinking about Atticus Finch, he is aware, and uncomfortably so, of how he falls short of that ideal.
The story that I did have in the back of my mind as I started writing is “Health,” by Joy Williams. It’s about a twelve-year-old girl being driven by her father to a tanning session. I’ve loved this story for a long time but hadn’t read it in a while, and I didn’t realize the extent to which it had taken root in me until your question prompted me to read it again. One of the things that “Health” made me feel like I could try was set a story in a recognizably contemporary moment. Williams’s story was originally published in 1986, and it’s full of references from a just slightly earlier era: not only the tanning salon but the pop song playing on the radio, the girl’s Rannalli roller skates, and a store called Imagine that “sells neon palm trees and silk clouds and stars. It sells greeting cards and chocolate in shapes children aren’t allowed to see.” Basically, I think my love for her story and its early-eighties trappings allowed for the presence of Snapchat and Kylie Jenner and all the other 2016-specific details in mine.
“Health” focusses on the child’s point of view, but another beautiful story I want to mention balances both the father’s and the daughter’s perspectives: “The Girl Who Raised Pigeons,” by Edward P. Jones. My other favorite parent/child stories tend to be told from the parent’s P.O.V.: “The Flaw in the Design,” by Deborah Eisenberg; “Tiny, Smiling Daddy,” by Mary Gaitksill; “Signs and Symbols,” by Vladimir Nabokov; “I Stand Here Ironing,” by Tillie Olsen. Wonderful, all of them, and each so specific and poignant that I have to take a deep breath before I start reading.