Issue 99 includes short stories about people who have emerged from religious subcultures—Andrew Graff’s story about a woman who was raised fundamentalist Christian and Miriam Cohen’s about a woman who was raised Orthodox Jewish. We asked Graff and Cohen to interview each other.
Graff: So many of your lines demonstrate an extraordinary ability to observe and reveal. For instance, when the character Noreen states her disbelief that she’s somebody’s mom, you write this: “She made a face like somebody was torturing her, if being tortured was something that also made her coy and happy.” It’s a perfect line. And here’s another, my favorite in the entire story: “Baruch was napping in a playpen set up in the middle of the living room, sleeping with his little diapered butt in the air, his curls damp with the ferocious sweat of baby dreaming.” Can you talk a bit about what it’s like to arrive at lines like these, or how they come about? They are so physical, so keen, the kind of lines I read and wish I wrote.
Cohen: Thank you so much for saying all this! I’m a pretty socially awkward person, so I’ve had a lot of time to observe the world while standing nervously in a corner. The Noreen character is based on a woman I met at a party and whose confidence and humble-braggery just completely threw me. At the time, I just winced and stammered my way through the conversation, but I got imaginary revenge on her with this description. My descriptions of Baruch are way less rooted in neuroses. Children are a lot of fun to describe because they’re so unconsciously physical, like little puppies.
Sometimes lines come to me very clearly, but other times I write and rewrite lines, driving myself and everyone else around me absolutely insane.
Graff: Flannery O’Connor said the ending of her story “Good Country People” was under control but surprising to her, that she didn’t know the leg would be stolen until about ten or twelve lines before she wrote it. So much in your story points to a union of some sort between Yael and Aaron. To what degree did the last scene and Yael’s closing revelation surprise you?
Cohen: I never thought they would get together; neither of them really seems to understand or relate to the other one as a genuine person—for Yael, Aaron represents Orthodox Judaism and a rebellion against her mother, a small aligning of herself with an out-of-the-picture father. And Aaron sees Yael as a token secular Jew he must enlighten. But I did give Yael an experience I’ve often had on dates, which is the momentary feeling that I might actually be able to marry the person I’ve only just met and more often than not don’t really like that much. I sit there, giving myself a migraine with all my fake-smiling, and think, Can this be the one? I get us married and divorced before the bread. The closing revelation did surprise me, a little. I wasn’t sure where, exactly, I was going with the story, and then, once I realized this was about Yael and her mother, I was surprised to see how deeply conflicted Yael really is, both about her relationship with her mother and her relationship to Judaism.
Graff: I am interested in Yael’s name, and its roots in the Book of Judges. What else can you tell us about how you came to it, or interacted with it, while working on this story?
Cohen: I wanted a name that was just about that amount of Jewish—rather Jewy, but not rising to the level of a “Chaya-Mushka” or “Fruma-Rochel.” Once I had the name, though, it really paid off in the story. I was pleased to have stumbled upon a name that made sense for this character, who has such complicated power dynamics with the different men in her life. Like Yael, I am the product of Yeshiva education—though mine extended beyond elementary school—and the story of Yael and the general was always one of my favorites. (Oddly, included in this education was a puppet show reenactment of the story, complete with plush, dancing wine and cheese.) Also, when I thought about what Aaron might try to teach her about Judaism, I liked the idea of him explaining her own name to her.
The beginning of your story seems to describe a miracle, but it turns out to be a much more mundane occurrence: a faulty electrical wire. This, to me, encapsulates the story’s central thematic preoccupation: the schism between belief and doubt. Did you always know this would be a realistic story, or was there a time in drafting when you imagined Carolyn would experience an actual miracle?
Graff: In a way, I think she does encounter the miraculous through that electrical fire. I’m interested in the miraculous as housed in the mundane, the numinous in the commonplace. There is a tendency, perhaps, to view the miraculous elements of faith as separate from the everyday, reserved for the heroes and saints and deserts and mountaintops. But I think the miraculous is often incarnational, the spiritual made flesh. Burning bushes. Prayers for plain old rain. This tension is housed for me in my protagonist’s name. I can expect the ecstasy of someone like Saint Teresa of Avila, but not of Carolyn Burtanski. Carolyn’s last name makes me think of a Chicago Bears fan. I wanted a Bears fan to encounter the living God in her closet.
Cohen: You write so convincingly from a woman’s point of view. Was it difficult to inhabit this a female mind? (I’ve tried and tried to write from a male point of view and have never been able to hack it!)
Graff: I really don’t know. To me, the character was always a woman. It’s just what was given—a woman folded in prayer in a closet, naked before the Lord, spiritual fireworks going off. A lot of the images or spiritual hungers in the story—the childhood kitchen, the scales of an apple tree, a frozen field, the electrical fire—are simply my own experiences. And the rest of it—shame, burden, hope, longing—is all so universal I didn’t think much about it. Interestingly, some of the most fictional aspects have since become part of my reality. The hydrangeas for instance. I knew I wanted blue flowers in the story. I researched blue flowers and loved hydrangeas. They change color based on what they are fed, their environment, much like a child, much like Carolyn. I have since planted hydrangeas under my windows at home, five bushes.
Cohen: I love the flight of fancy on which the story ends. Do you conceive of this moment as more than a flight of fancy? Maybe something like a revelation or a prophecy?
Graff: Thanks, and yes, and again I think it’s both. I daydream really hard (my childhood play sometimes looked like me sitting in a tree for an hour or two, staring, and I can still be like that), so it felt natural enough to offer Carolyn a really thorough and runaway flight of the imagination. But I was also interested in religious ecstasy, being swept off by God. Carolyn reopens herself to God in the story. God gives her gifts. Even in the most mundane sense, I like to think she is gifted new hope.
The Image archive is supported in part by an award from the National Endowment for the Arts.