Writing and motherhood rolled in on the same thunder, flashed with the same white electric. I’d just finished grad school and I read Louise Erdrich’s memoir and her babies slept in their baskets while she wrote. I was jolted awake by motherhood, and it seemed to me that the world was too.
Motherhood was also a foreign land. It amazed me, and I wanted to describe everything I saw. The pressure to write was acute, and because my days were bounded, insular, but with this exalted view, that tension intensified.
But then I ventured outside, and the air still echoed from the thunderstorm, but let’s say my mother was there, my mother-in-law, my grandmothers—there were women and children everywhere—and it turned out that what I was seeing was at once universal and personal.
So, you couldn’t resist the NYC rite of passage thing in this collection?
Well, initiation to New York is at once humbling and enlarging—not unlike becoming a mother. The city may be a jangly mess, in your face, a mosaic fragmenting and reforming, but you’re among humans. As an inherently lonely young woman, I was comforted by the sense of a multitude of stories.
A young woman is also almost always a cipher in New York. A nonperson, no threat, and I found that I flowed into people’s private spaces naturally and unobtrusively, like Rosemary in Millennium, who comes to New York after her mother’s death and finds work in the home office of a washed-up antiques appraiser. She absorbs her employer’s secrets as if they were her own. The smell of Greek coffee boiling like tar in the back of the bar, the perfume of lilies trucked in through the tunnels, stair-stepped in long cones outside every bodega—my New York memories. The story’s sadness, and expansiveness, come from train rides to and from New Haven, where my grandmother was dying the summer before 9/11. New motherhood was sleeplessness, and there was a hallucinogenic quality to my sorrow. I was shocked by my grandmother’s disfigured body in the hospital bed, and then shocked again by the intensity of her love for whomever was at her bedside. I felt myself both blessed and burned when I stepped into that light. That’s a rite of passage too.
You mention coffee, lilies, your grandmother—how does memory work for you and work into your stories?
I often mine my memories overtly, as a starting point (and they often seem more pungent, richly atmospheric than anything I could invent), but they also seep into my stories unbidden.
Sometimes I find myself stashing certain memories in the creases, or tricking in the key to a map of the hiding places. Like the white Cyrillic letters CCCP on the steep hull of the cargo ship in Portugal, in Charm Circle. That’s where I secreted my memory of a surreal night in Cochin, India, when I was 17. Or the laundry of clouds and mountains, the spin-cycle sky over I-5 in Seattle in that same story, mother and daughter in the car together, their early, fraught silence that will only keep widening… Cue carpool. We’re swinging up and over the neck of Lake Union, Bill Gates passes us, the otherworldly Olympics are erased and revealed, the kids packed in my car are singing an a capella tribute to John Williams from the Internet.
These stories were written over what, a decade? What took you so long?
False starts, stories within stories spiraling out of sight, false endings. I also let time do some of the work for me.
Getting them published in literary magazines one by one took ages. A surprise was discovering that they were so thematically linked, that they folded into each other’s shadows.
Still Life is the story I finished most recently, and swiftly. All the pieces were there on the cutting room floor. A collage of things I’d been teasing and worrying out of the shadows for years—self-preservation in motherhood, depression, lost friendship, even a certain characterization of Providence, RI—was suddenly, readily, available.
I’m in a hard-won, aerial-view state of writing these days. A new novel, Buddhism for Western Children, awaits an enlightened publisher. Another new novel considers death, the Orphic underworld, and Seattle… Both have male narrators. Men have stories too.
KRISTIN ALLIO’S novel, Garner, was a finalist for the Los Angeles Times Book Prize for First Fiction. She is a recipient of the National Book Foundation’s 5 Under 35 award, a PEN/O. Henry prize, and other honors for her short stories and essays. She has been a Howard Foundation Fellow at Brown University, and she lives in Providence, RI with her husband and sons.