(c) Hiromi Chikai
１ヶ月以上前のことですが、私はサウスカロライナ州の大学で朗読をして、インタビューを受けることになっていました。半年ぶりの旅行です。久しぶりに乗る飛行機を待っている間に、電話が入り、大学が突然マスクの着用義務を取りやめたため、主催者が私の登壇するイベントで、マスクなどの着用を強制できなくなったと聞かされました。そこで私は並んでいた列から外れて、家に戻ってきました。どこかの時点で私がコロナに感染する可能性は非常に高いように思えます。実際、周りでも大勢の知人が陽性になっていますしね。でも、まだ完治していないギャヴィンに、変なものを持ち帰ってはいけないし、ふたりとも看病が必要になったらどうすればいいのか、想像もつきません。それに、まだアメリカに住む大勢の人たちは、私と同じような状況やさらにひどい状況にいるんですから！ だからこの春は特に、気が滅入るのかもしれません。変わったと言っても、本質的には何も変わっていないんです。 どんよりした話になってごめんなさい。そんな考えが浮かんだと思ったら、他のことが頭をよぎります。例えば、私のお気に入りの冒頭の文章の１つなのですが、ドディー・スミスの『カサンドラの城』は、「私はこれをキッチンの流しに座って書いています」からはじまります。それを真似してあなたにお伝えすると、私はこの手紙を我が家の居間にあるすごく古いソファで書いていて、隣では愛犬のココが眠っています。発情期なのでオムツを履かなければならず、その姿は少し滑稽で、彼女自身もばつが悪そうです。子犬を産ませたらどうなるのだろうと、想像しています。もしココがたくさん子犬を産んだらどうなるのかと。ひどく恐ろしいことになるでしょうね。私はこれ以上人生を混沌とさせたいんでしょうか？ そうだと思います。自分でカオスを招いたことを後悔するでしょうか？ しないでしょうね、でもするかもしれません。
Copyright © 2022 by Kelly Link Originally written for The Japan Foundation by arrangement with Massie & McQuilkin Literary Agents through Tuttle-Mori Agency, Inc., Tokyo
Last night our dog Koko woke me up around 3 AM. She was downstairs on the couch where she sleeps, barking and growling, absolutely rigid. At first I thought perhaps someone, or an animal, had come into the house, but I heard and saw nothing. I sat with her for about an hour while she stared fixedly at a window where I could see nothing but darkness until finally she put her head down on my lap and went back to sleep.
This morning my mother discovered I had accidentally left a bag of chicken feed against the wall of our garage, and something, probably a bear, had torn it open and devoured almost two-thirds of the contents. Our garden is currently full of rabbits, deer, frogs singing in the pond, bees and wasps and courting birds. The chicken coop is full of nests of baby mice, which the chickens deal with the way velociraptors in the movie Jurassic Park dealt with human park visitors. I feel very tenderhearted toward the mice, who are adorable, but chickens are bloody-minded and ruthless.
Because bird flu is an issue in the US right now, we can’t put out birdseed or leave treats in the yard the way we would usually do—which is often why bears stop by. Last night’s visitor also dug out several plants we had just introduced into our garden, including a very large shrub. I would have liked to see the bear doing all of this! But no doubt she will be back.
Everything is in frenetic bloom—our lilacs, crab trees, cherry trees and redbuds, wisteria, violets and tulips, ferns beginning to uncurl. At this stage the ferns resemble the secret parts of hermit crabs—those curled up, bristling and hairy bodies which only emerge when they must swap shells. My mother and I went to a plant sale on Saturday morning, and to a nursery on Sunday, all of which were swarming with families. Our town’s mayor was there to help people total up their purchases, and people left with whole wagons and carts of various flowers or vegetable starts. We filled up the back of my car. Various master gardeners were there to give advice—this is a place which takes gardening seriously, and the pandemic has meant people spend even more time outside in their yards. This is the part of spring which is most appealingly beautiful but also least peaceful. Summer, when everything is deep green and slow, will feel like a relief, though right now the day is perfectly warm and dry and the wind in the new leaves of all the trees sounds like the ocean.
I am wary of spring, and a little wary of one of our two new chickens, too. She is not quite four months old, showily beautiful and already so large we wonder if she may turn out to be a rooster, which aren’t permitted within Northampton city limits. Her feathers are iridescent, black turning beetle green in sunlight, and her tail froths out like a waterfall, or a perhaps a hat that a Victorian Englishwoman might wear. When she shakes herself off after a dust bath, all her feathers stand up in points and she suddenly looks ferocious, as if to touch her would draw blood. The other young chicken is a Silver Laced Wyandotte, with a small head and neat yellow legs that make me think of Shakespeare’s character Malvolio, “cross-gartered in yellow stockings.”
I spend most of my time right now with my family, or with plants, or with Koko and my chickens. We see very few human visitors, though in the last week Gavin’s sister, who lives in Edinburgh, passed through, and then Sofia Samatar, a writer we have published three books by, whose daughter had just finished her first semester at Smith College. It felt very festive to have visitors—we sat outside as much as we could and Gavin lay in the hammock. He continues to improve incrementally, but even sitting up for extended periods of time can exhaust him.
Sofia’s novels have been translated into Japanese but not her short story collection, I think—I wish it had been, because I believe you would love it. She has the range and world-building skills and imagination of writers like Tanith Lee, but is clear-eyed, sharp and dry in the manner of Le Guin where Tanith Lee conjures up a kind of lushness of senses/emotions.
We’d been looking forward to Gavin’s sister’s visit for a long time, and my sister comes next month. Gavin’s sister loves Yankee Candle Factory and white wine, whereas my sister comes for the weed dispensaries and to watch horror movies with me. Other than sisters, I expect this to be a quiet summer. I haven’t taken any online classes, but I am learning from my mother to be a better gardener and caretaker of plants. The class I most wish I could take is the writing workshop that Lynda Barry teaches. Matthew Salesses, a writer I admire a great deal, published a book last year on workshops, and I attended a Zoom seminar that he gave—I would give a great deal to sit in on some sessions of the writing workshop that he leads. I miss visiting universities and seeing how various workshops operate. I miss teaching writing, and facilitating workshops. I miss the company of other writers who are excited about, or struggling with, or dutifully attending to their narrative projects.
Over a month ago I was supposed to go to South Carolina for a reading and an interview at a college, my first travel in six months. While I was waiting to board my first flight, I was called and informed that the college had suddenly dropped its mask mandate, and that the organizers could not enforce any sort of masking at my events. And so I got out of line and came home again. It seems very likely that at some point I will get Covid—so many people that I know, right now, are testing positive—but while Gavin is still incapacitated, I neither wish to bring something home to him, nor can imagine how we would manage were we both in need of care. And yet! So many people in this country are in this position or worse. Maybe this is why this spring, in particular, feels so exhausting to me. Change without true change.
Sorry to be gloomy. It bubbles up and then other things come to mind. Like this, one of my very favorite opening sentences, from Dodie Smith’s I Capture the Castle, which begins, “I write this sitting in the kitchen sink.” In imitation I feel compelled to let you know that I’m writing this from the very old sofa in our front room, my dog Koko sleeping next to me. Because she is currently in heat, she has to wear a diaper and looks slightly ridiculous and abashed about it. I’ve been trying to imagine what it would be like if we bred her, if she had a litter of puppies. It’s a compellingly terrible possibility—do I want more chaos in my life? Yes. Will I regret introducing more chaos? No, but also yes.
Last Thursday I turned in my copyedits for my story collection White Cat, Black Dog. I had been waiting for two readers who live in Reykjavík to provide feedback for a story set there. I was worried I’d have to make large changes, but fortunately their suggestions were easy to incorporate. For example, at one point I’d written that the protagonist leaves the “districts” where there are bars, restaurants, and shops—the reader’s note was “Girl, I wish” and instructed me to change it to district, singular. The other reader, giving me some feedback about translation apps and the Icelandic language, said Google Translate is notoriously terrible, changing things like “hail” to “snakes” so that Weather alerts will inform you that snakes are about to fall from the sky. All in all, there are seven stories in the collection, but I keep imagining that there is an eighth that I’ve written but misplaced and about which I can no longer remember anything.
Production of the book is in train, so I’m getting a look at what it will look like as a physical object: cover art and design, sketches that will become illustrations for each story, fonts and page layouts. It’s so strange to have stories come, one by one, like a nut in a shell that must be cracked to get at the meat—a sentence, a person who is in a particular mood—and to slowly make that small thing into a structure that can contain itself comfortably. And then see one story become part of a larger whole, with a face that advertises itself, a uniform body text in a particular font that might suggest contemporariness or timelessness, elegance or energy or clarity. I like the problem of design and what it signals almost as much as I like working on the shape of a story. And as everything here in the US is terrible and looks to keep getting worse, it’s necessary to have things like gardens or book design to contemplate, even while it feels jarring to have something to look forward to. Small problems, small anticipations are delightful.
Next week I’ll return to revision of the novel. The last few months, while I’ve been engaged in other kinds of work, it’s as if I have been floating out in space on some kind of tether, looking back down now and again at the enormous bulk of the novel, catching glimpses of various strands from tip to tail. Back in I will go with notes from my agent, hoping I’ll be able to retain the sense of where those strands seemed thin or loose or overworked from where I was, out in space. Between the collection, the novel, and these letters (and the sense of each of these projects coming to completion) for much of this year and even the last year I’ve had more of a sense of my writer self than I usually do, or perhaps she is just less submerged than she usually is. And it’s been strange, too, to keep moving between stories and novel. I feel like I am a monk when I am tackling the novel, like a spider when it’s the stories.
I’ve been playing a game on my phone called Water Sort Puzzle, in which you must rearrange different colors of “water” that are stacked variously in beakers so that each color is sorted into its own beaker. To do this, you can move a color on top of another block which is the same color as long as that beaker then doesn’t “overfill.” The levels become progressively harder to solve, of course, and the thing that delights me is that as I become better and faster at the game and solving the patterns correctly I don’t necessarily understand why I am making the decisions that I make, even as they turn out to be correct moves. It makes me think about pattern-making decisions in writing, and how these are often made intuitively, at speed, without ever considering why we make those choices. But of course even the container (the “beaker”) we reach for is an arbitrary formal structure in which a certain amount of intuitive play occurs at a certain level of difficulty or ease.
I know what you mean about stories and novels, how the liveliness of the most exciting novels feels akin to the effect of short stories. Recently I interviewed a writer, Richard Butner, whose collection Small Beer published in March. I’m no doubt changing what he says in ways that I shouldn’t, but a short story at its ending expands out into revelation or strangeness in the same way that a novel does. Except the brevity of a short story means that this shift has more impact because it is accomplished so swiftly, like a short fuse. And I love collections for this, that from story to story as a reader I feel that change of pressure and mood, like a strobe, or music changing on the dance floor of a club. I’ve been rereading Where the Wild Ladies Are, and this time I lingered with the opening of “A New Recruit” and the carpet of flowers. This is the most dreamlike of your stories to me, and currently the one that feels as if it is saying something I need to pay close attention to, though the title story perhaps best approximates the way I feel this spring.
Perhaps the tone and voice of “A New Recruit” are speaking to me because the next adult book that I will write has, now, enough matter clumping and tangling around it that it has become ravenous and is constantly drawing more matter in to adhere to itself. It will be a short novel about dangerous book collections and haunted houses. The narrator will be someone who is my age, more or less, a dealer in rare books who has been trained to pay close attention to the condition of things, who sees the traces of the dead in the objects that they valued most. He’s someone who has tried to live carefully and protect himself, who is perhaps more like me than some of the protagonists I feel drawn to write. Anyway, I’ve been thinking about coffins buried upside down, and neighbors who know that you’re away and text to say that they’ve heard someone walking around your apartment, and nosebleeds. I’ve been thinking about coincidences and presences and my favorite thing in narrative, doppelgangers—as you say, there is such a charge of delight and rightness when you and someone else discover chance commonalities, and yet it’s uncanny, too. When I was in my mid-twenties, the writer Shelley Jackson came to live in the house in Boston that I was renting. We quickly discovered that we shared the same birthday, and while she lived there other coincidences followed: for example, one of us would go to a museum and become fascinated by a particular object on display, only to discover in conversation that the other had gone to the same museum the previous week and spent the visit fixated on the same artifact. Once she brought home a rotted corset she’d found in the River Charles and dried it out on the porch. She has a three-legged dog, and a few years ago when she and her husband bought a second house in Conway, one of the hilltowns near us, she discovered Conway has a small store that specializes in aids for three-legged dogs.
I’m so glad that you mentioned Miwako Ozawa and Polly Barton—it seems to me that this would have been even more interesting as a correspondence if there had been space for them to participate openly as well. Perhaps they might be willing to embellish, in some way, or alter this letter? To interject or contradict or complicate or footnote a sentence that I’m writing now? Whether this seems like a good idea to them or not, I hope we will all be in the same space one day. I would have loved to attend the online event on feminist books. I have loved, too, not just getting to talk about novels and short stories with you—yes! “Where Are You Going, Where Have You Been?”!—but also hearing about how you have been living during this strange time, and about your new apartment, and about the mysterious wood. When I was in my twenties and living in New York, every time I was invited into someone else’s house I was thrilled more than I should have been to see what the inside of a particular apartment building was like. Online realty sites like Zillow have been enormously satisfying these days, so I can indulge my curiosity about how other people arrange their rooms, what light looks like coming in their windows, what colors are pleasing to them. Gavin’s sister’s partner has just sold his flat outside Edinburgh, and we watched a short video, filmed as a drone flew down a long drive, through a door and into various rooms and up a set of stairs into bedrooms and closets. It was shamefully thrilling.
Another thing that I am looking forward to! We have been slowly selling off and shifting some of the stock that we inherited when we bought our bookstore so that we can make more space for science fiction and fantasy and horror. We had an illustrated map printed up of the various new and used bookstores in our area, and have been giving that away—there are so many good new bookstores here, in spaces so much larger than ours, that our goal is to carry stock that we love but which is slightly more esoteric or unusual, writers we are passionate about that other stores don’t have space or inclination for, because they are more focused on recently published books. I want people to find things that they might not come across anywhere else, and to have sections that are expansive but in other stores might not get so much space. There’s so much Tanith Lee that I would carry if it was available.
Thank you for the story of your tutor—I sympathize on the subject of names. I’m terrible at remembering names, though because I teach workshops quite often, I’ve tried to train myself to latch onto them. But that’s easier anyway, because there is usually at least one short story, or a conversation about short stories that I can attach their name and person to. Whereas in other circumstances I am still bad at names. (I had an instructor at the Clarion workshop who had face blindness, and always did her best to be kind to us when we would meet her later on, but could not remember who had done or said what. Since Clarion is a science fiction/fantasy workshop, this felt storylike in its own way.) When I was a kid I went to a summer camp for six weeks every year, the same camp that my mother had gone to (though it had been eight weeks when she went.) I loved a lot about this place, especially that we could take riding lessons, but the last year I went as a camper there was a girl named Susannah in my cabin who became a close friend, the kind where you become best friends for life with a kind of passionate intensity, almost like falling in love. There was a group of us, and we did everything together. I remember one of us had some of V.C. Andrews’s novels, and we passed them around and hid them under our pillows. Susannah’s parents were divorced, and four weeks into the camp session, her mother wrote a letter to say that she had suddenly remarried and my friend had a new stepfather. This was a terrible blow to Susannah. She was hurt and inconsolable and outraged and made such a terrible scene that she was taken away, her mother contacted and made to come at once to take her away. None of us in the cabin ever saw Susannah again that year, or afterwards. The loss felt like having a limb ripped off. And now I’m an adult and it’s easy to find people online, much of the time, but by the time I could have done this I had forgotten her last name. In fact, I’m not even sure that her first name was Susannah. But I think of her several times a year, and I hope that the rest of her adolescence was easier, and that her stepfather turned out to be a good person, and that she’s happy now. Anyway, there’s a story in Sofia Samatar’s collection called “How to Get Back to the Forest” that felt true to how all of this had felt to me. It’s actually up online at Lightspeed magazine. (Easy, sometimes, to find a story online, even though I haven’t ever found Susannah again.)
It’s slowly getting dark outside, and I have to go close up the chicken coop. I’m going to write a little more of this letter in the morning before I send it off.
P.S. I really will send this letter off now. The bear came back last night, but only found one bag of soil to open up, which must have been a disappointment. I was so tired this morning that after I made Ursula breakfast, I lay down on the old couch and fell asleep with Koko, and I’m still not fully awake even now, though the day is once again beautiful and tempting and also full of disturbing news. Most of our newspapers, institutions, and political leaders are telling us that in the US we should not protest unjust laws or corruption, but rather engage in debate or conversation.
I’m so very grateful to have had this chance to write to you, for this chance to talk about writing. I’m so very grateful for your letters. I will think of you, and of Polly Barton, too, when I listen to Christine and the Queens. And I’ll be waiting for more stories from you, more books.
Copyright © 2022 by Kelly Link Originally written for The Japan Foundation by arrangement with Massie & McQuilkin Literary Agents through Tuttle-Mori Agency, Inc., Tokyo