Today, I'm super excited to bring you an interview with Matthew Fogarty, author of the brilliant short story collection (with novella), Maybe Mermaids and Robots are Lonely. This is one of the best collections I've ready all year and I've been anxiously awaiting its debut on September 16th, so that I can share it with the rest of the world. Enjoy!
Steph Post: Maybe Mermaids and Robots are Lonely is like a love letter to childhood. The stories are rife with totemic childhood hallmarks: robots, mermaids, pirates, monsters, videogame characters, cowboys, astronauts, the list goes on... Opening this collection is like opening a treasure chest containing everything we ever wanted to be when we grew up (before we became jaded and realized that no, we were probably not going to grow fins). What gave you the inspiration for tapping into and channeling the idealized (and also real) experiences of childhood?
Matthew Fogarty: Oh wow, thank you. Yeah, I'm not sure where to begin answering this question.
The collection really started as an experiment with freeing myself up to write anything and, more specifically, to write the kinds of stories I like to read. Entering the second year of my MFA, I was feeling aimless (in a bad way) with my fiction—I’d been trying to write the kinds of “serious” and intensely adult stories I thought I needed to write, but everything was coming out flat and emotionless and well-worn; I hated the characters I was writing. And so I experimented with removing any sense of responsibility or any “supposed to” and just freed myself up to write and explore and have fun. And, thinking only that I wanted to write something involving a robot and a love story, I wrote the title piece.
And maybe that’s the connection to childhood, this release from responsibility and this opening up of possibilities. I was obsessed with the idea of childlike wonder. I wanted the chance, in my writing, to let the world be wondrous and exciting and new again. After a while, I also became obsessed with the idea of nostalgia for a time or a place or a thing that never existed. I’d been revisiting the movies of John Hughes and thinking about how they seemed to so perfectly capture my childhood and young adulthood, but how the worlds they depict weren’t real or realistic even when the movies were first released.
Maybe it all has something to do with growing up in the suburbs of Detroit and the weirdness and strange magic of that space: that it’s neither city nor country, that it’s this bizarrely “un” place. Which, as a kid, felt blank or boring or generic, but now, looking back, feels unique and magical. That within our square-mile subdivision we had a park and a river (really, a creek) and a block of trees that felt at the time, and still does, like an endless, boundaryless forest in which all manner of things are possible.
SP: Because some of these stories are so delightfully wild, I'm interested in your story-creation process. Do you sit around and just ask yourself "what if" questions? As in, "well, what if a mermaid and robot fell in love?" or, "what if Bigfoot needed a temp job?" Do these ideas hit you like a bolt of lightening while driving down the road or are they highly developed?
MF: A little of all of those, I'd say. Many started with an inkling or an emotion or a word or a line or a sound and grew from there. The hardest work was letting myself follow them into the weird. At a certain point, I realized many of the stories I was writing involved characters that were almost legendary or mythological, but in some way distinctly American, characters that I'd grown up with and that helped form my understanding of the world. From there, I identified a bunch of other characters that felt like they deserved a story, characters I could throw into situations I wanted to explore or that I could pair with an emotion or an idea.
Some stories are premise-based what-ifs, but I find those stories to be toughest just because, at least until I dive deeply into them, I feel like I'm floundering and awkward and aimless, hoping to find my role in the telling of the story. For example, I knew I wanted to write something involving a zombie theme park. It took two years of actively and passively thinking about it, and living with it and letting it germinate, to develop it into an actual story idea. Even then, there were maybe a dozen or so false starts—me trying to write into the story or write through the story or write around the story, trying to approach it from various angles and pull on some of the strings I developed and all of it failing to gain any momentum. And then one day I found the voice, the tone of the narration, and I had it—three weeks later I had most of a first draft.
SP: The sections in the collection are broken down and titled with prepositions: Under, over, between, above, away. What was the reasoning for the section breakdowns and what is the meaning behind the titles?
MF: Let me say first, structuring a flash collection is maybe the hardest part of writing a flash collection. And in this case, many of these ideas are actually credited to the folks at Stillhouse and, in particular, my wonderful editor, Justin Lafreniere. Originally, I had thought of all of the stories as little rivers or creeks that all empty into the novella, which collects everything thematically and plotwise and plays with it all some more and twists things and so on. It's how Etgar Keret and Stuart Dybek structure many of their collections.
But Justin made some keen observations: for one, given the length of the collection and the sheer number of stories, it was hard to maintain any kind of readerly momentum or to make any real sense out of the collection as a whole without any signposts of some sort; for another, the stories play in so many different worlds, there needed to be something to help them cohere. He suggested grouping the stories into a few sections with the novella in the middle. Eventually, we struck on the idea of how these stories relate to each other in space. I came up with loose groupings of stories and Justin took the idea back to his editorial team. Together, we came up with the order.
Originally, I was firmly opposed to section titles. I like to let my work speak for itself and I didn't want to ruin the way the stories were naturally kind of working off each other. But Justin pushed me to make it work, and I settled on the prepositions. Maybe initially they were an attempt to be cute, but the more I lived with them and read and reread the collection throughout the editing process, the more I've come to love the way they both provide some coherence among the stories in the book while also challenging some of the stories and driving them perhaps deeper than I ever could have intended.
SP: Many of the stories have a fairy tale or allegorical type structure. I'm thinking especially in the novella "The Dead Dream of Being Undead," but also in shorter works such as the title story. Were you influced by allegories directly or is this a reflection of the overall theme of childhood, as most often it is children who are exposed to this style of storytelling?
MF: In one sense, I think it’s a storytelling strategy. There’s something so unequivocally firm about the allegorical or fable-like telling, something we so readily accept as truthful on some figurative level. And I love testing the limits of this, of exploring how readily we might accept something presented in that style or how long we might choose to stay with something that begins to deviate or expand or transmorph out of that old fablelike telling into something wholly, magically, wondrously different. I like Borges and Calvino a lot, and they were masters of this.
Another thought as I was working on the collection was that there were so many stories or ideas or characters floating around in my memory that seemed like they were real, like they already existed on paper or in a book, like they were firm and well-worn. I feel like I remember stories about mermaids and robots and astronauts flying to the moon in a barrel. But of course I don’t remember those stories, my memory is faulty, it’s swirled all these ideas, these little pieces of culture and history and geography and so on into some weird false fairyland. I don’t know if others have this same experience or if they experience these false memories of iconic or legendary characters the same way I do. But I want to tell those stories, to make them firm, to make them as real as the mythologies I remember.
SP: In many of my favorite stories, a single image or object is focused on as a way to convey "unspeakable" emotions. I'm thinking of the chair in "River to Shanghai" or the cooler in "Plain Burial." Bigfoot's overcoat. Was this a conscious decision- to use objects to express emotions?
MF: This is also a storytelling strategy, I guess. I'm not sure how consciously I deploy it. It's always kind of a happy accident, whether the story grew naturally out of a particular object or an object just happens to show up in a story. Once I get past that initial creative burst of WHOOSH that splatters the start of a story on the page and the actual real work begins, I begin to see objects as things I can work with and out of which I can tease more story and more ideas.
I don't say this in relation to my own work, but it's one of the things I love in fiction and in storytelling generally—the idea of using an object as both a focal point that concentrates the reader's or the audience's attention and as a tool of distraction or misdirection. Aaron Sorkin does it. David Mamet does it. Stuart Dybek does it. Etgar Keret has a number of stories that center the reader's attention on an object. Aimee Bender does it often. Caitlin McGuire does it. It's a cool dramatic and rhetorical trick that I try to get my students to do in essay writing, as well.
SP: I noticed that many of the stories highlight the landscape or natural elements. Water in particular, but also the earth itself, seems to play a keen role in explore the relationship between character. This is most evident in my favorite piece (and it took a while to decide how to use the word 'favorite' there)- "We Are Swimmers." Do you think that your emphasis on nature harkens again back to the themes of childhood and how children experience the world?
MF: Yeah, that's definitely true. I think, more than just childhood and children in general, it has to do with growing up in the suburbs and my childhood in particular. My understanding and experience of nature was formed in this weird in-between space, where elements of the city and the industrial blend with elements of the country and the natural. Something went awry in that blending, and we ended up with a space that was not quite city, not quite country, a space that was simply "un." And I should add that these aren't my ideas at all, that there are plenty others who've written about this, including Stewart O'Nan in Last Night at the Lobster, which is a fantastic book set in a Red Lobster that's about to close but is enduring a snowstorm.
And I guess, more literally, much of the landscape here is the landscape of my childhood in the suburbs of Detroit: the crumbling industrial center, the relatively affluent and green suburbs, the majesty of the great lakes. My grandmother lived in a cottage on a hill on the Canadian side of Lake Erie near Buffalo. That house, which was ramshackle and threatening to fall into the drink but nonetheless magical, and that beach, which often overtaken by rotting seaweed but nonetheless beautiful, are where my sisters and I had our most awesome adventures.
SP: To wrap up, I say that we end on love. Although there are heartbreaking moments in these stories, there is a pervading sense of buoyancy. A steadfast belief in hope that is refreshing, perhaps because it is so absent in much of modern literature. There is a purity in the way you convey love, no more so than in "Maybe Mermaids and Robots are Lonely." The whole time I was reading this story, I was waiting for the crushing ending, the expected 'we can't have what we want because we're all different and life sucks' ending, but instead, the story closes with the belief in the power of love. It's not cheesy. It's not sappy. It's honest and hopeful and shocking, because it dares to be so pure. Do you think these themes and types of stories are missing from the contemporary lit landscape? Do you think they are needed? And were you deliberately treading on this ground or is this more a reflection of the way you personally experience the world?
MF: I don't know. I'm not sure how to think of myself in relation to the contemporary lit landscape and I really don't feel like any kind of authority on what types of stories we do and don't need. Certainly, as far as the contemporary lit landscape goes, we don't necessarily need another straight white dude writer from the suburbs. There are plenty of us out there and all the stories of that generic experience have been pretty well told by writers who are better at writing than I am. But I do know that I love to write, that there are elements of how I've experienced the world that are both singular to me and also, on some level, touch on ideas or themes or emotions that we all experience in our own ways. There are stories out there that feel like they should exist but don't. And so I write and all I can write, all I can ever hope to write, are the stories only I can write, the stories that reflect my unique and subjective experience of the world.
It's inevitable in all this that I end up writing the types of stories that I like to read. So do I wish there were more stories like that? Of course. Absolutely. I wish there were more happy stories that explore the joy and whimsy in the world. I wish there were more stories that explore emotions other than devastation and longing. But not everyone is so fortunate as to spend their time doing that. There's ugly and there's hatred in the world. Certainly, there's truth and understanding and empathy to be found in stories that plumb those depths. There are plenty of voices writing into and around experiences of those depths—voices that are bolder and more important than mine.
I sometimes feel limited in my capacity to fight back the ugly and the hatred and the evil. It's a feeling that happens often when I sit down to write or, more often, when I decide there's no reason to sit down to write. And I don't know the answer and, again, this is just me and my thoughts. And I don't mean any of this as naively as it may sound. But I think there's some value in those times, that one other way to fight back the bad is to make something beautiful, to add to the beauty in the world. My work doesn't always live up to that lofty goal, but maybe there's something of merit in the trying.
"Maybe Mermaids" is one of those stories. I don't know if all of this was in my mind as I wrote it. Rather, it was me just letting myself write whatever I wanted, whatever felt real to me, whatever felt like mine. When I was a kid, my parents kept boxes full of books—children's books, mostly, and encyclopedias and school books—in our basement and during tornado warnings, we'd all go down to the basement and read. As an adult, I'm struck by how prominent and happy those afternoons are in my memory even though I know they can't have happened more than once every couple of years. But I wanted to write one of those stories, one of the stories I'd read in a children's book or an encyclopedia or a science book and what came out was a little bit of all of those things.
Thanks so much to Matt Fogarty for fielding my relentless questions and for bringing Maybe Mermaids and Robots are Lonely into the world. Be sure to pick up your copy on September 16th! It will be worth it; I promise.