Your story “Wood Sorrel House” involves a couple and their toddler, staying in a classic summer rental in the countryside, which turns out to be anything but classic. How did you come up with the idea of turning a usually idyllic vacation into a nightmare of isolation and timelessness? Was he inspired by living through the pandemic with a young child?
Our son turned two in March 2020, so the story absolutely took on that dimension. But first I wrote a basic plan several weeks before things came to a halt in the United States. So I think the initial impetus for the story was a larger response to the experience of being a new parent — which, to me, felt like some kind of lingering altered state. There was a renewed sense of astonishment and bodily fragility. Time moved differently. I wanted to write something about this state of mind. I didn’t start thinking in terms of the conventions that the story takes on – an idyllic summer trip turned upside down, as you said – until a bit later. After I started revising, I came to see “Wood Sorrel House” as, at least on one level, a parody of a traditional domestic story. But, when I started writing, I was only interested in the relationships between these three characters and how they might develop in this particular circumstance.
The couple grow old and deteriorate psychologically, while their child, Max, does not age and cannot be harmed. What makes this scenario particularly frightening?
I guess that makes the question of how to take care of the child unreadable. What would a child like Max need? What could a parent give this child? And so maybe the script of the story spoke to some of my real anxieties, in that, even under the best of circumstances, it can be hard to know that we’re doing the right thing as parents. . Besides, I think there’s just something deeply mystifying about caring for a growing child. It puts you back in touch with those years of your own life, as far as you are able to remember them. Strapping my son into a car seat, for example, will sometimes shake up the faintest memory of how I felt like I was strapped in as a child. In becoming a parent, I faced the strangeness of having forgotten so much and having let go of so many different versions of myself. And all the while, of course, I was aware that my son was going through the same process of forgetting. Now he is only four years old. We have seen him grow in contact with the world around him. I noticed that we tended to tell him stories from the past or show him videos of him when he was much younger. I wonder if, on some weird level, what we crave is for him to find his own development as weird and beautiful as we do. All this to say that in the story I had to look for a way to examine my own sense of awe of the growing process. Max, to me, is less scary than mysterious.
The world you have created has some logic to it, although it can be difficult to decipher. Did you start with a set of rules about what could and couldn’t happen there?
No, not really, although in previous versions I was very interested in questions of causality: Why Does this happen to these three people? At one point, the story included a lengthy flashback designed to answer that question, albeit somewhat indirectly. When I cut this section, thanks to responses from early readers, it felt like I was bringing some fresh air into the story. As soon as I stopped worrying about why and how these things happened, I was also free to stop worrying about what it all meant. I no longer had to try to impose that kind of order on the story. Which meant that I no longer had to try to bring order, in my own thinking, to the questions that animated the story. The less logic I dealt with, I felt, the more honest the writing became. And, once I made that change, I found that I was able to surprise myself more.
Why do you think Ronna and Jacob have such different responses to what happened to them?
I think Ronna is a much better reader of the situation. Jacob seems to want to conquer the place, impose himself in one way or another. He’s stubbornly literal that way. I guess he’s like the part of me that initially wanted the story to have some concrete meaning. Ronna, on the other hand, is more responsive, less aggressive, wiser. She is less concerned with finding answers, like Jacob is, because she intuitively senses that he is asking the wrong questions. Which doesn’t mean she doesn’t struggle. But, if nothing else, she eventually achieves a kind of equanimity.
In the middle of the story is a snapping turtle that may be hundreds of years old, if the age and time actually exists there. Should we consider this turtle as symbolic, or simply as a creature of flesh and blood that has wandered in a conceptual space?
I do not know. I think it’s native to the place, whatever that means, and that’s why it interests Ronna. She seems to see him as a symbol, so it serves her in that way.
Do you think the future Ronna envisions for Max is accurate?
I see no reason to doubt her. But I do not know.
This is your first published story. Do you consider it speculative fiction? Were you influenced by other stories when you worked there? What are you going to work on next?
I feel lucky that I don’t have to think too much about these distinctions – although, for the most part, I don’t consider myself interested or capable of writing genre fiction. I don’t think I had any particular stories in mind while writing “Wood Sorrel House”, but I was reading Shirley Jackson at the time. I also had “The Visiting Privilege: New and Collected Stories” by Joy Williams on my bedside table that summer. And, while revising, I was lucky enough to come across Patrick Harpur’s brilliant book on apparitions, the supernatural, and mythology, “Daimonic Reality: A Field Guide to the Otherworld.” It was a major encounter for me. Whenever I needed to change my way of thinking, I turned to this book. Now I’m writing new stories and finishing older ones. I like to imagine them as a collection.
Why does wood sorrel appear so prominently in the title and story? Does the plant have a special meaning for you?
I was thinking about the kind of named houses I’ve seen, mostly around New England I guess – run down places with names, on old hand carved signs, like “The Eagle’s Nest” or “Wild Rose Lodge”. The selection of wood sorrel was mostly arbitrary. But I don’t see it anymore, since I wrote the story.