Micah Perks’s radiant new book, What Becomes Us, tells the wild and deeply moving story of the nine months leading up to the birth of twins—who narrate the story in utero—as their mother, Evie, flees her abusive husband for a seemingly idyllic town in western New York. It’s a brilliant novel, warm and surprising and exuberantly funny, with characters and settings so compassionately rendered that I felt as if I knew these people and had grown up in the places Perks describes. The closer the novel moves into Evie’s psyche, the brighter the light Perks shines on how we live in community—and how we live in ourselves. And the sentences are so exhilarating, and move so deftly between hilarity and despair, that I must have underlined half the book.
Micah Perks is the author of the novel We Are Gathered Here (1997, St. Martin’s), which the Los Angeles Times called “a tightly woven story that is as fanciful as it is grimly real,” and a memoir, Pagan Time (2009, Counterpoint). Her writing has appeared in ZYZZYVA, The Massachusetts Review, Tin House, OZY, Kenyon Review online, and Epoch, amongst many others, and in such anthologies as The Encyclopedia Project, Viz Inter Arts, and The Best Underground Fiction. Five of her stories have been nominated for Pushcart Prizes. She has been awarded multiple residencies at The Blue Mountain Center and received a Saltonstall Foundation for the Arts grant. Excerpts of What Becomes Us, which was published by the small press Outpost 19, won an NEA grant and the New Guard Machigonne Fiction prize.
She spoke to me over email from her home in Santa Cruz, California, where she co-directs the creative writing program and is a professor in the Literature Department at UCSC.
The Rumpus: Your novel is written—amazingly—from the point of view of Evie’s twin fetuses. I admire the voice on so many levels: it’s funny, moving, generous, and has a fearless and vulnerable intelligence. Not to mention that it manages to be simultaneously youthful and omnisciently wise. What was it like for you to come up with the voice? Was that how the novel began for you—hearing the music of it? Or was it something else?
Micah Perks: Setting/atmosphere is almost always the element of the story that comes first for me. I wanted to capture something particular of my experience of living in rural New York state and something of the central coast of California—something about the low, light blue, cloud-filled sky of western New York and the high, thin, brightness of the sky on the central coast. Like that.
And the voice came slowly, after that. I really love fairytale voices, once upon a time voices. I wanted to write a novel with that kind of storytelling voice, but I also didn’t want to do that classic anonymous omniscient narrative. I thought it would be exciting to have the narration coming from inside the main character, but also with a little distance from the character—kind of her, but not her. I started with a single fetal narrator, but then after several years and several revisions, including one disastrous rewrite where I changed the whole thing to third person, I realized that a we/twinned voice would work for the book because I liked the idea of two people stuffed inside one womb together, the claustrophobia and utopia of that situation, the Whitmanesque, I-contain-multitudes, we-the-people, kind of voice, which really fits with the book as a whole. I liked pushing this ecstatic, lyrical narration up against the very down-to-earth voices of the characters.
Rumpus: The novel shoots off from the opening line—“Our parents had failed five months in a row to make a baby, and Father was growing frustrated”—and never looks back. It has an incredibly fast-paced and energetic narrative that felt compulsively readable. Was that pacing something that came naturally when writing, or did you have to do a lot of over-writing in the drafting process and then whittle it down in each version? And was using the present tense part of the pacing calculus?
Perks: My natural tendency is to fall in love with language and character and setting, and kind of forget about pacing. Narrative tension doesn’t come naturally to me, and if it does feel fast-paced that makes me incredibly happy. It honestly took me years to try and make it move, years of a lot of cutting of tangential stories and narration and then trying to make life harder for the characters. The writer Elizabeth McKenzie once said something that sounds very simple, but that helped me a lot—she said narrative tension comes from putting two unlike things up against each other, a kind of sandpaper effect, or the grit that makes a pearl. While revising, I kept thinking, What can I put in tension with this? How can I make it feel more sandpapery?
Rumpus: Mary Rowlandson, a colonial woman who wrote a book about the time she spent in captivity with native peoples, plays a significant role in the novel. What is it about her and her story that speaks to you?
Perks: You know when you meet someone and there is just this charged, immediate reaction—it feels chemical—this intense bodily connection—that’s how I felt when I first read Mary Rowlandson’s small book. It’s not that she’s lovable—she has a complicated attitude towards native people and she literally steals food out of a child’s mouth—it’s that she is so vividly present on the page. Her hunger is so raw and palpable. I was and am still shocked by her unapologetic hunger and what she’s willing to eat to survive. She’s just, like, I ate this raw liver and there was blood all over my face. Her hunger/desire compelled me. It was deeply familiar. For me, her book feels like, this is our beginnings. This is where we came from. By “we” I mean America’s cultural/mythical heritage, our ideas about race and gender and who’s chosen by God and who’s not, who matters.
Actually, as I’m writing this, I realize my feelings about Mary Rowlandson remind me of a character I was obsessed with as a young kid—this wooden doll named Gertrude, from a book by Richard Hughes. This wooden doll has almost no feelings, she’s literally made of wood, the rain falls on her and she doesn’t care, and unlike Mary Rowlandson, she’s never hungry. I loved her; I wanted to be her. I think maybe I want to read about women and girls managing their desires, their hungers. Plus both Gertrude and Mary are survivors. I grew up in a pretty rough and tumble kind of place, and grit was a good thing to have.
Rumpus: I read an interview with Edward P. Jones once, where, when talking about structure, he used the example of a car going from Washington DC to Baltimore. Baltimore is the writer’s destination, he said, but of course you might be driving along and see a sign to a town you’d never known about and take a detour. He talked about how new people, new events, crop up, but as a writer, you’ll always get back on the road to Baltimore.
That made me think about the structure of your book. It begins with a pregnancy and (readers, I promise this is not a spoiler!) ends with birth. And yet I was shocked and moved all along the way, even though I had a sense early on where the ending was headed. Did you have that pregnancy/birth structure in mind when you first started writing, or did it emerge later? How much of the story did you have mapped out in your mind? Did you take any detours that completely surprised you?
Perks: In earlier versions of the book, the child narrator was born about two thirds through the book and then Evie, the mother, narrates the last third of the book. At that point, I thought it was too obvious to end with a birth, and I liked the surprise of switching narratives. But the writer Karen Yamashita read that draft and suggested the end should be a birth and should be more explosive/chaotic. So I tried that, and I liked it, but to be honest I was rewriting the ending up until the very last day of the deadline—I’ve even revised it some since the galley came out. Let’s just say I took a ton of detours on the way to Baltimore, ten years worth of detours! I always thought, This is it! And I would revise in a hot fury over a summer, and then slowly realize over the fall, No, that’s not it. It was a really challenging book for me to write because of the twin fetal narrative and then trying to weave Evie and Mary Rowlandson’s stories together, as well as the stories of the other characters in the book. At least one piece that I cut, about the death of one of the native people in the book, became a separate story that will be coming out soon. And another outtake became a story that was published by Joyland.
Rumpus: Both 9/11 and the Iraq War feel essential to the narrative. How were you thinking about politics in concert with the novel as you were writing? How do you feel about politics and fiction in general, both as a reader and a writer?
Perks: I was thinking about terrorism and paranoia and warring over territory and how we feel about our enemies and why. I was thinking about how King Philip’s war, the one in which Mary Rowlandson was captured, was the original war on terror—this is something Susan Faludi writes about in The Terror Dream.
In general, I think every novel is a political novel, in that every novel is an argument about how the world works, who has power, who has a voice, what we should care about. But political novels can be boringly polemical if they end up being too black and white, too one dimensional, like war is bad, killing people is wrong. On the other hand, I’ve always been a sucker for fist in the air, social justice, stick it to the man kinds of stories. My mother and her sisters were passionate second-wave feminists who brought me up to believe the personal is political. There’s this photo of me when I’m about twelve—I’m sleeping up against my aunt, and her ERA button is pressing into my cheek—we were on a bus on our way to march for the ERA in Washington.
Rumpus: Who are the readers—in addition to Mary Rowlandson, I’m guessing—who sat on your shoulders while working on the book? Who are the ones who have been important to you from the beginning?
Perks: Yes, absolutely Mary Rowlandson. And then my writing group—I definitely heard their voices in my head. The women in my writing group stuck by me through years of revisions. So many smart, generous people have given me great feedback over the years. My family—I always want to make them laugh. And then I’m really interested in the United States, what it means to be American—maybe because my father’s an immigrant and my grandparents were immigrants, and also because I grew up so isolated from mainstream life, and it was such a total shock to leave the commune and, in a way, enter America for the first time when I was eleven—so I’ve always felt a little like an anthropologist—like, what is this strange place I find myself in, what are the rules here? Writers like Twain, Whitman, Dickinson, Melville, Louise Erdrich, Toni Morrison, Russell Banks, Carolyn Chute, Alice Walker, so many others that I read coming up as a writer, that helped form my ideas of what it means to be American—and an American writer. I’m always in conversation with them.
Rumpus: The dreaded question, but I can’t help but ask: What are you working on now?
Perks: A book of short stories. Essays—someday I would like to have a book of essays. And gathering the strength to start another novel.
Author photograph © Tessa Bolsover.