Stern weaves an unexpected narrative around a man who discovers he is pregnant with his own twin brother, a highly atypical manifestation of a real medical phenomenon called vanishing twin syndrome.
Even more surprising than the book’s premise, however, is the universality and resonance of its themes, pulling into focus complex and tangled truths about family, love, ambition, and what it takes for us to truly grow as people.
I spoke to Stern, whose first novel Sutterfeld, You Are Not A Hero was released in 2015, in September.
The Rumpus: Did vanishing twin syndrome spark the idea for this book?
Tom Stern: It was the inverse, actually. I was working through pages involving the characters of Walter and Veronica, just trying to figure out who these people were and what their story was. It was clear to me that Walter was very much someone who had compromised his life to a point of stasis. And I was trying to think through why we do that sometimes, why we sometimes choose the comfort of not striving over the openness of trying.
This started me thinking about what it would take to jar Walter out of his rut, which was pronounced and entangled. And this admittedly bizarre idea just came into focus for me that Walter was actually pregnant with his own twin brother who would be obsessed with getting his MBA. And then I spent about a month trying to convince myself that I was fucking crazy and that no one in his right mind would write such a book. But the further into it I went, the more it became apparent that this was what the book was about. It required something that unexpected and unsettling to start to wake Walter from his slumber. And I could see a real pathos and humor in the circumstances if they played out in a grounded, straight-faced fashion.
Around then, I found the idea of Vanishing Twin Syndrome rattling around somewhere in the annals of my mind. I remembered reading an article once about a man in a small farming village somewhere in Asia or India who had been teased his whole life for being fat only to realize he had his own twin in his belly. Granted, his twin was not alive, but I took some poetic license with the concept. There was something in the unwieldy metaphor of it all that just seemed to fit.
Rumpus: How do you approach magical realism in your writing?
Stern: I’m really compelled by the idea of taking something heightened and treating it as though it is matter of fact. In this way, I don’t think I approach magical realism any differently than your garden-variety realism. At the risk of sounding pompous, it always strikes me that any story has its own world to it, which is its own kind of heightened realism. There are degrees, sure. But every novel has a specific texture to its world, a logic to its universe. That’s what makes it interesting. Its singularity.
I would argue that nonfiction does the same thing. Part of writing and telling stories is creating the gestalt in which the story takes place. So, to that end, I don’t think about the magical elements as different from the elements that define the world of any story. It might be more heightened overall, but the principles of trying to weave a fabric that is true to the characters and their motivations and the logic of the space they inhabit, it’s all the same to me.
Rumpus: What did you discover as Walter and Wallace took shape? How did you land on setting their story in their thirties, as opposed to, say, their late fifties or late teens?
Stern: The whole book, for me, was a process of trying to figure out who Walter and Wallace were in relationship to one another. And I think this is a real extension of how I view family—for better or worse. The two brothers are inextricably bound, but defining that bond for themselves proves really challenging. I think the bond of family has a real tension to it just like this. There are all of these clean, idyllic concepts we assign to the ideas of mother, father, brother, sister, grandmother, grandfather, and so on. But the actual people who assume these roles in our lives are still just people. They’re good at some parts of those roles and just awful at others. Yet that doesn’t change the fact that we need or want these things from them.
Walter and Wallace are a real study in this disparity. What they need from one another is one thing. What they represent to one another is something different. And what they actually are for each other is yet another thing altogether. And they struggle to find meaning in this, to figure out how to relate to someone whose actual identity does and doesn’t overlap with what you want them to be. I struggle with my own family that way. And when I became a parent, I found a whole new dimension to that struggle in terms of who I am as not just a sibling or a son or a husband but now as a father. The complexity of it all is truly staggering. Thirty seemed the right point for wrestling with these elements at their fever pitches. When you’re in your teens or twenties, no one is really what you want them to be. After your thirties, you start to accept some of the things you are as well as some of the things you’ll never be. But that window of your thirties is one in which you still think of yourself as having more agency over your life than you probably do. Simultaneously, you have yet to establish the type of empathy that comes with having to accept your own limitations. Mid-thirties seemed like it was poised to be a powder keg for them.
Rumpus: What’s the role of music in this novel, particularly as a path to salvation, redemption, and vindication?
Stern: I listen to music regularly when I write. I really do think music has a primacy to it that is just baffling and singularly beautiful. So much of it surpasses words and speaks almost directly in emotion. It’s incredible. And then when you add lyrics to it, it’s just stupefying the layers in which it communicates—and the complexity and intricacy of it all. I regard a lot of songwriters as some of my favorite novelists, if that makes any sense. For Twin I found myself keying into the ways I felt about music especially during my teenage years when I used to scour record stores for new discoveries, go see bands in small venues half-empty, drive aimlessly and listen to entire albums start to finish, put on headphones at 3 a.m. and listen to songs on repeat for hours just pulling apart the various elements of what I was hearing. It was a time when music really helped me think about myself and my world.
There’s an earnest beauty and a humiliating naiveté in what music can mean to you at that age. For Walter, that phase of identifying with music represents the last thing he can remember loving with a real purity and innocence. So he decides to pursue it even though he’s older now and he doesn’t know the first thing about making music. I initially struggled with Walter as a character because he does a lot of unlikable things. But there’s a real integrity to how he pursues his musical ambitions. And this really opens him up as a character for me, made him not just sympathetic but also admirable in this one, small way—which is really the kernel that teaches him how to care about other things in his life. It’s an unexpected kernel, too, because the music is not about fame and fortune to him. It’s about making space for this thing he loves and protecting that space even if it doesn’t fit with other people’s expectations of it and of him.
Rumpus: The women in this story often become scapegoats and escape routes for these brothers so the main love story can be their fraternal one. Considering how much time they spent inside one human vessel, is this yearning a true sibling bond, or self-preservation?
Stern: I guess I come down on the side of it being a true sibling bond. But not the kind of bond that speaks to a sameness between people, sympathetic affinities or natures. It’s more the type of bond that just endures, won’t relent. It’s almost baffling, but that doesn’t change its persistence. Walter and Wallace have very little in common. But they have the bond of having shared their lives in a truly incomprehensible way. But that’s a bond, too. No one else in the world can understand what they’ve gone through. And that means something.
Family is that way to me. We like some things about each other, dislike others. I have two brothers, for example, and we are profoundly different, even though we were raised in the same home by the same people. But no one else in the universe understands what it’s like to come from our particular family. This creates a rigorous, staunch type of bond. I do love the female characters in Twin, but I agree they are not really the central love story—which is kind of funny in its own right now that I think about it. I think the women in the book are far more rational about what they want than Walter and Wallace are. And in a funny way, this openness and clarity is a big part of what drives Walter away from them in the beginning of the book. He can’t deal with being open and straightforward with them. It requires a type of self-awareness and equanimity that he is terrified of facing initially because it would require looking at himself more honestly
Rumpus: An image persists throughout your story of mutated perfection. It compels your protagonist to alternate between fighting and embracing his selfish instincts. Where do you find yourself identifying with Walter the most? And is there a kind of love you keep at a distance, preferring to observe it like a monster in a cage?
Stern: This is an incredibly difficult question to answer. I guess I would actually recast this scenario a little bit. The things I love I love so deeply that I feel like I need to keep the people I love at a safe distance from my cage. Otherwise it would be far too much for any of us to bear.
Writing helps me with this—it gives me a literally boundless space toward which I can channel the tidal waves of curiosity and questioning and feeling and thinking and longing that come with being alive. And once I’ve expunged that each day, I can turn around and make rational decisions about navigating my life. This includes making prudent decisions about being there for the people I love. By and large, though, I would say that I plunge fairly headlong into the things I love. It’s kind of the only thing I want to do. Everything else loses its hue otherwise, takes on an awful pallor, and life becomes nonsensical. I think I find most things too uninteresting to merit serious attention, but the things that capture my imagination and get me questioning, I have a hard time unplugging from. Ever. It’s all I want to think about. And it’s kind of uncontrollable once it locks in. That said, most people would say I’m a very pragmatic, rational, and even-keeled person. So I think I do a fairly good job of keeping my monster hidden and adequately loved. If I’m honest, though, I find myself lately wrestling with what it means to have a monster like this. Does everyone have one? Are we just a weird and select few? Do they come in a variety of shapes and sizes? And what’s the best way to live with a caged monster?
Rumpus: What are you working on next?
Stern: I reserve the right to deny any of these answers once I decide any of these projects is total garbage and I am a buffoon for ever having pursued them. But that said: I’m working on a novel about a boundlessly imaginative young girl who is lured into a grieving scientist’s archetypal experiment to pit the purest good—the young girl’s imagination—against the world’s worst evils, forcing one of these poles of reality to finally triumph, ending once and for all the agony of constantly swinging between the two. I’m working on a short story about a man who offends a woman in a diversity-training seminar and convinces himself that the only way he can prove himself actually open-minded and beneficent of spirit is to get the woman to sleep with him. I read this piece at a reading the other night in the hopes it would help me understand it better. It did not. But I think that’s okay. I’m also working on an essay about my great grandfather who fled the pogroms in Russia by stowing away on a ship and the role that stories and laughter play in building one’s life anew. And I’m also going to be working on my answer to the question about love like a monster in a cage for quite some time. Likely with a therapist.
Author photograph © Gizelle Hernandez.