As this conversation begins, I’m hunkering down in a dingy but friendly motel room on Cape Cod, waiting out an intense thunder and lightning storm. Everything strikes me, no pun intended, as more or less apocalyptic these days—bleak landscapes, dusk light, too-hot summer days, and yes, thunder and lightning storms. I push back on the encroaching doom by indulging in as much human creativity as I can fit into my schedule, including going to good movies, theater festivals, concerts, and of course reading great books.
It is in this context that I wolfed down Micah Perks’ new collection of stories, True Love and Other Miraculous Escapes. This is her fourth book, after two novels—We Are Gathered Here and What Becomes Us—and a memoir, Pagan Time. Her work has won many prizes, including an NEA and The New Guard Machigonne Fiction prize. Micah lives with her family in Santa Cruz, California, where she co-directs the creative writing program and is a professor in the Literature Department at University of California, Santa Cruz.
I spoke with Micah Perks about her new collection of short fiction, forgiveness, and how she manages such exuberance and leaps of imagination in our repressive times.
The Rumpus: There’s a joyous quality to your work, a celebration of humanity in all its diversity, an atmosphere you accomplish without simplifying, sentimentalizing, or sacrificing complexity. For example, you’ve written a love story that connects Santiago with a bookstore on the California coast, as well as the search for a specific 1970s Avon scent. This complexity, which in fact mirrors actual life, is ever so much harder to make work than writing a narrowly focused voice and story. How do you manage to make this work so well?
Micah Perks: Yes, joy. Joy! Happiness or joy is hard to write about. Everyone says it’s conflict and trouble that propel stories forward. I often think about the opening scene in a movie called Enduring Love, in which this man and woman are in a green field, it’s a picnic, and they open a bottle of wine. It’s an absolutely still, sunny day, but the scene pulses with tension because as moviegoers we know that when we see peace and happiness and love something really bad is about to happen. Anyway, several years ago I challenged myself to write about joy, and not only as a prelude to conflict and violence, but as an emotion that could propel the story forward.
In terms of creating complexity, I have the opposite problem. My urge is always towards complexity. My challenge is to simplify, focus, streamline. Also, my short stories almost always start out with something autobiographical, which is always complex. (That 1970s Avon perfume that my character Sadie is so desperately searching for? I’m wearing it right now.)
Rumpus: Wow, I’ve also given myself that challenge, to write about joy as a complex, tension-filled, story-worthy emotion. My favorite kind of fiction asks the biggest questions, like what is love and how can we all live together? Your stories absolutely fit into this expansive, daring realm. Yet you ground these stories in specificity, meticulous and meaningful detail. Can you comment on that relationship, between the wide-open arms of your themes and the way you tackle them on the page?
Perks: With fiction, I almost always start with the specificity of place. What does it feel like, look like, smell like. I need to know where I am before I begin. I know that’s very nineteenth century of me, but that’s usually how I get into a story. For example, the first story in the collection takes place in the Winchester Mystery House in San Jose, California in the first decade of the twentieth century. In early drafts the story began with a page of setting. I remember I was obsessed with capturing the tawny color of the California landscape. There was a tawny mountain lion. Even a man with a tawny handlebar moustache. Later I cut all that, but that’s how I entered the story.
In terms of theme, I don’t think I know the theme when I begin a story. It emerges, from the specific details of the story, as an image pattern, and it often surprises me. Sometimes the characters themselves are surprised by the meaning of their actions. Hopefully the reader, too, gets to experience the surprise. An example is when Sadie, in the story “Lost in Pere Lachaise Cemetery,” suddenly realizes how much she’s changed over the years. Or when her brother Isaac realizes he actually needs some magic in his life. That’s one of the great pleasures of reading a story, I think. Surprise. Like the Red Wedding in Game of Thrones. Except in my stories, less murderous. Mostly.
Rumpus: Does that element of surprise cross all the genres? You’ve published novels, short stories, essays, and a memoir. What elements of storytelling are consistent, if any, through all the forms? Is it difficult to move between forms?
Perks: I often work out something that’s obsessing me, an emotion, an incident, a relationship, in different forms. For example, I originally wrote about a plant baby for my last novel, What Becomes Us. Then I cut it out of the novel, but decided to write a story about it instead. For another example, I’ve written in both memoir and fiction about the weird fact that a lot of my ex-boyfriends have been arrested. I really like having the freedom to write in different forms, and it’s pretty easy to move between them. Or, I should say, writing is hard in all forms.
Rumpus: One thing that’s satisfying about your new collection is the way that, although it’s definitely not a novel, some of the characters show up in different stories, usually at different ages and in different places in their lives. Did this happen organically in your writing process or did you plan this?
Perks: Not organically at all. When I was collecting the stories that I’d written over about a fifteen-year period, I noticed that some of the characters seemed similar. I decided to try and link the stories up. First, I changed the locales so all the stories took place on the central coast in California. Then I changed characters so they would be interconnected. Men became women and vice versa. By the end of that draft, some of the stories were connected, but not all of them. I felt triumphant. I sent the manuscript to my editor feeling quite celebratory. When he wrote back he was supportive, but thought I needed even more radical changes. He thought I needed to link every story up. I wrote back: “Ugh.” I really didn’t want to do it because I felt like I was done with the stories, but when I reread the book, I realized he was right. I wrenched those stories out of their origins and made them new. I had to cut three stories because they just couldn’t be linked up. During that last draft I had some eureka moments that were joyful. I realized: Oh, this could be Sadie again after fifteen years. Or: Oh, Peyton is the karate teacher, or Dave Tanaka wrote this story. They were exciting and heady and I fell in love with the process of linking them up. That is probably the greatest pleasure of writing. Discovery. Surprise, like I said before. Figuring out something you didn’t know before.
I ended up completely falling in love with the genre of the linked story collection, which combines some pleasures of novels, including staying with the same characters over time and a longer narrative arc, with the pleasing compression of the short story. Probably my favorite linked collections are Elizabeth Strout’s Olive Kittredge and Anything Is Possible. She is an absolute master of the form.
Rumpus: Your title, True Love and Other Miraculous Escapes, is intriguing. Since the collection opens with a story about Houdini, I at first assumed the second part of the title, “Miraculous Escapes,” refers to him and that story. But later you have a story called “Miraculous Escapes,” which is completely different from the Houdini story. Tell me about your choice of title.
Perks: My characters long for connection but they also long for escape. They want to be all tied up in a love knot and they also want to slip their bonds and melt away. The idea of true love is in many ways a desire for radical transformation, to be whisked away somewhere else. My father pretty much disappeared when I was ten. His miraculous escape. It’s a brutal choice, but I get that desire to remake yourself. It’s very American, right?
Rumpus: Why Houdini? Where’d your interest in him come from?
Perks: I’ve loved him since I was a kid. Master of escape. Plus, he was Jewish, like me. I went to a show about him at the Jewish Museum in San Francisco several years ago, and then read a biography. The more I read about Houdini, the more fascinating he became. His conflicted relationship with the spirit world, for example. He so wanted there to be life after death, but he made it his life’s work to expose spiritual hoaxes. I feel like he had tremendous energy, a sense of humor, determination. I love Houdini. He was a hottie.
Rumpus: Writing humor is so difficult. Your stories do that tricky thing of being simultaneously hilarious and meaningful. Or maybe that’s where all good humor comes from, intensely true situations. In one story, a little girl finds a dildo under a bed and her parents have to wrest it away from her because she wants to keep it so badly. I laughed out loud reading this scene, and at the same time felt that wrench of deep feeling, the understanding that all of us humans are trying so hard for feeling, for connection, and that one dildo could mean so many different things to so many different people, including just a silly toy for the little girl. Can you comment on this relationship between humor and emotional depth in your work?
Perks: When I was in college I had a friend, a printmaker, a year older than me, who I thought was very sophisticated. She looked like Louise Brooks. I kind of fell in love with her for a while. She always said the greatest art was funny-sad. That really resonated with me. I still think that’s true. Although funny-angry is also a good one. When my kids were teenagers they used to get furious when I laughed at them. They’d say something they thought was profound and I’d laugh. That was mean. Humor can be mean, and it needs to be leavened with empathy.
Rumpus: I love that, the idea that the greatest art is funny-sad or funny-angry. It reminds me of something a woman thinks about her husband in one of your stories. “Isaac is life insurance against the danger I pose to myself and others.” This is painfully accurate as a description of so many marriages. As a reader, I’m ready to both love Isaac and toss him aside. And yet, you develop his character into someone much more than what his wife sees.
Perks: When I originally wrote Isaac I didn’t realize how complicated he was. I thought he was kind of boring, like his wife Diane thinks he is in the story. But then, when I was linking up the stories, I realized that a woman, a main character in another story who cared very much for being safe and responsible and predictable, she was a lot like Isaac. So, I turned her into Isaac, and that really opened him up. When I was revising the story to make it about Isaac, in one scene the main character bursts into tears. At first I thought, I’ll have to change that. A man can’t burst into tears. But then I realized, why not? And I kept it. Isaac is both wise and blind, like all of us. And I love that he cries easily, and binge watches Friday Night Lights, and paints his nails neon blue for a party.
Rumpus: Yeah, all of that about Isaac, and also that several other characters all see Isaac differently. I love fiction that shows people’s widely varied perspectives. One of my favorite stories in the collection is “We Are the Same People.” It takes on so much. And the characters are all so fully realized, including daughter Lilah, husband Isaac, brother Dave, and brother’s girlfriend Helga. Everyone is utterly unique and believable. But what fascinates me about this story is your exploration of the sibling relationship, a theme throughout the book. What is it about sibling relationships that intrigues you and makes you write about them?
Perks: I’m super interested in intense relationships—romantic love, parents and children, brothers and sisters, twins. I’m interested in the way we long to be together and long to be free of each other. And in what we can’t say to each other. In “We Are the Same People,” everyone is longing for more from Diane, and Diane is this charismatic, cold, funny-mean chef who only longs for her brother. And her brother seems to only love himself. Tragic. But kind of funny, too.
Rumpus: I live in a wonderful neighborhood with a very active neighborhood association, connected by an also very active listserv. So I read the story “Miraculous Escapes by Dave Tanaka” in this personal context. Recently, several of my neighbors became convinced that someone driving a white van and wearing a neon safety vest was stealing packages off their porches. What inspired this story for you?
Perks: [Laughs] Exactly the same. My neighborhood listserv—I call it Good Neighbor in my story—is super helpful sometimes, and even lovely, but also sometimes really funny, like when people get so outraged and fight each other over electric bikes. My whole story takes place on the listserv. A version of the story was originally published in an anthology called Santa Cruz Noir just a few months ago. One day I got an email notification that I’d been mentioned on the actual neighborhood listserv. Someone on the listserv had read my story in the anthology. I thought, Oh no, everyone’s going to be outraged and hate me as much as they hate electric bikes. But the neighbor thought the story was really funny, and he recommended it. He said the main character “could have been any of us.” Which is true, including me. There’s one scene in the story where there’s a homeless person screaming obscenities in the street and the main character is standing on his balcony watching, and the screamer screams: “I see you there. That’s rude to stare.” That happened to me. I was the rude one on the balcony.
Rumpus: I love the word refugium, the title of your last story, the idea of a refugium, that a seder ends the stories, and also that Chris the homeless guy sits in Elijah’s seat. When I read your book the first time, this last story had been left out, so I was left with the conclusion of the cemetery story, which I’m not going to reveal because it would be a spoiler. But in “Refugium” you spin us in a whole new direction. Just like life. I love how that last story pulls together all the characters in a very satisfying finale. When did you write “Refugium”? What was your intent?
Perks: Okay, so first, I wrote a Passover scene in my novel, What Becomes Us, that was loosely based on dinners I’ve had with my extended blended family. Then I excerpted that scene and made it into its own short story called “Ghost Deer,” which won a prize and was published in New Guard Magazine. For the linked collection, True Love, I revised it again to be about all the characters in the collection and bring them all together at one table. Almost all of the characters. Some have died. Some of them don’t forgive.
Rumpus: In the second-to-last story, “Lost in Pere Lachaise Cemetery,” the narrator makes an observation about her long-time-ago lover. You write, “So, he had no idea what his weakness was, that was certainly somewhat unbearable, in fact that was his weakness.” I loved this realization of hers because their story, Sadie and her lover’s, is so romantic and both she and the reader view it as the perfect thing out of reach. So this realization, fifteen years after the start of their romance, undercuts that idealized feeling without wiping it out. It just feels true. And, as it turns out, forgivable. Can you talk about the role of forgiveness among your characters and in your stories?
Perks: Forgiveness. Hard one. I’m mostly all about forgiveness. Which is funny, because I come from a family that really holds a grudge. My grandfather remembered every slight anyone ever said or did to him, even if it was one comment seventy-five years before. And I tend to remember insults too. I associate that with my Jewishness. But on the other hand, you remember, but you also still sit down to dinner with the person who insulted you, like at the end of my story “Refugium” where the exes are having dinner together. And then the guy throws a glass of wine at his ex. That actually happened to me. My ex came to my birthday party right after we separated and just suddenly threw wine all over me. He had a good reason to. We celebrate Thanksgiving together every year, and I consider him and his wife and new son to be family. But, I didn’t forget he did that. He ruined my new blue birthday sweater eighteen years ago. And I wrote it into a story. That’s forgiveness for you.