What strikes me most about the stories in Genevieve Hudson’s new collection, Pretend We Live Here (Future Tense Press, July 2018), is what I think could be described as either a willingness or a refusal – two words which have something oppositional about them, and yet which seem to me fitting when considering the gaze that Hudson brings to bear on the realities her characters inhabit. On the one hand, there is a willingness on the author’s part to reveal to the reader, in the depths of each character’s consciousness, those yearnings or forces that are so fundamental to the human condition that readers can feel as though they are witnessing the unfolding of a life as it has always been scripted to be. On the other hand, there is a refusal on the author’s part to suggest, through the dramas in which her characters find themselves, that the lives of her characters have already been fated, and that they could not have turned out differently had some other choice been made.
The following is a correspondence between Genevieve and me.
Edward Mullany: The title of your collection, Pretend We Live Here, suggests how significant, or necessary, a life of the imagination is for the characters who narrate these stories. Could you talk about this, as you see it transpiring in your work?
Genevieve Hudson: Oh, what a great question. Imagination plays a big role in the lives of my characters. This is probably because of my preoccupation with imagined worlds and the imagined realities that I entertain alongside my actual day-to-day life. I’ve always been more interested in possibilities than in the present. This is true for many of the characters in my stories, too. They get swept away with the what-ifs of life, which serves to motivate them as often as it impedes them.
For some of my characters, their imaginations act as a salve or sedative, allowing them to leave their suffering for a moment and enjoy solace in their inner worlds. In their imagining, they can go anywhere, be anyone. Love might not have left, bodies might look different, and home might be something they can have.
I like to think, too, that our imagined worlds, those ghost experiences that run alongside our waking ones might be just as meaningful as our more concrete “reality.” I’m reminded of a recent conversation with a friend where she recounted a dream in which she spent a significant amount of time with someone she loved that had passed away. She woke feeling as though she had really just seen this person. But she hadn’t. Not really. She’d only dreamed them back to being. This led us to wonder if our dream worlds might be just as meaningful as our conscious ones and if experiences we have while dreaming could impact us just as much as the ones we have while moving through the physical world. That’s a bit of a digression from your question about imagination, but it ties into the question of the worlds we build in our minds versus the ones we’re forced into.
EM: Some of your narrators are so drawn to another character that one might describe these narrators as obsessive. And yet it is by way of this obsessiveness that the narrators seem to arrive at a moment of insight, or growth. Could you talk about how you understand obsession — the role it can play in a person’s life?
GH: I’ve always loved the Susan Sontag quote where she says: “Never worry about being obsessive. I like obsessive people. Obsessive people make great art.” I think I connect to this quote so much because it speaks to my obsessive nature. It even validates it in some way. Obsession can be unhealthy of course because it can dry out and dull all colors except the one you are hooked into, which can seem to flicker and burn with an intoxicating luminosity. But obsession can also drive you forward and cause you to unrelentingly pursue a subject or a feeling until you’ve gotten to its end.
In an interview I did with Maggie Nelson a few years ago, I asked her about obsession, too. I used a quote from Eve Sedgwick who called obsession “the most durable form of intellectual capital.” I wondered then if an obsession could be exorcised if it was pursued hard enough. I think it’s true that we run through our obsessions through tending to them, but the obsessive mind is quick to latch onto a new interest and devote itself to that just as intensely.
I think obsession can motivate us to figure something out, to get as close as we can to a subject. That drive can be helpful in giving us the stamina needed to create great art. For me, if I’m not obsessed with something I lose focus or interest and the subject and project can fall away.
Many of the characters in my stories are also grappling with obsession and how it moves and manifests through their lives.
EM: I’m fascinated by the relationship your characters have to romantic love. For them, it tends to be located in the past, and to be linked to a person with whom a lasting relationship is impossible. How true do you feel this description is, in the world of your book?
GH: It’s very true. Many of the narrators in these stories long for romance but have pursued situations, consciously or not, where their lover is absent or has absconded. The narrators are stuck in a constant state of waiting or dreaming, which makes the romance burn brighter. The love object is gone and yet the lover still feels the effects of its gravity. It’s an old trope. And it reminds me of this quote from Barthes in A Lover’s Discourse, a book I adore. He writes about the same sentiment when he says: “Someone tells me: this kind of love is not viable. But how can you evaluate viability? Why is the viable a Good Thing? Why is it better to last than to burn?”
We give a lot of attention to the idea of a love “lasting.” A relationship is, by conventional standards, considered a success if it continues and stands the test of time, but some very powerful connections burn bright and then die out. Some of the most formative relationships people have don’t last. They are important precisely because of (or maybe in spite of, I don’t actually know) their unviability. They are “Good Things” and yet untenable. Reversely, some of the most viable connections might not be “Good.” This is a concept I turn over and over in my book. So, you’re right to draw attention to it here. I think my narrators are grappling with how to locate their desire in the present moment and if that’s something that’s possible for them.
EM: Many of the narrators in these stories are in a relationship — they are part of a couple. And yet the stories they are telling seem to arise from a solitude they have either forged for themselves, or that has been forged for them. Could you talk about solitude as a theme or motif that reveals itself in your work?
GH: I’ve been thinking a lot lately about what it means to be alone. And the difference between that and loneliness. It’s a familiar contradiction, being lonely among people. Of course, you can have solitude without loneliness. It’s maybe the saddest solitude to be lonely when you are with your lover or friend, but that’s a feeling many of my characters experience and it’s an existential one. It reminds them that deep down they can never fully be known by another person.
Many of the characters in my stories are also seekers. And, as you know, searching requires isolation, solitude, and moments of profound quiet. Montaigne once wrote: “The greatest thing in the world is to know how to belong to oneself.” My characters are on journeys to belong to themselves and to do that, they need to inhabit themselves. They have to forge, as you say, moments of solitude to get there.
EM: How would you describe the connection between love and desire? Are they related at all, or do they merely sometimes occur together, and sometimes not?
GH: It’s the luckiest thing to have love and desire be the same thing. I think it’s more common to have one or the other or to have felt both for the same person but to feel them at different times. I keep imagining a seesaw, with love on one side and desire on the other. They can reach equilibrium, but sometimes one feeling is on the ground and the other is in the sky. I think desire often comes first and is replaced by love, which can have the perverse effect of drowning out desire and muting it.
EM: Geography and climate, especially heat and cold, seem to be integral to these stories, in that they affect the feelings or moods of your characters, which in turn affect what these characters say and do, which in turn affects the denouements of the stories, and what might even be described as a character’s fate. Could you talk about this relationship between setting and fate?
GH: What a beautiful question. I’m not sure that I believe in fate with a capital F. But I do think that where we are born and where we grow feeds us and affects us and shapes us in ways that are beyond our control. I’ve lived in Amsterdam for the past five years and traveled around the Nordic countries, and I’m struck by how in these wintry, grey climates it’s common for the people to be stoic, cold and distant—almost brusque. It’s as if the chill has burrowed into their bones. Likewise, the warmer climates seem to draw out a warmth or socialness in people’s demeanors. So, in a sense, I do think we are written on by the landscape around us. The heat and the cold encourage us to hold our bodies in certain ways, to walk with a certain gait. Climate can even influence our propensity to engage with strangers. And those inclinations can add up to something more obvious. So, in that way, maybe you’re right, maybe where we’re born does mark us in some inescapable way.
EM: You seem to be conscious of the power that inertia, or momentum, has over our lives. I’m thinking of the way your characters, for good or ill, sometimes make decisions based on the conviction that they need to free themselves from the circumstances they are under. At what point, in your mind, do the circumstances of a life become a thing of which one should be wary?
GH: I subscribe to the belief that a thing in motion stays in motion. That’s true for me. If I have momentum, I can keep going. If I’m in a pattern of writing every day, it’s easier for me to write the next day. If I take a day off, I have to make a bigger effort to get going again. I start to get lazy. Inertia takes over. But if I keep moving, moving feels easier. This isn’t just true for writing, but with most things in my life.
As for the second part of your question, I’m not sure. I think it’s pretty subjective. If someone’s tuned into themselves, they know when the circumstances of their lives are something to be wary of. And depending on the circumstances, people don’t always have the privilege to free themselves.
Her writing has been published in Catapult, Hobart, Tin House online, Joyland, No Tokens, Bitch, The Rumpus, and other places. Her work has been supported by the Fulbright Program, VCCA, the Tin House Summer Workshop, Caldera Arts, and the Vermont Studio Center.
She splits her time between Portland, Oregon, and Amsterdam.
Edward Mullany is the author of If I Falter at the Gallows, Figures for an Apocalypse, and The Three Sunrises (Publishing Genius Press). He is also the creator of the comic strips Rachel and Ben, and Excerpts from a Boring Man’s Diary. His writing has appeared in journals such as Peach Mag, Alaska Quarterly Review, New Ohio Review, Carolina Quarterly, and jubilat. Find him at edwardmullany.com