Nancy Au: I have such an appreciation for how you describe the human condition in Hungry Ghost Theater, as in this “meta” instance (page 59):
In a moment, Piers, no longer a stranger, would look up, ready for the sympathy that he deserved. [Julia] paged through her memories, hunting for one that would call up the right emotions. Not the level of sympathy appropriate to the loss of a house, a grave illness, or the death of a family member. A gentler expression, not overdone. Years of improv at rehearsals made the process almost instantaneous…
Would you describe a little about your writing process, the way that you dig into the human condition and into everyday world happenings, weaving in the internal questions and concerns of your characters?
Sarah Stone: In “Stage Fright,” the chapter that contains this passage, one of my central characters, Julia, an actress, is leaving the Bay Area for the New York theater scene and has spent everything she has for a cheap trip around the world on the way. She’s leaving her dominating older brother and codirector, trying to figure out how to live her life on her own. She doesn’t have a strong sense of self, and she’s always experiencing herself as acting, on and off stage. In Zanzibar, she takes up with Piers, a damaged actor, and though she’s genuinely sympathetic towards him, she’s still making choices in how to perform that sympathy.
When I’m writing fiction, I don’t feel as if I’m making things up. It’s as if the characters exist in some other place, living their lives, and it’s my job to get to that other place and translate what’s happening. I try to tell the truth about them, and if something feels invented or false, I go back to them and listen harder until I know what they’re thinking and doing. Once I’m in that other place where the characters live, I’m inside them, rather than observing them from the outside, and their questions and concerns become part of what I bring with me as I translate them onto the page.
Sometimes it’s tricky when I’m so distracted by life that I can’t get to that place. The pleasure in writing, for me, comes from having other places to go and lives to live, so many discoveries to make. Because their world is also the everyday world—with its inexplicable and fantastic elements, its daily chores, its mortality and irrationality, its baffling horrors and generosities. So though I wouldn’t say I understand our world better from living in my characters’ world, I feel more able to face the difficult aspects of reality. With luck, when I manage to tell the truth about my characters and their lives, my readers would then also be more able to come to terms with the world.
NA: Your characters grapple with belief in the miraculous, the unseen, in souls and magic. For example (106), Katya asks: “Brian, do you think chickens have souls?” And Brian responds:
Chickens, yes. Ducks, absolutely. Fish, I don’t know. Octopi definitely. I read in Scientific American about this lab. The fish were disappearing. They put a researcher in overnight. Nothing. They set up a closed-circuit camera. That night the octopus unscrewed the lid of its tank, climbed out, jumped across the lab, opened the fish tank, ate a couple, closed it up again, and jumped back into its own. Of course, you’d have to think that the ability to conceal your crimes means you have a soul…
I would love to know what type of life you imagine for Brian if he did not believe in octopi having a soul? How would his life be different than the one he has in Hungry Ghost Theater?
SS: Over time, whenever I would take breaks from working on a different book, which I couldn’t get right, a family came into focus—the family of Hungry Ghost Theater—the Zamarins: Julia and Robert, who run an experimental theater troupe, and their sister Eva, a neuroscientist looking for the roots of empathy, their parents Philip and Lily, who are moving into old-old age during the time of the book, and Eva’s three children, Katya, Jenny, and Arielle, a talented, strange child who struggles with self-destructive and addictive impulses as she grows into her teen years. Mental illness and addiction run through the family, and a streak of cruelty too, but at the same time, they’re often very loving. I was always interested in them and curious about them.
At a certain point, I realized that I’d been writing a book that was a fight with and homage to Dante’s Inferno—it has nine different pieces, set at different moments in the life of the family and the outsiders they affect. The non-family characters matter just as much, though they get less page time. Brian is a patient in an outpatient mental health clinic where Katya’s working as a temp. Given the mental health issues in her family, she’s very drawn to this kind of work, and then to Brian, so that she begins crossing boundaries with him (the family’s not great on boundaries). Though all the characters here are invented, I worked as an aide in a locked psychiatric facility when I was young, and also as a temp in a clinic rather like Katya’s. So I got to know amazing people with serious reality disorders.
Brian has his lucid moments and then his breaks. Often people with serious mental illnesses are very honest, very open: they’re less likely to create masks and personas, which doesn’t mean that they’re not performing sometimes. We human beings are a highly performative bunch. It’s so interesting to watch us. But Brian lives in an animate world, full of beings. I don’t see how he could help thinking that octopi have souls. Could he have a different life than he does? Can any of us? How much are our beliefs affected by our biologies vs. our decisions? That’s a real question. I don’t have the answer, though the book wrestles with some possibilities.
NA: I really appreciate how your characters see hope and love within their messes, and that you do this without “pictures of people holding hands.” In “Dream Boards” (107):
Lily: I want you to put one thing on that dream board that has nothing to do with climate change, world hunger, or war and torture.
Philip: There’s nothing on here about war and torture yet. I’m trying to figure out how to represent peace and human rights. Without putting in any pictures of people holding hands.
I also really appreciated how you incorporated playwriting into Hungry Ghost Theater. When I first saw a script written out in playwriting format woven into your novel, it was impactful and so apt because the novel is about actors, directors, and the theater. Were the sections of your novel always in playwriting format? Did they take other forms in earlier drafts of your manuscript? Did you struggle at any point in working with this format?
SS: For a long time, I didn’t understand that I was writing Hungry Ghost Theater, or that it was a book, and that made it possible to creep in through the back door. I was working on that other novel—I wrote something like twenty-eight drafts before I stopped counting. I gave up on it multiple times, but always with the feeling that I was letting down the characters and had to go back to it. (It’s now the third book of what’s turned into a trilogy, and I’m working on it again right now. Feeling as if it’s going better now, though that may be one of those necessary delusions that keep writers going.)
So I would sneak away from the novel I regarded as “work” to write stories or study playwriting, always with a mixture of reckless freedom and guilt. The Zamarin family took over the plays too. When I knew Hungry Ghost Theater was a book, the plays were clearly part of it. Not simply plays written by the characters but the characters’ lives seen as plays in two of the sections: their lives literally become theater. One of these plays is realistic, and the other takes place in six different hells. I did struggle with the format. Fortunately, I have wonderful initial readers who help me see what is and isn’t working, so I can revise. Ron, my spouse, who I met in our MFA workshop, is my first reader. Then there’s my writer’s group, who I’ve counted on for more than a decade. And Peg Alford Pursell, editor and publisher of WTAW, read so deeply that she helped me transform the book in its final stages, including the plays. They all helped me feel that the plays belonged in the novel, and they all showed me different ways to work with them.
NA: In “Shoreside,” Julia secretly witnesses Robert making love with her ex-lover, Alyx, outside of their shared cabin (222):
I rolled over, pressed a pillow over my ears, and tried to go back to sleep or at least to pretend until it was time to wash in the cold water bucket we kept behind a sheet above the creek. When they came back in, I was on my stomach with my eyes closed, breathing as regularly as I could, but I suspected they knew I was pretending.
Reading this reminded me of how I feel on my “bad days” whenever I see mothers walking their babies in strollers down the sidewalk, the babies bawling and kicking, red in the face; at such times I’ve always thought, I know exactly how you feel, Little One. I wonder what you imagine life would be like if (adults) all stopped pretending.
SS: I’d be very interested to see what the world would be like if everyone stopped pretending. Maybe it would be great. Maybe it would be a disaster. The big difficulty might be figuring out how to stop pretending to ourselves: when you think of the problems created by deception, they’re easily matched by those created by self-delusion, denial, and the desire to be deceived. And I do think that Julia would have liked to have been bawling and kicking at that moment. But, even if she weren’t full of ideals and trying to rise above jealousy, or even if she had someplace else to go (which at that point, she doesn’t feel she has), what good would that do her with either her brother or her ex?
NA: One of the most heartbreaking moments for me in the novel took place when Katya describes how cows mourn their calves that are slaughtered for veal (245):
When a mother [cow] is led past the place where her calf was taken from her, even a year later, she starts fighting and wailing all over again. And they do it to the mothers over and over, so they’re always pregnant or in mourning, and in about five years they’re so broken down that they have to be taken away and turned into low-grade hamburger…
I feel that we, as artists/writers, are often like the cattle farmers—we lead our readers into places of grief over and over. You do this so courageously and empathetically. Do you have any thoughts or advice about your role as an artist, knowing that you can break the hearts of your readers again and again, with your work?
SS: Thank you for your kind words. In that scene, Katya is going off on a rant in a public place where they’re already on thin ice. Julia is trying to protect both her and the people around them. Here’s part of Julia’s take on it: “I both wanted to cradle my oldest niece in my arms and to slap her. How was I going to help her live in the world, to keep her from throwing herself in front of every bulldozer and winding up in jail over and over?”
If, as writers, we’re honestly going into the characters’ worlds and reporting on what they say and do, then sometimes there will be heartbreak. Often, though, there will be humor. And hope. I’m very big on hope, even in dark moments.
Because sometimes it’s easier to tell ourselves the story that everything is already over than to do the work of moving forward from grief. I know people who say, “It’s too late to do anything about the world, so I’ve decided to spend the rest of my life just dancing.” I’m a big fan of dancing! But there’s some work to do as well.
Our hearts get broken, really smashed to pieces sometimes. Nonetheless, we figure out how to incorporate grief and move forward anyway. Maybe we’re more empathic toward other people because our own hearts have been broken by loss. Not always. There’s a choice there. That’s one of the things I’m most interested in as a writer. How do you go through hell and climb back out again? That’s the story Dante told in his Inferno. There’s a reason we’ve loved that poem for centuries: we need it in order to survive.
Sarah Stone’s new novel, Hungry Ghost Theater, will be published by WTAW Press in October. She’s also the author of The True Sources of the Nile and co-author, with Ron Nyren, of Deepening Fiction: A Practical Guide for Intermediate and Advanced Writers. She teaches creative writing for Stanford Continuing Studies and in the MFA Program for Writers at Warren Wilson College. Visit her at www.sarahstoneauthor.com
Nancy Au‘s writing appears in Tahoma Literary Review, The Pinch, Beloit Fiction Journal, Lunch Ticket, SmokeLong Quarterly, Foglifter, Forge Literary Magazine, among others. She has an MFA from San Francisco State University where she taught creative writing. She teaches creative writing (to biology majors!) at California State University Stanislaus, and is co-founder of The Escapery (theescapery.org). Her flash fiction is included in the Best Small Fictions 2018 anthology. Her full-length collection, Spider Love Song & Other Stories, is forthcoming from Acre Books in 2019.