Thanks to Micah Perks’s short story collection, True Love and Other Dreams of Miraculous Escape, my faith in the restorative power of fiction has been renewed. Simply put by Daniel, one of Perks’s characters, “The way out of the narrow place is imagination.” I agree with Kelly Link, “This collection will cure what ails you,” particularly, I might add, the Jewish humor. I haven’t laughed aloud while reading in a long time. Perks’s collection is a refuge.
Set mainly around the Central Coast of California, these interlinking short stories capture a multitude of unique voices within a community, culminating in a Passover Seder. Most stories are connected through a genealogy. I was most amazed by Perks’s ability to weave in magical realism and speculative elements throughout these stories, especially the humanoid plant in “There Once was a Man Who Longed for a Child.” Through these stories, Isaac teaches his daughter and the reader, “You need to leaven your reality with a little magic.”
Perks is the reason why I chose to pursue my Ph.D. in Literature with a Creative/Critical Writing Concentration at the University of California, Santa Cruz, where she co-directs the creative writing program. During a phone call in 2015, we talked about our Jewish families, historical research, and speculative fiction, and she kept anticipating my concerns and finishing my sentences in a way that I knew I had found a mentor for life. Perks is the author of two novels, We Are Gathered Here (St. Martin’s Press, 1997) and What Becomes Us (Outpost19, 2016), a memoir, Pagan Time (Counterpoint, 2009), a long personal essay, Alone in the Woods (Shebooks, 2014), and numerous short stories and essays.
Thaïs Miller: Would you be willing to share any of the real-life inspiration behind the stories in this collection?
Micah Perks: There’s a story called “Lost in Pere Lachaise Cemetery,” and my family did actually get separated from each other in the famous Parisian cemetery, and none of us had cell phones. I was so freaked out about losing the kids that I couldn’t really enjoy wandering through the famous graves. As in the story “The Comeback Tour,” once my husband found a weed pipe in our couch cushions when our children were teenagers, and all in a huff he threw it out the door and into the woods. I once planted a seed in a pot and it grew into a baby.
TM: (laughing) Speaking of that plant baby, there is something exhilarating about taking a break from the day-to-day and getting to fantasize for a moment. In “Miraculous Escapes by Dave Tanaka,” characters meditate on the complex nature of reading as a means of escape. This type of escape allows the characters to reveal and conceal truths, view and ignore the world around them. How would you describe the function or power of fiction?
MP: I’ve been thinking about this a lot on my reading tour. I’ve noticed how relieved people seem to feel to spend an hour laughing and celebrating books. Someone said to me, “I didn’t realize a reading could be fun.” We are living in dark and desperate times, and it’s important, of course, to face that and to do our part to fight against fascism, but at the same time, it’s important not to forget to laugh, to feel joy. One function or power of fiction is to remind us of the joy of being alive, to compress or intensify that joy. It’s like the rabbi in Pittsburgh who told the story about a funeral procession and a wedding procession that meet at a crossroads, and the rabbi said that the funeral procession should always let the wedding procession go first. We need to let joy lead. I guess I’m saying joy and laughter don’t need to be seen as an escape: they can be the engine that drives the story. In my stories, I tried to sometimes make joy the engine, the catalyst for change, rather than always conflict acting as the catalyst.
TM: And yet, the book is not always or only joyful. I really appreciate that this collection is filled with diverse historical examples of globalization, colonialism, racism, antisemitism, and multiculturalism. As a writer in the age of “truthiness,” did you feel that you had a responsibility to write about these issues? What inspired you to write about Pinochet’s regime in Santiago and the execution of Quinnapin at the end of King Philip’s War?
MP: I know some things about the Pinochet regime because my husband is Chilean and was a student activist in Chile during that period. I deeply admire justice workers. And injustice makes me so angry. A lot of my historical work grows out of the frustration that I can’t go back and right injustices from the past. There is no longer any possibility for change. That was the origin of my story about Quinnipin being hanged in King Philip’s War. That story is also a play on Occurrence at Owl Creek Bridge, by Ambrose Bierce. I love Bierce’s story, but it’s so frustrating, too, because it engages our deep desire to escape, and then shows us how impossible it is. I’m haunted by these stories.
TM: If you could be visited by any ghost from the past, who would you like to see?
MP: Definitely Houdini! I have a major crush on Houdini. First of all, he was obsessed with the afterlife. I think he longed for there to be life after death, but he spent his life debunking spiritualists. He had a sense of humor, tremendous energy, he deeply loved his wife and mother, he was brave and adventurous and wrote books. He was a hottie.
TM: I never thought about Houdini like that. In your first story about Houdini, he is haunted by his dead mother, and in your final story, the twins are haunted by a brother who died. Why did you choose to begin and end this collection with characters being haunted?
MP: At a recent reading, someone said that my book is haunted by the Holocaust. I hadn’t consciously thought about that, but I think it’s true—my characters are haunted by great loss, both personal and historical, but they persevere in finding joy in being alive. It makes me think of Marilynne Robinson’s first novel, Housekeeping, a brilliant meditation on familial love and loss. She wrote, “to crave and to have are as alike as a thing and its shadow.” Maybe a haunting is the shadow of our desire to draw near to what has been lost. Maybe in that way ghosts are deeply comforting. Without them, we would be all alone.
Micah Perks is the author of the novel What Becomes Us, winner of an Independent Publisher’s Book Award and named one of the Top Ten Books about the Apocalypse by The Guardian. Her memoir, Pagan Time, tells the story of her childhood in a log cabin on a commune in the Adirondack wilderness. She is also the author of We Are Gathered Here, a novel, and Alone in the Woods, a long personal essay. She has won an NEA, five Pushcart Prize nominations, and the New Guard Machigonne 2014 Fiction Prize. She received her BA and MFA from Cornell University and now lives with her family in Santa Cruz where she co-directs the creative writing program at UCSC. More info and work at micahperks.com.
Thaïs Miller is the author of the novel, Our Machinery (2008), and the collection, The Subconscious Mutiny and Other Stories (2009). She is currently pursuing her Ph.D. in Literature with a Creative/Critical Writing Concentration at the University of California, Santa Cruz. For more information about her writing, please visit https://thaismiller.wordpress.com/.