How Fiction Reckons with a World in Constant Crisis

Sarah Shun-Lien Bynum and Karen Russell in Conversation

Sarah Shun-Lien Bynum, author of Likes, and Karen Russell, author of Sleep Donation, discuss isolation, the way fiction anticipates the future, and the role of the fantastic in subverting norms.

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Sarah Shun-Lien Bynum: Today I drove past a billboard that read, “Recovered from COVID-19? DONATE PLASMA” and my heart froze for a second because it felt like I had gotten off at a wrong exit that was taking me right back into the twilight world of your indelible Sleep Donation. I hesitate to use the phrase “eerily prescient” because I’m afraid that it belongs to the same awful idiomatic register as “abundance of caution” and “community spread” but I can’t help it: your novella about an epidemic of fatal insomnia, originally published as an ebook in 2014, anticipates in such a powerful and uncanny way the reality that we’re all living in right now. And not just the epidemic part of it, but the sleeplessness—this has been an unexpected side effect for me of our current crises, the sheer difficulty of sleeping. (In the past six months, my family has amassed a collection of white noise machines, meditation apps, calming essential oils, bottles of melatonin and tryptophan. And I used to be a champion sleeper.)

Your inspired pairing—the horror of being unable to sleep combined with the arrival of a new and mysterious disease—strikes a deeply unsettling chord at this particular moment. And maybe even more chilling is the detail and clarity with which you imagine the inadequacy of the public health response, the rapid spread of misinformation, the potential for immoral players to exploit the crisis. What has it been like for you to watch aspects of your fictional world—a world that you once described as unapologetically science fiction—become real?

Karen Russell: Sarah, I wish I could go on a car ride with you beneath the midnight billboards. Who knew that in August 2020, the prospect of a night drive with someone from outside your family bubble would feel like a nostalgic fantasy? And I know what you mean about the disorientation of seeing COVID-19 signage from the freeway. I was teaching in Texas last semester, and I remember doing a double-take when I looked up and saw HANDS CLEAN 2 BEAT COVID-19. I will confess that I feel totally stunned by the hammer of this year, and I’m still speechless and reeling, but I’m going to do my best to come up with a lucid response to this great question. Thank you for spending time with my insomniacs in the poppy fields, especially now when there are so many urgent demands on our attention. And thanks for the 4 a.m. solidarity. 4 am thoughts are made of different material than sober sunlit ones, aren’t they?

Sleep would be impossible in our house even at a less existentially terrifying moment, I think. One major change for me since this book’s original publication is that now I have two kids, and so I get free home lessons in the horrors of sleep deprivation. Our baby daughter just turned one—her development has been consolingly linear and unstoppable during these surreal months of lockdown—and she’s got a hot tooth bursting through the gumline. Lately I keep finding her standing up in her crib at midnight, gnawing on it like a tiny beaver (but then, I’m scrolling through news, doing my adult version of the same thing).

Our three year old has always been a terrible sleeper—is it my punishment for writing this book? He’s slept through the night a single time—in a tent in the Oregon woods, ringed by howling coyotes. Maybe some child psychologist can explain to me why our laundry basket’s shadow is more terrifying to my son than the piercing screams of coyotes.

Sleep Donation has had a strange life. It was first released by Atavist Books in 2014 as an ebook. Atavist Books was this daring (and sadly short-lived) start-up that wanted to remake the publishing landscape for experimental digital books. Seven months later, their financing disappeared, and so Sleep Donation.

“It’s a special species of vertigo, to return to a book you first wrote six years ago, and to see some of its events mirrored in our shared reality.”

So when Vintage decided to release it as a paperback with a real spine, I was thrilled. (A three-dimensional book feels like a balm to me in the era of Zoom). I really wanted the Vintage edition to include illustrations, and last fall, I had the great fortune to team up with Ale + Ale, two brilliant Italian studio artists. Their Lynchian collages felt tonally perfect to me—dreamlike and ominous and also very funny.

I mention all this because last November, a few weeks before the coronavirus began to figure in our collective nightmares, I was sending CDC links around to the Vintage design team, and working on a “nightmare contagion map” with Ale + Ale. We were riffing then, just playing around. Our correspondence was all about which states should be affected by “The Jellyfish Dream” (mid-Atlantic, we decided) and where the sleep quarantine station icons should go. By March 7, Ale + Ale were under lockdown in Paris, and I was suddenly haunting the CDC website for information instead of inspiration.

I never expected this book to be released during an actual pandemic. In every way, 2020 has exceeded my own most nightmarish imaginings. I feel very humbled and frightened by the scale of what’s happening in our country and around the world. It’s a special species of vertigo, to return to a book you first wrote six years ago, and to see some of its events mirrored in our shared reality.

I certainly don’t feel clairvoyant, though—I failed to foresee Donald Trump’s election, for starters. Back in 2014 I would have been shaken in my bones to hear what was coming down the pike. These past months have surprised me at every turn (I’m writing this to you with an Armageddon red sun over Portland, as ash billows outside our windows). I have never felt so aware of my own blindspots and blinkered mole-vision of what the next week or month might bring.

At the onset of the pandemic, a friend of mine who works at Hopkins complained to me that too many professional Cassandras were trying to escape the present moment, and its insuperable uncertainties, by making predictions—”but they aren’t extrapolating from data, they are just interpolating the last seven op-eds they read into a new one.”

So when I read Sleep Donation by the fiery light of 2020, I’m reminded that the world of 2014 was also in crisis. It makes me leery of the prelapsarian nostalgia that’s taken root in certain corners, the longing for a return to “normalcy.” Because this nightmare epidemic was inspired by conditions that long predated Trump: a broken for-profit health care system; corrupt and corroded institutions; the 24/7 rapacity of our global capitalist economy; rampant disinformation spreading virally; media conglomerates with financial incentives to keep viewers glued to the screen by fanning their fears. It was inspired by a country where some people get to rest and dream in safety, while others do not even have a bed to call their own. A country where horizon light itself, in addition to basic rights like health care, housing, and education, has become a luxury good. I could go on and on—I guess what I’m trying to say with this grim catalogue is that, given all this, it was no great stretch to imagine an America in the grip of an epidemic of sleeplessness. Or one in which sleep itself is in danger of becoming a commodity, as the dream commons becomes privately held territory. (Here’s looking at you, Big Tech). The erosion of trust in our public health institutions feels particularly terrifying to me right now, as the number of Covid-19 cases in America tops six million.

The silver lining of this story for me, if there is one, is the hope that we can shake each other awake. My nightmares terrify me because I feel powerless to change their outcomes. Fatalism is the real source of their horror, I think. Content feels secondary.

So this might be a writer’s way of finding hope—to say, we can turn this nightmare into a lucid dream. We can co-author—and alter—our future.

Oh boy, that was a crazy-long answer. Perhaps I am a little undersocialized, Sarah. I love my kids, but we mostly talk about Elmo.

Speaking of sleep and dreams, I also can’t imagine a better partner for this conversation than the author of the Madeleine is Sleeping. There is no better evocation of the dreamlands, their buoyancy and promiscuity and poetry and (sometimes terrifying) possibility—one of my favorite moments in all of literature is when sleeping Madeleine “fledges” her wings. I feel like that astonishing scene where wings erupt from her spine is connected, via the root system of dream logic that undergirds all your fiction, to the thrilling, irreducible mysteries in Likes. Moments of vibratory strangeness that we witness peripherally, or through the telescope of memory. A daughter’s inscrutable movement viewed through a window. An old friend caught in an act that reveals him as a stranger. A lover’s familiar voice recorded in the wrong bedroom.

My son just wandered over and picked up Likes off my lap. He has a question too:

“What’s that book about? A sea monster? An eyeball? A dragon?

And I’m so pleased to answer in the affirmative!

These stories might not sound fantastical in paraphrase—in fact, most seem to have a firm footing in a contemporary reality that we recognize as our own. And yet there are scaly behemoths glimpsed just as they recede from view. Shape shifters and fire-breathing monsters disguised as parents, neighbors, teenaged children, ex-lovers. There are plenty of eyeballs. Perceptions and misperceptions. In some stories, parents are straining against the new opacity of their children; in others, the past has become a treacherous sea brimming with latent possibilities. I loved Yiyun Li’s praise of your work as an exploration of “experiences both lived and missed.”

I wondered, first, what the experience of assembling this collection was like—I know that these stories were written over a decade, and that individually and together they distill so much time. Can you share a little bit about the concentric tree rings of time inside this book?

SSB: When you were a teenager, did you ever have that feeling that you were just waiting for your real life to begin? I spent a lot of high school wondering what that real life might look like, and the stories I wrote back then were often the product of my anticipation. Maybe I would live in a small Southern town and become the keeper of other people’s secret pasts. Or move to California and hold up a convenience store at gunpoint. Maybe I would share a crummy loft with an aspiring burlesque dancer and her unreliable boyfriend. The possibilities seemed endless.

Even when I was in my late twenties and out of graduate school, life still had a provisional quality to it—I was working at an office job and living in a matchbox-sized apartment, my refrigerator wasn’t large enough to hold a whole chicken. It still kind of felt like I was in a waiting room or a departure lounge, and this feeling persisted for several more years until, suddenly, within the space of six months, everything changed all at once. I published my first book, moved across the country to California (but did not rob any convenience stores), had a baby, and joined the faculty at a big research university. I found myself beset by all these joys and responsibilities that had the distinct feel of what I’d imagined to be real life.

“If a whole year’s worth of rain and sun is preserved within a narrow band of tree growth, maybe the same can hold true for a story?”

This is a very convoluted way of answering your wonderful tree-ring question: I think what I’m trying to say is that writing ended up living around the edges of those joys and responsibilities. If given a choice between sitting alone in front of my computer or watching my kid’s gymnastics class, I would always go for the 4-year-olds on a balance beam. I’m distractible and sociable; writing is hard and solitary and requires heroic powers of concentration. Being a parent, being in a marriage, being a teacher, being a friend, being part of a community—even being the caretaker of two dogs—all those things have tended to come first.

So when I would finally sit down and make writing a priority (often because I had said yes to completing new work for someone I greatly admired and couldn’t let down—like Kate Bernheimer or Peter Ho Davies or Stewart O’Nan or Michelle Latiolais), usually many months would have elapsed since the last time I had written fiction. I love your metaphor because it gives me a new way of looking at these long lags and expanding intervals. If a whole year’s worth of rain and sun is preserved within a narrow band of tree growth, maybe the same can hold true for a story? That’s a hopeful thought for a low-yield writer.

Also, something strange happened ten years ago—and I’m not sure whether it was the effect of me approaching forty or my daughter entering elementary school—but time started speeding up at an incredible rate. The past decade feels as if it’s just evaporated somehow. This is such a truism, but kids really do grow up fast. It all happens so quickly—in a way that is simultaneously thrilling and bittersweet and disturbing. Lately I’ve become much more aware of, and preoccupied by, the passing of time, an obsession that’s reflected in the newer stories in the collection: “Julia and Sunny,” “Bedtime Story,” “Many A Little Makes.” For the past several years a single phrase has been surfacing now and again inside my head, without context or invitation—a swiftly tilting planet—which I first knew as the title of a Madeleine L’Engle novel, and eventually learned was borrowed from a Conrad Aiken poem, a book-length poem that he wrote, I just discovered online, during the Spanish flu epidemic.

Which brings me back to your epidemic, and the terrifically knotty ethical questions it raises, one of which has been haunting me in particular: the parental donations of Baby A’s sleep. Without giving too much away, I’ll just say that the insomnia crisis has prompted the creation of a nationwide sleep donor network, and Baby A’s perfectly untroubled, universally accepted sleep-donations have become the holy grail of insomniacs and those who want to help them. Our narrator, a top recruiter for the sleep donor network, grows more and more uneasy about the transaction: “One day soon she’ll wake up to what we’ve done, and what we’ve taken from her.” That sentence sent a shiver through me because it reminded me of the temptation I have felt to “borrow” my child’s phrases, fascinations, anxieties, mannerisms, for the purposes of fiction. And hearing that beautiful series of questions from your son—A sea monster? An eyeball? A dragon?—I wonder if you have ever experienced that urge, and how you think about it?

KR: I love knowing that we are in lockstep in this way—because I’m also rocketing towards forty, and shocked by the acceleration of time, the uncanniness of time. For almost fifteen years, writing was the priority around which I designed my life. When our son was born, it felt like the Copernican Revolution. I still don’t have language to match the joy and also the violence of that transformation. You put it so beautifully—I am also increasingly aware of and preoccupied with time, in no small part because I swear our baby seems to change eyeblink to eyeblink. The rate of change is mind-boggling, even as the days can slow to a crawl. Our son seemed to go from dribbling syllables to speaking in complete grammatical sentences in a matter of weeks. There was a period where I could source, and celebrate, every new word he uttered. (“Flamingo” was incredible! “IPad,” a sad day). Now he has somehow osmotically acquired all kinds of funny phrases. Yesterday I overheard him telling my sister, with the friendly weariness of a middle-aged contractor, “It’s the heat that gets to me, Lala.”

In an interview about her own marvelously uncanny stories, Joy Williams said, “What good stories deal with is the horror and incomprehensibility of time, the encroachment of old catastrophes.” And I thought of this often, reading “Likes.” Sarah, I think you have an unparalleled ability to capture the Alice-in-Wonderland vertigo of time’s passage. The sensation of the past opening up to swallow you in the middle of a random weekday, the ambush of memory, the way a forgotten moment or hidden fear or hilted desire can burst into the present without warning. I was awed to experience the swoon of time inside these stories; I mean that sentence to sentence, I could feel the past as a gravitational pull on my own bones. There is this lovely, painful tension between the pinprick clarity of your descriptions and the awareness that these stories we tell are tiny islands in a swallowing sea: “So much of that is irretrievable now.”

And like islands, they are vulnerable to erosion, revision. You know, returning to Sleep Donation, a story I wrote six years ago, I often felt a vertigo like the one your narrator experiences in “The Bears,” a story I can’t stop thinking about.

“The Bears” is a modern-day fairytale that connects the Goldilocks terror of trespass—a stranger sleeping in your bed—to the haunted house of the body, where babies grow and the poltergeists of memory and desire are always rattling the furniture. The narrator is a scholar avoiding work on her book on William James (instantly endearing her to me); on a walk, she experiences the “lightness” of the sudden onset of crisis, which she describes as “an idea” even as pain rockets up her shins, suggesting the time lag between what the body knows and what the mind can name. (I’m still mystified that you can be surprised by a pregnancy, or by an illness—that both can develop slyly inside you without your awareness. How can it be, for example, that my fetal daughter grew eyes and a spine while my clueless mind was refreshing Gmail?).

She experiences both heimlich and unheimlich, a homecoming and an eviction. Coming home is no less mysterious than getting lost; happiness is as surprising and ultimately inexplicable as the suddenness of loss. You build a story with miraculous architecture: a farmhouse in the dark woods that opens a window onto the very curve in the road where the past loops endlessly into the future. The narrator spots a young woman in the distance, who we realize is a surrogate for her entire history. Through the window, they make fleeting eye contact: “I wave back at her, electrified and sad.” And then she’s gone: “The woman walking down the highway has already moved on, innocent of what waits for her, and passed out of sight.”

That final sentence, with its subtle shift in tense, creates a kind of metaphysical Doppler effect. Like that Wallace Stevens’ line: “It was her voice that made the sky acutest at its vanishing.” You can feel the past bearing down on you and disappearing again, even as the future recedes eternally.

Time has never felt more palpable to me, Sarah, than it does right now. The lightness of time sieving through the hourglass, the heaviness of its accretion inside a body. Part of that, I’m sure, is this strange, markerless time we’re currently swimming through during the pandemic. But I also think my children have a lot to do with it. With my kids, I get to watch the daisy-chain of selves stretching out before my eyes. Like you, I find the time warp of early childhood and the onrush of middle age “simultaneously thrilling and bittersweet and disturbing.”

One thing I’ve found especially fascinating is observing how an event becomes a story inside our son, hearing the repetition that gives it shape and meaning. My son will tell the same four stories again and again, and it’s like watching him patting snow into snowballs. Making up his past before our eyes. When he was a baby, “yesterday” had no meaning for him, and “tomorrow” was a word that he used as a polite euphemism for “never.” A trick he must have learned from us! (Son: “I’m gonna clean up that mess tomorrow”). Now that he’s three and a half, he can narrativize the past and conjure an imaginary future, which seems like a big evolutionary mile marker, one that somehow does not have an entry in his Baby’s Firsts book. Seemingly overnight, he started to tell himself the story of his life.

Please forgive me for this junket about time! But it’s a very dark-side-of-the-moon way of answering your wonderful question. Recently, I read an NYT article about children’s right to privacy in a digital age. When do parents hand over the baton to their children, as curators of their own life stories? How do you write responsibly about the shaded Venn of family—the overlapping territory between your life and the life of your child? I think I’m still trying to figure that out.

I do feel like everything I’ve written in recent years is either explicitly inspired by my kids or connected to the aquifer of new dreams and nightmares that I drilled into when I became a parent. The “Baby A” character in Sleep Donation haunts me with a new force now that I’m a mother. To make decisions for a tiny person who is abjectly dependent upon you, to care for them on this “swiftly tilting planet”—it’s a wild responsibility. Now when I read Sleep Donation, I see a mother trying to balance her daughter’s needs with those of a community in crisis, and her predicament has a different resonance. Her moral calculus still disturbs and challenges me. But now I’m on the balance beam with her.

I wrote so blithely, as a young person, about my family. I never asked either of my parents if they minded that I was telling stories about Minotaur fathers and wolf mothers. Now I feel very aware that one day my kids might read what I’m writing, and wonder at it. I can’t help or stop the watery way they’ve pervaded my work, but I do try to keep them in mind as future readers.

My brother is an incredible nonfiction writer, and it’s been a gift to meet new sides of him through his writing, although sometimes I find it painful to learn how much I have missed. That’s another kind of vertigo—meeting someone you know so well in life on the page and realizing how deep they go, how much of their experience has been a secret from you, how little of that wilderness inside us can be expressed in a conversation across a table, or on the telephone (I could really relate to the father in Likes, scrolling through his daughter’s Instagram feed for “clues“ about her). I hope that if my kids ever read my work, and glimpse themselves obliquely inside it, it will feel something like the uncanny window scene in “Bears.” Instead of, you know, a terribly embarrassing journey through the funhouse mirrors of their mom’s mind.

Speaking of funhouse mirrors: I first began reading you when you were anthologized in Tin House’s Fantastic Women anthology. In Likes, I found myself struck by the contrast between the real magic inherent in the everyday experiences of your characters, and the depressingly shallow, sexist and racist fantasies that proliferate through the wider culture. Your stories find ingenious ways to critique the distorted reflections of ourselves and our world that get reproduced by TV and film and social media. They also model an alternative.

In “Burglar,” the protagonist’s husband is the only Black man in the writer’s room of a popular science fiction series; he laments: “How does a science fiction guy end up writing racial melodrama? Also: How do I write this character without making him seem like all the other decent, long-suffering, wrongly accused Black men who have shown up onscreen over the years?”

In “The Erlking,” a mother recalls a popular movie and reconsiders its merits. She tries to salvage her affection for its main character, even as she acknowledges the ugliness underpinning the movie’s laugh-lines: “And though something about that movies was off—the Black woman handcuffed, obese and screaming, and how the boy had to offer up a solemn little rap—John C. Reilly was not himself at fault. He was just doing his job. Playing the part.”

And in “Tell Me My Name,” Betti Perez, underground queen of New York, finds herself in the twilight of her career pitching a Latinx reboot of “The Nanny,” a superficially woke show that reinforces the cruelest stereotypes. When this plan receives pushback, Betti explodes: “So what this show’s not going to Cannes. You want to criticize me for trying to get my hustle on. Fuck you. Someone’s got to pay my bills.”

I was talking about “The Burglar” with a friend of mine, a Black actress in her fifties. She tells me that the parts she got called in to audition for in 2019 were as follows: maid, slave, grief-stricken mother of a murdered gangster in Chicago, apoplectic comic relief for a courthouse drama. She said that the casting calls are so depressing to her—an index of this country’s bedrock racism, ageism, and sexism, and proof of how narrowly many white writers imagine Blackness.

I’m thinking about the trap that Hollywood sets for the husband in “The Burglar,” the frustration of my friend who, like Betti Perez, needs a paycheck and finds herself slotted into the old, bad grammar of racist tropes recapitulated into American fantasies, available for streaming.

“The limitations of language, the inescapability of dominant narratives—the ‘old, bad grammar’ as you put it so well—this deeply worries me as I write.”

Your stories have such a reverence for the complexity and hidden depths of people, and they always reveal with sharp attentiveness how race and class and gender shape our interactions and our shared reality. Could you talk a little bit about how the fantastic operates in Likes? Did you imagine these stories, with their depth and strangeness, as critiques of and/or corrections to the grim fantasies (Hollywood screenplays, Instagram stories) embedded within them?

SSB: Oh Karen, your aim is true—I’m so grateful for this question—also for your profound, and profoundly generous, way of thinking and talking about these stories.

I love how you describe your son learning to narrativize his past and conjure an imaginary future, this pivotal moment when he started to tell himself the story of his life. It’s an extraordinary process to witness, and as a parent I took so much pleasure in it—but it was filled with heartache too, because as I was watching this process of self-formation occur in real time with my daughter, I was also witness to the terrible power of received narratives. By the time she was three and a half years old, she had already begun to have negative feelings about the texture of her hair, fallen in love with the Disney princesses, entered into an American Girl arms race with her friends at preschool. As parents we had been trying so hard to protect her, to inoculate her from exactly these types of anti-Black, anti-woman, anti-queer, pro-consumerist fantasies—and at times it felt like we were up against this vast, undefeatable malevolence.

It is so hard to write about this—I’m cringing at the sentences I just wrote, worrying that they sound didactic or reductive—and this is one of the frustrations, right? Language can become a straitjacket. A problem of enormous complexity and urgency gets boiled down to #representationmatters. The limitations of language, the inescapability of dominant narratives—the “old, bad grammar” as you put it so well—this deeply worries me as I write. The urge to resist norms, to imagine alternatives—for me this urge is always accompanied by the fear that language or story will somehow betray me as I attempt to voice my objections. I keep thinking about what James Baldwin wrote in response to Richard Wright’s Native Son: “Below the surface of this novel there lies, as it seems to me, a continuation, a complement of that monstrous legend it was written to destroy.”

And here is where the fantastic enters in, this mysterious and defiant grammar given to us by Kafka, Morrison, García Márquez, Kawabata, so many others—it offers a means of leaping over, or leaping free from, the trap that conventional language and logic threaten to spring on us. In “The Burglar,” a TV character goes rogue, stepping out of the sci-fi world of the show and wandering into the TV writer’s home, which is in the process of being robbed. This sudden swerve into the unreal startled me as I was writing. But I think my undermind (to borrow that useful phrase from your conversation with Stephen King) may have led me in this direction because even though I was only a few pages into a draft, I was already beginning to feel constricted, caught inside a vicious prevailing narrative about criminals and victims.

I’m drawn to the word “leaping” in trying to describe how the fantastic operates because I’m remembering Calvino’s essay on lightness. It’s an essay that I return to repeatedly because it never fails to provide me with the precise language I need in order to express some half-articulated idea I’m forming. In this case, it speaks to why the fantastic sometimes feels like a necessity when one is writing about our shared, or not-so-shared, reality: “When humanity seems condemned to heaviness, I think I should fly like Perseus into a different space. I don’t mean escaping into dreams or into the irrational. I mean that I have to change my approach, look at the world from a different perspective, with a different logic and with fresh methods of cognition and verification.”

I feel lucky to be talking about this with you, Karen, because you’re like the Rudolf Nureyev of this particular kind of leaping—you do it with such grace, strength, verve, effortlessness. Total fluency, total ease of invention. Even within a world as disquieting as Sleep Donation, it’s just exhilarating to experience. Not only do you imagine the hushed interiors of the hospital wards and the obscure workings of official apparatuses, but you also create an entire teeming subculture that has sprung up around the fringes of the epidemic. We accompany our narrator and Mr. Harkonnen, the father of Baby A, on an odyssey through a carnivalesque encampment of vendors hawking miracle cures, speakeasy tents packed with insomniacs downing pharmacist-concocted cocktails, poppy fields dense with the horizontal bodies of those desperately seeking oblivion. Finally, at the end of their journey, the two former adversaries fall asleep together on the forest floor, and when they wake the narrator wishes “for whatever is flowing between us to remain unnamed, formless, unmeted into story” because it is something “inaudibly delicate that would not survive the passage into speech”—they have arrived at a profound yet unspoken understanding. This moment captures what I think the fantastic in hands like yours is capable of doing, which is to clear a space where we can encounter each other unconstrained by the straitjackets of pre-existing language and narrative, with a different logic, with new ways of knowing.

A last question, and only if you feel moved to answer it—would you be willing to share a little about what you’ve been working on, what’s bubbling up from the aquifer?

“People sometimes underestimate the subversive power of the fantastic, the way a story that changes ‘the rules’ of our reality always exposes and challenges the status quo.”

KR: Wow, I feel like you just floated me a fizzy cocktail on a day when we woke up to a smoke-filled sky and unrelentingly sad and scary news. Thank you so much, Sarah. Volleying with you has been the greatest joy, and reading you sends me levitating from my chair. I love that Calvino quote so much. And I agree with you whole-heartedly. People often mistake flight for escape, in fiction, when in fact it lets the reader and the writer see something normally occluded from their own eye-level view. Something so disturbing or wondrous or threatening to one’s stability that there’s simply no way to take it in otherwise.

Also, I really want to get a ballet leotard with Rudolf’s face on it now. This comparison delighted me and made me laugh so hard that my husband came over to investigate. Recently I told him, “I hope our son can enjoy a sport one day.” Which he insists is a very achievable goal for most people. I ran cross-country as a teenager, a team sport where you have permission to flee your teammates, and everybody else. It’s only when I’m reading (and when it’s going well, writing) that I feel like I can move unselfconsciously, with that radical freedom and lightness of the imagination. People also sometimes underestimate the subversive power of the fantastic, the way a story that changes “the rules” of our reality always exposes and challenges the status quo, something your stories do slyly and thrillingly. Here’s a line of yours that I want to keep with me forever:

Then one night my daughter’s voice punctured my dreaming so cleanly that I was able to hold the shape of the dream before it vanished…

It struck me that this is exactly what your stories do. Each one is like a vessel holding the shape of something precious, something bottomlessly mysterious. And each is also the scream that wakes us out of our stupor so that we can remember, for a little while, that we are alive.

As for what I’ve been working on, I’ll be honest, I’ve been flailing a little bit, trying to find a new way through a novel that I’ve been working on for a long time now. For so long, in fact, that I seem to have become a different person, in a totally transfigured world, a dilemma I know you’ll understand. I’m also working on a new story, and if I manage to finish it, you’ll see your influence. Right now it’s called “Ultralight Camping.” A bunch of hikers who are hungry for transcendence (and really goddamn hungry) climb a mountain that keeps changing underneath them. Which sounds so embarrassing to me as I type it. Kundera meets titanium sporks? Oh dear.

You know, our baby stopped crawling and started walking this week. I know this will sound ridiculous, but watching her learn to walk has made me feel more hopeful about writing, and the world generally.  For months now, she has been preparing to stand, building the necessary muscles. What you see in the beginning is almost exclusively desire and failure. So much comical, unavoidable failure. She moves very carefully around the perimeter of a room, her hands planted on the wall. She’ll do this a dozen times before she attempts one shaky, independent step. There was a stretch where she kept pushing herself backwards under the sofa and screaming. Somehow spinning around on a bed of Goldfish crumbs while screaming was also part of her very non-linear progress.

She reminds me, when I’m listing towards despair myself, about how much experiment and failure is inherent to progress of any kind. She still falls every third step. But her gait is getting steadier by the hour. One day soon, she’ll walk across the room.

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Likes by Sarah Shun-Lien Bynum is available via FSG.

likes, sarah shun-lien bynum

Sleep Donation by Karen Russell is available via Vintage. 

Sarah Shun-lien Bynum is the author of the novels Ms. Hempel Chronicles, a finalist for the PEN/Faulkner Award, and Madeleine Is Sleeping, a finalist for the National Book Award and winner of the Janet Heidinger Kafka Prize. Her fiction has appeared in many magazines and anthologies, including the New YorkerPloughsharesTin HouseThe Best American Short Stories, and the O. Henry Prize Stories. The recipient of a Whiting Writers’ Award and an NEA Fellowship, she was named one of “20 Under 40” fiction writers by the New Yorker. She lives in Los Angeles.

Karen Russell won the 2012 and the 2018 National Magazine Award for fiction, and her first novel, Swamplandia! (2011), was a finalist for the Pulitzer Prize. She has received a MacArthur Fellowship and a Guggenheim Fellowship, the “5 under 35” prize from the National Book Foundation, the NYPL Young Lions Award, the Bard Fiction Prize, and is a former fellow of the Cullman Center and the American Academy in Berlin. She currently holds the Endowed Chair at Texas State University’s MFA program, and lives in Portland, Oregon with her husband and son.






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