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This interview was originally posted on Wordplay, the Poetry Center's education blog, serving as "a space for parents, teachers, and community artists who inspire others with language."
Beth Alvarado is the author of a memoir entitled Anthropologies (University of Iowa Press, 2011) and a collection of short stories entitled Not a Matter of Love (New Rivers, 2006), the collection in which "Emily's Exit" appears. She lives in Tucson where, with her husband Fernando, she raised two children. She teaches at the University of Arizona and is the fiction editor for Cutthroat: A Journal of the Arts.
PC: How or why did you begin writing "Emily's Exit?"
Alvarado: Several things had to come together for me to write this story. One semester I had a very religious student who would sit in my office for hours every week trying to convert me to her particular beliefs. Now I really liked this student and I knew she liked me because she was concerned about my soul. She was very smart and I found it interesting to talk to her about her beliefs but, after a while, I started wondering why she was so anxious to go to heaven. I mean, I've always wondered what could be better about heaven than earth because I find the earth so beautiful.
The other thread of the story began with a family story. When I was fourteen, my older cousin Christine went to Greece after she finished college. She was traveling with a Greek girl named Mary and she and Mary went out to this island where there was supposed to be a convent, only it wasn't a real convent. Instead, the island was owned by a very wealthy woman, the daughter of a Greek shipping magnate, who had gone crazy when her children were killed one by one in car accidents. Evidently this woman deprived Christine and Mary of sleep and food, and so they planned to escape and they stole the keys to the motorboat that was used as transportation to the mainland. On the night that they were supposed to escape, the woman had pulled Christine out of her room and was talking to her all night and so Mary had to escape by herself. She called my uncle and told him what had happened and he flew to Greece but when he went out to the island, Christine got hysterical, crying that if she stepped foot out of the door, she would go to hell. There was a trial to extradite her, because she was over 18, but Christine disappeared after the first day and my uncle had to go home without her. Every year, for fourteen years, my grandmother received one postcard from Christine—they were postmarked from all over the world—telling her that Christine was okay. Later, when I was an adult, I heard that my aunt and uncle had flown to Greece to meet with Christine. By then, Christine was a nun in a Russian Orthodox Church and she spoke mostly Russian and Greek, very little English. I remember, afterwards, my aunt talking about Christine as if she had simply chosen to become a nun; to me, it was as if the first story, the "real" story had never happened or as if it had been erased from memory because it was too painful.
So in a way, my student raised old questions for me: why would you value the spirit over the body? How can you give your will up entirely to God? How can you choose God over your family? And why would He want you to? And those questions reminded me of Christine, I guess, because it seemed as if her identity had completely changed, as if she had lost herself. Or had she found herself? I didn't know. Now, I knew I should never write Christine's story - it was almost too strange for fiction, for one thing, and for another, it felt like betraying a family secret—but I was so fascinated by it that I decided I could borrow the bare bones of the plot. I needed a narrator, of course, and I imagined that if I were the younger sister, the one who was left behind, I would feel abandoned and resentful. So, even though the story might have been more interesting from Emily's point of view, I had to begin where I could, with her little sister, the narrator. At the time, I was reading For the Time Being by Annie Dillard and she quotes the priest Teilhard de Chardin, who wrote, "If I should lose all faith in God, I think I should continue to believe invincibly in the world." I wanted to write a story that explored that idea or that tension between the spiritual and the physical—and it's the younger sister who feels that tension most, I think.
PC: The setting of "Emily's Exit" is very prominent in the story and familiar to Tucson readers. In general, what role does the setting play as you are developing a story?
Alvarado: I decided to set "Emily's Exit" in Tucson for very practical reasons. I know Tucson very well and I've never been to Greece. I wanted to take my cousin's story out of the realm of memory and allow it to take on its own life in my imagination. I love the beauty of the desert but it's also a cruel and forbidding landscape. The heat is purifying. Jesus went out into the desert to confront his demons, so the setting fit in with the religious themes of the story. People die every year crossing the desert. They do say the Apache could run across it without water even in summer. If the electricity went out, we couldn't pump water from the artesian wells and, in three days, we would be in serious trouble. Many of the native plants are spiny and angular. When a prickly pear pad falls on the ground, its spines snake into the earth and become roots. Seeds lie dormant in the ground for decades waiting for rain. The desert is, literally, a life or death landscape. When you look through the waves of heat, it is like you are entering some other realm. In that way, the desert is mystical and transformative, exactly the right setting for any story I would be interested in writing.
In general, when I start a story, what's important is how the character sees the setting because, as you know, several people could describe the same place in different ways. Sometimes I'll put my character in a place and I'll try to see how she sees. Does she like the texture of an old building, where the stucco is crumbling, or does she see exposed wires and trash? It's often the first way I gain access to a character's perspective.
PC: The descriptive language you use is not only visually evocative, but it sounds good too. Some of it rhymes outright! How do you generate such language and what interests you about such sonic techniques?
Alvarado: The language of a story is really important to me, as a reader as well as as a writer. I love the music of language. If you think about it, when we're babies or when we're listening to a foreign language, the sound of it is all we "get" -it's what attracts us even before the words begin to create images or have meaning. I can even now think of songs I love and yet I have no idea what the lyrics are; the sound of the words and the human voices are simply other instruments. So at some primal, physical level, language is a music that speaks to us—it's comforting or energizing or frightening—even when we don't understand it.
When I write, I try to use language to evoke images and emotions and I think the sound of the words has more to do with emotions. Harsh, gutteral words are scary, they create tension and anxiety; soothing words, those with s sounds, are soft and lulling. Rhythms, too, have to do with emotion. Lots of short choppy sentences or fragments, phrases that are bitten off, make my nerves jangle, whereas long, rhythmic sentences suggest the character is drifting off into dreamland, has time to wonder and to think. The closer I am to the character, the more the language tends to mold itself to that person's inner music, to reveal something about his state of mind. I really love it when that happens because it's as if the language itself takes over and writes the story for me. The last stages of revision always involve reading the story aloud and editing for sound. In fact, if I get stuck, I read it aloud, too. And sometimes I read it aloud for pure pleasure.
PC: How do you conceive of the characters in your stories?
Alvarado: Well, as you can see from "Emily's Exit," the characters have their beginnings in life, with someone I've seen or maybe know well but who is, in some sense, mysterious to me. As I muse on the characters and begin to ask myself questions about them - what does her house look like? what would her conflict be in this situation? what is he afraid of? what does he eat for breakfast?- the character begins to lose its connection to the real person and becomes its own individual. I also need to imagine his one or two most important physical characteristics so I can fasten him in my own mind. In inventing a character, the name is very important, even how it's spelled—Ana or Anna—and whether or not the character has nicknames. The writer William Gass said, "A character is first and foremost the sound of his name." Dialog, or the way a character speaks, is sometimes the first thing that comes to me. A therapist who says, "Close your eyes and imagine you're standing in a peaceful place. . ." and one who says, "So, basically, what you're telling me, is your life sucks," are two very different people. It would be much easier for me to write a story about the therapist who says the second line. I've never met her, but I figure she comes from New Jersey and wears her hair in a ponytail. I think she's divorced.
PC: What book did you love reading in high school? What book did you hate reading?
Alvarado: In junior high, I read stacks of historical romances, especially anything by Victoria Holt, but by high school, I was more serious. I loved Siddhartha by Hermann Hesse, Johnny Got His Gun by Dalton Trumbo, and The Bell Jar by Sylvia Plath. I was not a very good student and so I had an automatic distrust of anything I was assigned to read. I hated Dickens and Shakespeare—without ever giving them a fair shot—although I remember thinking Voltaire's Candide was pretty cool.