I'd wanted to write a number of linked short shorts for a while, and at the time, I was interested in the kind of magical realism of the epidemics. I was working on a novel and was growing tired of the length, and I wrote the first drafts of these stories one a day in the afternoons. I think that lurking somewhere in my subconscious was a Korean movie I'd seen about a year earlier about an epidemic of memory loss. I was also interested in writing something in collective first-person, and I think from these things, and from the idea of a community versus the other, came the island.
You maintain a first person plural point of view for the majority of the story. A single narrator reveals himself about halfway through book, in a very short story called "On Telling This Story," and returns again at the end of the story. Why not maintain the group voice entirely?
The stories' larger arc is about communality and communal denial. The islanders are caught up in the spell of the epidemics, caught up in being a part of something bigger than themselves. But they ignore the reality of these illnesses. Then one man becomes immune, and different, and by the end, they split up and are forced to make choices—which is about individualism. The arc is mirrored in the POV. The narrator keeps saying we, we, we, but once he is able to realize that the epidemics are not all great, and he starts to write about them, he becomes aware of his individual place in the world and in the world of story.
The illustrations by Luca Di Pierro made me visualize the story as cartoon. That seemed natural to me, esp with some of your descriptions (like the epidemic of unstoppably growing hearts, when everyone's chest swelled them into the shapes of peanuts and then pears). How did Luca come to draw these pictures for your story? What was the collaboration like?
I think PANK asked Luca to do the pictures--I had peskily requested more white space between stories. I'm so glad they asked him, though. I always wanted the stories to be illustrated. The original plan was to have a friend in Chile do illustrations, but then she was in Chile. Luca is amazing; the people he draws are so full of longing. His sketches were perfect for the book.
You have another book, The Last Repatriate, coming out soon from Flatmancrooked. Can you tell us a little bit about it?
I took an archive class while at Emerson and ended up researching this Korean War POW who, at the end of the war, refused to go back to America. He was one of several POWs who did this. After a short while, he asked to return (or perhaps escaped) to the US, and was treated as a hero--he received three months off and backpay, and he got married and had a honeymoon. Then, at the end of the period given to convince the other non-repatriated POWs to return, the Army arrested him. The book is based loosely on the research, which was so interesting I got a short story and a screenplay out of it as well.
Can you name some of your literary cousins and explain how you're cousins?
Literary cousins? I tend to write a lot of different types of stories. But I'm working on a novel right now, and I will say that I have used as guides Lawrence Durrell, Michael Ondaatje, Annie Proulx, Christine Schutt, and others in my revisions.