Zach Williams on Letting Go of Logic

Your story “Wood Sorrel House” involves a couple and their toddler, staying at a classic summer rental in the country, which turns out to be anything but classic. How did the idea of turning a usually idyllic vacation into a nightmare of isolation and timelessness occur to you? Was it inspired by living through the pandemic with a young child?

Photograph by Rosalie Osborn

Our son turned two in March of 2020, so the story absolutely took on that dimension. But I first wrote a basic outline several weeks before things shut down in the United States. So I think the initial impulse for the story was a broader response to the experience of being a new parent—which, for me, felt like a kind of persistent altered state. There was a renewed sense of astonishment and of the body’s frailty. Time moved differently. I wanted to write something about that frame of mind. I didn’t start thinking in terms of the conventions that the story addresses—an idyllic summer trip upended, as you said—until a little later. After I’d started to revise, I came to see “Wood Sorrel House” as, at least on one level, a parody of a traditional domestic story. But, at the time that I started writing, I was interested only in the relationships among these three characters and how they might develop in this particular circumstance.

The couple age and deteriorate psychologically, while their child, Max, gets no older and cannot be hurt. What makes this scenario especially frightening?

I suppose that it renders illegible the question of how to care for the child. What would a child like Max need? What could a parent offer to that child? And so maybe the story’s scenario spoke to some of my real-life anxieties, in that, even in the best of circumstances, it can be hard to know that we’re doing the right thing as parents. Then, too, I think that there’s just something deeply mystifying in caring for a growing child. It puts you back in touch with those years of your own life, to the extent that you’re able to remember them. The act of buckling my son into a car seat, for example, will sometimes shake loose the dimmest memory of how it felt to be buckled in when I was a child. In becoming a parent, I was confronted by how strange it is to have forgotten so much, and to have shed so many different versions of myself. And all the while, of course, I was aware that my son was undergoing the same process of forgetting. Now he’s just about four. We’ve watched him grow into contact with the world around him. I’ve noticed that we have a tendency to tell him stories from earlier in his life, or to show him videos of himself when he was much younger. I wonder if on some weird level what we’re craving is for him to find his own development as strange and beautiful as we do. This is all to say that, in the story, I must have been looking for a way to examine my own sense of awe about the process of growth. Max, to me, is less frightening than mysterious.

The world you’ve created has some logic to it, though it can be difficult to decipher. Did you start with a set of rules for what could and couldn’t happen there?

No, not really, although in earlier drafts I was very interested in questions of causation: Why is this happening to these three people? At one point, the story included a long flashback designed to address that question, if somewhat indirectly. When I cut that section—thanks to responses from early readers—it was like letting fresh air into the story. As soon as I stopped worrying about why and how these things were happening, I was also free to stop worrying about what it all meant. I no longer had to try to impose that kind of order on the story. Which meant I no longer had to try to impose order, in my own thinking, on the questions that animated the story. The less I dealt in logic, I felt, the more honest the writing became. And, once I’d made that shift, I found that I was able to surprise myself more.

Why do you think Ronna and Jacob have such different responses to what has happened to them?

I think that Ronna is a much better reader of the situation. Jacob seems to want to conquer the place, to come out on top somehow. He’s stubbornly literal-minded in that way. I suppose he’s like the part of me that wished, early on, for the story to make a certain kind of concrete sense. Ronna, on the other hand, is more responsive, less aggressive, wiser. She’s less preoccupied with finding answers, the way Jacob is, because she senses intuitively that he is asking the wrong questions. Which is not to say that she doesn’t struggle. But, if nothing else, she eventually achieves a kind of equanimity.

In the midst of the story is a snapping turtle that may be hundreds of years old, if age and time actually exist in this place. Should we see that turtle as symbolic, or just as a flesh-and-blood creature that has wandered into a conceptual space?

I don’t know. I think it’s native to the place, whatever that means, and that’s why it interests Ronna. She seems to see it as a symbol, so it’s useful to her in that way.

Do you think the future that Ronna envisions for Max is accurate?

I don’t see any reason to doubt her. But I don’t know.

This is your first published story. Do you think of it as speculative fiction? Were you influenced by any other stories when working on it? What are you working on next?

I feel lucky not to have to think too hard about those distinctions—though, for the most part, I don’t consider myself interested in, or capable of, writing genre fiction. I don’t think I had any particular stories in mind while writing “Wood Sorrel House,” but I was reading Shirley Jackson at the time. I also had Joy Williams’s “The Visiting Privilege: New and Collected Stories” on my nightstand all that summer. And, while revising, I was fortunate to come across Patrick Harpur’s brilliant book on apparitions, the supernatural, and mythology, “Daimonic Reality: A Field Guide to the Otherworld.” That was a major encounter for me. Whenever I needed to shake up my thinking, I’d turn to that book. Now I’m writing new stories, and finishing up some older ones. I like to imagine them as a collection.

Why does wood sorrel appear so prominently in the title and the story? Does the plant have special significance for you?

I was thinking of the kinds of named houses I’ve seen, mostly around New England, I suppose—ramshackle places with names, on old hand-carved signs, like “The Eagle’s Nest” or “Wild Rose Lodge.” The selection of wood sorrel was mostly arbitrary. But I see it more, now, since writing the story.

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