Danielle Dutton on What a Narrative Can Hold

This week’s story, “My Wonderful Description of Flowers,” opens with a reference to a dream—the narrator’s husband dreamed that she left him. The narrator quickly brushes this off. Do you expect the reader to hold on to that scene?

I’m not sure I expect anything specific of the reader, at least in terms of what the reader thinks or feels or what they consciously hold in mind, but for me everything in the story matters to its over-all effect, like how Poe says that everything in a story should contribute to its “unity of effect.” Except that in my stories, or some of them, the effect is probably not as clearly defined as Poe might want it to be. It’s maybe more a unity of ambience or tone. The husband’s dream is disruptive or upsetting, but it is also completely mundane (nothing more mundane than telling someone your dreams), and I think the story works out a tension between those two forces, with the mundane gradually losing ground to the disruptive.

The narrator goes to a reading at the university where she teaches. She recounts the story she hears. Are you drawing on an actual short story here? In “My Wonderful Description of Flowers,” you refer to the books your narrator is reading, the video game her child is playing, and so on. Do you see your story as being in dialogue, in any way, with other texts?

Yes, absolutely. This piece, like all of my writing, engages overtly with other texts and media. In fact, each of my books has pages of notes at the back spelling out these sorts of connections. Because, although I do sit alone at a desk to write, I’m never working in isolation. I’m always reaching out to other stories, paintings, lives, etc. As Cristina Rivera Garza says, “Writing is a community-making practice. If we write, we write with others. Inescapably.”

In this case, the story the narrator listens to is Carmen Maria Machado’s “Blur,” which I heard her read a few years ago. And the story the narrator remembers near the end is Haruki Murakami’s “Sleep,” translated by Jay Rubin, which begins with an incredible nightmare and ends with a moment of violence. I didn’t plan for either of these stories to enter my own—they just did. Now I can see how clearly they belong; although they’re very different, both have female protagonists moving through frightening situations.

The video game in my story is based on the indie art game Dear Esther. I’m not really a player of video games, but I’m fascinated by the spaces they create. Dear Esther was the first game I’d encountered in which the player is free to roam around a visually intricate world without pressure from the game to do something; you’re just wandering. I’ve always liked fiction that comes close to offering that kind of experience, the feeling that you can wander around, looking at things—Virginia Woolf’s “Kew Gardens” comes to mind.

In the end, I suppose all the references in the story are helping to create this ambient web of fear. But for me they also raise questions about the space of a narrative, what it can do or hold, and how different narratives, or different narrative spaces, might speak to each other, or link up, as if there could be a portal from one to another that the reader might crawl through.

The narrator is trying to reach her husband. She calls and texts him, but she hears nothing back. How much time does it take for silence to engender anxiety? When we can be in touch constantly, are we more likely to think that someone is vanishing?

I’m old enough to have lived about half my life without a cell phone—I think I got my first phone when I was twenty-two—and I have no memory of ever feeling that grip of panic about not being able to reach someone before I had a phone always with me. Now I find I get worried quickly, unreasonably. You’re right that there can be this sense that someone has vanished if they aren’t immediately available; there is an expectation of total availability baked into our culture now. Incidentally, I was just on the author Mary Ruefle’s Web site, and, when you click on “Contact,” you’re taken to a page that says, “Surprise! I do not actually own a computer.” I thought that was a pretty funny surprise.

After the reading, the narrator joins a group of people who are going by train to a bar. But she chooses to stay on the train, travelling to the final stop. It’s as if she’s travelling out of her life, leaving even her cell phone behind. Did you know from the outset that the story would end in this way?

I did, which is unusual for me. I generally have no idea, setting out, where a story will wind up. But I knew she would take the train and walk into the prairie alone; I could see it as a clear image before I knew how I would get her there, perhaps in part because I’d been working on a cycle of prairie stories (this story is part of that cycle, which is itself part of my collection “Prairie, Dresses, Art, Other,” forthcoming from Coffee House Press in 2024), and so the prairie was very much on my mind. I’m from California, but I’ve lived in the Midwest for more than twenty years, and the prairie has become my favorite natural landscape. It’s hard to describe what it’s like when you’re standing inside a prairie, but it’s intensely physical. It really is like you’re in a sea of plants. They swirl around you, touch you. On the one hand, I find this deeply comforting, but there can also be something terrifying about it. In the summer, a prairie can grow to be taller than me, so it’s possible to get completely turned around. And then there’s also the fact that the prairie, as a concept, is tied to devastation. There’s very little of it left. Here in Missouri, there were once fifteen million acres of prairie, and now there are no more than fifty thousand acres scattered across the state, isolated from each other. So it’s hard not to think about loss and destruction when I think about the prairie, even though when I’m in the middle of one it’s so incredibly full of life. ♦

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