A Conversation with Enid Shomer
Maxine Kumin is a Pulitzer Prize—winning poet who has also published ﬁve novels and a collection of short ﬁction. Her sixteenth book of poems is Still to Mow. She met Enid Shomer in 1984 at the Atlantic Center for the Arts, where Kumin was the Master Artist in Residence and Shomer was one of her fellows. A few years later they began exchanging poems and stories in process. In 1993, Kumin asked Shomer to interview her for The Massachusetts Review. They have been friends ever since.
Q: Many of these stories are set in Florida. Is this because you consider yourself a native daughter?
A: Though I wasn’t born in Florida, I have spent most of my life here. My grandparents settled in Lemon City in the twenties, and my family visited them for three weeks every summer. From the age of three to four I lived in Florida and it was paradise for a young child–being able to stay outdoors year-round, the swimming, seashells, beaches, ﬁshing, and so on. Still, when I returned as a newlywed, I was amazed to discover that I had a deep visceral attachment to the place. I’d be walking in the evening, for example, and I’d smell night-blooming jasmine and be ﬂooded with memories. It was quite magical. I had come home, to a home I hadn’t remembered until I got there.
Q: Where did you get the idea for the ﬁrst story in the book, “Chosen”? In that story and in the last story, “Laws of Nature,” you leap out of reality and invite us into another reality. How do you feel about these side excursions into other realms?
A: I got the idea for “Chosen” after listening to an NPR interview with a Tibetan man who was a reincarnated saint. For me, this story doesn’t trespass into another realm. I admit it’s farfetched, but it doesn’t violate the laws of physics, so it could conceivably happen. But “Laws of Nature” deﬁnitely enters another realm, and I was surprised by the direction it took. Both tales began with the same magic word: if. What if a woman began to grow younger instead of older? What if the Tibetan Buddhist powers-that-be concluded that a saint had reincarnated himself as an American speech therapist? I’ve always been interested in culture-dependent ideas and traditions, even the most profound and absolute ones. For example, for most people religion is determined by the accident of their birth, rather than by choice. But if you believe that religious dogma is universally true across all cultures and is not the expression of a particular history, then couldn’t Iris be a Buddhist saint even though she lives in Florida and is Jewish? As for Helen’s transformation, I asked myself a similar question: if women in Mexico could turn into pigs and wolves, why couldn’t an American woman? Such magic would not be an alternate reality for a reader raised where this folk belief is credible. That said, I don’t want to give the impression that I sat around contemplating these ideas, because I don’t intellectualize about or analyze my stories. That just doesn’t work for me. I write my way through them, with a little reasoning here and there and in the revision process.
Q: “You will be a bridge between two cultures,” Iris is told in “Chosen,” as she and her husband ﬂy back to Florida. There, she resumes her speech therapy classes and introduces Lu and Wangrit to baseball and other things American, but is she acting as that bridge? Did you intend to leave the end of the story somewhat open for your readers?
A: For me, she is acting as that bridge, but being bound in Iris’s culture, we don’t fully comprehend how that is happening, what her example and her words mean to Lu and Wangrit, the Tibetan messengers. We get the ﬁrst hint of Iris acting as that bridge earlier in the story, when she addresses the multitudes in Dharamsala. You may recall that she wonders why Lu’s translation of her one-sentence remark is so lengthy. Is he embroidering on it? Creating a context for it? More pointedly, at the end of the story, when Lu and Wangrit are living with Iris, and Lu debriefs her at the end of each day, he is ﬁnding plenty to record in his lotus-paper notebook. From the beginning, Lu and Wangrit have been assuring Iris that she doesn’t have to think she is wise to be wise. You could explain this apparent contradiction in a couple of ways. First, it is possible to extract deep meaning from simple acts and words. Second, Lu and Wangrit are listening to and observing Iris with different ears and eyes. It’s a bit like reading poetry in translation. What we glean from a T’ang dynasty poem by Li Po or from a Rilke sonnet may not be what the poet’s contemporaries grasped or even what the poet intended, but in my estimation that doesn’t matter much. Like readers, Lu and Wangrit are looking for meaning, for signiﬁcance, for signposts that point the way. So Iris’s words and deeds are weighted heavily in favor of signiﬁcance from the get-go, and things that she takes for granted and wouldn’t consider especially wise may carry profound meaning for the Tibetans.
Q: My favorite story in the book is “Rapture.” The writing is gorgeous, and though there is a very strong narrative thread, it has virtually no plot. Almost nothing happens! Yet I was very sad when I got to the end and realized there was no hope of rescuing Janet, the main character. How did you come to develop this unusual narrative technique?
A: I wanted to write a story that conveyed a character’s life in a short format with very little connective tissue between lyrical passages. We’ve all heard that when you are dying your whole life ﬂashes before your eyes, but obviously there wouldn’t be time for your whole life, so instead, maybe just a few disconnected patches would zoom by. I thought the strictures of this form would help to nip in the bud any tendency to be maudlin, which I was concerned about because I’d never killed off a character before. Janet’s death is a result of nitrogen narcosis. To complicate things, a prescription drug she has taken ampliﬁes the euphoria that is the ﬁrst and most insidious symptom of nitrogen narcosis, or “rapture of the deep.” She becomes intoxicated at a shallower depth than she would have without this drug concentrated in her blood. When I explain it afterward like this, it sounds so premeditated. Initially, I didn’t even connect the title “Rapture” to rapture of the deep, which is not unusual for me since I am always writing out of what I don’t know, what mystiﬁes me. In this case, I knew the technique and outcome of the story beforehand, but not the details of Janet’s life.
Q: It’s obvious that you’re comfortable writing about women and their dilemmas. We see one woman, Sheila, right after her divorce in “The Other Mother,” and another, Janet, who is on the verge of divorce in “Rapture.” I have to say that I see Sheila as rather helpless. And in fact, I wonder about “Rapture”– why does Janet let herself be taken by the Cayman Trench?
A: Sheila is resourceful, even spunky, and is fashioning a new identity for herself as so many people have done after a divorce or death or other big shift in their lives. There is nothing in the story to suggest that she will fail. As for Janet in “Rapture,” I don’t think she “lets herself be taken by the Cayman Trench.” But then why, you ask, did she forget to list the drug she takes for her panic disorder? My guess is that she simply forgot. But if you subscribe to the idea that there are no accidents, then you could probably make the case that there is something else afoot in the story. That’s one of the wonderful things about ﬁction for me as a reader and a writer: once these characters come to life, they have the complexity of real human beings and resist being completely transparent. So, there is room for discussion about this, and you could make the case that there is a degree of volition involved in Janet’s death. But I don’t want to make that case.
Q: A lot of the men in these stories are cads. Can you explain the difference in your approach to male characters versus the intense and loving scrutiny you give to the women, even to the charming miscreant Garland, who appears in two stories?
A: With the exception of Clarence in “Sweethearts” and David in “The Summer of Questions,” I think the men in the stories are pretty regular fellows. I bring the same scrutiny to all of my characters, but these stories happen to be about the women, who are just as imperfect as the men. None of them are idealized. I suppose this perception depends on how you see their shortcomings. For example, in my view, just because a couple gets divorced after thirty years doesn’t mean their whole marriage was a wreck. So Claude in “Laws of Nature,” for example, is no villain. He just can’t deal with Helen’s transformation and he is scared. He does the thing that he is afraid will be done to him.
Q: In “Sweethearts” and in “Fill in the Blank,” Garland breaks the law. She commits robbery, and of course she shoplifts. Earlier, she committed arson. In “The Other Mother” you have another instance of law-breaking, and this time it’s far more serious than any of Garland’s misdeeds. Do these crimes hold a special fascination for you?
A: No, but I did begin to wonder if a person could slide into crime sideways, which is how I suspect it must happen for some people. With Garland, I wanted to explore how a gutsy young woman who intends no harm could fall into the habit of wrongdoing for reasons that have nothing to do with being attracted to crime. I knew she was scarred by the death of her mother. For example, without being aware of it, she believes that, like her mother, she, too, will die young. Often people hold beliefs or make assumptions they are unaware of. I mean, isn’t that the big insight of more than a century of psychology– that human beings are not cognizant or in control of their emotions and often act without understanding their motives? This is nothing new, but it is profound. The recognition that the unconscious mind is a vast labyrinth that is difﬁcult to access is Freud’s biggest contribution to our understanding of human nature. One reason I love the Greek tragedies is that they show us in a beautiful and thrilling way that even when people are warned of what they will do, as Oedipus is, it doesn’t help. Because we can’t untangle our own motives, we are constantly surprised by our emotional responses to events. We may be convinced that we understand other people’s motives and behavior, but frequently our theories turn out to be ediﬁces of self-serving baloney. And our own transgressions can be just as mysterious.
Q: We never meet “the other mother” in the story of that name. Did you think about possibly developing her story side by side with Sheila’s?
A: No, I never considered writing from the biological mother’s viewpoint. I left her vague intentionally. I wanted her to be a sad and mysterious presence haunting Sheila’s world. There’s only one description of her, invented by Sheila. She is sitting at a table with her back to Sheila, “her body sagging in a series of interrupted curves.” Other than recoiling in pain at the thought of her plight, like Sheila, I don’t know any particulars about “the other mother.” Maybe she’ll appear in a future story.
Q: We’re longtime friends and we’re very comfortable sharing poems and stories and neither of us sees a sharp demarcation between genres. In other words, we agree that writing is seamless. Do you think we’re in the minority with this notion?
A: Perhaps. I know of many writers who would disagree. Worse yet, when they hear a statement like you just made, they misinterpret it to mean that we are saying that poetry and ﬁction are the same. I don’t believe that at all! Poetry and ﬁction are distinctly different. But for me, writing ﬁction or poetry or nonﬁction is all part of the same thing–making art. When I teach as a visiting writer or at a conference, I am always surprised at the small number of students who sign up for courses outside their genre. I ﬁnd it shocking when prose writers tell me they don’t read poetry or vice versa, as if two different languages were involved, as if one wrote ﬁction in English and poetry in Polish. To me, that’s like saying that the backstroke and the freestyle aren’t both swimming. It’s all swimming and it’s all writing.
Q: Have you been able to move out of a story in progress and into a poem and back? For me it’s often a relief to move out of one form and into another, and I go back refreshed.
A: Yes, that has happened frequently. Each gives tang to the other, like a good pickle. Writing poetry also helps to keep my prose concise. Most of all, poetry teaches the power of imagery, which for me is the heart of good writing. Metaphor can grasp and convey subtleties and essences that reason and logic can’t touch.
Q: I like “Sweethearts.” The description of Garland going upriver seemed very real to me. It gave me goose bumps to read about her motoring up there all alone at night with her dog. The Southern rivers are scarier than our Yankee rivers. I like the fact, too, that she sees an opening and takes the initiative and drives her enemies off into the night. But her boyfriend is a scumbag. And her father . . . there’s another unhappy man who has failed in his life. How do you view male/female relationships?
A: Though I haven’t always been lucky, I suppose I’m still a romantic! I think there are things about her father, Eastman, that Garland doesn’t absorb or appreciate. For example, he gives her a gold necklace that belonged to her mother. For a man who is still in mourning, still clinging to the memory of his dead wife, it’s enormously important that he gives this relic to his daughter, thereby afﬁrming his love for her. But Garland doesn’t get it, isn’t moved by it. He isn’t a perfect parent, but who is? He’s struggling. He’s never recovered from the death of his wife and he’s cowed by his willful, rebellious daughter.
Q: Are any of these stories autobiographical in whole or in part? How much do you write out of your own experience?
A: “Crash Course” is the most autobiographical story in the book. I had an automobile accident like the one in the story. Soon after, I tried to interest the New York Times in an essay about the incident, but the editor I queried said, “Oh, another drug dealer who’ll be dead by the age of thirty. Nobody wants to read that again.” That broke my heart and I determined to write the story as ﬁction. It’s probably a better medium for it anyway. I don’t often write ﬁction directly from my own experience, but there are cannibalized bits of my life in the stories. For example, I once worked in an all-female bookkeeping department similar to the one in “The Summer of Questions.” While living in southwest Florida for nearly two years, I was appalled by the ferocity of land development there and I used that stance for the character Helen in “Laws of Nature.” The imagination is powerful, it is godlike, but it can’t invent everything from whole cloth, so I also do research to furnish the speciﬁc details that create authenticity. It drives me crazy to ﬁnd a factual error when I’m reading ﬁction. It ruins the illusion. For “Chosen,” I researched Tibet and Tibetan Buddhism. In creating the character Frieda in “Tourist Season,” I drew upon knowledge of the Women’s Airforce Service Pilots (WASP) that I’d accumulated in writing a poem-biography of the WASP founder, Jacqueline Cochran My stories are always a synthesis of imagination, research, and my own experience.
Q: I think you depict older women very successfully. Where do these portrayals of older women come from?
A: I’m not quite sure. I simply became interested in them, and older men, too, maybe because, as Helen says in “Laws of Nature,” at a certain point, people become invisible. As more of us live longer, I think we’ll be hearing a lot about older women and men. They will move from the edges to the center of stories. Also, I’m past the half-century mark myself, so I’m becoming more personally aware of these issues. Now that we are talking about age, I bet older women are underrepresented in ﬁction, but I wasn’t trying to address that.
Q: Undoubtedly they are. And that may be what makes older women characters more interesting to read about. You also seem very much at home differentiating between the concerns of younger women and older women, and perhaps we notice the differences more because the collection has women of all ages. Garland and Riva are both young, about twenty. Iris and Janet and Sheila are in their forties and ﬁfties, and then there are much older women, like Frieda and Helen, who are in their sixties and seventies. Did you make a decision to include stories about women of all ages, and if so, why?
A: It’s interesting that the age of the women keeps coming up when people talk to me about this collection, since not all the women in the book are old, as you rightly point out. Despite the range of ages, I guess the overall impression is not of ingenues. I was pleased when I realized that there were characters from nearly every decade of life. I added a couple of stories to strengthen that balance. You know, there’s a new axiom being touted widely that “sixty is the new forty.” That’s part of the recognition that with longevity, people can continue to lead interesting lives. The paradigm of a life is no longer birth/adventure-ﬁlled youth/marriage/death. There’s a huge space opening up between “marriage” and “death” and that’s where most of us are now located, and perhaps our literature is beginning to reﬂect that. I once read the most telling statistic: up until the twentieth century, nine out of ten novels ever written ended with a marriage, everything from the classics by Jane Austen and Charlotte Bront‘, to formulaic bodice-rippers. But these days, it’s almost as if people get to live more than one lifetime. Many people have two or three careers, multiple marriages, blended families. It will be exciting, I think, to get that retrospective, longer view in ﬁction. It will be a new category of wisdom, a new ﬂavor of it, if you will.
Q: I love the ambition and reach of “The Hottest Spot on Earth”; you combine pornography with civil disobedience, rivalry between your women protagonists with social commentary on the mass destruction brought about by nuclear explosions. The depiction of the nuclear resisters being arrested over and over makes a statement that readers can interpret on their own. Is this a futile gesture or a necessary brave one? And then we are in Patricia’s head as she ponders what insight she can take from this day. She considers the possibility of an article titled “Who Protests for Pornography?” For me, this epitomized the shallowness of trying to invent a scholarly thesis from the whole porn industry, and I laughed out loud. How seriously did you take the Slash writers’ convention, and where did you get the germ for it?
A: “The Hottest Spot on Earth” grew out of a lecture I attended on Slash pornography. Before then, I didn’t know that Slash existed. Around the same time, I taught a poetry workshop in Las Vegas and was struck by the great smorgasbord of people I encountered there. I thought Las Vegas would be the perfect setting for a Slash convention. Contrast and contradiction were the delights for me in writing this story–between the two women, between the protesters and the pornographers, the feminism of Dr. Warde and her seductive, ultra-feminine wardrobe, and so on. I enjoy cultural collisions and disconnects. A while back I read somewhere that a pasture was mistakenly rented out for a Renaissance fair and a Civil War battle reenactment on the same weekend. I loved the thought of that, of women wearing wimples bumping up against soldiers in blue and gray. I love the idea of people pursuing their idiosyncratic passions and I take them very seriously. This includes Trekkies at Star Trek conventions, toy train collectors, orchid fanciers and dog agility teams, scholarly societies, and clubs that study Depression glass. All these allegiances are enriching. Maybe they contribute to American society being well-ventilated and susceptible to new ideas.
Q: I laughed out loud many times in reading your book. How do you account for the humor?
A: Sometimes the humor really takes me by surprise, because I approach every story with such seriousness of purpose. I remember the ﬁrst time I read a story aloud. At one point I had to pause to wait for the audience to ﬁnish laughing. “What?” I thought to myself. “This funeral scene is funny?” I almost never sit down thinking, Now I am going to write a funny story. Humor ﬁnds its way organically into some stories and that, I think, is when it’s best.
Q: What are you working on now?
A: I’m writing a historical novel, set in Egypt in 1849. Florence Nightingale and Gustave Flaubert are the protagonists. Though they never met that we know of in real life, they both set sail down the Nile on the same day and followed identical itineraries. Imagine the possibilities!
1. A strong sense of place has traditionally been important in Southern ﬁction. What role does the state of Florida play in this collection? Can you imagine these stories taking place in another part of the country?
2. What makes these stories especially modern in your view? Why couldn’t Tourist Season have been written ﬁfty years ago?
3. Shomer’s stories have been described as both poignant and humorous. How would you characterize the humor and how is it connected to the serious drama?
4. In “Chosen,” Iris Hornstein travels to Tibet to don the mantle of a reincarnated Buddhist saint. Can you imagine this happening to anyone you know? What does this story suggest about religion?
5. In “The Other Mother,” Sheila learns the true story behind Royal’s adoption when Royal is nearly an adult. How do you think Sheila would have reacted if she had learned the truth when Royal was much younger?
6. What impels Garland McKenney, the protagonist of both “Fill In the Blank” and “Sweethearts,” to commit her crimes? What do you think might prevent her in the future?
7. In the story “Tourist Season,” what do you think Frieda means when she tells Milt, “We’re both like Knoblock”? How would you characterize Frieda and Milt’s marriage? How does Frieda’s work as a Women’s Airforce Service Pilot affect her life and their relationship?
8. In “Rapture” we learn that Janet “hardly ever referred to herself as an artist or to her work as art,” yet her show tours the South and is featured in an important art magazine. How do you explain this discrepancy? Do you think it is related to her fate?
9. “The Hottest Spot on Earth” alternates between two points of view, which is rare in a short story. Why do you think the author chose this technique rather than tell the story from a single viewpoint? What pulls Jill and Patricia together and what pushes them apart?
10. A key aspect of “Sweethearts” is Garland’s relationship to Carlene, the housekeeper. What role does race play in this story?
11. How would you describe Abby Presner’s behavior toward the unnamed young man in “Crash Course”? Why do you think she doesn’t get frightened until after the incident?
12. In “The Summer of Questions,” Riva unravels secrets she hadn’t even suspected existed. What mysteries does she solve and which remain? At the end of the story Alma says, “When you’re not being beautiful, make trouble.” What would Riva’s likely response to this be?
13. Do you believe that Helen in “Laws of Nature” is actually becoming younger, or did you read this story as a metaphor or fable? What do you think the author intended? Which other stories address the aging process?
14. What role do marriage and work play in these stories? In which stories are the two at war with each other, and in which do they coexist more happily? If you are married, what is the relationship between marriage and work in your own life?
15. The women in Tourist Season range from seventeen to over seventy. What differences do you see between the younger and the older protagonists? What do they have in common? Why do you think the author chose to include women of such a wide age range in the same collection?
16. If you could be any of the women in these stories, which would you choose? Which character did you most closely identify with?
17. Iris in “Chosen,” Sheila in “The Other Mother,” Garland in “Sweethearts,” and Helen in “Laws of Nature” all leave their old lives behind and ﬁnd new ones. Do the catalysts for change come from within the women, or does environment or circumstance effect the need for change? What do you think might cause you to change your own life so drastically?
18. In what ways are the characters in these stories all tourists in their own lives?