The third volume of The Masters Review, with stories selected by Lev Grossman, is available now. To celebrate, we’re conducting interviews with the ten wonderful emerging authors it features. In Diana Xin’s story “Someone Else,” a couple moves in together for the first time. But everything, from the dead animal they find on the porch to the otherworldly actress who lives downstairs, is infused with an eerie quality. In this interview, Diana Xin talks about Kelly Link, the importance of place, and the inspiration for this story.
“Juliet explained that after she had come home from an advertising gig a few days before, she found all of their spoons lined up in a row along the countertop. George had not done it, and she certainly hadn’t. Yet there they were, the spoons all in a row.”
Your story, “Someone Else,” is set in Chicago, and it includes a clear sense of and love for place. I know that you lived in Chicago, yourself, and I’m wondering: to what extent was the story inspired by the city?
I started writing this story about two years after leaving Chicago, and while it was one of the first cities I came to know and love, I knew then that I was not interested in moving back. I suppose, for me, the city represents another relationship that is coming to an end. I was very happy incorporating some of my favorite places, describing the neighborhoods I had loved, and setting the story in a duplex very similar to two places where I had lived. I don’t think the story was necessarily inspired by the setting, but it is one of my first pieces to feature geography and place more prominently, and I hope that more stories will come out of the places I’ve been able to explore. It does seem, at times, that certain landscapes speak to us and evoke various characters and voices, in different levels of vividness. I’ve also had stories that I’ve been working on for years that perhaps never had a clear or well defined setting, and then one day I visit a new place, and I realize, oh, this is where that story lives. After that, the story gains this completely new energy. Setting can do so much for tone, and with research, it can add a lot for context and plot as well.
You also do a great job of portraying a deteriorating relationship between two young people, Holly and Sean. How did you build this relationship between two fictional characters?
I started writing this story at the final ending of a relationship that had many false endings. The relationship had gone on almost five years, and it had become like a body dead on the floor that came to life and grabbed your ankle as soon as you had one foot out the door. It wasn’t a bad relationship, just one that had no staying power. We cared about each other a lot, but never enough. Writing this story became a way for me to remember the relationship and to acknowledge its ending. I wouldn’t say that it’s biographical, but there is a lot of me in it, at least from one aspect of one period of my life. I think that’s usually how most stories work.
I really admire the way that “Someone Else” hints at supernatural elements, but doesn’t go overboard. I find several of its passages deeply unsettling, and I mean that as a compliment. What was your approach here? How did you conceive of and view elements such as the mysterious dead animal, the claw marks, and Juliet’s otherworldliness?
Thank you! I thought of this story for a long time as my haunted house story, inspired by Kelly Link’s “Stone Animals.” I wanted the house to speak for the relationship. Although the duplex looks great on the surface, there is something off about it that neither of them can really verbalize. That was the starting point. I went many directions from there. In the first few drafts, the supernatural sort of took over. Parallel dimensions, eyes glowing in the trees, all kinds of crazy stuff happened. Exciting, but it didn’t feel like the story I was trying to write. In the end, I borrowed from real life more than I typically do. The dead animal my ex found on his deck seemed like an appropriate image for readers encountering the story and for Holly and Sean encountering their new home. His neighbors, who had complained about their furniture being rearranged in their absence, were people I had always wanted to write about, though I’d never actually met them. In the final draft, I tried to stick with the ordinary but imbue that with a sense of unease.
How long did it take you to write “Someone Else”? How many drafts did it go through?
About two and a half years. Slightly less than the amount of time it took to complete the breakup.
What are some of your all-time favorite short stories?
“No One’s a Mystery” by Elizabeth Tallent was one of the first stories assigned to me in a fiction class. I love introducing it to students and other readers. Mary Robison’s “Yours” is heartbreaking and brief. I’ve read Stuart Dybek’s “We Didn’t” out loud to more than one listener.
What is your writing routine (time/place/etc.)?
I’ve been trying to figure out my writing routine for a long time. I used to be more strict about hours and word counts and pages, but I try to go easier on myself now. I write when I have a flow of ideas and when I have time to write. Some days, or weeks, things come up, or the writing itself becomes stilted and dry, so I let it go and work on other life things. In a way, this goes against what I’ve been taught and it can feel like I’m not working hard enough, but it’s important for me to keep writing pleasurable. I do still make goals and deadlines, and I take stock of how much I am getting done each month. When I’m working on a shorter piece, I try to be more relentless about writing every day until I reach an ending or a new vision for the next draft. When I’m really stuck and not writing much, I read poetry. It reignites my love of language.
You just earned your MFA from the University of Montana. What was your experience there? What do you think makes the University of Montana different from other programs?
There was one afternoon during my second year, when the snow was beginning to thaw and I was walking across campus, and I thought, “I made the best decision. This is exactly the place I needed to be.” MFA programs are wonderful for the time you get to dedicate to writing and the relationships you build with peers and professors. Missoula was a wonderful small town for writing, with a supportive literary community and so many beautiful, natural places to get lost in. And of course, great local bars, breweries, and a distillery. There is a sense of escape in that you don’t have to be in constant competition with the noise around you, and you get to slow down, be reflective, experiment, learn. And finally, the people. They’re amazing. I think the program at Montana has always placed great emphasis on community, and so there is a generally warm and accepting atmosphere. Everyone is invested in each other’s work and truly excited for the publications and successes. I’ve been very grateful to leave the program with friends and professors I can reach out to for draft exchanges and writing advice.
Interviewed by Sadye Teiser