The fifth volume of our anthology publishes on October 1st and will be available for preorder tomorrow. To celebrate its launch, we are interviewing each of the ten authors who appear in the collection. In the opening story, “We Were The Drowners,” a group of young swimmers deals with cancer and the risk of an emerging cluster. Author Josie Sigler discusses how her idea for the piece came about and some of the challenges she faced while writing it. “I knew I needed to write a scene where the narrator’s sense of her own basic decency would be up against her wish to survive, regardless of what happened to anyone else.”
We always like to ask our authors: what inspired the idea for your story and how long did it take to develop? Did you outline first, do research, etc.?
I wrote the first draft of this story a few weeks into my Margery Davis Boyden Wilderness Residency, during which I lived for six months on a remote homestead near the Rogue River in Oregon. I had recently learned that my beloved cousin, who had survived cancer in high school, had just been diagnosed again. Many people in my family have had cancer, and while it could be argued that we are genetically predisposed, we also grew up in Downriver Detroit—literally downriver from plants that dumped their waste into the water for the better part of a century. People drink that water, but they also spend their summers in it, especially kids. The pool in my grandmother’s neighborhood had a magical aura, seemed our own separate world, and I wanted to draw the reader in with that setting, and let the cancer cluster emerge slowly, so the revelation would occur at the same time for the reader and the narrator. Although I didn’t have an outline, soon into drafting I had envisioned the final scene and was writing toward it. Because my dad is the youngest of seven, most of my cousins are older than me, and not only represented the essence of endless cool when I was a kid, but helped take care of me and taught me so much. I wanted the story to be about people like them, to be a tribute in a sense, so I set the story slightly before my own time as a teenager. Despite this, I didn’t have to do much research, which was lucky, since there is no internet at the Boyden Residency. The first draft of Drowners, driven by grief and an acute sense of injustice, came within a few days.
In “We Were The Drowners,” a group of swimmers deals with their friend’s cancer. But the story is also a coming-of-age piece about balancing personal needs against what’s best for others. For example, when the narrator learns she isn’t a bone marrow match for her friend, she thinks: “How I lay in my bed feeling a rush of relief because I wouldn’t have to offer up the wing of my personal ilium for the drilling.” What challenges did you face in writing this piece? What kind of decisions were you faced with in writing in the voice of a young narrator dealing with such an adult moral conflict?
Despite how easily the story came, I put it away for a few years. Initially, the teenage drama didn’t seem nuanced enough for the heavier stuff, and I couldn’t figure out what to have Jim do once he’d made his discovery. I wanted him to fight for his swimmers and win, but I feared that was a utopian impulse that wouldn’t be true to the situation, and I knew it would not lead to the kind of subtle apex that graces most short stories that see the light of day. When I learned of the water crisis in Flint, I pulled the draft out. Although what’s happening in Flint is specific, especially as a case of environmental racism, I wanted people to understand that Flint also belongs on a long list of cases in which irresponsible management in Michigan has endangered people’s lives, made living them way harder. Certainly the moment for non-subtle apexes regarding this topic had arrived. In my second draft, I tried to create depth by better juxtaposing the reason the girls don’t want to get in the water and the reason Jim doesn’t want them to—I realized Jim could be quite dramatic in his feelings as long as his discovery was situated in the right place in the narrator’s coming-of-age trajectory that centers on her friends and the pool.
The apparent moral conflict is that while the narrator has stolen Charity’s boyfriend, she isn’t as cruel as the other girls are, and she doesn’t turn out to be a marrow match, so she can think of herself as a good, unselfish person without much sacrifice. But I’m all for getting past the apparent conflict, down past the marrow. I knew I needed to write a scene where the narrator’s sense of her own basic decency would be up against her wish to survive, regardless of what happened to anyone else. That scene is the one where Jim explains to her that the very idea of a cancer cluster means she’s at risk, too. And she realizes that she’s been decent, in part, because she believes it will keep her safe. And she feels cheated. But until she is faced with that, she can’t connect with the fear that actually helps her to understand even a portion of what Charity and Linda are going through.
In what ways is this story similar to (or different from) your other writing? What are you working on now?
Everything I write feels very different to me from everything else, especially because I also write poetry and nonfiction. I have written a lot of stories with young narrators growing up in Michigan. But I think the humor in many of those pieces is far more muted than it is here. This narrator has a lot of social privilege—she is living in suburbia with two parents and thus has the luxury of engaging in teenaged drama; many of my stories in The Galaxie and Other Rides are about people far more disenfranchised by the poverty that’s prevalent in the part of Michigan where I grew up. Right now I am mostly working on a novel set in Rome during World War II, among other projects, as I rarely stick to just one. I am also working on a memoir about my time spent at the aforementioned residency in Oregon.
What are some of your favorite stories?
There are so many stories that have affected me, but to name just a few: “Ghostless” by Ann Pancake, “The Cariboo Cafe” by Helena Maria Viramontes, “Scarliotti and the Sinkhole” by Padgett Powell, “River of Names” by Dorothy Allison, “America” by Chinelo Okparanta, “The End of the Line” by Aimee Bender, “The Shawl” by Cynthia Ozick, “Kindness” by Yiyun Li, “Refresh, Refresh” by Ben Percy, “The Babylon Lottery” by Borges, “Cell One” by Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie, “The Toughest Indian in the World” by Sherman Alexie, “Sea Oak” by George Saunders, “Bloodchild” by Octavia Butler, “Emergency” by Denis Johnson, “Edge Boys” by Charles McLeod, “Tom & Jerry” by Christie Hodgen, “Everything Ravaged, Everything Burned” by Wells Tower, “The Caretaker” by Anthony Doerr, “The Cartographers” by Alexander Weinstein, “The Depth of All Things” by Lillian Crutchfield, “The Two” by Gloria Naylor.
You won an NEA Fellowship for Prose in 2014 and your story collection The Galaxie and Other Rides won the Ruby Pickens Tartt First Fiction Award in 2012. You’ve won a Barthleme Prize for fiction, the Motherwell Prize for poetry, and numerous artists’ residencies. It’s an impressive start to a bright career. Which of these achievements meant the most to you and how did it (if at all) affect your work?
All of these things have been enormous for me—I’ve been so fortunate to have been given such generous gifts of time, space, and money to write. It’s impossible to weigh them comparatively. What’s really been lovely is how various opportunities have come together to give me such an amazing writing life. While the NEA allowed me to focus solely on writing, the people at the Sitka Center for Art and Ecology became family and willing readers of my rough drafts so I never felt isolated. During my Millay Colony residency I put a skeleton to the story I’d dreamed up for my novel, but I wrote the actual first thru-draft at The Studios of Key West. While winning the Tartt showed me people were interested in my realist Michigan stories, the vote of confidence from Fence encouraged me to write the kind of poetry I really wanted to write, and winning the Barthelme let me know I should keep on with the short experimental pieces. The Elizabeth George and James Jones Fellowships allowed me to travel and do hands-on research for the novel. I can only hope that I’m doing a good enough job of paying the encouragement I’ve received forward.
Josie Sigler is the author of The Galaxie and Other Rides, a collection of stories about growing up in post-industrial Detroit, and a book of poems, living must bury, which won the Motherwell Prize and was published by Fence Books. Josie completed a PEN Northwest Margery Davis Boyden Wilderness Residency, in which a writer lives for a six months on a remote homestead above Rogue River in southern Oregon’s Klamath Mountains; this is where the story included here was drafted. Josie has received a National Endowment for the Arts Literature Fellowship and an Elizabeth George Foundation Grant. The draft of her first novel recently won the James Jones First Novel Fellowship.