Sara Majka on Finding the Distance to Write a Story

In the linked stories of Sara Majka’s beautifully crafted and quietly moving debut collection, Cities I’ve Never Lived In (Graywolf/A Public Space, 2015), a New England woman moves through cities and relationships as she attempts to recollect herself after a divorce. At times somber and at times subtly wry, the stories offer honest glimpses into a life in transition as the narrator collects stories, meets strangers in need, and tries to make sense of her own memories. Rather than a traditional narrative of healing or hope, the book offers an honest and intimate portrayal of what it’s like to be alone and unmoored, seeking faith or something like it, in an unstable world where people and places don’t always stay the way we left them. Majka’s stories gently remind us that we take our preoccupations with us wherever we go as we follow the narrator to vividly rendered places from the shoreline towns of Maine to small islands, from decaying Midwestern cities to Greenpoint by the BQE. The prose is lucid and spare, with crystalline moments of gut-punching insight on every page.

Sara took a few moments off from new motherhood to meet me at a café in Queens, where we talked about writing from life, how to open up creative territory, the light in Provincetown, and more.

Rebecca Worby: A lot of the book takes place around New England and in New York. You grew up in New England and moved around a lot, and you live in Queens now. What’s your relationship with the places in the book?

Sara Majka: I started the book when I was married and living in Maine. I had lived in Maine for a very short time when I was little, but I hadn’t really gone back. My husband at the time was teaching for a year, and I spent a lot of time on the Maine coast.

I don’t use the word “inspired” very much — I don’t really love that word — but I actually was. I felt it was a real change moment for me, living in Maine again, and something about the coastline there, and I started to write the stories that are set in Portland. Then I think once I started to move around more, it was natural to set some stories in New York, too. But I do think that year in Maine started the collection. It was something I would always go back to.

RW: Do you find that you like to write about a place while you’re in it, or is it easier to be someplace else?

SM: I think it tends to be when I’m living there. Once I moved from Maine maybe I wrote about it for another year, and then I didn’t again. Once I’m in a place, it’s going to at some point find its way into a story.

RW: So that’s not something you shy away from, taking from whatever’s happening?

SM: Oh no. Yeah, I take a lot. It feels really unnatural to me not to.

RW: The blurb on the back of the book says you’re “riding the line between fact and fiction,” so where is that line?

SM: It’s a hard thing to talk about. I find I’m very comfortable using myself, but I’m not comfortable with using events and people in my life. So I tend to make most of the people up and all the events that happen, but I use myself a lot. I think that’s where I draw that line.

RW: It’s different to take from your own life rather than from the lives of others, and it’s hard not to touch other people’s lives when you’re doing that.

SM: It’s something I’ve thought a lot about. A lot of the authors that I’m interested in do that: Knausgaard obviously, and Ben Lerner, and Sebald. I’ve read a lot of them talking about their relation to using themselves, and I haven’t quite established how I answer that for myself.

RW: The narrator of your book, Anne, grapples with the same thing. In the title story, she talks about how artists use people’s lives in their work, and how they’re “taking” from them. Was that something you were trying to work out in the book?

SM: I think I was trying to work out what I was doing in that story. Some of the stories are completely fictional, but that story was not — I did take that trip, and I did write up most of the events that happened. I think I was trying to think about that because I would meet people and listen to them, but I was listening to them knowing that I was going to write about it, which is uncomfortable. And I realized that I have always done that: listened, not necessarily because I’m going to write somebody up, but just because I’m curious about their personality, or to learn about why they do what they do. And that’s kind of an uncomfortable explanation for being a good listener, you know? [laughs]

RW: I think all writers do it, whether you’re writing fiction or nonfiction. You’re always listening with an ear for what you might use in some way.

SM: Yeah, and I don’t even know if it’s that cut-and-dry. I think I just do it naturally; it’s not like, oh, I’m going to listen this person’s story because it might make a good story. I guess writers have temperaments where we’re just curious. And we want to always get to the bottom of something or someone. I think that’s what I’m uncomfortable with: a habit of trying to get to the bottom of someone.

RW: That’s a habit which the narrator also very much has. She likes mysteries; she likes stories of people who are lost or leaving each other and she’s always trying to figure out why. Why do you think the narrator is drawn to those kinds of stories?

…when you write in a more personal way, to answer a question like that, you end up having to answer questions about yourself.

SM: I think all the ones in the collection are made up, but I’m using my habit of liking to do that in my own life. Of course when you write in a more personal way, to answer a question like that, you end up having to answer questions about yourself. But I’m sure it’s from my childhood. I did move a lot, a lot, a lot when I was a little girl.

RW: There is a sense throughout all of the stories of impermanence of places and people that comes up in all different ways. I feel like the geography of the book reflects that.

SM: My guess has always been how much I moved must’ve been confusing on some level that stayed with me. It was from when I was zero to four that we moved most, so I don’t have memories of it, but my guess is I’m left with a sense of it, and I keep going back to that.

RW: It’s so clear to the reader from the beginning that these stories go together. At what point did you know you had a linked collection?

SM: It wasn’t until the end when I was editing it as a whole collection. I was afraid of pushing it to be a linked collection so it would be more sellable, so I resisted doing it until I realized it felt natural to have it linked. Once I did that, I wrote the last two stories really fast, and that helped me know that it felt linked, too.

RW: The stories are chronological, and they’re all told from the same remove: it’s been ten or eleven years since Anne’s divorce. The phrase “back then” shows up a lot, and you really get the sense that the character is looking back. That really worked for me because it felt accurate to the way that people think about their own lives and their memories.

It’s a trick that comes from fairy tales, I think. It shrinks down the window; it creates enough distance.

SM: I find it opens up writing for me if I just write that sentence, like “back then,” or “back during the time of…” It could be something that happened yesterday, but by putting it ten years ago, I find for some reason it opens up some sort of creative territory. It removes it and makes it so that you can start telling a story. It’s a trick that comes from fairy tales, I think. It shrinks down the window; it creates enough distance.

RW: I first read the title story when it was on Longreads. I loved it on its own, but then it was a really different experience to read it within the context of book. In this story, the narrator is traveling, so that felt like kind of climax to me: that whatever she’s been looking for, now she’s more actively seeking it. How do you see that story fitting into the collection?

SM: I see it as an anomaly because it is nonfiction. I was traveling and I wrote about it, and I thought it fit the collection well, which was not the same process as the other stories.

There’s a podcast with three people reviewing that story online, and I’ve only listened to a little bit of it. They liked it, they were interested in it, but they found it really sad. And they said they would read more of my work, but then they said they realized a collection of that could be really sad, and I think someone said “I would kill myself” and then I stopped listening.

RW: I don’t really think any of the stories are — sad seems like too simple a word to describe them. My main feeling reading the stories was safe.

SM: Oh, that’s nice.

RW: I felt really comfortable with the narrator, and even when she was sad or alone, she was very aware about it, and her — or your — attention to detail was really comforting on some level. There are certain things that have stuck with me, like even when she’s in a sort of sad-sounding apartment, I remember that she was eating hard-boiled eggs and jarred olives. That doesn’t sound like a happy thing to do, but somehow just knowing that and being able to see that makes it less lonely.

SM: I like the word “comforting.”

RW: I think I got a lot of that, too, from the way light is used in the book. There’s a lot of attention to light.

SM: I think that just comes from my being really aware of it. It’s similar to writing about Maine because I’m in Maine: it’s just something I’m aware of so it finds its way into the stories.

RW: There’s a part when Anne and her mother go to see an art exhibit about light in Provincetown, and it’s nowhere near as good as just being outside and seeing it.

I don’t think you could write about Provincetown and not write about the light…

SM: Have you been to Provincetown? The light is crazy there. I was a fellow at the Provincetown Fine Arts Work Center. My parents have retired on the Cape, and I’m mostly from the Cape, but I’m from the part near the bridge, so I didn’t know how different living seven months in Provincetown would be. In the winter, the light is really something. I don’t think you could write about Provincetown and not write about the light, even if you weren’t a real light person like me.

RW: You kind of have to notice it?

SM: Yeah, you have to notice it; there’s nothing else to notice in the winter. There is nothing there! All the shops close, and there are really like ten people there, so you just notice the light.

RW: There’s a lot in the book about longing for a child. Have you reread any of that since having one, and does it feel different now?

SM: I haven’t reread those parts. When I wrote the book I was in my late thirties, and I think that just is something else that seeped in. I mean, now I’m showing up to my readings with this little baby after writing about how much I wanted a baby.

RW: It’s like the most concrete version of what anyone’s trying to do in writing. You’re working through your own desires; it’s just it doesn’t usually result in —

SM: A baby.

RW: Yeah.

SM: I think at the time I was really aware that I wanted a baby and wasn’t sure that I’d be able to have one, and I wrote about that a little bit in the book but not a lot because it felt so personal. Now that I have one, I feel more comfortable writing about it.

It’s funny, the book is about a longing for a little girl, and now I have a boy, which — thank goodness, you know? One doesn’t want to become their stories.

Sara Majka will be teaching a six-week workshop — “Writing out of Desperation” — on Tuesdays between March 15 and April 16, co-sponsored by Catapult and Electric Literature. Applications are now open.

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