Grim Realities Meet Magic And Absurdity In 'The Wrong Heaven'
AILSA CHANG, HOST:
In the collection of short stories called "The Wrong Heaven," grim realities meet magic and absurdity. The stories are all about women wrestling with familiar dilemmas - love, death, friendship, fertility. But these familiar journeys play out in surreal worlds where a woman can turn into a horse, Jesus and Mary lawn ornaments come to life and an angel of death can tell a dying woman she's sexy. Most of the stories have laugh-out-loud funny lines, and they're all written by Amy Bonnaffons. "The Wrong Heaven" is her first book. And hey, I am so glad to be talking to you.
AMY BONNAFFONS: Thank you. I'm so happy to be here.
CHANG: So my first question is, why short stories? What could short stories do for all these ideas you had in this book that one longer plot could not?
BONNAFFONS: I think the short story is such a wonderful form to explore an idea in a relatively brief space but with a lot of depth. With a novel, I think there's a lot of pressure to kind of build to something and have something play out in a way that feels complete whereas in a short story, there's a way to just kind of, like, dip into a world and see what it has to offer.
CHANG: Yeah. Maybe the story that stuck most with me was the one called "Horse." It's about a woman who instead of undergoing injections to have a baby as her friend is doing, she's having injections to turn into a horse. Why is turning into a horse the opposite of becoming a mother?
BONNAFFONS: Well, it's funny you phrase it that way...
BONNAFFONS: ...Because the idea for the story came to me literally in a dream. I had woken up from this dream in which I saw a woman injecting herself. And then I woke up with this sentence on my brain that said the opposite of having a baby is becoming a horse.
BONNAFFONS: And I didn't know exactly what it meant, but it felt right. I was like, uh-huh, yep.
CHANG: But then I was also thinking, but, you know, wild horses, even unfettered wild horses - they need a herd. What do you think of that? Is it possible to remain truly unfettered and alone?
BONNAFFONS: Not really. No, I don't think so. And I think part of what that story wrestles with and that some of the others wrestle with, too, is that connection with other people is such a sticky thing, right?
BONNAFFONS: Like, we all want it, and we need it so deeply. And yet there's all these ways that it can ensnare us. And a lot of the characters are struggling with that in various ways, right? Like, how do I remain myself or figure out what myself is...
BONNAFFONS: ...While also being connected to these other people in my life?
CHANG: I want to turn to a story called "The Other One." It's about a lawyer who ends up in a relationship with her law firm partner. But she ends up haunted seeing his ex-wife having a child on her own. And she turns into this crumpled mess inside a karaoke room. I guess let's just start there. Why would someone want to seek refuge in a karaoke room?
BONNAFFONS: Well, that's something a friend of mine actually did. She was telling me about it. She was just in Midtown in New York City, wandering around, like, between meetings. And she was like, I've got an hour to kill. Maybe I'll just rent a room and do some karaoke by myself.
BONNAFFONS: And she said she ended up just sobbing through the hour, like singing...
BONNAFFONS: ...These power ballads to herself and, like, really working some stuff out. And so I thought that would be a funny...
CHANG: Oh, my God, that sounds so sad.
BONNAFFONS: But she said it was really cathartic and wonderful in the end. But I thought, like, what a wonderful kind of stage setting for somebody to just work some stuff out (laughter).
BONNAFFONS: So she feels connected and alone at the same time.
CHANG: I was also struck by how she was drawn to that guy, that - the partner in the law firm. Like, she was almost turned on by being out-argued by him, intellectually dominated by him. And maybe that was one of the things that made her feel powerless at some level.
BONNAFFONS: Yeah. I think that character describes herself as a feminist. And I think one thing that interests me and that I write about often is sort of this tension between one's own feminist ideals or political ideals in general and then the situations that one's thrown into in life, right?
CHANG: Yeah. Yeah.
BONNAFFONS: And so why am I attracted to this person who doesn't seem like a feminist himself? (Laughter) Or why do I enjoy being dominated? Why do I want this thing that I'm not supposed to want?
CHANG: As we've said, there's a touch of magical realism in a lot of these stories. Is that the way you've always written as an author?
BONNAFFONS: No, not always. So when I started the MFA program that I did, I had only written realistically. So actually, the very first story in this collection, "The Wrong Heaven," I had started writing that story, and it was very different at the time. The character had a son, which she doesn't in this version. And she and her son were having some tensions over, like, she wanted him to go to church, and he didn't want to go to - and I was just frustrated the story wasn't working. And it was, like, probably 2 a.m. or something. And just out of sheer frustration I was like, well, what if Jesus just started talking to her? And I had so much fun writing that section that I was like, why don't I do this more often?
BONNAFFONS: And so from then on I kind of never looked back. I just never saw that line again as something that I couldn't cross. Like, if I felt tempted to cross it, I just did.
CHANG: There's a piece of dialogue I want you to read...
CHANG: ...From the Jesus and Mary story.
BONNAFFONS: Sure. (Reading) You are loved, said Mary. So, she said, how can we help you today, Cheryl? Well, I said, I guess I'd just like to feel like you're on my side. Mary nodded sympathetically. I think you're doing a bang-up job, she said, under the circumstances. She had a slight British accent like Julie Andrews. Look, said Jesus, don't take it the wrong way, what I'm about to say - it's just my personality - but have you considered the lilies of the field, the birds, the wild beasts? Do they wonder who's on their side? He made air quotes. I don't know, I said. They don't, he said.
CHANG: Why did you want to give Jesus this sarcastic, kind of jerky personality?
BONNAFFONS: (Laughter) It just kind of came out that way when I had him start talking (laughter).
CHANG: Let's talk about your relationship with God, Amy.
BONNAFFONS: Yeah. You know, Jesus kind of is represented weirdly in our culture I think.
CHANG: What do you mean?
BONNAFFONS: Like, I think in this completely neutered way. I grew up going to a very progressive episcopal church where Jesus was basically considered and presented to us as, like, a political radical, which I think is an amazing way to look at what he did. And in popular culture it's either he's dead or he's kind of, like, surrounded by baby lambs. So perhaps that's where it came from. But of course I (laughter) - I took it a little bit further than that. This is not the political radical Jesus.
CHANG: It's the steely, gritty Jesus.
BONNAFFONS: Right. It's - and I think it's the Jesus who deep down wants you to be your best self and is just frustrated with you...
CHANG: Yeah. Yeah.
BONNAFFONS: ...That you're not getting there. And he's kind of giving you some tough love.
CHANG: Amy Bonnaffons - her new book of short stories is called "The Wrong Heaven." Thank you very much for joining us.
BONNAFFONS: Thank you so much for having me. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.