1. Could you tell us the name of a book that you love, and why?
We Have Always Lived In the Castle, by Shirley Jackson. I normally might have chosen a collection of stories, as I’ve fallen in love with a lot of these, but I’ve been trying in recent years to unravel how novels are even possible. This one, to me, is a perfect little book (and perfect works of fiction, to me, will probably always be little, page-wise). Its covers contain a world singular and strange, shown through the eyes of an off-kilter narrator with a wickedly crafted voice, at once blunt and withholding. In her typical super-smart approach to genre, Jackson brings to horror great psychological acuity, reality, and a sense of the mythic. I imagine she came to the idea through the image of the archetypal creepy house in any town, the hermit spinsters sometimes inside, and in exploring their lives from within, reveals just about every fear the villagers have of them to be true, while the villagers too come out as pretty frightful antagonists. It seems to me rather intricately plotted—such base technical concerns are infinitely fascinating to me as a writer of fiction—with a present conflict that masterfully reveals the past piece by piece through current action. At every turn, through language, character, plot, this book just holds so many delights and surprises for the reader and writer in me both.
2. Where were you when you first read, or saw, or heard of this book?
When I first read this book I was, like Merricat, the novel’s narrator, in a world hostile to me—in my case, traveling Russia, in accompaniment of a friend conducting research for her own novel. Even when a Russian was reluctantly helping us maneuver ourselves through their landscape, we did not receive one smile in return for our desperate ones (neither are we typical smilers). Unlike Merricat, I had not committed murder (although, yes, my country had done some terrible things and I was rude enough to only know English). But I had just killed, or placed a pause on, a novel I’d been trying to get going for the better part of a year and fled the rents of San Francisco for a more temporary situation, crashing with family. I was very much between worlds, and this distilled little narrative was an anchor.
3. Did this book influence your own writing, thinking, sense of the world, or work?
When I finished it I thought, this is the kind of book I want to write: it’s a fairly simple story, but it’s harder than one might think to keep a story simple while also making it one’s own and telling it slant; it’s short enough to be ingested in a single or just a few sittings, to wholly immerse a reader, and make a strong impact; it takes from established traditions but makes the familiar feel utterly new. I put aside my old idea—too amorphous, I decided—and started on a new one. I don’t know that writing a book like this is in actuality what I’ve since been doing, but it gives me something to strive for, a rope to grab onto when I feel myself out in strange waters that may or may not be part of my characters’ story. I even sat down with a notepad and mapped out its structure when completely struggling with mine (which of course needs structural solutions unique to its own narrative puzzles). Generally I don’t like to look at books so mathematically, but luckily in doing so I found a little messiness and even more to admire in hers.
4. Give us a line or excerpt from the text that intrigues, engages, mystifies, inspires, disgusts, or transforms you. Discuss…
Since this is such a concise, narrative-driven book, I’m not sure how well excerpts from its scenes hold out of context. She certainly doesn’t have too many lines that make you say, I know just how Merricat feels! This book is a near-total escape from life as you probably know it, but that’s one of its great accomplishments, and I’ve had a lot of fun in tracing all the little clues along the way to the big reveal that give the ending that surprising-yet-inevitable effect storytellers strive for. I love the way Merricat’s murderous, obsessive thoughts intrude suddenly, repeatedly, and play against her more poetic or empathetically normal moments. Three brief sections from Merricat’s trip to the village in the first chapter:
“I liked my house on the moon, and I put a fireplace in it and a garden outside (what would flourish, growing on the moon? I must ask Constance) and I was going to have lunch outside in my garden on the moon. Things on the moon were very bright, and odd colors; my little house would be blue… I thought of catching scarlet fish in the rivers on the room and saw that the Harris boys were in their front yard, clamoring and quarreling with half a dozen other boys. I had not been able to see them until I came past the corner by the town hall, and I could still have turned back and gone the other way, up the main highway to the creek, and then across the creek and home along the other half of the path to our house, but it was late, and I had the groceries, and the creek was nasty to wade in our mother’s brown shoes, and I thought, I am living on the moon, and I walked quickly. They saw me at once, and I thought of them rotting away and curling in pain and crying out loud; I wanted them doubled up and crying on the ground in front of me.”
“It was strange to be inside myself, walking steadily and rigidly past the fence, putting my feet down strongly but without haste that they might have noticed, to be inside and know that they were looking at me; I was hiding very far inside but I could hear them and see them still from one corner of my eye. I wished they were all lying there dead on the ground.”
“’Can’t you make them stop?’ I asked her that day, wondering if there was anything in this woman I could speak to, if she had ever run joyfully over grass, or had watched flowers, or known delight or love. ‘Can’t you make them stop?’
‘Kids,’ she said, not changing her voice or her look or her air of dull enjoyment, ‘don’t call the lady names.’
‘Yes, ma,’ one of the boys said soberly.
‘Don’t go near no fence. Don’t call no lady names.’
And I walked on, while they shrieked and shouted and the woman stood on the porch and laughed.
Merricat, said Connie, would like a cup of tea?
Oh no, said Merricat, you’ll poison me.
Their tongues will burn, I thought, as though they had eaten fire. Their throats will burn when the words come out, and in their bellies they will feel a torment hotter than a thousand fires.”
And so on.
In addition to the nursery rhyme communally composed by the village and chanted by its children to keep Merricat at bay (appearing in part above), Jackson shows Merricat herself to hold a magic bag of superstitions. She wishes she’d had the luck to be born a werewolf, but her index fingers on both hands are not quite long enough (the same length as her middle). She has buried her baby teeth on the house’s grounds in hopes that they might someday grow as dragons. She speaks a magic word into an empty glass, fills it with water, and drinks it down.
How can one fail to be enchanted? And wish her enemies writhing on the ground? And push oneself to come up with details half as memorable and creative?
5. Who did you send this book to, why?
I’m sending this to my sixteen-year-old cousin, a voracious reader and mostly well-behaved young woman I secretly view as my protege. I don’t know that she’ll delight in the malevolent spinsterhood in quite the way that I do, but I think this is the kind of book that one can read simply, with delight for a well-told story, and also with a deepening appreciation for its clever crafting and sly wit.
Katie Chase is a fiction writer originally from a suburb of Detroit, Michigan, and currently living in Portland, Oregon. Her fiction can be found, for instance, in Five Chapters, Narrative, Zyzzyva, and Best American Short Stories 2008.