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Tuesday, January 22, 2013

Interview: Christopher Barzak on "Birthday"

Aqueduct Press
ISBN: 978-1-61976-014-1 (13 digit)
Publication Date: 8/1/2012
(paperback) 96 pages

QIn “Birthday” (possibly a new classic of the field) I’m still puzzling over how you took a woman I ought to despise and make me feel deeply for her. A landlady snoops in other people’s apartments, evicts them because of her embarrassment of her own actions, and then abandons not only her family but the other apartments she ran to. How’d you do that? What was your revision process or major difficulty of this piece? Am I mistaken to think that the nuance in the story was difficult to come by? If so, how?
BarzakThis is one of my favorite stories of the bunch, so I'm really pleased that you liked it so much. Especially because the narrator, Emma, really does have a lot of things going against her in terms of readers who have been trained to have to "like" a character in order to empathize with their plight. She's does a lot of things that, if we were to encounter her in "real life," would put us off of her. But reading fiction for me is different from "real life." I don't need to "like" characters in order to be interested in them. Fiction is a safe place to get closer to people who you wouldn't want to be close to in your daily life. And it's a place where you might come to understand people who you might find horrible or off-putting in real life. It's one of the things that fiction does, I think, or can do: open up a space for compassion that we might not allow ourselves to have open so readily in daily life because it makes you vulnerable to not have boundaries. So for me, as I wrote from Emma's point of view, I wanted to explore the nature of identity, and how it's this thing that holds us together and gives us shape, but that it's also something that we actively shape, even if we're not aware of ourselves doing it as we do it. Emma's situation was one that elicited innate sympathy from me immediately: she's a very young woman who has lost her entire family in her early twenties and has no one and nothing else in her life beyond the apartment building she inherits, and the people who live within it. What she's really trying to do throughout the story is to create a new life for herself, but she doesn't know how to do it. She makes a lot of mistakes on the way to finding or making the self that makes her happy, which is someone she was before her world was changed so radically, and she hurts a lot of people along the way, including herself. If she didn't get to a place of self-actualization by the end, I probably would have been left with a distaste for her, but she's someone who (I think is evident) is trying hard and doesn't intend to hurt others and wants to make good once she's in a place in her life where she's more capable of doing that. I think this isn't so different from real life people, actually. I think most of us are trying hard and don't purposefully want to hurt others, and want to make good when we're capable of making good. In order to make a character like this, who is both unlikable and yet somehow sympathetic, I felt like I had to be as compassionate to her as I wrote from her point of view as I would be for myself or someone I care about a great deal. I had to suspend judgment. And this is something that she brings up to the reader at the end of her story. She knows what she's done and she knows that her character is now in the hands of the reader and she even understands if they can't find her forgivable. I think it's something about narrative that a reader does, as we do in life: we judge as we're taking in the details of another person's actions. Sometimes we judge without trying to understand them, though.

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