At a Guernica fundraiser earlier this year, I met author Elizabeth Kadetsky. Not long after that, I read her collection The Poison that Purifies You, which contains stories set all over the world. Her characters are explorers, obsessives, and idealists–all of which are qualities that cause problems, whether close to home or on the other side of the world. (For reference points, think Joan Silber and Robert W. Bingham.) I reached out to her via email to learn more about the origins of these stories, how they came together, and how the book evolved.
Several of the stories in The Poison that Purifies You have all-consuming obsessions: the bicycle lock in “Men More Than Mortal,” the child in “An Incident At the Plaza.” When you’re writing, does that aspect of a character generally come first?
Exactly: a bicycle lock imbued with special powers, a mystical seeming Chinese baby, a beautiful Hindu man with a Shiva-like phallus, stolen Maya antiquities, a grandmother’s jewels, a sculpture of a globe that has to be broken to reveal its mysterious content, a racist toy bank from the nineteenth century that its viewers each imbues with his own special meaning. One of the earlier concepts for the collection was fetish objects, and for a while the working title was Sacred Objects. This was also an alternate title for “It Was Only Clay.”
In honing and reconceiving the collection, one aha! moment was when I realized the stories and the collection as a whole needed to be driven by character rather than concept, and that the objects themselves were not the point so much as the characters’ obsessions with them. “Plot springs from character,” I knew, but I do start with concept—a story I overhear from real life, or a real life situation that I conceive of in an exaggerated or slightly unreal way, or even an autobiographical event that I imagine having turned out differently. I think my love of story comes from having been raised on noir cinema. Journalists think in these terms as well. They talk about “great stories”—and in my travels as a reporter I heard so many good ones. I had to unlearn the instinct to make the story entirely about its plot. Fiction is about plumbing the soul. Story, I’ve come to believe, is a construct to help explore a consciousness.
There’s a moment in “It Was Only Clay” when the time period in which the story is set is revealed. What draws you to the revelation of a detail like that: something casual that nonetheless has an impact on how the story is read?
Funnily enough, I saw my challenge as how long I could go before revealing timeframe. I believe you’re referring to the moment the character reflects that it is the bicentennial of the 1776 highlands earthquake in Guatemala, about six pages in. This was on the first page of an earlier draft, which included a lot of setup informing the reader that this was Guatemala, that Joseph was an archaeologist from Columbia University, that he spoke fluent Spanish, that he was on a research trip from Queens to finish his stalled-out dissertation for his PhD. In the final version I simply cut the first four pages—Act I more or less. I did this because I wanted to push the voice to greater interiority and subjectivity. I wanted the reader to enter Joseph’s world as he experienced it, total and encompassing. We don’t walk through our own world thinking, I am living in 2014, I am living in New York City, some hallmarks of this moment are social media, yoga, and kale, etc.
This close and subjective point of view is in part an aesthetic preference, but it was especially important in this piece. The heart of the story, for me, is the interaction of the otherworldly landscape encountered by Joseph and the lens on his world created by his un-medicated bipolar disorder. I wanted to make the world hallucinatory and uncertain, a place where even the paranoid have reason to be paranoid. Joseph’s inability to distinguish fear from reality is what drives the plot toward its conclusion, when it turns out there are forces at play even darker than the aftermath of a devastating earthquake and entrenched poverty. The story had to be set in the 1970s, the height of political violence in Guatemala and a time when whole villages really were decimated by government-allied death squads, its victims buried in mass graves that were only uncovered twenty years later. There had been a mindset of fear so total the survivors didn’t reveal what happened until the civil war was declared finished in the mid nineties (prematurely as it turned out). I was working as a reporter in Guatemala during the exhumations of the mid 1990s, and I actually interviewed survivors who’d kept their stories a secret those two decades. I was overcome by an otherworldly feeling hearing those stories. I wanted to communicate that feeling in this story, how unstable this world was. Joseph is completely unmoored in every respect when he encounters it. I wonder, if someone had asked Joseph early on in the story what year it was, if he’d even have been able to say.
Some of the stories in the collection are set in the northeastern United States, while others are set far away. How did you arrive on some of the settings?
I wrote the first story shortly after I returned from a year as a Fulbright in India, and set it there. I wanted to explore the awkward interface of the hippie traveler with the native culture. I’d traveled as a journalist through the Middle East and Latin America and got the idea to set the collection more broadly “away,” and then realized “away” could actually exist close to home, for instance in New York’s Chinatown, just a mile from my own home in the East Village.
The idea of foreign settings was a crucial one, though. At one point I received a grant to work on the collection based on a prospectus that described characters traveling abroad and getting themselves into trouble owing to romanticized notions of themselves as saviors. The prospectus referenced Paul Bowles’s wonderful “A Distant Episode,” about a kidnap in North Africa, and Francine Prose’s also wonderful essay about Bowles published in Harper’s in 2002, “The Coldest Eye.” Prose extols American writers in the wake of September 11 to eschew domestic fiction and take on the irreconcilable disruptions and inequalities of the global reality, one that Bowles portrayed so well and unsentimentally.
The grant took me to France, where I found myself writing the first draft of “What We Saw,” set in an apartment in the East Village. At one point the director for the grant asked me what I was working on and I told him about “What We Saw” and he looked at me with an expression of such horror. I was violating the premise of the grant, if it was set in New York. At that point I realized that the focus for the collection was too narrow.
The stories all came to be in cycles, and interestingly it was not place that united the cycles—three stories set in Chinatown, the Lower East Side, and India all materialized in my mind at the same time, for instance.Eventually only four of the ten stories were set abroad. My earlier idea of “away” evolved to encompass travel and exploration. Voyage and discovery were the unifying concepts. “Loup Garou,” set during a road trip from the Pacific Northwest to New York City, was the story that had the least connection to the idea of the well-meaning outsider, and yet the notion of characters on a trajectory in which they encounter life changing situations and strangers seemed to really fit.
In a sense all story is about the transformative journey, Odysseus in the Peloponesse encountering Circe and Cyclops. Of course some writers focus on the return, Odysseus and Penelope reunited in their bed of vine, and some on the setup, Telemachus pining for his lost father. For me the heart is in the uprootedness and adventure of willfully abandoning home.
Race plays a factor in many of these stories. In some, it’s handled in an unexpected way–a racist figurine in a society without that history of racism, for instance–but in “The Indian Friend,” the outright racism of one character is presented plainly and horrifically. What led you to explore these particular themes in this way?
They definitely have a political point of view, perhaps one I came to as a journalist in the 1990s covering immigration in Mexico and Southern California. The experience made me a proponent of open borders. That of course is not a political program that is likely to happen in the world, but I do embrace the mentality behind it, that the farmworker from Morelos is no less my brother than the white male right winger in Nebraska—in fact I probably empathize with the farmworker more. After September 11, American nativism got hysterical and grotesque, as it was at the height of the anti-immigration movement in Southern California in the mid 1990s. Luckily for me I spent much of the Oughties abroad—in France, Morocco, Egypt, India, and Spain. What I enjoyed about exploring internationalist ideas in fiction was that I could also acknowledge the difficulty, the idealism, of my perspective. The reality is that national borders and international global inequities exist. Everyone in the developed world is complicit—that is my view. Even the well meaning are caught, stuck, in their place in a rigidly ordered global economic system. How to break out of that? Luckily the role of the writer is to present the irreconcilable realities, not solve them. They’re very depressing to me, but in fiction I can grapple with such problems with at least a modicum of humor and irony.
How did you go about selecting and ordering the stories for the book?
Basically, anything with a young female narrator struggling with heartbreak, the desire to conceive a child, or life as an artist got—if not chucked—serious scrutiny. Honestly, I published close to twenty stories in that vein coming out of my MFA at Irvine in 1999. Okay, they weren’t that bad, they did place in a lot of writing contests! But my mentor there told me they were claustrophobic and that I should explore what I didn’t know. I’d written one story that he liked, about an Orthodox rabbi who’s living a secret life as a crackhead and finds god at a meditation retreat in Nepal. That was based on a true story. It didn’t make it into this collection—in part because I also put aside anything written before 2002—but I took my mentor’s advice to heart. I tried to keep the arty female protagonist stories in the collection in the unreliable narrator territory, and to make sure the characters were as different from me as possible.
The ordering was difficult but in the end I decided to keep all the India stories together and to join them with the Guatemala story, and to keep that core at the center of the collection.
What kind of research do you generally do? I’m thinking specifically of “Geography,” where the narrator is trying to cope with her memories of war.
A lot! “It Was Only Clay” and “The Poison that Purifies You” are in fact based on news stories that I researched extensively—while I also brought to bear related research I’d done on both counts as a journalist. Interestingly, “Geography” came about differently. I wanted to write about PTSD because I was suffering from it. I’d been the victim of a random violent assault, in 2005. It turned out I had a pretty intransigent case, and I wound up seeking the help of five different therapists specializing in three distinct PTSD treatments. I learned a lot about the condition, and also that my timing was excellent. One of the techniques I tried was developed in the mid 1990s specifically for vets returning from the first Iraq War, while the following decade was marked by significant progress in the development and study of PTSD owing to the ballooning number of cases in vets from Afghanistan and the second Iraq War. Interestingly, though, specialists in the field could be heard to complain that while they were trained to treat war vets, the majority of PTSD sufferers were still female victims of domestic abuse and violence against women. I wanted to write something that captured all those nuances. A female war vet who’d been sexually assaulted during the war seemed apt. It was only after I wrote the story that a lot of news started coming out about the large numbers of female veterans who were survivors of assault. I attribute that coincidence to zeitgeist.
Where did you first hear of the condition that gives “Dermagraphia” its title?
Another coincidence. I actually thought I’d made it up. It was supposed to be a story about a fictional medical disease. When the story was accepted at TriQuarterly the fact checkers contacted me and told me I’d spelled it wrong. It wasn’t Dermographia, but Dermagraphia. I Googled it, and voila, there it was. Reality had plagiarized me.
If I’m reading this correctly, there’s a small connection between the title story and “Geography.” Did you know from the outset that these two stories would be set in the same world?
Definitely. The characters throughout the collection have so much in common, their idealism, their willingness to live outside the bounds of normal and to let their passions shape their lives. I’m glad you caught that overlap. There are a few other subtle ones in the book: poor Freddy is an ex or about-to-be ex-boyfriend in two stories—he’s just that kind of guy. Originally I’d conceived of several minor characters appearing in more than one story but wound up changing some names in the end as I didn’t want to make the book seem too clever or like a puzzle in that respect. I imagine all the characters have crossed paths at some point in their lives or will in the future.