Q. Several of these stories take place in a fictional Northwest town, Salish Bay. How did you come to write about Salish Bay?
A. Salish Bay is loosely based on Port Townsend, Washington, where I've lived for many years. I must emphasize "loosely based" because small towns are much like families, and no one family member has the whole picture. For instance, my take on my family's dynamics is bound to differ from my brother's or my mother's or my son's version. So it is with Port Townsend and Salish Bay. The particular landscape of Salish Bay—the small town surrounded by water on three sides, the single road leading out of town—offers the dual punch of isolation and community, again not unlike the mix of a family. Since the characters I write about are often trying to find their places between those two poles, Salish Bay seemed a natural place for their stories.
Q. In stories like "A Closed Sea," you seem to delve into magical realism. Every aspect of the story has such a heightened feel to it. Then, in a story like "The Eighth Sleeper of Ephesus," you shift to a very precise and beautiful character study, rooted very much within the character of Frank Cocokowski and his situation. And in still other stories, like "The Unseen Ear of God" and "Lukudi," you weave these two kinds of styles effortlessly. Reviewers have also noted the humor in these stories. Your ability to move between what one reviewer called "the mundane and the magical" is a unique mark of your particular style. How did you develop this style?
A. I think my writing style has more to do with who I am and how I see the world around me than any conscious craft choices. In other words, I don't think I have had or do have much of a say here. I will say that I'm not particularly fond of the term "magical realism," since, at least in North American literary criticism, it refers to a separate state of consciousness imposed (sometimes as a gimmick) on "real life." For me, the dividing lines between what is real and what is magical aren't so clear. I don't mean to sound certifiable, but I feel it doesn't take much attention to realize that "reality" is far more superficial and variable than we would often like to admit. Anyone who moves into a different culture can attest to that. Perhaps it's a survival mechanism—our blindness to wonder, our need to define and control. We've become immured within a specific definition of reality and ignore a lot of everyday magic (hours of sleep when our consciousness disappears, for instance). On the other hand, we're still startled by coincidence, by the stunning progression of aging, by love.
Q. Your stories are rich in details, yet the reader doesn't feel the weight of too much detail. How do you decide how much is enough?
A. A question for much more than the writing process. I will say this: The Golden Bough is one of my all-time favorite "reference" books. In his discussion on the principles of magic, Frazer talks about the "sympathetic magic" that occurs between the interaction of things, the "secret sympathy" that allows one thing "to physically affect another through a space which appears to be empty." Objects, landscapes, singular actions—in a story, all of these must have import. They must take part in that "secret sympathy" that exists not just within the pages but between the story and the reader. Of that, I'm keenly aware.
Q. Reviewers have praised the collection for its portrayal of the "outsider." A lot of the stories deal with a sense of restlessness and a deeper, almost obscured, longing in the characters. Many of your characters share a sense of displacement, an awareness that they are not quite in the right place (sometimes physically, sometimes emotionally, usually both). One character, Natife, the Nigerian exchange student, plays a remarkable role in two stories. And although he is the one who is obviously away from his home turf, it's the people around him who seem to suffer from a deeper sense of displacement and loss. How do you see Natife functioning in these stories, and what was it that made you return to this character?
A. Oh, Lord, Natife was never a conscious choice of a character. I guess I have to admit that. He fell, whole cloth, into a story that turned out to be "The King of Limbo," and I fell in love with him—his voice, his patient curiosity, his generosity. Natife has an open heart, but he's not a fool or a mystical purveyor of wisdom. He's just trying to make the pieces fit. When I analyze Natife's appearance in the stories, I can see how he was created from my experience with another Nigerian student, someone I've come to think of as "the anti-Natife." My real-life Nigerian acquaintance was a terrible alcoholic. When he was sober, he was quiet and extremely deferential and inhibited. When he was drunk, he would visit people at all hours, loudly banging on their doors and shouting the secrets he'd gleaned about their personalities or their most private undertakings. Sometimes he was unintelligible. Many times he shouted revelations that altered people's lives. It was incredible, really, as if God had appeared on your late-night doorstep and He was pissed.
In these stories, Natife became a kindlier version of my acquaintance—a sort of arbitrator between the visible and the invisible, the spoken and the unspoken. He is someone so clearly his own person that other people don't cloud his vision; they sharpen it. At the same time, he's something of a seeker himself and willing to enter into other lives when he's needed. Not a big deal to Natife—it's like helping someone who's struggling with too many packages when his own hands are free and able. He was there for William in "The King of Limbo." He reappeared for Ally in "Lukudi." I kept trying to push him out of that story, which originally had many other subplots and characters. In the end, it seemed he just waited and took over the pages.