Emily Mitchell: Was the inspiration for this story something specific, or was it a more general apprehension about social media in contemporary life? Was there anything that emerged from your first draft or subsequent revisions that really surprised you or changed how you’d conceived the story up to that point?
Ella Martinsen Gorham: I started with a particular girl in mind, a girl who at thirteen wants to reinvent herself as someone more provocative. I wanted to capture the moment that girl decides that all of her old interests and friends repulse her. Her only choice is to push forward into more adult behavior. After I had a sense of the girl, Noa, I went about exploring how she would reinvent herself in today’s world. All people use social media to define themselves, but teenagers are especially adept at building a persona. In the story Noa creates a new online profile with dark images, and instantly meets an older girl who is drawn to that profile. The older girl, Aurora, then encourages Noa to pursue a boy named Paddy who has built up a following by posting cruel rhymes about classmates. Aurora and Noa never meet in person, but seem to develop an intimate connection onscreen. Noa perceives both of these new relationships as essential to redefining herself. I didn’t know in early drafts of the story which of the two relationships would become more important to Noa, her bond with Aurora or her hookup with Paddy. As I revised, it became more clear to me that Noa’s stronger drive was to impress Aurora. I think it may speak to a larger truth about teenage girls needing most to feel a belonging with and acceptance from other girls. Once I knew Noa’s primary devotion, I saw that she would behave desperately to try to keep Aurora’s attention.
EM: “Protozoa” examines the lives of middle- and high-school students, especially in their roles as what older people tend to call “digital natives.” That’s such an intense time of life, when your emotions are very strong but also can shift from one object to another really rapidly. What do you think are the big differences between how adolescence was experienced before the advent of smart phones and social media and how it is experienced now, and what has remained the same?
EMG: I think adolescence has always been and continues to be marked by a need to rebel and to question authority. It is a messy, transformative time. The nature of adolescence hasn’t changed. Teenagers make mistakes as they learn how to become more independent. But cell phones and the internet are shaping the process, making it all more public. It seems a generation of children growing up today, including my children, consider their phones almost as extensions of their bodies. They are so comfortable with them. They have an instant audience for every gesture and expression. The phones are enabling a new kind of relationship to form, one in which two people never have to meet in person. I wonder, when teenagers spend time together on their screens, how intimate those relationships are. Is something lost in not being with a person in the flesh? I also wonder about the ever-present audience. How much are teenagers performing for each other, and how much of what they project online is authentic? The final scene in the story has Noa sharing a video of herself crying, which then prompts other girls to post their own crying videos. The girls’ reasons for crying are unclear, but are likely a mixture of real sadness and intrigue in the power of emoting in such a public way. I cannot say whether they feel sad in the same way I felt sad at that age.
EM: In the early scenes of the story, Noa is intent on hooking up with Paddy, but it doesn’t seem that she’s interested in the experience itself so much as she’s interested in being able to say she has — to use a great phrase from the story — “been places with boys.” Is there something amiss with seeing yourself so much as the object of other people’s possible attention and judgment, or is this just a necessary part of building a grown-up identity?
EMG: I wanted Noa to have both a real curiosity about sex and a real interest in appearing to be in the know sexually. The second of those two goals becomes more important to Noa as she seeks to recast herself as more grown up. To add a third motive, Noa believes that hooking up with Paddy will confer social status to her. Paddy has become a minor celebrity with his online roasts. Noa’s reasons for hooking up with Paddy are complex, which I think is true to life. For girls, taking on a sexual identity has always meant something different than it means for boys. It seems to me there is a smaller space for girls to be sexually adventurous without being shamed in some way. I wanted Noa to navigate that space and try to push on its boundaries.
EM: One of the things that struck me while I was reading were the parallels the story seems to draw between Noa and her mother. They’re both going through big life changes. They’re both ambitious, each in their own way. The people around them, Noa’s dad and Noa’s formerly close friends, don’t seem to want to change with them. How do you see these two characters relating to and reflecting each other?
EMG: I’m really happy that you drew a parallel between Noa and her mother, who is also striving to redefine herself in the middle of her life. I wanted the mother and daughter both to be actively chasing down their dreams. I like that Noa feels admiration for her mother. She also has some disdain for mothers who don’t work, but that may be due to the fact that those mothers are always supervising. Noa has more freedom because she has a mother distracted by her work. She is able to act on her own ambitions, which include hooking up with boys and bonding with older and more reckless teenagers. If Noa’s mother knew the details about her behavior, the story might play out differently. She might intervene. I wanted to pose the question whether Noa is missing something in the way of maternal attention even if she’s not conscious of it. Her father is more available to her, but she seems to crave her mother’s understanding. She even imagines that her mother was just like her as a teenager.
EM: I love the title of this story. How did you come to it? What resonances do you see the title having throughout the story?
Protozoa is a nickname Paddy pins to Noa when they hook up. He riffs “Noa Noa Protozoa,” and she is elated to have inspired the rhyme. She believes that Paddy’s attention is valuable, that if he posts a rhyme about her she will be more popular and more desired. The nickname initially conveys to Noa a hope about what might happen. But when Paddy does post a rhyme about her, he uses the word Protozoa as an insult. The post doesn’t come off as flattering and Noa begins to feel badly about seeking Paddy’s attention. At school the nickname grows even more hurtful when Noa’s classmates chant it in the halls. She has become saddled with Paddy’s version of her, Protozoa, rather than the version she has tried to compose. The nickname works well to convey how quickly a shift in Noa’s reputation has occurred. On a more abstract level I liked having a resonance between the protozoa as single-cell organisms and these adolescents in the midst of transformation.
Ella Martinsen Gorham lives in Los Angeles with her husband and two children. Her fiction has appeared in ZYZZVA, and she is at work on a collection of stories and a novel. Her story “Protozoa” can be read here.