Matthew Lansburgh talks with Malka Daskal about nonlinear narratives, friendship, and the inspiration behind the characters in “Hasina,” published in NER 42.1.
Malka Daskal: “Hasina” opens at a remove of “two-plus decades” from the events of the primary plot, which allows Stewart to consider his relationship with Hasina from a detached distance, one with the benefit of extensive therapy. Was this story always structured as a retrospective narrative? At what point did you determine that Stewart’s and Hasina’s paths would cross again via social media?
Matthew Lansburgh: The basic structure of the story—as well as the use of the retrospective narrative stance—did provide the spine for the first draft. It was one of those wonderful, rare instances when a story came to me (more or less) fully formed. As is quite common when I write stories, the initial draft emerged quickly during a feverish spell, and then I put the pages aside for several months and came back to them with fresh eyes. This allowed me to see areas where I’d rushed through scenes and needed to flesh things out, and other areas that needed revision. I tend to work on writing projects iteratively: I write in bursts, put drafts aside, then return with—hopefully—a new perspective. This process can take years to complete. The final section of the story always included the interaction via Facebook, but the ending was much shorter and less developed than it is in the published version.
MD: The principal characters in your story, Stewart and Hasina (not to mention Stewart’s mother, Heike), are so meticulously rendered, they seem to spring fully formed off the page. Where did you find inspiration for these convincing characters and how do you decide which details to include and which to omit when writing for authenticity?
ML: I’m so glad you think they’re convincing! Stewart and Heike are characters I’ve worked with, on and off, for a long time. On the other hand, Hasina isn’t a character I’ve worked with before. She is, I suppose, an amalgam of various people I’ve known over the years.
My goal in writing the story was to explore the ways that friendships can evolve over time. I’m interested in how people can form incredibly close bonds and then grow apart (and, in some instances, reconnect years later). One of the best things about growing older is that I’m now able to see the trajectory of my life—and my relationships—in a way that I couldn’t when I was younger. I used to think about friendships in binary terms: X person is a close friend, or X person isn’t a friend; I love Y, or I dislike Y. Over time, I’ve come to realize that most friendships are complicated and multifaceted. X can be a close friend in some, but not all, circumstances. X can be someone I can trust to keep a secret and look to for support if I’m going through a period of work stress, but if I tell X about a fight I had with my boyfriend, I need to watch out, because X will probably try to hook up with him behind my back! Friendships can be the source of so many emotions we experience: love and joy and passion; frustration, disappointment, and anger.
I’m guessing most people learn this early on in their lives. This is often how people feel about their siblings or other people in their family. But I grew up as an only child and my relationship with my parents was defined by extremes. I tended to categorize the world in simplistic terms: things were either good or bad, safe or dangerous, trustworthy or untrustworthy. I suppose that, as I’ve grown older, I’ve come to accept that most relationships are complicated and can’t be seen through a single lens.
MD: One of the most intriguing choices made in the crafting of this story is your divulgence of major plot points out of sequence—Hasina’s alleged betrayal, Geshna’s suicide, Hasina’s casual abandonment in Baja. These events are disclosed nonlinearly and then expanded upon later in the narrative. The effect makes for a hypnotic manipulation of time as well as compelling reading. Can you tell us more about your process of revealing and withholding information to create narrative momentum?
ML: This question fills me with tremendous excitement and joy! Thank you for asking it.
Like most writers, I spend a lot of time thinking about how to generate suspense and narrative momentum; and, like most writers, I find it hard to pull off. I’ve studied and taught many stories with this very question in mind—especially Alice Munro’s “Runaway,” in which she creates mystery and suspense out of small (seemingly insignificant) facts and narrative elements. From the first paragraph, she withholds key information to great strategic effect.
I’ve probably studied that story twenty times, and each time I’m in awe of how Munro turns the mundane into something mysterious and electric. Part of the way she achieves this effect is through her masterful use of time. I’m quite certain that—even if unconsciously—“Hasina” is borrowing some of these narrative tricks. Having you comment on my use of time and the way I withhold information to create narrative momentum is thrilling for me, because these are techniques I admire not just in Munro’s work but in the work of many of my favorite writers.
MD: At the heart of “Hasina” is the power dynamic between Hasina and Stewart. In the final paragraph, Stewart chooses not to Google Hasina because it would “give her more power than she deserves,” but, of course, the choice not to Google her gives her power as well, as does his mounting excitement while waiting for her phone call. It seems Stewart, for all the years and therapy, cannot quite break free of Hasina’s power—his actions and inactions determined by her influence. What do you think it is that Stewart admires so much about Hasina? Do you think Stewart’s infatuation with Hasina in some ways mirrors Heike’s clinging dependence on him?
ML: I’m intrigued by the idea that Stewart’s infatuation with Hasina might somehow mirror Heike’s dependence on Stewart. I hadn’t seen this possible connection or thought about this parallel. Of course, it makes sense that, as much as Stewart resists his mother and judges her, he does also mirror aspects of her personality. I certainly have noticed this in my own relationship with my mother.
As for what Stewart admires about Hasina, this isn’t something I’ve thought about either. I’m guessing he admires her confidence. I see her as someone who spends less time in her head than Stewart does—someone who doesn’t second-guess herself all the time.
MD: At first reading, I was appalled by Hasina’s actions and believed her to be heartless, someone reveling in her power to shock and wound others. But after giving it some thought and rereading, I feel a greater sense of sympathy for her and wonder if her actions are not more indicative of a sense of insecurity, of genuine pain over Stewart’s lack of reciprocated feelings. Do you have sympathy for Hasina? Was your intention for the reader to view her with compassion?
ML: I love the fact that you’re seeing sides of these characters I hadn’t thought about previously. It means, perhaps, that I’ve done my job as a writer by creating multidimensional characters who evoke a range of reactions in readers.
I must admit I don’t find anything about Hasina appalling—everything she does makes sense to me, even leaving Stewart behind in Baja California. I’ve always felt tremendous sympathy for her. Indeed, she embodies impulses I very much identify with. (I hope that doesn’t make me come off as too much of a psychopath!)
MD: “Hasina” captures the impressionable quality of young adults experiencing life on campus, their bid for independence and forging of identities in opposition to authority. The intensity of Stewart and Hasina’s friendship is distinctive to that place and time of life. Was your writing influenced by other literature featuring college-aged characters?
ML: Not that I’m aware of. I don’t think I’ve read much about college-aged characters I’ve found extremely compelling. I suppose I tend to be more interested in people who’ve been knocked around by the passage of time—people who’ve faced more setbacks and accumulated more wounds. (There are, of course, many exceptions. I find Nabokov’s Dolores Haze and J.D. Salinger’s younger characters, for example, fascinating and marvelous.)
MD: Stewart and Heike are characters from your linked short story collection Outside Is the Ocean, winner of the 2017 Iowa Short Fiction Award. How did writing a series of linked stories better serve the narrative than a more traditional novel form? What challenges and opportunities did you encounter by choosing to structure your book in this way? Can we expect to see more stories about Stewart and Heike in the future?
ML: When I first started writing fiction, I didn’t set out to write a book. Writing a book felt too daunting and ambitious. My goal was simply to learn how to write a short story. Gradually, over time, as I began to work with Stewart and Heike as characters, I found myself becoming obsessed—with who they were, and what motivated them, and what fueled their dysfunctional relationship. (Full disclosure: Though my stories about Stewart and Heike are fiction, elements in this work are inspired by my relationship with my mother.)
I found writing about Heike and Stewart incredibly cathartic and therapeutic, and, over time, I realized that I was amassing a corpus of work that might be shaped into a novel-in-stories. The idea that I was working on a book didn’t occur to me until several years into the process. Outside Is the Ocean has a bit of a kaleidoscopic feel. As in “Hasina,” my use of time in the book isn’t linear. I guess that allowing myself to learn about the relationship between Stewart and his mother through narratives that occur at various moments in time allowed me to tackle a project that might otherwise have felt too intimidating to take on.
As for your last question, yes, I am continuing to write about Stewart and Heike! I’ve spent the past few years working on a novel—provisionally entitled The Miraculous—that has nothing to do with them, but, recently, I’ve been writing more stories about them and am considering writing a novel that examines how Stewart’s relationship with his mother changes after she dies: If she were to come back from the dead to visit Stewart, would his attitude toward her be different? Would they be able to break free of the conflict they experienced when they were both alive? What would happen if Stewart died and went to heaven? How would their dynamic change in an entirely different world/setting?
MD: Can you tell us more about the new novel you’re currently working on? Was it a challenge or a relief (or, perhaps, both) to populate your work with new characters?
ML: It’s about a woman (Klara Ozoliņa) from a small town in Latvia who is born with wings. People believe her town was cursed, centuries earlier, when a hermaphrodite was burned at the stake, and the book falls squarely into the realm of magic realism. In the novel, Klara emigrates to the United States as a mail-order bride and is disappointed to learn, when she arrives, that the man she’s been corresponding with is neither wealthy nor handsome.
The book explores the themes of fitting in and marginalization and what it means to belong. (These are themes I notice myself revisiting in a lot of my work, but it’s been fun to explore them through characters who are completely different from Heike and Stewart.) As for how Klara materialized, I’m not sure I know the answer. Many years ago, I wrote a scene about a woman with wings who was bawdy and irreverent, and even though that project never gained traction, the character stayed with me…
Matthew Lansburgh‘s collection of linked stories, Outside Is the Ocean (University of Iowa Press, 2017), won the Iowa Short Fiction Award and was a finalist for the 30th Annual Lambda Literary Award and the 2018 Ferro-Grumley Award for LGBTQ Fiction. His fiction has appeared in journals such as One Story, Glimmer Train, Ecotone, Alaska Quarterly Review, Guernica, and Epoch, and has been shortlisted in the Best American Short Stories series. Recent honors include fellowships from the Bread Loaf Writers’ Conference, the Sewanee Writers’ Conference, Yaddo, and the MacDowell Colony.
Malka Daskal, a fiction reader for NER, received her master’s degree from Columbia University. Her work has appeared in Kind Writers, december Magazine, The Dalhousie Review, and Adelaide and has been anthologized in The Bookends Review’s “Best of 2020.” Her short story “Symbology” was nominated for a Pushcart Prize in 2020. She lives in Phoenix, Arizona, with her husband and two sons.