Malka Daskal talks with Nicole Cuffy, author of “A Delivery” from NER 42.3, about facing the mortality of the people we love, how it feels to be haunted, and relationships that transcend language.
Malka Daskal: In your powerful story “A Delivery,” we are given a glimpse into the delicate and poignant weft that binds a daughter with her aging father. What was the inspiration for these two characters and their relationship with each other?
NC: Honestly, after going through some seismic life changes, some good and some painful, I started having these vivid and terrifying dreams of my father dying. My own father and I have a close but very jocular relationship, and I remember understanding him as a kind of benevolent force of nature when I was a kid. These dreams were really disturbing to me—I think my subconscious, in the process of grappling with my own mortality (I’d just had a significant birthday as well), was also grappling with that of my parents. I knew I had to get it out somehow. So I just started sketching a little, and this father that was not my father began to take shape. That’s the father in “A Delivery,” who does and does not resemble my own father.
MD: Your characters feel so alive and breathing, it wasn’t until I had read this story for the second time that I realized the narrative is absent of any direct dialogue. What was involved in the decision not to give your characters direct lines of dialogue? Is it intended to reflect their avoidance of candid verbal communication?
NC: I wanted to illustrate both their avoidance of candidness and the wordlessness that exists between them. To a certain extent, with the people we’re closest to, I think we develop this understanding that transcends language. Not that we can read each other’s minds. But I do think that our closest relationships have something of the languageless, or the unspeakable, in them. I really wanted that to come through for this father and daughter.
MD: Reading your story I felt very much like the daughter looking out on her patio: “When you were sad, looking out there made you sadder, but in a way that was strangely beautiful…” For me, your story is both sad and strangely beautiful. When did you know the story was moving in that direction and what was your process for cultivating that ethos?
NC: Because this story came from a series of dreams I was having, I wanted the experience of reading it to evoke that feeling of the kind of dream that sticks with you or, in a sense, haunts you. Being haunted is necessarily sad—you carry around remnants, incomplete experiences that won’t let you forget or fully remember the whole. One of the ways in which I tried to add this into the story was through allowing lots of space and lots of silence.
MD: The daughter speaks of her father being a source of comfort from fears she can’t quite articulate, dark terrors that overwhelm her for “no reason she could explain.” Her fears strike me as all the more real for being idiopathic. How do you decide when to provide concrete explanations for a character’s behavior and when to leave their qualities or motivations fluid?
NC: I think a lot of us have experienced that kind of idiopathic anxiety, and so when it comes to what I need to spell out and what I don’t, I try to think about how much the reader has in common with my character in that moment. The more my character and the reader have in common, the less exposition I need.
MD: The shadow of her aging father’s death elicits a new fear, one that has always existed even when unacknowledged, and one he can’t protect her from. To a large extent, the strain she experiences while reckoning with her father’s mortality powers the story forward. How do stories such as your own successfully harness a strong emotion to advance the narrative?
NC: Universality, I think. We often talk/write about our fear of our own deaths, but just as universal is our fear of the deaths of people we love. When we as writers successfully tap into these universal experiences, our stories really become self-sustaining.
MD: Can you tell us more about your choice to divide the story into titled sections? How does the structure affect the reader’s experience?
NC: This speaks to my wanting this to feel a bit like a familiar dream to the reader. I wanted it to be episodic in a sense, so that we get these bite-sized but intense moments just as we so often do in dreams.
MD: In the final paragraphs of your story, the narrator and her father brave the ocean waves, and a transformation occurs in which the father can once again lift his daughter in his arms and provide the protection and reassurance of a younger, stronger father. At what point in the writing did you decide to give these characters this final redemptive scene?
NC: It actually was the scene I had been writing toward the whole time. It was the first scene to fully form itself in my head. I knew when I began typing that we were going to end up on that beach, in that almost regressive moment when, due to the water’s buoyancy, her father gets to be young again, and she gets to be supported by him.
MD: It has been such a pleasure reading your story and learning more about its crafting. What projects are you working on now that we can hope to read in the future?
NC: Thank you! I actually just finished a novel—it’s in its very early stages, but I haven’t reached the point at which I start to hate it yet! And I have a book coming out with One World, an imprint of Penguin Random House, in spring of 2023, which I’m very excited about. Its current title is All the Beautiful Music, though that may change.
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.