Fiction Editor Emily Mitchell speaks with Lauren Acampora about her short story from NER 40.1—and about parental illusions of control, self-congratulatory world travelers, and the wrong turns and delirium that characterize writing a novel.
Spoiler alert! If you haven’t read “The Elephant God” yet, read it here first.
Emily Mitchell: “The Elephant God” tells the story of a middle-class American family who go on vacation to India. While they are there, their teenage daughter, Naomi, decides, against her parents’ wishes, that she’s going to stay to help at a women’s shelter rather than coming home with them to the US. I was very interested in your decision to make the father the narrator of this story. In some senses, the daughter seems like the more obvious choice, since she is arguably the most profoundly changed by the events portrayed. What led you to choose this narrative perspective? How do you see the point-of-view shaping the story and its meanings?
Lauren Acampora: There was never a question of who would narrate the story, since from the start it was a story about parenthood and the illusion of control. As understanding and open as any parent considers himself to be, no parent is ever truly prepared for the kinds of changes that will take place in his children. This father hasn’t gone to India to be changed—he’s too atrophied for that—and is blindsided by the profound changes that actually do occur in his daughter. He thinks he gets it, and that by staying calm and empathetic he can gently control Naomi, but the epiphany in the story is that he doesn’t understand his daughter nearly as well as he thought he did, and is far less powerful and courageous than he presumed himself to be.
I find that this illusion of understanding and control can apply to travel as well as to parenthood. There’s a certain degree of pride and self-congratulation that accompanies foreign adventuring. We Westerners love to pat ourselves on the backs for going to exotic or unusual locations outside our comfort zone, and we love to triumphantly report back on these places to our less intrepid friends—whether we’ve legitimately deepened our cultural insight or not. It was great fun to write a character who takes this worldly arrogance to another level. The father in “The Elephant God” believes himself to be experiencing India, although he’s really just forming or reinforcing cultural judgments. As with many of my characters, he’s due for a comeuppance. As a parent, he’s on a direct collision course.
EM: This story seems to me very carefully calibrated so that our sympathy is divided between the parents, who want their daughter to come home with them, and Naomi, who wants to stay in order to help people in a terrible situation. Were you aware of trying to strike this balance as you were writing? Did you feel, ultimately, that you wanted the reader to end up on one side of the question or the other in the end?
LA: Yes, it’s always important to me that the reader sympathizes with all my characters, as misguided as they may seem. In this story, I wanted the reader to understand how the father views himself, and also how others view him. He, like many of my characters, is both noble and piteously absurd. It’s admirable that these parents are exposing their children to other places and cultures; that’s undeniable. But it’s also absurd to think any real cultural understanding will result from a short family holiday in India. It’s admirable that the father remains equanimous about his teenaged daughter wanting to stay on to help the less fortunate. But this equanimity is also absurd, given her extreme and sudden rebellion. How much equanimity actually is appropriate in this situation? How supportive should a parent be of children and their dreams? Should parental support be unconditional? Under what conditions should it be withdrawn? When is it appropriate to interfere, to pull rank as a parent? At what point is it too late to pull rank? When should a parent let go, and allow a child to make adult decisions, to become an adult?
It was very important for me to keep these questions open and strike a fine balance. They’re big questions without easy answers. I’m not even sure, myself, how I feel about Naomi staying in India. I think she’s a brave, devoted girl, more of an adult than her parents in some ways. But I also don’t love the idea of her staying in India without planning or supervision. My heart aches for her father, who acknowledges her admirable motives but also wants her to come home. I hope readers feel this, too.
EM: The story is called “The Elephant God,” though the deity to which that title refers, Ganesh, appears only as a figurine. I wonder if you could unpack that image a little bit. Within the story, what does the Elephant God come to signify?
LA: Ganesh is such a strange, funny, spooky figure. He’s both adorable and sinister to my Western eye, and I like how he operates as a symbol of what India represents to this family: something both enchanting and repelling. He’s an omnipresent sight in India; the characters would have seen him everywhere they went. He serves many roles in Hindu theology, but one of them is destroyer of vanity, selfishness, and pride—and this made him the perfect totem for the story.
EM: I was also intrigued that you have the story end with the family going on yet another foreign trip, this time to Scandinavia. Why did you settle on that as a place to end the story?
LA: This family is going to keep traveling, with or without Naomi; the father will make sure this is so. His pride persists. Although he’s been humbled by the India incident, he hasn’t been broken. His desire to travel and to add notches to his belt hasn’t been destroyed. He’s going to forge on, to keep guiding his dispirited family onward to new frontiers. His picture of himself as their bold leader endures, but his destination is less ambitious now. To him, Scandinavia represents safety, cleanliness, familiarity. It’s the antidote to India’s troubling poverty and hot chaos. After their family ordeal, the father is looking for something cool, cleansing, and comforting for all of them, that will not agitate their emotions: the serene fjords of Norway.
EM: In the fiction of yours I’ve read previously, like the stories in your first collection, The Wonder Garden, it seems like you are consistently interested in the moment when whatever narrative a character has about who they are and their place in the world ceases to function for them. Something occurs that the character can’t explain or manage. Another thing that often arises in your fiction are encounters between characters who inhabit worlds of safety and privilege and characters whose situations are much more precarious. Are these themes you set out to tackle deliberately? Or do they just emerge organically from your work? Why do you think they have proven perennial for you?
LA: Yes! Over the years, I’ve become aware of this recurring theme of broken self-image. I wouldn’t say I deliberately pursue it, but I do notice with bemusement when it rears up in a story and I’m not surprised. It does tend to emerge organically from scenarios that interest me, probably because it’s what makes those scenarios interesting in the first place. The characters I like best are those who operate with a good bit of vanity and delusion. These characters are often people from privileged backgrounds who’ve been permitted to live in their own little bubbles for a long time, unthreatened. We all nurture flattering portraits of ourselves, some more flattering than others, and we all hope that this portrait is visible to the people around us. Characters who are careening toward a cliff, whose inflated self-images are about to burst, are great characters to write.
EM: I’ve just begun reading your first novel, The Paper Wasp, which will be out in June. The protagonist, Abby, becomes convinced that she has a mystical connection with a childhood friend, Elise, a successful Hollywood actress. How did you arrive at that subject matter? How did you know that this was an idea for a novel rather than another short story? How was the process of writing a novel different from working in shorter forms?
LA: The Paper Wasp was inspired by looking at the tabloids in the supermarket checkout line. There are so many female stars on the covers, some on the glittering rise and others on the catastrophic decline. I found myself wondering what it would be like if one of those glamorous women had been an old friend from childhood, and I was left to stare at her on the cover of People while buying toilet paper. What cocktail of emotions might I feel? What mix of admiration and resentment, excitement and contempt? How might a character in such a story manage her self-image in relation to such a famous friend?
I wrote a short story about two such friends: the famous and the obscure. Then, a friend of mine who coincidentally worked in the tabloid industry, mentioned that she thought the story would make a great commercial novel. I dropped the “serious” novel I’d been working on, and tried to write a light, fluffy, pseudonymous novel about Hollywood. It was much harder to do than I thought, and I found myself exploring dark alleys and emerging with a very different kind of book.
For me, writing a novel is much harder than working in shorter forms. The ideaof writing novels is absolutely wonderful, and I love reading expansive epics. Crafting novels is another thing entirely. I’m ever in awe of authors who can write long books. A short story comes almost pre-packaged to me, springing out of the seed of an idea into a nice, tidy shape. A novel is a maddening slog, full of doubt and wrong turns and delirium. I’m taking a short fiction cleanse before delving into another one.