There’s a lot of historical context to “Tea with the Earl of Twilight,” but the most front-and-center is that of the city of Boston itself. It feels like the city is its own character at times. What made you want to center this story in Boston?
It couldn’t have been set anywhere else. A few years ago, I was asked for one of those five-question memes that circulate on social media, “What’s something you know about the Boston area that you don’t think a lot of other people have noticed?” I ended up talking about how strange it is to me that most people don’t think of Boston as a city of water. Not just a seaport or a city with a river looping through it, but a city that could have been planned as an object lesson in the hubris of human industry that thought nothing of leveling hills and filling in coves and damming a river’s tides all to offer an ever-growing metropolis more and more land to stretch itself out onto, and yet could never imagine that the same cavalier terraforming enacted on a planetary scale would bring the sea flooding back, rising into the neighborhoods and parks and commercial districts and universities that were water when Boston was founded almost four centuries ago, a slender-necked peninsula surrounded by tidal flats, marshes, and bays. It’s not secret knowledge.
There was a very nice exhibit about it in the Boston Museum of Science, which I used to visit when I was small. As an adult, I went about unsystematically cataloguing its traces until I was finally introduced last year to the seminal study on the subject, Nancy S. Seasholes’ Gaining Ground: A History of Landmaking in Boston (2003). But it doesn’t seem to be common knowledge, even as we seriously discuss linking the harbor islands into a system of seawalls and don’t really discuss the fact that the Charles River went through two flood-control dams in less than a century, and might need a third any high tide now. I still can’t quite believe the Ballardian glitter of the Seaport was undertaken in the last decade, when we are officially nineteen feet above sea level and everyone must have known the sidewalks would flood with the first good storm surge. It’s such an American thing to do, rewrite the landscape and assume that’s the end of it.
It’s not confined to the nineteenth century. It was only 1958 when the working-class, immigrant neighborhood of the West End was razed as flat as Pemberton Hill or Mount Vernon, 1962 when the always something doing of Scollay Square was brutalized into the brick waste of Government Center. I live in Somerville, where the promise of the Green Line Extension has been raising the rents for years like a poker game where the tenants always fold first. In the middle of a plague year, we’re still seeing condos flipping all over the place. Cities are always reconstructing themselves, but Boston was recently ranked the third most gentrified city in the United States, and that’s a contest nobody wins except structural inequality. At the same time, I know that time can’t be glued in place or stripped off like paint, and when people try to treat nostalgia like sympathetic magic, very bad things—like nationalism—happen.
The important thing is to be here, and now, and aware of what’s under your feet. Sometimes it’s the sea. Sometimes it’s bones. My normal levels of flânerie have been severely curtailed thanks to COVID-19, but I spent years walking as much of Boston and its surrounding and interwoven cities as I could: it was how I found my way into a region where I was born and have spent most of my life and for a very long time did not feel at home. In January of this year, which feels like a historical snapshot now, I began exploring the area around Broad Canal, because in a lifetime of riding the Red Line across the Charles I had somehow never particularly noticed the ex-drawbridges on First Street and Edwin H. Land Boulevard, and neither had I understood the one-time extent of the canal system in East Cambridge. There it was again, that city of water hiding in plain sight. Mattie Joiner gave me the title for this story and everything else funneled right into it.
The industrial history of Boston, specifically the bridges and waterways, plays a key role in constructing the mood here. I notice that a lot of your story collections focus on water, crossings, and the decrepit. What is it about these elements that compel you?
They’re all liminal. Spatially or temporally, they are points of transition, transformation, or just plain more than one thing at once. They make me hungry. Sometimes they make me feel at home. In the foreword of A Rainbow Thread: An Anthology of Queer Jewish Texts from the First Century to 1969 (2019), Noam Sienna writes beautifully about the scholarly concepts of “shared contemporaneity,” “queer futurity,” and “eternal contemporaneity,” all of which involve the interrelation of past, present, and future. I recognized in them the same kind of touching through time that informs both my creative and critical writing, my ritual life, and my relationship with my city—I draw comfort from it, but I also know it’s a significant engine of horror and weird fiction: residual hauntings, ghosts as scars on time, places imprinted so deeply by history that on some level it is always still happening.
The present echoing with the past still implies a kind of linear continuity, though, and so there is something especially uncanny about a haunting that really dislocates time, a future event reverberating backward, a coin in a field that was never there until all of a sudden it always was. The week after I had finished this story, I had a moment of extremely peculiar double vision walking down Broad Canal. I knew I wasn’t going to see anything, but I had spent so much time visualizing the thing that wasn’t there, it was still strange to see its absence. It felt less wrong to consider the possibility of having channeled a ghost than having created one. I have not done as much with that kind of haunting as I would like, but I hope there’s some of it in Torrey’s jumbled, rear-projected, once and never city.
The incompleteness of the past—narratives, artifacts—fascinates me almost as much as its persistence. It makes the present unstable, founded on false or fragmentary notions of what came before. The future is something we’re always catching up to, but do we only recognize it because we’ve been told what to expect? I sort of backed into hauntology and psychogeography by natural bent; I love these ambiguities of place and time and perception as much as I do physical ruins or sea-change. I know it is the earth that holds memory in so many stories of this nature, but I have always linked water and time.
Queerness is a vital part of this story, voiced through the main character, her roommate Daniel, and Hilary. The final line, “She knew the future had always been too late” reads to me in part as a meditation on the myriad fates and lives of these characters. Could you talk a little bit about the inclusion of LGBT themes in this work?
Don’t forget Torrey! I am afraid the queer themes in this work have the most prosaic explanation possible: I am queer, and so are many of the people I love as well as the people I just happen to know, and since this story was taking place in the Somerville, Cambridge, Boston of my lived experience, why shouldn’t the same hold true of the people in it? It was a default more than it was a decision, although they seemed to match the story once they’d shown up. I hope they are as recognizable as the cities they inhabit. The last line is more hauntological than anything else to me, but I admit the future is a more difficult prospect at the moment than it was at the beginning of this year.
Along with being an exemplary writer, you are also a well-renowned poet, historian, and astral body namer (for unaware readers, Sonya provided the name for the anti-Pluto trans-Neptunian satellite Vanth). You have many talents, but what specifically jumps out here is the beautiful language of the story. To what degree do writing poetry and writing short fiction influence each other in your work?
I don’t know that they do, except that I think about language much the same way whichever mode I’m writing in. The weight of the words always matters, their rhythms and textures, the ways they fit against or abrade one another, and I like the echoes of meanings as much as their definitions. I think my poetry has become sparer over the years while my prose remains relatively dense, but I know that figurative language is impossible to strain out of either. As many senses as need to be engaged, or it all feels thin. And thank you!
What can we look forward to next from you?
I am cagey about talking about work in progress because I don’t want my brain to decide the story’s already been told, but I have new poetry forthcoming in Vastarien: A Literary Journal, Climbing Lightly Through Forests: A Poetry Anthology Honoring Ursula K. Le Guin (ed. Lisa Bradley and R.B. Lemberg), and new fiction in Weird Whispers. One comes from fifth-century Babylon, one from the far future of the planet Gethen, another from the recent past of the country of Orsinia, and one from nineteenth-century New Bedford.
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