The opening of the story paints a sharp contrast between life and death, angles and mush. Was there a particular moment or image that sowed the seed for this story?
First of all, thank you for taking the time to interview me. I very much appreciate it. And as a warning to readers, I want to say: read the story first. This interview will be like one of those terrible introductions to a classic book—you know, the ones that assume everyone has read this book, and ruin the ending for you.
The story “Outside of Omaha” was written based on a poem I wrote by the same title. The poem is a monologue about the photograph the couple take together in Omaha, and how it cannot possibly represent the complexities of their personalities, their relationship with one another, and their personal histories. It is implied, in the poem, that the narrative voice is that of a widower, and the monologue is a threnody for his deceased wife.
So—the poem was inspired by an actual photograph of a turn-of-the-century couple in Nebraska, and the story was “inspired” by the poem. But the poem, which I will post at my website (bit.ly/3eHkPKR) for readers, does not have any supernatural elements in it at all. The supernatural elements came from somewhere else, and to be honest, I’m not sure where. They just kind of appeared and attached themselves to the poem. I think I had been reading something somewhere about the discovery of a “witch’s jar” in the U.S., and my hyperactive mind began thinking along some strange lines from there.
Can you talk a bit about the setting? What were some of the world events that informed the characters’ decisions and responses?
My great-great-grandfather on my maternal side (the grandfather of my mother’s father) immigrated to the United States from Germany in the late nineteenth century and died several years later in a coal mine outside of Omaha. That’s where the title of the story comes from, and the idea for telling a story about the immigrants of that time. I’ve also traveled a decent amount myself in the Great Plains and always wanted to set a story there. Anyone who has seen the Great Plains knows the immensity and uncanniness of their solitudes. I wanted to capture that feeling in this story—both of how the Great Plains are extraordinarily isolating, and how that isolation can become a place, for some, of refuge. So long as they are willing to fight for it.
This might be a distinction without a difference, but would you say the “you,” the wife, thinks of herself as an immigrant or a refugee? Something else?
I think there is a difference, but that immigrant/refugee is not a binary, but rather an entanglement. All immigrants are, in some sense, refugees: everyone immigrating to a place is emigrating from a place, and has a reason for leaving that place, ranging from concrete reasons of self-preservation to personal reasons of self-fulfillment. Of course, there is an enormous difference between running from war, running away from an economic depression, and simply leaving to find better opportunities elsewhere, but I would argue that (especially when talking about immigrants in the nineteenth century) we “modern” people would consider the vast majority of them to be refugees.
Their immigration is also an extraordinary leap which it is difficult for us to comprehend from our increasingly globalized present scene. When they leave their home countries, they know that the likelihood is they will never see their homes again, and never speak to or see the relatives they leave behind. Their separation is total, or as near to total as we could imagine, and they must remake themselves completely in a new place. Immigration these days seems to allow for much more “global,” hybrid identities. I think of my own dual citizenship, and the dual citizenship of my partner, and our daughter who, at one year old, hears English, Russian, and Albanian every day. On the other hand, my French-Canadian ancestors went to a land that would swallow their lives forever. They would never see France again. Many would likely never get a letter from a person they left behind. It’s astounding to really put oneself in their place. That’s a long way of saying that the “you,” in the story, the wife, would think of herself as a refugee, but call herself an immigrant. And she would be surrounded by other refugees calling themselves immigrants. And the narrator is most certainly a refugee, from a previous existence he has sought to put behind him. I think one can be a refugee from one’s own past as well, without ever leaving a country.
The paragraph that begins, “You can hold two opposite things in the mind, you see,” was so resonant. What about this story surprised you while you were writing it?
This is, of course, a horror story and a story of the uncanny, but I also think it is another kind of story: it is a story of redemption. For me, redemption is the central theme of “Outside of Omaha.”
In my work I deal a lot with the idea of monstrosity—of how people can be monstrous to one another, or to themselves, and how they encounter and deal with monstrousness in the world. It’s been a consistent theme since my early writing in the crime and noir genres. This story is about two monsters who find one another, make a home together, and defend it from those who would destroy it.
The concept of being able to hold two opposite things in the mind is precisely about this concept: You don’t have to be good to do good. Goodness isn’t inherent: it comes from what you can tell yourself, from the story you weave about who you want to be, and the actions you take to get there. So here in “Outside of Omaha,” we have a very bad man who marries something most would likely consider evil. And they (and here it is, the spoiler: I warned you at the top) live happily together, for as long as their lives last.
What can we look forward to next from you?
I have a superstition about the evil eye that comes from having lived too long in Russia, Central Asia, and the Caucasus, so I never talk about the things I am working on. But I will talk about what is completed, and sold. I have a story, “The Shadow of His Wings,” coming up in Analog sometime in 2021. And I have a story (another one about monstrosity, in fact) coming up in the new magazine Dark Matter in January of 2021. I also have a story, “Architecture,” coming up in Queen’s Quarterly, a Canadian lit mag. And anyone who wants to keep track can follow me on Twitter or at Raynayler.net
Thanks again! I hope everyone enjoyed “Outside of Omaha” and did not read this interview first.
Spread the word!