She comes from a family of barbarians. Every holiday there is blood, every vacation there is carnage. There are no manicured sisters or Pucci clad aunts for her to emulate. Only legions of hairy boy cousins and uncles that smell of lake trout and a fat baby brother who, obsessed with television wrestling, believes he is The Iron Sheik.

There are aunts, of course, and a grandmother and a mother to be sure. But they have lived in this environment, in this battle dome they call a family for years upon years and look as ladylike as ancient mariners. They drink whiskey and kill mice with boot heels and swear like vagrants. The only whiff of femininity to be found is the expensive scent of her grandmother’s lilac perfume, worn when company comes. A gift from her husband, it covers up the scent of Kentucky bourbon, which grandmother wears on her breath with far more alarming regularity than anyone is willing to discuss.

At seven, Lee idolizes Madonna with her girlish hair, her jelly bracelets and soft abdomen, but does so in secret. When her mother takes her downtown to shop for clothes, she says, “No thanks, nothing pink,” and then a little gravely, “maybe a Tigers shirt or something.”

Emily Benz

Emily Benz was born and raised in Michigan. She studied writing at The University of Wisconsin-Madison and at Columbia University, where she received her MFA. Her work has been published in Fence and Other Voices and honored by The Xeric Foundation. She recently finished a collection of short stories set in the great lakes region of the Upper Midwest and currently lives in Los Angeles, where she teaches writing and is at work on a novel.

Q&A by Hannah Tinti

HT: Where did the idea for this story come from?
EB: It originally came from a feeling. I was interested in how perceptions change as we grow older. Things often look lovely when we are children, and then we grow up and see that they aren’t so great. I was thinking about the moment when one sees that things stink a little, and the yearning that comes for the easy times. A cottage where a large family lived together seemed to be the ideal setting for a story like this, and so I built the family and the setting around the feeling, and went from there. The setting came immediately and easily. It informed everything. The plot, the characters, the language, and all else were formed from the lake and the house.
HT: What was the most challenging aspect of writing this story?
EB: So many characters, and so many years in between scenes. Some suggested that I make this into a novel, but I just never saw it that way. Because the story grew out of a feeling, it seemed to me just that—a story. I had to ignore workshop edicts like a short story has to be about one moment and should only have a few characters and so on. I worked hard to balance all of the characters, all of the time periods, and make everything work together in a relatively small amount of space.
HT: How does being from Michigan affect your work as a writer? Did your family have a lake house like this, when you were growing up?
EB: Well, Michigan is interesting. It’s a great state that a lot of young people seem to leave. In New York, for example, sometimes it feels like Detroit has exported half of its young people to the five boroughs. Better economies, I suppose, or creative possibilities elsewhere tend to lure people away. Also, Michigan is also one of the darkest states in the continental US, which I think is a material gold mine. Sometimes there are months without sun in the winter, which I never realized until I moved away. All of that said, I know many people who stayed and make me wish I never left. I feel a great deal of love and loyalty towards the place. The most complicated, better-than-fiction characters I know are from Michigan. Of course, there are all types of people there, but I love people who’ve created their own little worlds and aren’t concerned with chasing the American dream. Much of my work focuses on these kinds of characters and the strange occurrences that grow out of the quiet, the cold and the stillness of the region. This story, on the other hand, focuses more on the raw physical beauty of the state. This piece is definitely a love letter. My family does have a lake house. My grandparents bought it the year I was born, and my father used to rock me to sleep in a rowboat on the lake. As in the story, our cottage has an enormous tree growing through the center of the living room, which as a child, I thought was way better than Disneyland or whatever else I was supposed to be worshiping at the time.
HT: The setting of the lake makes it easier to see the changes in Lee, since she is always set against the same backdrop. How conscious were you of using setting in this story?
EB: Very. I’ve always loved the shipwreck songs and the cold temperatures of the Great Lakes. A lot of people on the lakes tend to be individuals informed by their environment, so I used the house and the lake to develop the personalities of the family. Also, it is a pretty specific region that has its own rites and rituals. I liked the idea of sending Lee out on her own, watching her load up with baggage, and then bringing her back to this place where her family’s world acts like a barometer. And in terms of the house as backdrop, well, family cottages tend to stay the same forever. The shampoo from 1983, the old Sports Illustrated magazines, and the driftwood piece someone thought looked like an alligator. It’s all there. Plus, I think there is an attitude, something like, “We don’t need this crap at home, let’s take it to the cottage!” It’s the final resting place for the family castoffs, and no one takes the initiative to change the place. I hoped a place frozen in time and completely unique to this family would be a good place to watch Lee change.
HT: The crises with the boat seem to be providing bookends for the story. Did you do this consciously when you wrote the piece? And why do you think a crisis like this brings so much satisfaction?
EB: The boat scenes were at the start and end of my original rough draft. These crises were the times when the family was happy and not focused on its problems, so the scenes felt important. I’m not sure if other people feel the same way, but I think when a simple, physical crisis is averted, it often feels like a rare victory. Especially living in a world so complicated that we aren’t really able to save much, even when we try. Whether it’s preventing a family from falling apart or working in small ways to ease some larger, societal issue, these battles are often frustrating and not usually won. But these smaller victories happen more easily, sustain us, and help us forget about the rest of our problems, even if just for a minute. Also, when these kinds of things happen in groups, they bring people together and make them feel like a team. I’m sure this is why companies and organizations are always pushing the trust exercises, like blindfolding people and catching them as they fall. The companies should just throw their sales departments on a sinking boat. That would create some serious teamwork.
HT: How long did it take you to complete this story?
EB: I wrote the rough draft of the story very quickly, in the course of a week or so. Revising it was another matter. It’s been through eleven or twelve drafts, maybe more. I only recently considered it finished a few months ago, four years after originally writing it.
HT: What is the best bit of advice about writing you have ever received?
EB: I’ve had some great teachers and heard all kinds of advice, though by now, most of the advice has worked itself into a kind of blurry hum in my head. All in all, though, what stuck with me over the years is just to write every day. This may be the most boring advice ever, but it is also the best. Be like Graham Greene the only way you can, which means, write for at least two hours every day. I try to do that at minimum. Writing everyday keeps me connected to my work, helps my writing evolve, and allows me to live this secret life in my head that has nothing to do with the real, often difficult world around me.
HT: What are you working on now?
EB: Various things. I finished a collection of stories this spring, and started a novel, which has been an enjoyable change. After writing stories for the last few years, it feels wonderful not to have the same page constraints looming ahead. I am also working on a graphic novel with my good friend, the artist Summer McClinton. We release chapters as we finish them, which keeps us on our toes.