Betsy was checking her neighbor’s mail again. Not because Fabienne had asked her to, but because the mailman made it so easy, leaving it out on the hall table like that. How else was she supposed to know what was going on? If the people living around her were staying or going? This was how she said hello, good-bye. How she remained a good citizen of the building. There were only six units, after all, two on each floor. Such structural intimacy needed someone like her paying attention.
She almost never opened her neighbors’ mail. Just fanned the pieces out on the tabletop, tiptoeing her fingers along the bills past due, the postcards both goofy and sincere, the letters with addresses written in the scrawl of the far away. It calmed her, this little ritual. Sometimes, after coming home, she would stand at the hall table and organize the mail into piles, putting everything in its right place. Nobody ever thanked her, but she could wait; the thanks would come someday, and she was very patient.
Sara Batkie is the author of the story collection Better Times, which won the 2017 Prairie Schooner Prize and is forthcoming from University of Nebraska Press in fall 2018. She received her MFA from New York University. Stories of hers have been honored with a 2017 Pushcart Prize and a notable mention in the 2011 edition of Best American Short Stories. She was born in Bellevue, Washington and grew up mostly in Iowa, but currently makes her home in Brooklyn where she works as the Writing Programs Director for The Center for Fiction.
Patrick Ryan on “Departures”
Have you ever read someone else’s mail? Have you ever presented yourself to people as someone you’re not? Have you ever stood over a dead body and pretended to have feelings for it? If the answer to all three of these questions is yes, you are one sick puppy. You might also have stepped out of the pages of our new issue, “Departures” by Sara Batkie.
Betsy is a quiet, well-meaning individual. She’s the person you pass in the hall of your apartment building and don’t want to say hi to because she looks a little too fragile for a casual exchange. She looks—at least in my reading of her—like the deer in the headlights who wants to bolt but also wants to have a chat. And if you’re her neighbor, she might just know more about you than you would ever suspect.
“Departures” is both creepy and fun. It’s both a psychological profile and a how-to manual for deception (imagine Tom Ripley but with none of the malice). It’s “a love story of sorts,” the author says in our Q&A—even though, when asked to sum up the story in one word, the word she chose was “disguises.” However one describes it, I think this story by Sara Batkie is a knockout, and I’m delighted to be putting it into your hands.
Q&A by Patrick Ryan
- PR: Where did the idea for this story come from?
- SB: The idea sprang from three very different inspirations. The first was a strange encounter I had with one of my neighbors. I live in a large apartment building and beyond the occasional pleasantry when passing in the hall, I don’t know any of the people who live around me, which is an odd quirk of New York City and one I, as a Midwesterner, still haven’t gotten used to, even after a decade here. Anyway, I got a piece of my neighbor’s mail that seemed quite important. But when I knocked on her door she wouldn’t answer, even though I could hear her television inside and her dog was barking. After several attempts with the same result, I finally just wrote a note on the envelope and slipped it under her door. A week later there was a yellow notice pasted on the door that she was being evicted. I have no idea if the two were connected at all but it got me thinking about the intimacy and anonymity that go hand in hand with urban living. The second inspiration was a piece I read about the Loomis Fargo bank robbery, which happened in October of 1997 and was, at the time at least, the second-largest cash robbery in American history. The entire story is worth looking up but I was particularly struck by the prime suspect’s decision to run away to Mexico with his stash, where he spent extravagantly. This got me thinking about what I would do if I had cash like that at my disposal, particularly cash that had to be used up quickly. The last inspiration was reading a lot of Joy Williams’ stories, which often touch on the inexplicable in human nature. And then, in the same way investigators on television are always trying to catch a serial killer, I connected all these things on the corkboard of my mind and the story was the result.
- PR: One of the marvels of “Departures” is that the reader can still manage to feel sympathy for Betsy, even though she spends the entire story deceiving people. Does it surprise you that a reader would find Betsy sympathetic?
- SB: I’m glad you asked this, because it’s something I find myself thinking about all the time, as a writer, as a reader, and as a woman out in the world. The insistence on likability is pretty baffling to me; sympathy is a trickier matter. I hope, of course, that all my characters are sympathetic in some way, even if what they’re doing is objectionable. I think perhaps the fact that Betsy has convinced herself that what she’s doing is for the good of someone else—Vicky’s family, and then later Stan—helps elide some of the out-and-out unlawful behavior she engages in. Also, if the Ocean’s Eleven film series has taught me anything, it’s that we’re very willing to give criminals the benefit of the doubt if they’re graceful enough in their sleights of hand.
- PR: In previous incarnations of this story, did things always go pretty smoothly for Betsy in regards to her funeral visit? Were there any hurdles you considered throwing in that you then decided not to include?
- SB: It never occurred to me to throw any hurdles at Betsy. I don’t know what that says about me, as a person or a writer! But somewhere along the way it dawned on me that the most interesting way forward was just to see how far I, and Betsy, could go. The tension was less for me in whether people would figure out she was lying, since I think most people are willing to believe what you tell them about yourself, but in whether she could sustain the ruse herself. So the first drafts were much dreamier, much less focused on the logistics of how a deception like this might actually work.
- PR: In a very nice, expansive way, the story ends on a few questions. Without giving too much away, I’m thinking of questions like How’s that excursion going to work out? And What does the future hold for these two people? And Is Betsy going to continue her deceptive ways, or is she done with all that? I’m not asking you to answer those, specifically (unless you want to), but have you thought past the ending, even though it’s not part of the story?
- SB: Well, in the way I hope every good author does, I always want the best for my characters, even “bad” ones, after I’ve left them. But to be honest, I haven’t thought much past the ending of the story for Betsy because I don’t believe that she has. She’s living entirely in the moment, probably for the first time in her life, and to assign her a definitive future seems almost unkind to me. That being said, I do think of this at least in part as a love story of sorts, of two people who don’t entirely realize how well-suited they are for one another because neither is being honest. I hope both Betsy and Stan find a way to be happy, as much as any of us can. Maybe they expand their skill sets and start robbing banks.
- PR: Finish this sentence in just one word—the word you think best captures it: “This story is about __________.”?
- SB: Disguises.
- PR: Can you tell us a little about the book “Departures” will be part of? What’s it called, and when will it be out? Are the stories in it linked or connected in any way?
- SB: I’m happy to! “Departures” is part of my story collection Better Times, which will be out in September 2018. The stories are not linked in any way, but I’ve attempted to arrange them so they’re connected thematically, and hopefully flow for a reader who’s going straight through as much as one who’s reading piecemeal. It’s sectioned as “The Recent Past,” “The Modern Age,” and “The World to Come.” “Departures” is part of the middle group. Pretty much all of them are about women who are lonely or struggling to connect in some way.
- PR: What are you working on now?
- SB: A novel, like everyone else in Brooklyn. It’s about feminism and time travel and the public and private treatment of women’s’ bodies. I’ve been writing it for over four years but had to take a hard stop after the 2016 election and rethink some aspects of it. It’s very difficult to work on something long-term and have the world and conversations taking place around you change so completely in the middle of it. But it’s also, of course, a privilege.
- PR: What is the best bit of advice about writing you have ever received?
- SB: Very early in my writing career, when I was still in my MFA program, I had the chance to share a story of mine with One Story’s own Hannah Tinti. She asked about a one-scene character and I said something along the lines of, “People in my workshop liked him too.” And she basically said, “Well, give the people what they want.” It’s so easy to fixate on what we’re told isn’t working at all that we can forget to pay attention to the areas that are promising but underdeveloped, particularly for me as someone who writes very withholding first drafts. So I reworked the story to make the character more central to the plot and it ended up winning the Gulf Coast fiction prize and becoming my first publication. That was good advice in that particular situation but it’s applied to everything I’ve written since.