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Our friend Joel got one of those mail-order brides. It was all perfectly legitimate: he made some calls, looked through the catalogs, comparison-shopped. He filled out the forms without lying about his income or his height. Where it asked “marital status?” he wrote “divorced!” and “when she left me I threw my ring into the sea.” “That’s so romantic,” we all said when he did it. “No it wasn’t, it was stupid,” he said. “I could have sold that ring for a lot of money.” We insisted, “No, it’s very romantic.” “Do you think?” “Any woman would want you now,” we said as we put on bathing suits and diving masks and headed down to the beach.
I’ll call her Nadia. That was not her name, but I’ll call her that to protect her identity. She came from a place where that was necessary. Nadia brings up images of Russian gymnasts. Or is it Romanian? Bulgarian? She had the sad ancient eyes, the strained-back hair, the small knotty muscles. The real Nadia, the famous Nadia, I forget what she did exactly, I have vague memories of her winning a gold medal with a grievous wound, a broken bone, a burst appendix.
Judy Budnitz is the author of the books Flying Leap and If I Told You Once. Her new story collection, Nice Big American Baby, will be published in February 2005. Her stories have appeared in The New Yorker, Harper’s, McSweeney’s, The Paris Review, Fence, and the anthologies Prize Stories 2000: the O. Henry Awards, Best American Nonrequired Reading 2003, and Lost Tribes, among others. She has taught creative writing at Brown and Columbia universities.
Q&A by Hannah Tinti
- HT: Where did the idea for this story come from?
- JB: I’d had ‘mail-order-bride’ on my list of possible story ideas for years. It’s the sort of idea that tends to stick in my head: it’s so bizarre, absurd, almost like a fairy tale, and yet at the same time it’s this real thing that is happening all the time, all around us. It’s more common than you might think; the statistics are pretty surprising. And a mail-order-bride always struck me as a very rich thing to build a story around—there’s the love/romance (or lack thereof) aspect of it, there’s the clash of cultures, and then there’s the political side of it, the political and economic conditions that drive women into the situation. I made several attempts to write a story about it, some strictly realistic and some more absurd, in the vein of Barthelme’s ‘Captured Woman,’ but none of them really got off the ground until I stopped trying to write it from the bride’s point of view and instead started writing through the eyes of nosy, gossiping observers.
- HT: What was the most challenging aspect of writing this story?
- JB: This story was a balancing act in a lot of ways—there were many points where I was asking myself: am I pushing this too far? Or not far enough? Are the characters sympathetic enough, or are they too repellent? I wanted them to be a bit of both. I wanted the story to be odd, sort of off-kilter, but do the twists and turns seem too contrived to swallow? I guess that was my main concern—I didn’t want the author’s hand to be apparent. I wanted the story to flow naturally, to seem to follow its own strange logic. I didn’t want it to seem like the author was orchestrating things, manipulating events and characters with a heavy hand to make certain points. I don’t know if I succeeded or not.
- HT: Why did you decide to tell this story from the point of view of a group—or rather, a person within a group?
- JB: I’ve always been interested in the collective ‘we’ narrating voice. It can be a very powerful thing. It can be pretty frightening, like a mob speaking with one voice. And with this story, I was thinking about the mob mentality, trying to understand it, the way a mob is capable of doing things that the individuals within it would never do on their own. I wanted to have a narrator who’s sort of caught up in the mob thinking, at times inciting it and at other times trying to separate herself from it. And I wanted this to be a believable, contemporary sort of mob—the Salem witch-hunters of today. I wanted them to be ordinary, not-evil, somewhat sympathetic people, held together by petty emotions like jealousy and loneliness, so I landed on this idea of the ‘Joel’s-close-but-platonic-female-friends’ clique.
- HT: Did you know what kind of person Joel was from the start? And did you know the ending? Or was it something you figured out as you were writing?
- JB: I didn’t plan ahead of time what would happen with Joel, or with any of the characters. When I write, I usually set up a situation, then sort of watch it unfold as I’m writing, and sort of let the story write itself. I knew I wanted Joel to change—or at least I wanted the narrator’s perception of him to change. And not just with Joel; I wanted all the characters’ perceptions of each other, and themselves, to go through several permutations. I remember keeping Tobias Wolf’s ‘Hunters in the Snow’ in mind when I was writing—in that story, he causes your sympathies for each of the characters to shift several times.
- HT: Why did you give Nadia a daughter?
- JB: I wanted to reveal something that would make Nadia seem less like an object and more like a person to these people, and giving her a daughter was a way to give her a past, a history, a family—it forces them to see her as more than just this cute object that came in the mail. And in a way it makes her seem more experienced, more mature than the narrating women, since none of them have children and are still sort of stuck in a gossipy petty adolescence themselves.
- HT: Do you think of yourself as a political writer?
- JB: I didn’t set out to be a political writer, but when I look back at my work I see that most of it is concerned with basic moral questions, with the choices people make, with how they treat each other and why. And I suppose that makes it political. When I look at this story now, I see that it’s about people with good intentions, trying to help, but through their own stubbornness and ignorance and single-mindedness they end up making things worse. When I look at my work from the past few years, I see this theme repeated again and again: well-intentioned, narrow-minded blundering causing more harm than good. And it’s pretty easy to see that as a reflection of what’s going on in the world today.
- HT: How long did it take you to complete this story?
- JB: This story took several years to finish. I’d work on it, put it aside for months, and pick it up again. It went through several different drafts and endings. It was the kind of thing where I felt like the story was deep in there, somewhere, and I had to keep going back and picking at it to dig it out.
- HT: What is the best bit of advice about writing you have ever received?
- JB: Well, I once read something Flannery O’Connor wrote, or said, that has become my mantra. I think someone had asked her to summarize one of her stories in a sentence, and she replied that if she were able sum it up in a sentence, there would have been no need to write the story in the first place. And that has always stuck in my head—that a story should say more, should do more, than can be summarized in a sentence.
- HT: What are you working on now?
- JB: Right now I’m working on a novel. I’ve written a bunch of little sections and am not sure how they’re going to fit together. And I’m still adding to that list of potential story ideas. I just added “Victor Yushenko’s face” to the list. That whole situation is so fascinating, so strange—there’s got to be a great story in it somewhere.