The sky drapes low and dark, the shade of deep water before dawn, and Opal can’t help but think Lord have mercy, Lord have mercy. Her neighborhood is hushed, no children fighting or playing in yards, not a car flying by on the street too fast like they tend to do, just the sirens sounding sporadically throughout the morning.
Her husband Glen is somewhere in Georgia and Mother Winnie is at the Willow Springs Home and Opal is here and the new constellation of tornados is somewhere west and roiling this way. It is tornado season and this happens, but something stirs different in Opal today, something that scares her in a way she cannot name, the voice in the back of her head whispering, now, the time is now, and Mother Winnie there at the home, old and scared, surely, old and scared and alone unless you count nurses and caretakers who don’t count because they’re not family.
“She’ll be fine,” Glen had said on the phone earlier that morning. “You stay in the basement bathroom. You stay in the tub. You get yourself a flashlight and some water and a radio and you stay there.”
Jennifer S. Davis, originally from Alabama, is the author of Her Kind of Want (Sept. 2002), winner of the Iowa Award for Short Fiction. She is the recipient of an AWP Prague Summer Seminars Fellowship in Fiction, a Washington State Artists’ Trust grant, the Reynolds Price Short Fiction Award, and a Djerassi residency. Additional stories from her new collection, Our Former Lives in Art (forthcoming from Random House) will soon be published in Paris Review, Oxford American, Epoch, Fiction, and The Georgia Review. Jennifer has taught at the University of Miami and in the MFA program at Eastern Washington University, where she served as Editor of Willow Springs. Currently, she lives in New Orleans where she is working on a novel that takes place during Reconstruction.
Q&A by Hannah Tinti
- HT: Where did the idea for this story come from?
- JD: To be honest, I can’t remember exactly. I generally start stories with an image, but this one was different. I had been tinkering with a story about a woman who is forced to tend to her ailing mother-in-law for various reasons, a mother-in-law who often goes AWOL from her retirement home. However, all the stories I’m writing lately seem to deal with religion or spirituality, whether I want them to or not, and perhaps because of my skewed view of religion, a lot of the stories having been inching toward the surreal. I was raised as a Southern Baptist in rural Alabama, and I have what I call a Baptist hangover—I just can’t seem to shake it. Everything I heard in church and at home finds a way into my stories, although not the way my parents would like. As a child, the Rapture was spoken about often and matter-of-factly in my home, an event that was just around the corner, kind of like Christmas or a birthday, and it was always explained to me with the image of the mother finding her baby missing in the crib. I had nightmares for years about being at pizza parties or at school and suddenly everyone around me vanishing, and in my dreams, I would constantly try to bargain my way into heaven.
- HT: What was the most challenging aspect of writing this story?
- JD: Out of my last set of stories, this one came the easiest by far. If I struggled with anything, I struggled with trying to make sure that in the end the rapture Opal experiences has little to do with religion, and far more to do with her own individual awakening.
- HT: Have you ever experienced a tornado first hand?
- JD: Sure. Many. They are commonplace in Alabama, and no one really gets that worked up about them. I saw one rip across the playground in first grade. I remember carrying food and clothing with my mother to a classmate of mine whose home had been destroyed in one. In the summer when I was growing up, my brothers and I would hide under their bunk beds when a warning was put out, and occasionally we could hear the tornados whirl around us outside. If I remember right, my parents were usually at work when warnings were issued, and we didn’t even bother to call them. And I spent many an hour gossiping on the phone while curled up in the tub in graduate school in Tuscaloosa when the tornados hit there, which was often for some reason.
- HT: How did you come up with the character of Opal?
- JD: I think, in the beginning, Opal was just a way to get to Mother Winnie. I’m enamored of older women, especially strong, relentless ones, so I put them in my stories as frequently as possible, and I always try to sexualize them because I think their sexuality is often overlooked in fiction. I had seen a picture of Edna St. Vincent Millay where she was reclining on a couch in men’s trousers, a cigarette dangling from her hand, and I loved her abandon, and wanted Mother Winnie to have that, wanted Opal to want that. But maybe because of my religious background, I am consumed with how guilt and fear dictate our lives, and so Opal was spawned from my exploration of my own guilt. I struggle with guilt over everything. My husband gave me a book on Hedonism for Christmas (the man can play video games for ten hours straight and it never crosses his mind to feel like he’s wasted a day), but then I just felt guilty for reading a book on how to be self-indulgent. With Opal, I wanted to see what would happen to a woman who had lived her life just as she was told to do in her conservative, Southern society, until the one day where things were thrown off kilter, and she realized she hadn’t really lived a life at all, and the thing she must reckon with in the end is her own culpability.
- HT: The writing in “Rapture” is practically a character in itself. Can you tell us a little about your writing style, and how you use it in this story to create its mood?
- JD: My style differs quite a bit from story to story, but my most natural way of writing, the writing that comes the easiest, is meandering and full of repetition. I like the way repetition lulls one into a story much like a dirge, and in this story, I wanted the sentences to mirror the roiling and twisting of the tornadoes.
- HT: There were parts of this story that were reminiscent of Flannery O’Connor’s work. Is it difficult to write about religion and/or spirituality in fiction? Why were you drawn to God as a subject in “Rapture”?
- JD: Thank you for saying that. When I first started reading O’Connor, I thought she was making fun of the hypocrisy of so-called religious people. I had no idea until years later that she was indeed jabbing at the hypocrisy of the self-acclaimed religious, but not because she found religion absurd, but because she didn’t think people were religious enough. It kind of made me sad for her, all that self-righteousness and anger, but I’ve never stopped loving her work, whether it was intended to be didactic or not. As to whether or not religion is difficult to write about, I think it is. I never want to make a caricature of religious people, I don’t want to be didactic, and I try not to insult my family, all of whom are extremely involved in their various churches in Alabama. When I first started writing, I had a lot of anger about the way religion is dished out in the South, and so my stories were more reactionary and vindictive. Now, I think, I have a broader understanding of how religion functions in the society from which I came, and my desire is to explore its influences and consequences on individual characters in a more empathetic and even-handed way. And since I came from such a religious home, I’m still struggling with reconciling my politics with my own brand of spirituality and with my background, and to me this struggle is what I find interesting to explore on the page.
- HT: How long did it take you to complete this story?
- JD: This one, I think, I did in a weekend with a few days of revision in the year that followed. But most stories take me years to finish.
- HT: What is the best bit of advice about writing you have ever received?
- JD: To lose the editors in your head, but I can never seem to do that. I don’t leave a sentence until it’s finished, so when I’m through with a draft, the story is pretty much complete unless I totally redo it. However, I wish I didn’t write that way. I wish I could lose the editors in my head. I don’t think writing would be so excruciating if I could learn to do that.
- HT: What are you working on now?
- JD: I’m working on a novel about a group of Southerners who leave the States immediately after the Civil War. The writing itself is absolutely killing me, but doing the research has been amazing.