Her name is Hollie and her nails are round and pink, like bubblegum. She wears shorts so tight the tag sticks out, licking the tanned skin on her lower back. The tag says five. What kind of size is five? Five is the age of a baby, the maximum number of dollars I will spend on a beer. Five is the number of years since my wife, Torrance, put a gun in her mouth and sent us barreling into an alternate universe.

The main difference between Torrance and Hollie, aside from their age and everything else, is that Torrance viewed the world as a dried-up leaf—a beautiful thing turned ugly—while Hollie views the world as a garden, something fertile and packed with delight. She plans to become a Dallas Cowboys cheerleader and own property on Mars. When I ask if I can visit her zero-gravity space-condo, she says, with complete sincerity, “I would totally want you to, but I don’t think you’ll be alive by then?” She’s my dreamer, Hollie, and I’d rather be a silly girl’s dream than a hole in a dead person’s head.

Becky Mandelbaum

Becky Mandelbaum is the author of The Bright Side Sanctuary for Animals, forthcoming from Simon & Schuster in summer of 2020, and Bad Kansas, which received the 2016 Flannery O’Connor Award for Short Fiction and the 2018 High Plains Book Award for First Book. Her work has appeared or is forthcoming in The Sun, The Missouri Review, The Georgia Review, Prairie Schooner, Carve, Electric Literature, McSweeney’s Internet Tendency, and elsewhere. Originally from Kansas, she currently lives in Bellingham, Washington.

Will Allison on “Say Uncle”

The first time I read “Say Uncle,” I was touched by the sweetness of the love story Becky Mandelbaum tells. Normally, as a reader, that’s exactly what I hope for: to be moved. In this case, though, I also felt a little dirty, because the so-called love story in question involves Dan, an unemployed thirty-something, and Hollie, a fifteen-year-old schoolgirl. Clearly, the relationship is all wrong. So how could I feel sympathy for a pedophile? How could I sort of even like the guy?

Of course, this is what good fiction does. It challenges us by allowing us to inhabit viewpoints that are radically different from our own. It’s easy to be repelled by the idea of Dan and Hollie together; it’s harder to dismiss Dan’s humanity once you’ve spent time in his shoes. And so “Say Uncle” engages in a daring high-wire act, creating sympathy for Dan while also not letting him off the hook.

I wasn’t surprised to encounter this rich complexity in a story by Becky Mandelbaum. Her collection, Bad Kansas, which received the 2016 Flannery O’Connor Award for Short Fiction, is full of stories that are as lively and hilarious as they are challenging and unsettling. Here at One Story, we are thrilled to be sharing her work with you.

This story contains scenes of child sexual abuse. We encourage you to read our Q&A with the author, in which Mandelbaum addresses her reasons for investigating the topic and how she approached this taboo subject matter.

Q&A by Will Allison

WA: “Say Uncle” is about the relationship between Dan, an unemployed thirty-something, and Hollie, a fifteen-year-old schoolgirl. Where did you get the idea for this story?
BM: It started with a vague idea of Dan’s character and his opening line: “Her name is Hollie and her nails are round and pink, like bubblegum.” I knew he was falling in love with a girl much too young for him, and I knew he was looking at her with a rose-tinted microscope, the way we do when we’re falling in love. Lolita is one of my favorite books—only now do I realize I was trying to mirror the way Nabokov opens that book, with Humbert Humbert rolling Lolita’s name around in his mouth, showing it off to the reader. To come at the question from a different angle: When I was a few years older than Hollie, I “dated” a man who was much older than I was, and in a position of power. However slimy it sounds, it didn’t feel slimy at the time. I was in awe of him, and attracted to him, and was thrilled when he started to flirt with me. Although I was terrified at times, I genuinely wanted to be with him—or at least I felt like I did. I didn’t understand until years later that there is a firm wall between a young girl getting what she wants and a grown man pursuing what he knows he shouldn’t. I knew what it felt like to be on my side of this wall, so I wanted to explore the other side, Dan’s side. That’s where this story eventually led me.
WA: What was the most challenging aspect of writing this story?
BM: The greatest challenge was making sure I did right by Hollie. I wanted to make sure she stood out as her own character, someone with agency, dreams, and her own personhood, rather than just a passive shadow that moves across Dan’s life. The same goes for Dan’s mother—I wanted to make sure the women had their piece.
WA: Despite Dan’s inappropriate relationship with Hollie, despite his being a loser of sorts, I couldn’t help liking the guy. That’s one of the things I love about “Say Uncle,” the way it implicates the reader. What was your moral calculus in writing this story?
BM: At the risk of sounding heinous, I try not to write with morals in mind. Rather, I follow the characters, who might be morally thorny, and let the story condemn or pardon them as it chooses. I don’t think readers like when a story tells them who is evil, who is good. That’s a comic book. What I want is characters who just are, and the reader can feel however she wants about them. If the reader feels two conflicting feelings at once—well, that’s perfect, since that’s how it often goes in life. When I finished this story, I did question whether I’d given Dan too much sympathy, a concern that begs the larger question of whether we can ever, in good conscience, sympathize with predators without absolving them of their crimes or jeopardizing the victim’s side of the story. I hope the answer is yes, that we’re capable of juggling this kind of emotional dissonance. Fiction, at least for me, serves as a safe arena in which to practice this dissonance—to lean into what repulses me and ask: What are you made of? Why are you like this? How do I deal with you? I didn’t realize it until this Q&A, but I also struggled with this question in the novel I just finished. The book involves a hate crime perpetrated by an alt-right neo-Nazi. It took me so many revisions, but I ultimately realized I needed to come closer to this character, to understand how he became the person he is. I was surprised by what I found there, which is perhaps the best feeling fiction can produce. I think every time we write or read about a character who surprises or challenges us, we become more open to these surprises in the people around us.
WA: Like most of the stories in your debut collection, Bad Kansas, this one takes place in Kansas, in Wichita. Why do you set your fiction there?
BM: I was born and raised in Wichita and lived in Kansas until I was twenty-three. I’ve been gone five years now but can’t shake it off. Although I love Kansas—especially Lawrence, where I went to college—my feelings for Wichita are mixed. It’s where I became the person I am today. It’s where I met some of my best friends. It’s where my mom and one of my brothers still live, and many of the teachers who were invaluable to my early writing education. The last thing I want is to disparage the place that raised me, but then again...Wichita is complicated. It’s home of the Koch brothers. The summer before I went to college, the abortionist, George Tiller, was shot and killed at a church two blocks from my house. When I was twelve, my rabbi explained that sometimes people would try to smash the windows of our synagogue. There was a degree of substance abuse in my immediate circles—opiates and heroin—and those addictions still color my view of the city. I guess I set this particular story in Wichita because, in many ways, I was once Hollie. I didn’t have this exact relationship when I was her age, but I had a few like it between the ages of fourteen and nineteen, and while I know this kind of thing can happen anywhere, Wichita seems like a place that could depress a man like Dan and bore the hell out of a girl like Hollie.
WA: I’ve never read a Becky Mandelbaum story that didn’t make me laugh—uncomfortably or otherwise. Could you talk about the role of humor in your work?
BM: Hey, thanks. I’m glad you find my stories funny, because I never sit down and think: Now, to write something hilarious. If it happens, it’s mostly by accident. Humor is a big part of my life—I have a dark, weird, and often fecal-based sense of humor—so when it makes it onto the page, it does so organically, just as part of my voice. From a craft point of view, this is convenient, since humor is like literary Crisco—it loosens things up and makes everything more palatable. It’s also huge social currency, one characters can hold and wield. In a story like “Say Uncle,” humor is also important in terms of letting the reader breathe. Dan is an upsetting character, so moments of levity are crucial.
WA: Your first novel is due out next summer. How was the transition from writing short stories to writing a novel?
BM: Someone asked me this question at a reading a couple of years ago, and I answered something insane like, “Writing a novel is so much easier than writing stories! The problem with stories is that I never want to stop, I always want to go deeper!” I wish I could go back and fart in my own face. In truth, writing the novel wasn’t all that difficult, but revising it was the hardest thing I’ve ever done. The problem is that a short story fits so kindly into the brain—you can see it all at once, the way you can see a room when you’re standing inside it. But a novel is like standing in the middle of a house, trying to explain all the rooms at once. You just can’t. You have to move around, go up the stairs, into the yard. Just when you get to the basement, someone asks, “What was the color of the wallpaper in the attic?” so then you have to go trudging up three flights of stairs, just to check, only to return to the basement to do whatever it is you were trying to do, which is probably turning out shitty anyways. All that said, I can’t wait to do it again.
WA: What are you working on now?
BM: I’ve started two different novels, which feels a little like deciding to move to two very distant planets at the same time. I also have enough stories for another collection, which feels a little like planning many tiny vacations around the time I should be settling into one of those planets. I’m not sure where I’ll end up, but for now it’s fun to be everywhere at once.
WA: What is the best bit of advice about writing you have ever received?
BM: The professor of my very first fiction workshop at The University of Kansas was an older woman from Australia. She had recently suffered a stroke and sometimes muddled the numbers for our assignments. She was likely a very kind and gentle person—I later learned that she was a big gardener—but at the time, I had never been more intimidated by a person in my life. She was terrifying, and I hung on her every word. At one point during the semester she barked at us, seemingly out of nowhere: “Children, if you want to be a writer, you must devour books!” That advice, and that word—devour—has followed me ever since.