They met through a service that connected men his age to young women hers. Nadine had selected this service in particular because it was the only one that did not require you to submit your name or photograph. All you had to do was provide your phone number and your answer to the question, “If you had the opportunity to dissect another person, who would it be, and which part of their insides would you be most interested in looking at?” Based on your response, the service paired you with somebody they considered compatible.

“What did you put for the dissection question?” Nadine asked her man the first time he called her after the service matched them up.

“I’m surprised you would ask me that,” said the man. His voice sounded empty, tired, like he was calling her on the drive home from a long day. It was clear from that voice just how much older he really was. When Nadine signed up for the service, she had to check a little box saying she was eighteen to twenty-one, but they didn’t bother verifying, so Nadine was just thirteen and daring. “I would only feel comfortable with a corporation knowing something so private,” said the man.

Emma Cairns Watson

Emma Cairns Watson is a writer from Los Angeles. She will receive her MFA in fiction this spring from UC Irvine, where she is at work on a story collection and a novel.

Will Allison on “The Dissection Question”

The first time I read Emma Cairns Watson’s “The Dissection Question,” I got a familiar feeling, namely, an Aimee Bender kind of feeling.

I’ve long been a fan of Bender’s work. I especially enjoy the off-kilter worlds she creates and her ability to mine those slightly unreal worlds for very real human connections. In this month’s story, Watson achieves a similar effect, albeit with her own distinctive sensibility as a storyteller.

“The Dissection Question” tells the story of Nadine, a thirteen-year-old consumed by unrequited love for her friend Selby, who has loud bones that only Nadine can hear and understand, and who longs for a boyfriend who will think she is “foxy.”

In an attempt to impress Selby and prove she isn’t boring, Nadine signs up for an adult dating service, but the service pairs her with a blandly mysterious man who seems to want nothing more than to send Nadine a surprise gift in the mail every day—which he continues to do for years as the girls grow further and further apart.

But when Nadine and Selby end up at the same university, Nadine gets a last chance to rekindle her connection with Selby, notwithstanding the additional obstacle of Selby’s boyfriend, Waylen. What follows is an unsettling turn of events that I didn’t see coming and that I found surprisingly affecting. Here’s hoping you’ll feel likewise about this funny and very touching story from an exciting new voice in American fiction.

Q&A by Will Allison

WA: What inspired you to write “The Dissection Question”?
ECW: Definitely homoerotic childhood friendships and my visceral horror of my partner cracking her knuckles. But what kept me writing it was a fascination with this sort of relationship that’s only lately become possible. I was in high school in the early 2010’s, when technology advanced to the point where you could start talking to random men online, and my friends and I spent a fair amount of time that way, learning too much too young (and blithely enjoying every minute of it). And of course, it’s only gotten more extreme: I have a nineteen-year-old sister, and nearly her entire life has been shaped by this level of at least potential exposure. Young women are often taught, and with reason, to assume the very worst about those around them, especially in the context of conversations like these, and I got interested in exploring the possibility of a flip-side to this (understandably) traditional narrative.
WA: What was the hardest part of writing this story?
ECW: It’s always the ending! This piece went through about five totally different endings before finding this one. In the first, Selby found a dead lady in her bathtub and used her miraculously preserved body as a good-luck charm. In another, Nadine ultimately aged up about twenty years and became a femme fatale dinosaur bone insurance saleswoman in Arizona. Writing is very hard.
WA: And what was the most rewarding part?
ECW: On first drafts, I don’t usually know what my stories are about. I’ve talked to lots of writers who say they start with a plot, or a character, or even a philosophical concept, but I usually start with a sentence I really like, and everything just unfurls for better or worse from there. Retracing my own steps to figure out and then home in on what I’m actually ultimately getting at has been especially rewarding in the case of this piece. I think Nadine here is dealing with two twinned and very thorny problems—first, she’s growing up in a (however skewed) version of our world, meaning she hasn’t necessarily been encouraged to nourish high expectations for her own future, and understands her own pessimism as realism. Second, as a specifically queer kid, she’s in accidental defiance of cultural expectation and thus lacking a whole lot of cultural comfort and guidance—meaning she’s forced to attempt to invent and then play by her own rules. She’s smart, and so she’s taken all these lessons very deeply to heart in a way that can only begin to damage her over time. But I hope that by the end of this story she’s at least/at last questioning some of these both implicit and explicit lessons.
WA: “The Dissection Question” reminded me of Aimee Bender’s stories, in that the world of the story is almost the world we live in, but not quite, like someone took the real world and gave it a slight turn on its axis. What drew you to the surrealist mode?
ECW: Wow, that’s an overwhelming compliment — I think I’ve read every word Aimee Bender has ever written. On some level I’ve always been less interested in the replication of real situations than in that of real sensations, but for a long time I didn’t know I was “allowed” to move outside pure realism. For years I wrote what I imagined I was supposed to, these sorts of quiet stories that fundamentally lacked energy. And all that traditional writing advice in the world about forcing yourself to sit down and write can’t help you at that point: the only thing that helped was a complete reframing of what was doable. So reading slightly (or totally) surrealist writers like Bender, and Karen Russell, and Margarita Karapanou, was eye-opening. I often feel a kind of block when I try to break through to something without making tools of hyperbole and technicolor and in some cases even elements of the totally fantastical.  In the end, I’ve found that shadow realm of the highly-improbable-but-not-impossible a very cozy place to live.
WA: I love it that Nadine is so blind to her best friend Selby’s many faults—her self-centeredness, her blithe cruelty, etc. It’s funny but also touching. How did you conceive of their relationship?
ECW: Selby has faults?! Honestly, I had multiple friendships with other girls that were something like this, possessive and cruel and all-consuming. You’re still figuring so much out at that age—this is what I guess I tell myself now, anyway!—and you have almost zero understanding of how to be a person yet and what theory of mind you do have is, if anything, actively working against you. On the other hand, Selby is very good at saying exactly what she believes, which is something Nadine could stand to try sometimes. Like Nadine, I think, Selby is desperately trying to figure out the universe’s relevance, or lack thereof, to her own life—he just has a few more tools, both internal and external, to help her along the way.
WA: Sorry, Emma, but I can’t not ask this: what is your answer to the dissection question? (“If you had the opportunity to dissect another person, who would it be, and which part of their insides would you be most interested in looking at?”)
ECW: Oh rats. I do think that Nadine reads this question awfully literally, when there are some gentler ways to interpret it. But in the spirit of the story, wouldn’t we all be eager to dissect a very old, lost friend? Mine isn’t where this piece came from, but she was a love and a mystery and we knew each other for years and years and I never had the remotest idea what was going on in her head. If there were any chance I could get in there now and do some deep digging, I’d crawl for it.
WA: Who are some of your favorite writers, and what are you reading these days?
ECW: Aimee Bender was always going to be on that list! Also Joy Williams, Frances Hardinge, Kazuo Ishiguro, Victor Hugo, Sylvia Townsend Warner…. At this particular moment I’m reading everything I can get my hands on by a few authors just recently recommended to me— Rebecca Lee, Han Kang, and Rachel B. Glaser.
WA: How long did it take you to complete “The Dissection Question”?
ECW: I put together the very first draft, originally called “Your Body Is the Least Interesting Thing About You,” in a frantic pre-workshop week about a year and a half ago, and then pulled it all apart again last spring. Two brilliant friends read this second draft and escorted me tenderly away from all my worst impulses, and I did absolutely everything they suggested and then started sending it out this past summer.
WA: What are you working on now?
ECW: At this very moment, unfortunately, a story about a man whose life loses direction when his internet-sensation pet pig kicks the bucket. More generally— a collection that (to my own surprise) has become interested, like “The Dissection Question,” in examining social disconnection, the landscapes of online spaces, and all those liminal interpersonal zones that have sprung up between us. As a young queer woman, I’ve spent much of my life drawn to the promises of these kinds of aphysical “spaces,” and I’m fascinated by the ways that accessing them can both expand and threaten our psychological and emotional horizons. Or, on days when I’m not so much feeling the “aphysical space” mode, I’m working on a series of disconcertingly heterosexual queen/royal guard romance novels that make me very happy.
WA: What is the best bit of writing advice you’ve ever received?
ECW: If you’re bored, the reader’s bored! Of course you can get bored during revision all you want. But if it’s happening while you write a draft, it means you’ve taken a wrong turn somewhere. At that point I try to be very brave and hit delete on at least the last full page and start again. I think often the way this happens in the first place is that you’re thinking too much about the end product in the abstract. Because obviously the reader isn’t thinking about the end product, they’re—if you’re doing it right—“in the moment.” Jess, my partner and a brilliant writer, is very wise about this—she reminds me that you have to start with the small thing that will get you to keep writing, and you find the big picture later. You can get so geared toward analyzing and meaning-making that the writing process becomes inherently cerebral, straining upwards for something without the story-scaffolding to support it, and so it collapses. If you’ve got a weird funny idea, that’s enough. Maybe you just really want to write about a famous pig, or an immortal dog, or a girl with very loud bones. And then you should sit down and write that, whatever gets you to the next sentence and the next, and worry about everything else later.