What is Alaska Like?
There were only three rules you needed to know to be a chambermaid at the Blue Lake Lodge. One, make a room look clean. Two, if you’ve really cleaned it, you’re taking too long. Three, don’t talk to the guests. Number three kept you from having to explain things, like the smell, which nearly all the guests asked about. All you had to do, according to the rules, was point your little finger in the direction of the wooden shack that was the office and say, “Please contact the manager.”
Not that it was any mystery. There was no lake at Blue Lake. The Lodge was a stucco motel on the Clam River, about an hour north of Boston. The stink came twice a day with low tide: mud and mussel shells and half-eaten crabs baking in the sun like the darkest casserole. It didn’t take a genius to figure out the smell, but these tourists from Ohio would stuff their faces into the sink like there was an answer in there. They wore visors that got in their way. “Sewage?” they’d ask me. “Sulfur?”
Anna Solomon grew up in Gloucester, Massachusetts and holds an MFA from the Iowa Writers’ Workshop. Her work has been published in The Georgia Review and Shenandoah, and has been nominated for a Pushcart Prize, a National Magazine Award, and Best New American Voices. In 2005, she was awarded a scholarship to the Breadloaf Writers’ Conference; in 2007, she’ll be a resident at Yaddo. She lives in Brooklyn, where she’s completing a story collection, starting work on a novel, and teaching at the Sackett Street Writers’ Workshop.
Q&A by Hannah Tinti
- HT: Where did the idea for this story come from?
- AS: I don’t really know. I guess it started with Darlene’s voice talking about the motel—this smart, angry, restless girl who’s waiting for something to change in her life. I can’t really remember how the pieces came together.
- HT: What was the most challenging aspect of writing this story?
- AS: I think figuring out who Ellen Crane was, and why/how she meant something to Darlene—both in this particular story and in her life more generally. Also, standing up for Jimmy. Many of my first readers (and the story was different then, so they might have been right) kept saying, great, great, but get rid of the brother, he makes things to complicated for a short story, why not just cut him out, ta da! And I didn’t know what to say except that Darlene had a brother named Jimmy who was in a wheelchair and there was nothing I could do about that and he was important to this story. So I had to go on being stubborn about that—over time maybe I came to a better understanding of what he was doing there and why.
- HT: Why did you choose to set this story on the North Shore of Boston?
- AS: The marsh was so central to this story for me, and the marshes I know are the marshes I grew up on, north of Boston...they are so beautiful, but also tricky, depending on the tide and depending on how you look at them: on the one hand they can be endless stretches of red grass and meandering creeks; on the other they can be stinking, buggy mud holes.
- HT: Why does Mr. Cunningham come back now? Is it a mid-life crisis, as Ellen suggests, or something else? And then, why does he leave when he does? Did he get what he wanted?
- AS: I can’t say I understand Mr. Cunningham much better than either Darlene or Ellen or the rest of the town does. To me, his character is to a large degree about rumor and assumptions and information being passed on and on and on until everyone has distorted his story to suit their particular needs: for a villain, for a cowboy, for a fat man. I think for this story the thing I really had to figure out was what his coming, and his leaving, meant for Darlene—how her story of who he was changed, and how this changed her.
- HT: Can you tell us a little about the title?
- AS: This story went back and forth at least twenty times between being called “What is Alaska Like?” and “Placebo Effect.” Finally, I decided against the latter because - apart from a friend telling me it just sucked—it seemed to me like it created a kind of reductive synopsis, in a sense. “What is Alaska Like?” felt more complicated and true to me—it holds all of Darlene’s desires and also fears, and her being a child still, with a child’s sense of wonder, while also becoming a woman, who can make choices about where she wants to go.
- HT: Does Darlene stay or does she get out?
- AS: I think that’s something I’d rather a reader figure out for herself. It seems to me that with some of my favorite stories, my sense of what happens after the final line changes from reading to reading. I like this because the story stays alive for me, and keeps affecting me.
- HT: How long did it take you to complete this story?
- AS: The very first draft I wrote very quickly, in a few days, but I revised it (with large stretches between) over many years. Every paragraph (if not every word) changed over that time, gradually enough that it still feels like the same story to me, but if I looked back at the first draft I’m guessing that after the first couple pages, it would bear little resemblance to the original. I could maybe find it, if I went searching, but I think I’d rather let it be.
- HT: What is the best bit of advice about writing you have ever received?
- AS: Two things come to mind, though I’m sure I’m forgetting many others. Marilynne Robinson: if what you’re writing doesn’t scare you, it’s probably not worth writing. Chris Offutt: (I know I’m mangling this one—let’s just say it’s my interpretation) When you want to get up from your desk, that’s exactly when you shouldn’t. And don’t let your characters leave the scene so easy, either. Nancy Zafris: The ending is already in the story; don’t go pulling things out of your ass (also my interpretation) - just keep reading your story.
- HT: What are you working on now?
- AS: Stories—they seem to be straining toward a collection now. And a novel idea that I’m trying to develop when it doesn’t freak me out too much.