I’ve read a lot of stories about love. Actually, I’ve read a lot of stories about love gone bad. It’s what I expect from a tale about relationships. And the thing is, I like to read about love gone bad. These stories speak to the catastrophic thinker in me, the one who sees some people in love as “neurochemically brainwashed suckers.”
So it’s surprising how much I really connected with Sarah Scoles’ short story, “When the World is Covered,” ultimately a tale of love gone good. This first person narrative is so rich with neurosis and internal conflict that I couldn’t put it down.
The narrator of “When the World is Covered” approaches love as if it’s a hair-trigger minefield. Her past hurts so fresh it’s palpable. She thinks that even in the “unlikely event” you end up with the person you fall in love with, “…they will betray you in one way or another. And it will come as not only an emotional but a philosophical shock. I don’t think anyone ever recovers from that.” And yet… she does. Somehow she finds the courage to navigate this minefield of love despite her past and all her fears.
Scoles is an associate editor at Astronomy Magazine and her work has appeared in many literary journals such as Alaska Quarterly Review, Whiskey Island, and DIAGRAM. She took some time out from her busy schedule to answer a few questions.
Meredith Doench: What strikes me most about “When the World is Covered” is the voice of the first-person narrator. It’s an understatement to call her a Nervous Nellie! How did this character come about?
Sarah Scoles: I think we all, to some extent, have a neurotic person who lives inside our brains. And whether we’re conscious of all the neuronal back-and-forth that happens before we make a social move, I think some part of all of us is running at race-pace, considering all possible outcomes and consequences. Many people are able to dismiss this shadow neurotic person, but others (most writers, for instance) feel that person’s presence most of the time. The narrator gets at that two-toned nature of personhood at the end of the story, when she drinks some whiskey and feels “like another, warmer person is growing outward from a tiny seed in [her] stomach into a fully fledged person who is exactly [her] shape and lives under [her] skin. This person is less worried than [she is]…”
Maybe it’s just me projecting my own neuroticism onto everyone else, but I think we all have a part of us that’s a worrier, an overanalyzer, a person who is sure the worst will happen.
Generally, in real life, people appear calm and collected and “normal” on the outside, but there’s often much more, much less calm stuff going on beneath the surface. I’m interested in the differences between what happens in our heads and the small part of that internal monologue, dialogue, and debate that actually manifests itself in the outside world. In most of our casual day-to-day interactions, we have no idea what’s going on in others’ lives and brains. I think about it a lot at airports. People get on planes for all kinds of reasons. There are the vacations, of course, the business trips. But then there are the funerals. Chances are, someone on your flight is headed to a funeral, but generally you wouldn’t be able to pick out who they are.
Doench: The protagonist’s anxiety leads to so much catastrophic thinking about what might happen to Laura, the woman she’s falling in love with. It’s ironic that both the protagonist and Laura are faced with true catastrophes: a blizzard that sharply turns into a flood. How do both her real and imagined catastrophes highlight her feelings regarding falling in love?
Scoles: Her real and imagined catastrophes have one big thing in common—they’re both based on the narrator’s fear that she will lose Laura. Like she says in the beginning, “Nothing, except knowing someone who dies, makes you think about dying more than falling in love. The way you want them around so much makes you so afraid that they are going to die that you become fairly sure that they are constantly about to die.” But the fear of someone else’s death is mostly the fear of not having them in your life anymore. The narrator is afraid that Laura will meet someone more charming at a book club, and then Laura will be gone. The narrator is afraid that someone has bashed Laura’s head in with a can of tamales, and then Laura will be gone. These are, fundamentally, the same fear.
When you fall in love with someone, you are at the mercy of forces beyond your control. Another person’s will and feelings, for instance. As the narrator says, “You give your whole self to that person and trust them with it.” Physical catastrophes—like floods and mobs of people wielding canned goods—are similarly outside the sphere of influence.
Doench: I’m fascinated by the juxtaposition between the protagonist’s imagined catastrophes and the reality of what faces her and Laura. For instance, in the beginning of the story, she imagines what might happen to Laura when she goes to the store and tells her not to die. Then we find out Laura almost did die the night before. There’s such a dance between these two elements—real and imagined. As the writer, was it difficult to “ground” this protagonist? How does Laura work to ground her?
Scoles: The reader comes to know the narrator primarily by her internal monologue. Long stretches of the story are entirely imagined. But “the world” is taking place around the narrator while she is imagining these scenarios and going on philosophical flights. The world hasn’t stopped moving, and the scene hasn’t stopped just because the narrator is lost in a reverie. It was important to me that the reader go on these neurotic journeys with the narrator, but also that the reader then be snapped back into “reality” the same way the narrator is. The narrator’s interactions with Laura function that way. For instance, during the flood, the narrator is thinking about islands and sunburns and volcanic eruptions, but then she abruptly leaves the world of her mind and goes back into the real world, because she realizes she needs to get them both out of the inundated house. She speaks to Laura, commands her to put on ski pants (logically).
The only time the narrator is not wrapped up in her own head is when she’s interacting with Laura. Laura draws her back into the speaking, touching, physical world, which is slower and calmer than her thoughts, even when she’s standing in the middle of a flood zone.
Doench:I love what this story has to say about the endurance of love, how every obstacle is overcome. The protagonist recognizes it as a boundary that she crosses toward the end of the story: “…it seemed impossible that just by stepping a few feet up a slope, we could be standing completely above what would later be declared a disaster area.” Yet she chooses to take that step over the boundary. How does this story speak to the power of love and fear in the human condition?
Scoles: Toward the beginning of the story, the narrator and Laura have a conversation about how “first love” is different from any other love you fall into, because, on average, your heart gets horribly broken and your idea that you will grow old with your senior prom date (or that person from your Psych 201 class, if you’re a late bloomer) turns out to be misinformed. When humans fall into their first mutual love, they often strip away more layers (both of clothing and of emotional walls) than they ever have before. And, as the narrator says of the beloved, “The fact that they could hurt you so much is the same reason you believe that they couldn’t possibly.”
But, usually, they do. Or maybe you’re the one who hurts them (how could you?).
Either way, the next time you fall in love, you know that you could confess all your secrets about how you peed in your pants in sixth grade and really just want to quit grad school and be a rodeo cowboy, and then the person you confessed to could leave and take those secrets with them. But we continue to fall in love anyway. So I guess what this story says about “the power of love and fear in the human condition” is that humans are or should be afraid of love, but not quite afraid enough to stop falling into it. Which I think is a good thing, a very good thing.
There are thousands of quote from famous people saying what I’m trying to say. Machiavelli (everyone’s role model): “Never was anything great achieved without danger.” Tennyson: “‘Tis better to have loved and lost // than never to have loved at all.” William Burroughs: “There is no intensity of love or feeling that does not involve the risk of crippling hurt. It is a duty to take this risk, to love and feel without defense or reserve.” I side, and my narrator sides, with the famous people.
Doench:What other writing projects are you working on?
Scoles: Right now, I’m working on polishing a collection of short stories, all of which have narrators who are neurotic to one degree or another (though usually to a lesser degree than this narrator), a novel about an astronomer who studies “cosmic aloneness,” and a new, barely started set of short stories based on narratives and concepts stolen (borrowed?) from Radiolab, with which I am obsessed. I also have a blog with a biologist friend, Brooke Napier, called Smaller Questions (smallerquestions.org), where we write about cool science—for non-scientists—that’s not receiving press coverage.