The Review spoke with Michael Hawley, whose story “Somerville” is published in our Summer 2019 issue. Hawley shares his thoughts about unreliable narrators, identity confusion, and an aptly named pair of rabbits.
— Jennie Vite
SR: In your story “Somerville,” the narrator, Lynn Pressler, tries to regain her memory by sifting through old journals and photographs. However, these artifacts—and the memories attached to them—have become obscured. She recalls, “In a Polaroid of me on the wicker porch swing, my head was turned away from the camera so that only part of my face could be seen.” What was the initial writing process like when you were conceiving a character whose memories and recollections become unstable?
Hawley: For me, characters are often generated from place. The protagonist materialized amid the sensual details of Chinatown. This setting induced a sense of hyperreality into the process of composition along with the potential for anything to happen. This is the perfect place for the narrating persona (and the writer) to be. I was enjoying Lynn’s initial exchange with Glenys on Mott Street and only in the course of the next few scenes realized the extent of Lynn’s affliction. Then I simply stepped on the gas. Given the shifty terrain of this protagonist’s perspective, I felt that all the other elements of the story, no matter how unusual, had to be incontrovertibly rendered in order to keep credibility with the reader, even as things grew increasingly disjunctive.
SR: In addition to these disjunctive recollections, Lynn is fascinated by prosopagnosia, or “face blindness,” and its effects: as she says in the story, “those afflicted are often unable to recognize themselves in mirrors and photographs.” What drew you to write about this particular cognitive disorder?
Hawley: The protagonist very much wants to attribute her cognitive and emotional disorientation to physical or neurological causes. At first, I too assumed there had to be medical reasons for the mental disconnects. The more I wrote into the character, the more I realized the extent of her identity confusion and sociopathic tendencies. In order to preserve what I hoped would be a playful sense of mystery and humor in the piece, I chose to offer possible solutions (e. g. prosopagnosia) that might also be red herrings. In a way, I used these as place holders until I was able to determine a possible solution to the riddle that the story became, by which time I was convinced of their relevance to the piece.
SR: One recurrent element in Lynn’s reconstruction of the past is the presence of animals: the jade rabbit figurine that she clings to in Chinatown, the wooden ducks on the mantel in Nyack, and the photograph of the red-eyed ferrets. However, I’m fascinated by the pair of rabbits you dubbed Herodotus and Thucydides, after the Greek historians responsible for historical record and scientific history, respectively. Did you always know their names would be shared with these creatures? What, to you, is the significance of giving these rabbits these names?
Hawley: As I forge the pathway into any story, my discoveries come preloaded with details that I almost invariably trust—after briefly considering some potential alternatives. The rabbit names came immediately and felt right because they were historic (and, as you say, associated with history, with the seemingly immutable), thus contrasting with the more slippery aspects of the narrative, a balance which, as stated above, I felt it important to maintain.