Interview: Sara Majka Author of Cities I’ve Never Lived In: Stories

Sara Majka’s debut collection of connected stories is a haunting, mesmerizing dreamscape. 

Shelf Unbound: Your style is sparse and dreamlike. How did you decide on and create this style?

Sara Majka: This answer could probably work for most questions, in that it just sort of happened that way, because of the experiences in my life and because of where I come from. New Englanders are sparse and reticent by nature, but with anyone who compresses that much emotion, the internal life is going to be strange territory.

Shelf Unbound: Your main character is a woman in the aftermath of a divorce, and almost all the other characters are broken in some way, such as her alcoholic brother and the formerly institutionalized Peter, who seeks connection in inappropriate places. What interested you in writing about damaged characters?

Majka: I’m really not sure. I saved this question until last and still don’t have a good answer. I don’t think I wanted to write about regular people. I wanted the people in the book to be people, but also representative of a feeling, or something in one’s imagination. That’s my best understanding of it as I look back, though I don’t truly know why I had that impulse.

Shelf Unbound: The characters do not openly express a lot of emotion, but their frequently heart-breaking situations elicit the emotions of the reader. Can you talk about this?

Majka: Conveying what I know of New Englanders—and not necessarily the ones I knew growing up, but a more romantic or mythic version in extreme circumstances—was a lot of what drew me into writing this book. 

Shelf Unbound: I love the last paragraph in the book, where Anne is talking to her mother about her estranged father. That last line, “She said, After a time, I thought maybe I had the wrong house, or maybe I hadn’t seen him at all.” Spoken by the mother, this line exemplifies the poignancy of the whole book. How do you go about constructing a sentence such as this one?

Majka: When I wrote that story, I knew it would be the end of the collection, which would normally have made the ending stressful to write, but that story itself is pretty straightforward and simple…. What am I saying here? It was an easy one to write, and most aren’t. And I wasn’t trying to do too much by the end of it, just convey how the mother experienced that story. Though the last line probably has to do more with ending the book than the mother. It seemed ripe to be written as a way to circle back. 

Shelf Unbound: Your debut is a collection of short stories; will you write a novel next? 

Majka: Oh, if only! 

Read an Excerpt:

Featured in April/May 2016 Issue:

During the trip, the lover I had left behind in New York had stopped calling. I was glad to be traveling, for the movement it gave me, but I was uncertain how my life would be when I got home. I didn’t want another period of instability, and I felt the suspension one feels when you’re fine, but you’re worried it won’t last, and there’s nothing you can do to make it stay.

I had come up with the idea years before—when I first became interested in soup kitchens. I made the plan to travel the U.S., going to small interior cities and going to kitchens there. I had volunteered in kitchens in the past and had found it comforting. I would work for a few hours and then would sign my name and get in line and eat, scrunched over, not poor enough to eat there if I hadn’t worked, but not a volunteer doing it out of goodness. Lost, probably, in ways that made me more comfortable in places like those—the church halls, the Styrofoam plates, the trays, the gentle feeling of caretaking and cafeteria lines—and lost perhaps in ways understandable to those around me.

I didn’t get far in the trip, however, before I became unsure why I was doing it. My first city was Buffalo and I arrived late, by train, taking a taxi to the hostel. The next day I walked to a mobile kitchen that was supposed to be parked outside the library at 7 p.m., but it was already gone when I arrived. I decided to stay an extra night so that I could go to the kitchen the next day, at the time the kitchen now arrived. The next day I stood in line to get the plastic bag that held dinner. A woman carried a box with more food—baggies filled with granola bars and crackers—and people took those as she passed. When she came to me, I said that I only wanted the food there, pointing to where dinner bags were being passed down. I was surprised to hear my voice, that vulnerability that was of such little help usually, but it was honest in that line, honest and understandable. No, it’s okay, the woman said gently, this is food, too. I took the bag of snacks, and, when it came time, took the plastic bag that held dinner.

I carried the food into the library. Holding the bags changed how I felt about myself. It made me feel more vulnerable or exposed or fragile. For a number of years I had been struggling to hold myself together, though I had worked to disguise this, and now carrying the thin bags made this visible, made people look at me. I walked around the library until I found the café. I asked the man working the register if I could eat there, and he said yes. Dinner was bland macaroni with tomato sauce and meatballs. There was also a turkey sandwich and cookies for the bus the next day.

After, I stood in the foyer. Windows overlooked the street where the mobile kitchen had been. It was gone now, and I felt the loss of it, as if I had not done it properly and wanted to try again. Others waited there. An older black man asked if I was waiting for a bus. No, I said. He then assumed I was waiting for a ride. No, I said, I’m just here.

From Cities I’ve Never Lived In by Sara Majka, Graywolf Press. Reprinted with permission. All rights reserved. 

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