Zach Williams on Making a Story Travel

In your story “Neighbors,” a couple moves west to San Francisco in the wake of an infidelity, hoping to “redraw the map” of their marriage. While they are there, the husband has an eerie encounter in a neighbor’s house. These two strands of the narrative are seemingly unrelated, but, of course, this is a crafted story and you have drawn lines between them. How did these ideas come to you and fall into place together?

The idea for the strange encounter, the story’s central event, came to me very quickly, in the course of a night when I had trouble sleeping. I wrote a complete draft of the story that morning. It’s very unusual for me to produce anything so quickly. But then crafting the story, as you say, took much longer. Thinking about the characters, trying to understand their situations—that was more of a rational process, requiring deliberation, trial and error. It was quite a while before those two strands—the strange encounter, and the context in which it occurs—could sit with each other in a way that felt satisfying to me.

In the midst of their marital estrangement, the couple chooses to live near the western edge of San Francisco’s Outer Sunset—an area that used to be so bleak it was known as the “Outside Lands.” They are warned not to live there because of the cold and the fog. The story culminates in an unwanted confrontation with death. How important is it for you when writing a story to have the external landscape reflect something of the characters’ internal experiences?

It’s not necessarily something that I set out to do deliberately, although, now that you mention it, I do have several stories that were conceived from a desire to write about specific places. “Neighbors” was one such story, at least in part. I like to take long walks, especially when I’m in the middle of writing a story—walking, outdoors, I tend to feel receptive to new ideas. Maybe that habit has something to do with the way that, for me, a story’s landscape bears upon its characters, or vice versa. And, of course, there’s always reciprocity in the experience of a place.

The encounter in the neighbor’s house involves (spoiler alert) an unknown man whose face is obscured. He is seemingly a real person, but his effect on the narrator of the story is perhaps more psychological or spiritual than concrete. The story never reveals who—or what—he is. Do you know?

No, I don’t, and it’s never really occurred to me to try to figure it out. Part of what I like about not knowing, in a story such as this one, is that it keeps me on equal footing with the characters. In fact, I think that’s one thing that attracts me to the form of fiction, broadly speaking: that a story can resolve, on its own terms, while leaving major questions unanswered. To me, that feels true to life.

At the end of the story, the husband is unable to speak honestly or openly with his wife about his experience. Should we take this as a sign of an even rockier marital road ahead?

I suppose that’s subject to interpretation. Personally, I tend to imagine that their marriage will be more or less adequate—that they’ll stay together, raise the kids, all of that. But it also seems to me that the deeper form of intimacy they had imagined will remain out of reach.

In your previous story in the magazine, “Wood Sorrel House,” the characters were transported to a kind of alternate reality. The encounter in “Neighbors” also has an otherworldly quality. What does incorporating unrealistic or supernatural elements into stories that are otherwise grounded in familiarly quotidian details allow you to do as a writer?

I’ve always been interested in moments of experience that come from outside of ordinary consciousness. Those moments are common to us, if only in the form of dreams, or panic attacks, or transcendent joys. Unrealistic or supernatural elements allow me to make a story an exploration of a particular state—a dream state, perhaps, or a state of bewilderment, or awe. And I do find great pleasure in making a story travel, so to speak, from point A to point B, or from reality A to reality B. Starting someplace ordinary, and then making a sudden departure—that feels true to life to me, too. Things can get weird quickly and without warning.

“Wood Sorrel House” and “Neighbors” will both be included in your début story collection, “Beautiful Days,” which comes out in June. Is there a global theme to the collection, or are the stories all independent pieces?

The stories in “Beautiful Days” are independent pieces, but I began them all together, over one concise period. From the start, I conceived of the project as a book. I wanted to write a collection that would feel lean and intentional, despite offering what I hope are very different experiences from one story to the next. Early on in the project, each new story represented, for me, a kind of response to the previous one. In that way, there was very little planning involved. But the process of writing and rewriting, and of shaping the book, took years. What I see now, looking back at the stories from this vantage, is that they tend to be about a particular kind of loneliness—a loneliness that stems from a sense of separation from something vital, some source of meaning. Many of the book’s characters venture out in search of meaning, hoping that such a source of meaning exists somewhere for them. What they all seem to want, and have trouble finding, is connectedness, and beauty. ♦

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