Over the course of her three books, Monica Drake has explored everything from the surreal nature of humor and heartbreak to generational legacies playing out over the course of several decades in a city. Her latest book, The Folly of Loving Life, begins with a couple buying a distinctive piece of property in Oregon, at which point their lives begin to disintegrate. In the stories that follow, Drake shifts her focus to their children, who grapple with the legacies of their parents and their own issues as they grow into adulthood. It’s a powerful and haunting book, and one which lingers in unexpected ways. I talked with Drake about the making of the collection via email.
When you first began writing the stories for The Folly of Loving Life, did you have a sense that you wanted to write multiple stories about the same family, or was there one point that you realized that you weren’t finished exploring this familial dynamic?
I started writing it one piece at at time without looking further than that, building out and creating the world from living inside it, over time. I wrote other stories set in the same trajectory with secondary characters, but when I put the collection together I peeled it back to let it focus more fully on the sisters. It’s about the family as a whole, and the place, and how people move through in time in deep relation to each other.
Was there one particular story that you began with?
The title story is one of the earliest. When I wrote it, I wanted to write a story without conflict, operating against storytelling tradition and celebrating a kind of rugged beauty, but then realized what I had instead was a story where conflict is on an internal and subsistence level, permeating the world view. It’s a character trying to live without much in the way of aspirations but through taking real satisfaction in sensory detail and high hopes for her own humanity, faith in a moment. The stories grow from there.
The “Neighborhood Notes” stories that punctuate the arc of the book make for a distinctive counterpoint to the familial narrative that it charts out. Structurally speaking, how did you work these into the book?
Those were satisfying to write. Thank you for asking about them. My goal was to deepen the compression and let words operate in a less directly narrative way, but rather more associatively and evocatively. It’s an active pause. In my mind I see those sections as quietly tightening down, like a fist around a kitchen sponge, making the material smaller, condensed, richer, wringing it out, still in motion. I hope it comes across, but to my mind I enjoyed making them indulgent, ominous and grounded at the same time.
Kevin Sampsell, editor and founder of Future Tense Books, invited me to include the shorter work, and I appreciate his vision and open-mindedness so much.
As collections go, this is very specifically a collection of linked stories that returns to some of the same themes and images over time. As a writer, what appeals to you most about this format, as opposed to telling a similar story as a novel?
When I wrote my first novel, Clown Girl, I was concerned with moving the main character and the story as a whole from one point to another. I ended up writing out perhaps every single moment of the world in the book. When a character crossed a room, I crossed with him or her, step by step. I cut back in the editing process, weeding out moments, but still each chapter links directly to the next. With The Stud Book, I wrote individual scenes and left more space in between, moving between characters, but then I laced the scenes much more tightly together before I was done. With The Folly of Loving Life, I let all of it–events, characters, scenes–exist further apart in time and space, hopefully in a way that still lets them resonate against each other. It’s about trusting the material and the audience. I love that. I love letting a collage aspect work to convey emotional weight between points on a line, moments in a life, between people, places and that forward arc of time. That’s how life works, isn’t it? There are moments, and they might be far apart in time, but they still resonate against distant memories, other people, places, fleeting emotions that run deep.
This collection–to me, at least–with its pieces, fragmented delivery and overarching narrative, is a way to celebrate the love of a certain way of living, a worldview, that may not conform to capitalism, really, but is rooted in rich and sometimes hard human experience.
The stories in this collection span several decades, but there aren’t necessarily a number of specific references to events that would date them. How did you find the balance between showing the passage of time while also not being too specific about where in time these events were happening?
My goal was to keep a light touch this round. I’ve never been a big fan of flashbacks, but still the past is so important in shading the present, the future. It never goes away, does it? So the question is how to recognize and illuminate the past without reducing it, but also without spending too much time on the page moving backward out of the narrative moment. My goal is always only to tether the psychology in the emotional realm of the past as underpainting. A tiny hint of the past can shine through, without being reduced in a way that oversimplifies.
Each of your three books has a very distinctive tone. Did you have a sense going in of how you wanted this book to feel to a reader?
Yes, very much so. With Clown Girl, I wanted to write what I considered a graphic novel without the graphics. I wanted the images to be large and strong, echoing clown themes. I was looking to Charlie Chaplin in many ways, reaching for that great sadness of daily struggle to underscore all the broad, sweeping clown jokes. I had to keep cranking it up as I drafted, making sure the gestures were big. The Stud Book is about overpopulation, the beauty of babies and the fragility of a planet overrun with the invasive species of humanity. Because it’s about overpopulation, it seemed to call for a big cast, an ensemble. I tried to find the non-maternal impulses in highlighting babies, to only allow a minimum of space to sink into baby-love, and also I wanted it to read against gender expectations. With Folly, I felt indulgent, honestly. It’s rich in a world I love so much, even with it’s crumbling troubles.
Did the time you spent writing these stories overlap with either of your novels?
Yes, I worked on pieces of Folly while writing both Clown Girl and The Stud Book, definitely. Clown Girl took most of ten years. The Stud Book took seven. Folly took all of that, writing in between other things. I’m a slow writer, moving in multiple directions at once, collecting pieces and ideas, putting them together and putting them aside. In part that parallels being a mother and a professor, paying attention to multiple people and ideas at all times, students and family, but it’s also about letting work rest while your mind is still thinking about it, moving around the world and seeing life through the lens of the work back home, in process, collecting details that way.
What’s next for you?
I’m working on an essay collection. I’ve published a few essays in the past, but as a book this will be my first nonfiction work. That’s an interesting thing to think about, writing from experience that’s not translated through the lens of fiction.