This week’s featured story, “The Island,” by Ross McMeekin, centers around the intimate relationship between Owen and Aubrey. The tension is revealed early on as we learn of a secret past that Aubrey’s hiding from Owen and, to some degree, herself. Check out the story here. And my interview with author Ross McMeekin below.
Keith Lesmeister: As I read your story, I was reminded of the “1984” George Orwell quote, “…if you want to keep a secret you must also hide it from yourself.” In your story, the primary tension centers around the secret, troubled past of the protagonist’s (Owen’s) girlfriend. Was the mystery of her past always there or did it emerge through the writing process?
Ross McMeekin: It was always there, but the importance of Aubrey’s secret gained both a greater clarity and a tighter narrative scope as the process wore on. And it was a long process, imagining and reimagining the story and characters, foisting it upon my writer friends for feedback, trying different perspectives, POV’s, and styles, until finally I found a path that worked. When the good people at Green Mountains Review accepted it for publication, I’d been working at it on-and-off for seven years.
KL: Seven years! Talk about an exercise in patience. So, throughout the process, was there any particular story or author (or stories or authors) that influenced this piece?
RM: There are two stories that pop to mind. Jim Shepard’s, “Pleasure Boating in Lituya Bay,” hit me with such power when I first read it in Ploughshares a decade ago that I still feel its wake, both in the way it captures its Alaskan surroundings—which are similar to those of “The Island”—and that sense of helplessness we can feel before the elements, both natural and human. The second is, “The Drowning,” by Edward Delaney, which reckons a son’s discover of the secret life of his father, and explores those muddy ancestral waters in which we find our identity, our inspiration, and if not our resolution, perhaps our resolve.
KL: The structure of your story works in tandem with the mystery of Aubrey, Owen’s girlfriend. In other words, the structure helps build tension as we learn more about her, and the great lengths Owen pursues in order to find out more about her. This leads to a kind of private investigation that he launches on his own, and in some respects this investigation should be a red flag to readers. I mean, they’ve only known each other for a few months and he’s already exhibiting these stalker-like tendencies. Yet, because he’s characterized as quite earnest, the reader tends to sympathize with his efforts to get to the bottom of his girlfriend’s mysterious past. I’m not sure if I have a question here so much as a comment. Perhaps you have a reaction? Or maybe you have your own views of Owen’s behavior?
RM: I’m drawn to fiction, both as a writer and a reader, that questions the validity of the labels we use to judge behavior and character. I realize that all stories—including this one—judge their characters, but I prefer the kind that don’t crack the gavel until a reader understands the main characters well enough to see the logic—no matter how strange—behind their decisions. I’d love to think that a reader of this story might say about Owen or Aubrey, I don’t know what this makes me, but if I were them, I might be tempted to do the same thing. It’s a lot more difficult to crank the guillotine on someone you understand. And once you do understand them, delivering their verdict feels a lot like delivering your own.
But enough being cagey. Here’s my judgment on Owen and Aubrey. While I understand where they both are coming from, I think they have chosen a hard road, and believe that they’re both complicit in making it so.
KL: I agree with you that they’re both complicit. But let me press you a bit more on Owen. He seems obsessed (maybe that’s not the right word) with “knowing” Aubrey’s past self. What is it about human nature that causes us to probe into the unknown so persistently? I don’t expect you to answer such a huge question! But I am curious if this notion makes its way into your other work? I mean, I suppose on some level that as fiction writers we’re constantly writing into the unknown, but I think, too, that in our line of work some level of ambiguity or uncertainty is expected and embraced. But not so much for others, like your character Owen. Do you explore this idea of “keeping secrets from others” elsewhere in your work?
RM: It makes its way into a lot of my work. Secrets reveal shame, and shame reveals so much: history, culture, personality, and desires—sometimes desires so powerful that their keeper can’t bear to speak of them. This story explores the other side, from the person who’s being asked to trust someone close to them whom he suspects is keeping a big secret, for unexplained reasons. My wife and I have a pet theory: much of a person’s worldview hinges on one thing—how much they need to know about someone before they trust them. It’s an imperfect lens, but I think using it helps illuminate some interesting things about characters (and people).
KL: The setting here, the actual island itself, poses its own set of dangers: the seclusion, the wind, rain, the sea, and the dark forest denizens. Is this typical of most of your stories — that the setting plays such an integral role?
RM: It is typical—but not in such an overt way as is in, “The Island.” I’m convinced that it’s not just the people we’re around, or the socio/cultural/economic climate we face, but the concrete physical aspects of our environment that influence a person’s posture toward the world. The architecture of the building we work in will subtly contribute to the kind of music we enjoy. The floor plan of our apartment will quietly impact our relationship with our flat mates. The nature of the lighting in a place will in small ways frame our mood. To not make use of that in building a fictional work feels like a missed opportunity.
KL: Are you writing other stories? What else are you working on?
RM: I’m always working on a handful stories, albeit slowly. Right now, I’m focused on edits for my first book, which is coming out early next year, a contemporary novel called The Hummingbirds (Skyhorse). It follows a groundskeeper named Ezra, who was raised in a cult that deifies birds. He’s drawn into a relationship with an aging film actor who’s married to a politically ambitious movie producer who wishes Ezra dead. It draws (very) loosely upon my years living in Santa Monica and working in Malibu through my mid-twenties.
ROSS MCMEEKIN’s stories have appeared recently or are forthcoming in Virginia Quarterly Review, Post Road Magazine, Redivider, and Tin House online. He edits the literary journal Spartan, and has been awarded fellowships from the Richard Hugo House and Jack Straw Cultural Center in Seattle.