New Author Spotlight: Alena McNamara
What drew you to writing stories that were moving across genres? Is this a new direction for your writing?
“As Large as Alone” is partly about how life moves across genres – you’re having a romance while your sister is discovering that mermaids are real – and what happens when those genres collide. So in that way, genre-mixing for this story was always inevitable. It’s definitely not the first (or last) story I’ve written that combines elements of various genres, my brain mixes and matches by default, but it’s one of the stories that’s most aware of what it’s doing.
In “As Large as Alone” there is a lot of conversation about what is real. Does real matter?
Conditionally yes. Real matters in a different way to different people, in this story and out of it. Plenty of people think that to grow up, you have to stop counting fantasy on an equal level with reality. (They’re wrong.) To other people, real matters, but fantasy matters too. And to another group, what’s real doesn’t matter at all…
But generally, whoever controls what’s seen as real has a scarily large amount of power, and in its turn that can affect even people who don’t care what’s real or not.
The theme for this issue is Expectations. What are the concepts and tropes of expectations that you’re playing with in this story?
This circles back around to the question of writing across genres. Julia’s and Mandy’s and the girl’s expectations are based on what sort of story they think they’re in. In a way, we learn how to anticipate life based on stories: the stereotypical one is the kid looking for a fantasy-world portal under every tree root, of course. Even though all three characters are in the same story, they are living different narratives.
And part of Julia’s realization is that this is true, and that it’s okay. The girl wasn’t harming anything by thinking she was a mermaid, Mandy was ecstatic (and actually learned to swim) because she met a mermaid, but then Julia kind of bulled through and imposed her version of reality on the girl, and by the ending she feels bad about that. Things can’t ever quite go back to how they were before.
You can explain some of it through armchair psychology, if you want – the girl can’t deal with being dead, so she makes up this story about being a mermaid – but I honestly don’t think the thought ever occurs to her before Julia says something. That’s why it comes as such of a shock. The expectations that we prize the most are the ones we never think to question.
There’s a lovely line in this story – “She wanted Mandy back in the cabin, and the girl’s fingertips against hers with all the weight of solitude behind them.” I kept thinking about that phrase – the weight of solitude – long after I’d finished the story. Can you talk a little about what that means for you, and why it’s important to the main character?
Growing up is a lonely thing. Basically everybody feels alone from time to time, but in general it’s hard to tell. Especially in late middle school and early high school, there’s often the feeling that everyone else got some training in How To Be Social and you didn’t – so Julia finds great solace in having met somebody whose loneliness is obvious, who clearly needs her companionship as much as she needs theirs. That’s the weight of solitude: the knowledge of loneliness combined with the recognition of that in somebody else, the heaviness of the need for connection.
Along those lines, I found the title particularly evocative. Did it come to you before the story, or after, or somewhere in the middle? Can you talk about why you chose it?
I’m glad that you found it evocative! It definitely came after the story, as my titles usually do. It’s a reference to an E. E. Cummings poem, “maggie and milly and molly and may”. These four girls go to the beach, and they all find different things, and in the end “whatever we lose(like a you or a me)/it’s always ourselves we find in the sea”, which struck me as deeply apropos to this story. Even if it is a lake here.
Are there any expectations that you have for yourself? Have you met them? Was it what you hoped?
I used to have expectations like “I will be a best-selling author by fifteen!” but that didn’t work out. These days I try not to have big expectations for myself. I will get there when I get there. (Even if “there” isn’t best-selling authorhood.) Right now, I am living in the genre of Barely-Post-College Life, which is not often represented in the books I read, so I have a refreshing lack of genre-based expectations for what will happen next.
What’s the question that you wish someone would ask, but no one ever has?
What happens next summer, when Julia and Mandy’s family returns to the lake?
What’s the answer to that last question?
I really don’t know. I hope nice things happen. I hope Julia and Mandy take the girl across the lake for ice cream, and that they all go see the fireworks on the fourth of July. But it could easily go another way too.