Alida Dean is a writer who knows how to build compelling and fascinating places and characters. This is a writer who knows the locales and people in her story with intimate delicacy and care, and this knowing and understanding of her characters is what allows her the ability to include and, more importantly, exclude just the right amount of information. This authorial holding back of information strikes the perfect balance between us readers knowing just enough and leaving the rest to mystery. And I’m not talking about mystery in the Alfred Hitchcock sense. I’m talking about a deeper mystery that involves character motivations and how individuals’ histories with one another make up a complex undercurrent present, but not overwhelming, throughout the entire story.
“Islanders” is the story to which I’m referring. It’s is about an eccentric mother and a quiet, observant daughter, and how the two exist among the other inhabitants of the island on which they live. The story is narrated from the perspective of the daughter, and from her POV, we’re introduced not just to her mother, but to a whole host of memorable characters including the narrator’s teacher, a classmate named Sam, and Sam’s parents, among others. The characters are connected to the mother and daughter, often in significant ways, even if those reasons aren’t fully realized in the story. What we know for certain is that the mother has a long-standing history with the others on the island, and these connections affect how the others interact with the narrator. Still, the story’s most poignant and memorable moments are the ones between mother and daughter.
In one of the opening scenes, for instance, the mother lies to the school administrator about her daughter (who she calls “bug”) having a dental appointment so she can pull her from school for the afternoon. The following conversation occurs between mother/daughter as they walk from the school doors to their truck:
“It’s such a perfect day,” she said. “Let’s go fishing.”
“After the dentist?”
She squeezed my hand and said, “You don’t have to go to the dentist, bug. I just couldn’t wait till three to see you.”
This exchange gives a sense for the overall dynamic in the story, one where the mother is irresponsible, though fun-loving, and “bug” is along for the ride. It’s only now, years later, that the daughter is telling this story as a way to make sense of these events of the past.
“Islanders” is a wonderful story set in a unique and compelling place, with characters who are equally as engaging. Check out my interview with author Alida Dean, below, and you can read her story here.
Keith Lesmeister: I suppose all stories are told retrospectively, but I’m especially fond of stories that have a longer gap between the events that are unfolding in the story and the age of the current narrator. In this case, the events unfolding in the story are when the narrator is in grade school, but she is telling the story much later. We as readers get a sense for this early on when the narrator states: “I knew lying was wrong, but I was willing to do it to protect my mother’s reputation. I’m still willing to do that much for her.” This collection of lines is wonderful, but that last one points us to a narrator who is much older than grade school, much wiser to her mother’s actions, and we get occasional lines like this throughout, this pinging back and forth between the narrator of now versus who she was then. Perhaps you could comment on this particular narrative strategy used here and the way you were able to so authentically negotiate between the narrative lens zooming in and out, between the narrator of now and the events of all those years ago in grade school.
Alida Dean: “Pinging back and forth” is a nice way of putting it! I think my intention was for the adult narrator to re-inhabit her childhood mindset as she tells the story, while also acknowledging that this isn’t the only way she sees things anymore. If it feels authentic, it’s probably more because this is the way I tend to look back on memories myself than because of any clever strategizing on my part. We do grow up, sort of, but things don’t necessarily make more sense with time, and when I think back to my own childhood, I tend to relive moments and memories rather than look at them with much narrative or psychic distance. That said, I’ve hopefully learned a couple of things about people since I was in elementary school, which maybe accounts for the occasional pinging into the present.
KL: I’m also fond of the direct address, when narrator’s turn to the reader or readers to say something about the narrative itself, and in this case—I hope I’m not giving away too much here—this one comes toward the end of the story: “And if I’ve made you feel sorry for me, then I’m telling this whole thing wrong.” I mention this now because I think it harkens back to question #1 about the dual narration. I don’t even know if that’s the correct term – dual narration – but it’s one that comes to mind as the narrator negotiates that fine line between rendering life on the page as a grade school person while telling the story as an adult. At any rate, could you talk about this particular direct address and what effect it might have on you as a writer and also as a reader? And more so, did you or do you have a particular audience in mind while writing?
AD: I have to admit, I didn’t think too hard about that moment of direct address as I wrote it. I was probably a little worried that the reader would be feeling sad for the narrator by this point in the story, when in my mind her unconventional upbringing actually seems pretty fun, and ends up serving her well as an adult. I guess the line is like a check-in with the reader, where the adult narrator is saying, Hey you, stop feeling bad for me because I don’t feel bad for myself!
Sometimes I do have a particular person in mind while writing, someone I feel I need to explain myself to, but in this case the audience I was imagining was more general. I suppose I was thinking of people who might read material like this and cry, “Bad parenting!” or something along those lines, without giving the characters, the mother especially, a chance to redeem themselves.
As far as writing particular sentences goes, I do sometimes think of David Gates, who I know we’ve both worked with—what words would he cut? how would he re-arrange them? what words would he circle and write “right word?” next to?
KL: I appreciate you mentioning Gates. When I’m writing, his voice is often in my head as well, and for the same reasons. I know he didn’t come up with the term “kill your darlings” but that’s exactly what he’s good at doing. Helluva a teacher/editor.
So, getting more into the content of the piece, I thought the balance of relational mystery is prevalent throughout, especially between the mother and Sam’s parents. Was there a point in the writing process when their relational history was more pronounced? Or was it always going to be (somewhat of) a mystery to readers? For the record, I liked the not-knowing completely….
AD: Nope, there wasn’t a point when their history was going to be more pronounced, at least there wasn’t a point in the past, because I actually don’t know what that history is yet—more on this in my answer to the last question! I do think the not knowing serves the story well though because when you’re a kid you only glimpse, and understand, tiny pieces of adult relationships, and most of the past is mysterious.
KL: With these characters in mind, I thought there was a perfect blend of poignancy and humor throughout, most notably with the mother. As a writer, especially when working with these larger-than-life characters such as the mother, who are bombastic, fun-loving, deeply caring, but damaged thoroughly, how do you keep her from taking over the story completely?
AD: I’m glad you found humor in this story! It’s becoming increasingly important to me that I make my writing at least somewhat funny.
As far as not letting the mother, or any of the characters, take over the story, I think it’s just a matter of knowing I’m not going to be able to fit everything into one story. There’s so much more I could explore about the mother, or any of these characters, but not in fifteen pages. If I sense myself getting sidetracked, wanting to explore something that feels too big or too convoluted for the scope of the story, I just think, I’ll save that for later. This is probably how I get most of my ideas for other projects.
KL: I’m not sure how long this story is in terms of word count (you mentioned 15 pages just now), but it felt like a longer story with a lot of characters, situations, dynamics, and locales. When you first started this story, were you aware of its form as a short story right away, or at any point did it push for longer status as, say, a novella? Or even a novel?
And with the above question(s) in mind, and with the acknowledgement that “Islanders” is most certainly a stand-alone story, it also felt like it could be part of a larger narrative – perhaps a linked collection or a novel-in-stories. Do you have any plans to situate this story into a larger constellation of stories?
AD: Yes! So I actually wrote this story several years ago. At that time the idea of writing a novel, or even a linked story collection, felt too daunting, so I was thinking it would just be one story, leave it at that, good riddance. But then I wrote another story about these same characters when the narrator is in high school, and then, more recently, I wrote a (first draft) of a novel that has nothing to do with these characters, so now I feel ready to dive back into this world, and slightly more capable of writing something longer. I’m hoping to spin some of this material into a novel eventually. At the moment I have a lot of ideas in my head about what could happen to these characters and very little written down, so we’ll see what happens!
KL: A few questions of preference. Do you prefer:
KL: Being surrounded by mountains or open spaces?
AD: I prefer being on top of a mountain, surrounded by other mountains but also able to see far away. I don’t like feeling hemmed in.
KL: Bird watching or whale watching?
AD: Whale watching!
KL: Color red or orange?
KL: Crawdads or crabs (to eat)?
AD: Crabs, but they’re both very tasty.
KL: Dawn or dusk?
KL: Lastly, old timey or new timey string bands?
AD: Hmm, I was going say old timey, but the truth is I probably listen to more new timey string music. I’ll take any string band! I used to play the cello and now I wish I hadn’t given it up.
Alida Dean is a PhD candidate at the University of Cincinnati and a graduate of the University of Montana’s MFA program. Her story “The Off Season” was the 2020 winner of Ninth Letter’s fiction contest. She lives in Cincinnati with her dog.