In her debut collection, You Should Pity Us Instead, Gustine brings us into the homes and hearts of many different kinds of families, as the members struggle to take care of one another.
This collection includes 11 stories, each of which was published individually. What has it been like for you to think about them as a whole?
I wrote these stories over several years, but I also write novels (none of which have yet been published), so I was juggling several projects. Once I was thinking about a collection, I had a few stories that were still in the idea phase, but as I read back through my other stories, I realized that there was a very clear thread of the parent-child relationship. So, I looked back at the ideas I still had on the drawing board and selected the ones I thought fit best with that theme. Then I sat down and very deliberately wrote them. Oddly, that parent-child thread was not obvious to me until I sat down and read the other [older] stories.
How has your own experience of parenting had impact on your work?
Parenting is interesting because it’s the thing in life where we get to experience both sides so completely. There are a few other things, like being a doctor—you’re a doctor and you get sick and you become someone’s patient. But most of us don’t get that experience except for being a parent and a child. We’re all someone’s child. And then, suddenly, we flip-flop. It’s a process that I think engenders a lot of understanding and, therefore, empathy, forgiveness, and appreciation. At the same time, you’re doing things your own way and dealing with your own child. I think I’ve become a lot more understanding of the incredible complexities. More often than not, there’s some struggle.
There’s such a richness in the different kinds of characters and different kinds of families. What kinds of research do you do in bringing characters to life?
It is funny what inspires a particular story. I keep a database of my notes so I can search through them. Years ago, someone who was white said to me in passing that he had a black brother, who’d been adopted. I don’t know why that stuck with me, but for years it played over in my mind. I wondered what that experience would be like from both sides. Slowly, that accrued personalities and a situation [in the story “AKA Juan”].
I also love doing research. But you have to be patient. You’re going to spend hours and hours looking at pictures and watching videos. And you’re going to have to question yourself constantly. But I find that more often than not, things are somehow gifted from the universe when you’re willing to put the time in.