Sallis’s latest Others of My Kind is a powerful, unsettling novella about a brilliant video editor who was abducted as a child and spent two years living in a box under her captor’s bed before escaping and building a life for herself. We caught up with Sallis on the eve of publication to discuss his latest work.
Despite what many would think of as horrific abuse, the book’s protagonist Jenny Rowan resolutely refuses to accept the role of professional victim. How did you conceive this character?
I was walking down a Phoenix street one day years ago when the character of Jenny began speaking to me, essentially telling me the backstory of her abduction and living in the mall just as it appears. Jenny brought me to see how so much around us—TV shows, memoirs, “poor poor pitiful me” tales—conspire to make us accept, even relish, the role of victim. Which is of course what she resolutely, and yet unheroically, refuses to do.
As I thought about what Jenny was telling me, two primary notions surfaced. First, all those thousands of women-in-peril stories that end with their being rescued. What happens then, surely, is the real story? And secondly, I considered how so many of the finest people I know have been through unconscionable trauma, war, the loss of loved ones, terrible wounds, life-threatening disease or injury. Jenny wanted to speak for them.
Jenny excels at her work as video editor for a D.C. news station, piecing together fragments of raw footage to create coherent pieces. What made you choose this profession for her?
We pretend there’s cohesion. In our beliefs, in the way we live, in who we are. We must, to go on. Yet our lives are forever fragments: fragments of experience, glimpses of self-knowledge, anticipations, edited and re-edited memories, bits of song, bits of great and very bad literature. The interest lies in how we manage to string those fragments together to form a bridge we can walk on. Jenny is one of the rare ones who understands this; that understanding is what makes her so good at her job.
This book has elements of your more recent work, especially The Killer Is Dying, but it also has a distinctly science fiction feel. What made you lean into a new realm for this story?
Remember that I grew up on science fiction and on writers such as Queneau, Vian, and Cortazar, and have always felt a strong pull towards arealism. Always felt that the visible world cannot tell the whole story, that there are other, unseen worlds half a step behind or to the side. This attitude does seem recently to be leaking from my poems and shorter fiction into my novels, into Killer, into Others, and into the one upon which I’m working now, Willnot. But there is also, I think, the fact that as I worked my way into the novel I came to realize that I wanted Jenny’s world to retain its inherent sense of being a construct. The book is, at heart, a political novel. What it talks about, down there among the mud and shells, is how much power we allow others over our lives.
Psychology, especially the popular variety, likes to put us in tidy slots that never quite fit. In Others, you take the reader into some pretty uncomfortable places. Any thoughts?
Lionel Trilling’s “adversary intent” comes to mind. Or my own observation in just about every class that popular literature reaffirms “what we know” while more ambitious writing, from the construction of its sentences to its very form, challenges that. If a story or poem does not disturb me, if it does not take me somewhere I’ve not been before, I’ve no interest in pursuing it. Only at the edge can you see clearly where you’ve come from and where you might go.