PW: Your first novel, Carrying the Body, focuses on a number of difficult issues—caregiving, tangled family relationships and alcoholism—in a very short format. What moved you to explore such themes?
DR: What I wanted to do was go as deep as I could into a dark, scary place and see whether I could come out plausibly on the side of light. I also wanted to look at emotional caretaking, in a sense—the failure to love completely within a family despite our best efforts and to ask whether what we have is enough.
PW: Portions of this work have been published as short stories. When did you know this was a novel instead of a collection like your first book, In the Year of Long Division?
DR: I probably realized I was writing a novel after I wrote two or three pieces that were all part of an effort to answer some of the same questions. I was interested in our efforts to love and our sometimes failure to do that perfectly.
PW: The two sisters, Elise and Aunt, have both been damaged by life, yet still retain a powerful connection, although Elise had run away years ago while Aunt stayed home to take care of their ill father after their mother died. Aunt accepts her return with a sick boy, but when Elise leaves again, this time leaving him with Aunt, is it an act of cowardice or redemption?
DR: I wanted to leave that open. In a sense, leaving that child is an act of cowardice, yet ultimately, an extraordinary gift. It's both things. She's not able to care for that child—a lot of things are at war within her.
PW: Aunt's claustrophobic world appears to be timeless—events could be happening 50 years ago or last year. Was this intentional?
DR: I deliberately avoided all references to radio, TV, the news of the outside world in order to create a sort of rupture from everyday reality—a sense of everything being contained within the walls of that house. In my mind, it's Wisconsin, but it doesn't matter that much.
PW: Aunt begins telling and retelling "The Three Little Pigs" to the sick child and with each retelling, it becomes more intense and even violent. Why did you choose this story?
DR: When my kids were little, I had to read that story over and over again because they were both so interested in it. I discovered there are a lot of different versions of that story, some more sanitized than others. I thought it would be interesting to have a character tell a story that we all essentially know but becomes corrupted by her own drama as she continues to tell it. It becomes a story about her. So I think Aunt's drinking—in my mind I never labeled it as alcoholism—was just a way of loosening her tongue.
PW: As a former fiction editor at Redbook and now, as the current executive articles editor at O magazine, you've logged heavy duty time as a reader, critic and editor. How has that changed you as a writer?
DR: I do edit my own work as carefully as I can. For any writer, though, it's important to keep reading, to keep your ears and eyes open and keep looking at things critically. I guess it underscores for me the need to keep things crisp and short. I look for what's there that's not essential and can be cut out.
PW: Are you your own worst critic?
DR: I try not to be. At a certain point you have to let go. You can edit the life out of something.
PW: What's next for Raffel, the writer?
DR: I don't know. That's kind of the way I like it. I very much like not knowing what's coming next. I'm writing, but I don't know what it's going to be. That's what makes it exciting for me, to discover it as I write.