Rum Punch: Australia is beautifully described in “The Tyke Trekker.” What inspired this setting, and what is it that makes this particular place so essential to the story?
Kent Quaney: I studied in Australia for a few years, in the masters program at the University of Sydney, and the place just grabbed a hold of me. Australia is beautiful and wild and wonderful and the people are open-hearted and opinionated and unselfconscious in this amazing way that Americans just aren’t. Great fodder for stories, and I end up using the setting a lot, I whether I intend to or not. When I started writing this story it was set in Arcata, California, but I could feel it WANTING to be in Byron Bay so I had to go back in and change it around to fit. Byron ended up suiting the story well I thought. It’s a very special place in Australia. It’s on a beautiful isolated bit of beach away from the big cities, and has become a sort of go-to for the globally/socially conscious. Everyone there is very committed to things, and while that makes for some marvelous stuff, there’s also unfortunately that bit of smug fallout that happens in places where people believe they are getting it right when others around them aren’t. It works well for the story because the isolation and single-mindedness of the place are the catalysts that start Natalie’s reexamination of her marriage and life. Had they stayed in Sydney she might have gone blithely along, comfortably numb in her routine.
RP: The move away from Sydney for Charlie (i.e. for a spouse’s career) is one that couples often have to make. It is clearly a sacrifice for Natalie. One of the most powerful moments happens here.
She opened the closet door and reached to the top shelf for one of the blankets they didn’t use. The smell of their Sydney house came down with it – lavender floor polish and cedar wood. For just a moment she held it to her face and breathed deeply, seeing the view of Mosman Bay from her old kitchen window, then walked back out to the living room.
As she brings Tim these blankets, it’s obvious that smell of her past (happy) home will be gone once they are used in this new space. Are there any other passages in this story that you think capture Natalie’s sacrifice? Do you view the move as a sacrifice on Natalie’s part?
KQ: I’m so glad you like that passage. I really wanted the reader to see how much she loved what she had left behind, because, as you’ve stated, the move is a huge sacrifice on Natalie’s part. She’s really believes it’s important, though, because she’s doing what she believes someone does in a relationship. We make relationships work as best we can, and sometimes that means moving to a place we don’t like, putting our own goals on hold, or even just hanging around people we find unpleasant, all to make the relationship work. I’ve always been a bit cynical about relationships as I’ve seen friends and acquaintances lose themselves, even become completely different people, in the service of making a relationship “work,” and I’ve seen friends start to treat each other badly after the newness and excitement of a relationship has worn off, taking each other for granted, but that’s not what I intended to impart here. I believe these two are both good people at heart who honestly love/loved each other very much and that their marriage was once a good thing, but that life has thrown them both enough stuff since they got together that they probably should have reevaluated long before now.
The biggest sacrifice beyond the move that occurs in the story is Natalie setting out to apologize to Tim. She’s been really upset, yet off she goes to apologize because it will be good for Tim’s residency. And of course it’s in this moment that she learns of the betrayal and realizes just how much she’s truly lost.
RP: There’s great humor in this story. One of my favorite parts is the exchange between the Natalie and Katrina about the merits of the baby wrap versus Natalie’s leviathan of a stroller: “If you’re okay with leaving that sort of carbon footprint, I suppose I can’t stop you.” It really drives home the point of Natalie as this sort of beleaguered character. What were some of your intentions when you were developing this Natalie, and what role do you see humor playing in the story?
KQ: I’m glad I got a laugh out of you. I wanted to give this a bit of a humorous touch for two reasons: first to humanize these people, and second to give the ending more punch when shit gets real. We’ve been laughing along at this ridiculous situation, cheering for Nat, but really thinking nothing of much import is really happening, but then we realize that Natalie’s predicament is actually quite serious, and he humor is knocked out of her.
She’s already accused them of being too earnest, too serious, but, as the reader/outsider we can see that actually Rose and even Tim are not as tightly wound as Nat would have us believe. Tim’s joke about having his own pants, Rose’s joke about the other women turning into sandalwood smoke are both meant to humanize these people who have gone off the grid, and to also show that the problem really is between Charlie and Natalie. The place and situation bring out the worst, but they could honestly be anywhere and they’d eventually have to deal with what’s going on.
RP: There’s such great tension between Natalie and her husband Tim, who doesn’t seem to get her hesitancy about going off-the-grid, particularly where his pantless friend Charlie is concerned. What were some of your techniques for setting up this dynamic?
KQ: Yeah, the tension between them is very real. Charlie seems at first to be really good-natured and sweet, perfectly pleasant as they’re having dinner, but then we realize that he and Nat are really not speaking the same language. I made a few choices here to set that up. First of all, Nat mentions that Charlie has scolded her for lengthy voicemail messages in the past, and for the way she dresses, which might slip by, but then at dinner, he doesn’t ask Nat about anything she actually does with her day, doesn’t ask about Olivia, and just assumes that with a little cajoling, Nat will get over the thing with Tim and behave, the goal being to make things easier for HIM, not necessarily her. It would be way too easy to make him a classic abuser here. His conversational style is sweet and calm, and he even makes a few cute jokes with her, but it’s all in service of making things easier for him, and he’s really speaking to her like a child. That was important for me to establish, because then it feels so triumphant when Natalie takes her power back.
RP: Natalie is surrounded by women throughout the story, yet she is clearly isolated. Is her isolation an element of her personality, motherhood, marriage, and being a stay-at-home mom? Is this isolation something you see in women today?
KQ: This is the only story I’ve written with a female protagonist. I have major female characters in other pieces, but this one is all Natalie from the first sentence to the last, and I wasn’t sure I was going to be able to pull it off. I really enjoyed writing her and seeing what she wanted to do. I imagine her as someone who never imagined she’d be a stay-at-home mom. I’m sure it happened gradually as she made sacrifices for the relationship, and then found herself friendless and isolated in Byron. Her personality plays into it a bit, because she just won’t play along with the Katrinas of the town, so in that way she’s stronger than someone who just rolls over, and that sort of bravery often isolates us. But ultimately this wouldn’t be a problem if she had a husband who supported her and could laugh with her about it all and agree with her and encourage her. That’s what she’s lacking and that’s ultimately what the isolation comes from. We can face any situation if we can then go home to someone who completely gets us.
RP: Charlie is so oblivious to Natalie’s loneliness, being that he’s so focused on his work. His inattention to Natalie because of his work is often an issue in marriage.
KQ: Yes, unfortunately it seems Natalie has married a narcissist, and she wouldn’t be the first to make that mistake. I’m sure he was a lovely guy when they met, but men are privileged in our society in a way that women aren’t. We’re told our work is important and that we’re all brilliant and we still have this whole antiquated house-wife/breadwinner dynamic, and so we take others for granted and assume that it’s all part of the plan. It’s a ridiculous thing that needs to stop, and Charlie seems to typify the problem, even as he’s allegedly part of a more enlightened counter-culture.
RP: What are you up to now, and where can we read more of your work?
KQ: Well, I just started my new job as an English professor at Texas A&M International University and I’m really excited to be out of the starving grad student circuit. I’ve been in Laredo a total of four days and all I can tell you so far is that the desert is beautiful, and that I’m so hot I actually don’t know how to process what’s happening to me. I might turn into sand and disappear like the women in the story (and Harry Potter) if I’m not careful!
My work is available online in a few places, but I’m most proud of a story that went up recently at Chelsea Station. It’s also set in Australia and has a lot of surfing in it, and I had a ton of fun writing it. It’s a chapter in a novel I’m trying to finish by Christmas, so hopefully in our next interview I’ll be telling you about my book tour!
Thanks again, Gloria and Courtney, for including me in this series. I love what you two are doing with Rum Punch Press.