“Be Open to the Miracle of Human Limitation” – A Conversation with Julie C. Day

Julie C. Day was one of our weird little zine’s earliest contributors, as her short story “Faerie Medicine” appeared in our second issue back in the Summer of 2014. Other stories by Julie have appeared in  InterzoneSplit Lip Magazine, and Black Static, to name just a few. She’s also the author of Uncommon Miracles, released this fall by PS Publishing, and currently available in hardcover or Kindle editions. Pulitzer Prize finalist Kelly Link called the book “a collection of stories to unsettle your dreams and make the world a stranger and more delightful place.”

Julie recently exchanged emails with our managing editor Joseph P. O’Brien about Uncommon Miracles, as well as analog artifacts, virtual travel, and the value of surrealism…

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JO’B: There are various kinds of “Uncommon Miracles” in the stories in your new book: scientific, religious, magical– sometimes even a mixture of two or three. Do you believe in miracles, in the supernatural sense? Or do you think most “miracles” are potentially explicable by science? Or do you believe both are possible?

JCD: Let me start by saying I believe in the part selves, subpersonalities and the dissonance of beliefs these various parts can create. In other words, yes and no. Humans, as biological creatures, can only perceive what our bodies are capable of experiencing. If you consider reality an amalgam of all the sensory data biological creatures perceive, we already miss so much, whether it’s the infrared markings on flower petals or the navigational guides provided by the earth’s magnetic fields. If you consider how much more there must be to the universe beyond that, we miss the majority of reality.

Science is a methodology that allows us to both gain and organize knowledge about the universe. But no matter how often people correct and refine and illuminate, our scientific understanding will never present the objective universe. We humans will always be limited to viewing the universe through the lens of our biology.

JO’B: Have you ever witnessed anything you’d describe as a miracle?

JCD: This is a bit of a sideways answer, but it’s also the best answer I can think of. When I was thirteen my family moved into a house that was over two hundred years old. On the right-front side of the house was a separate front door leading to a small room, too big to be a hallway. We were told that before funeral homes, the dead and their caskets were given their own entrance into and exit from the house. That feeling you have that you see something, like a trailing bit of white fog, from the corner of your eye? I repeatedly, though not frequently, felt that when I lived in that house. I even felt the emotional presence of people like my grandfather, someone who had died thousands of miles away. Part of me says none of it was real, my imagination is a wild tangle inserting itself in much of my experiences. Another part of me says be open to the miracle of human limitation. There will always be the miraculous, aspects to life we may never fully experience or understand.

JO’B: As someone who was raised Catholic (and has since lapsed), I get the sense while reading your work that you also might’ve had a somewhat religious upbringing (or at least been surrounded by religion as a child). Is that true, and if so, how do you think that may have influenced your writing?

JCD: I was born in the North of England but my family moved to southern Indiana when I was six. In other words, my first real experience with religion was abrupt and painful and incredibly alienating. Like many in the U.K. I was raised in a very secular family. Columbus, Indiana was full of churchgoers who believed in a very restrictive Christian orthodoxy. They were completely oblivious at best and antagonistic at worst to the idea that there were people unlike them in their midst. Despite our common language, English, it was a funhouse-mirror of what I considered the real world.

My imagination was my refuge. But I’ve also always had a very analytical mind. Thinking things through and finding the pattern or the common thread is very much my thing, that and a love of the unexpected truth found in our physical world—truths that require scientific observation and experimentation. So when a teacher taught creationism and evolution, making it clear evolution made no sense; when a teacher quoted a bible verse about women being silent in the church; when some civic group came around our elementary school handing out the new testament; when all of those things occurred, I felt trapped between needing to be quiet to feel safe and needing to be true to how I saw the world. It was an intensely uncomfortable experience. And because it is tangled up with far more personal family events, there is a deeper darkness tied to it as well. In the end, on an emotional level, organized religion will always have an association with that Bible Belt childhood.

All this and yet my younger child and spouse both attend a lovely local church that does much for the community. While I appreciate that sense of connection they find there, it’s not for me.

JO’B: Did you, like me, also spend a lot of time wandering through the woods as a kid? (I kind of get that sense too.)

JCD: Yeah, absolutely. I still do. 🙂 My childhood was a different time. On the outskirts of the subdivision where we lived, just a block or two away, were woods, a stream, and corn fields. My friends and I were very much “free range.” It seemed like we were the only ones who went down there. We attempted to cross the stream on rotted-down trees, messed around with the “quick sand” along its banks, and fretted about the possibility of lockjaw from the rusty nails we came across—or at least I did.

JO’B: Your story “Raising Babies,” as well as “Faerie Medicine,” the piece you contributed to FLAPPERHOUSE, involve people undergoing plant-related metamorphoses. If you were to shape-shift into some kind of vegetative life-form, what would it be, and why?

JCD: Can I cheat a little and claim kinship with fungi? With the entire fungi kingdom? They are thrilling. Some fungi reproduce both sexually and asexually at different points in their lifecycle. Funguses can poison or heal or provide nutrition. They decompose organic matter so that the living world can continue. They are mysterious and numerous and not nearly as well understood as the other two eukaryotic kingdoms. Looking at pictures of bioluminescent fungi raises my mood every time. That green-yellow light is my type of magic. And they have chitin—yes the material used for insect exoskeletons and fish scales—in their cell walls!

JO’B: In your story “Pinhole of Light,” the narrator laments how digital cameras can’t connect the living and the dead in the same way film can. Regardless of whether you believe that such a connection to the spirit-world is possible, do you share the belief that digital recordings significantly alter, or even limit, our relationship with reality in a negative way, compared to their analog counterparts? Do you have any personal preference between digital & analog media in that regard?

JCD: When that story was forming, one of the ideas I was mulling was the lack of permanence that our new digital age creates. We may have intense email correspondence but few of us save them or if we do, they aren’t called out as important in a way that might draw strangers to them. In contrast, I have a basket of airmail letters in my basement. They were weekly letters my grandmother typed and sent to me after my family emigrated. The mere existence of those letters is enough to mark them as meaningful to anyone who might come across them. And whether it’s a stranger or a relative, at some point someone will glance over them and decide whether they continue to carry meaning or whether they should be tossed.

I also own some tintypes and black-and-white photographs I picked up at flea markets and antique shops. For me they are filled with ghosts. They were taken to mark an occasion. And in a way that the digital world totally misses, they were also a part of the of the physical world from the moment of their creation. They are their own physical objects with their own personal history Some of those pictures tore. Some were scribbled on. Some faded. Some of them existed long after the people in them had died. And for each of those photographs, the reasons they ended up where I eventually found them is also a part of their story.

Of course digital photographs can offer some of those some experiences but they generally don’t. Often digital photographs are a shorthand communication with no historical significance. Snap Chat snaps are explicitly meant to disappear. Facebook family photos are quickly lost in an archive that is clunky to navigate and easily forgotten. Despite all the posing that occurred when people took an analog photograph—lean in closer, wear your best clothes, hold still, smile–I think our modern digital photographs are more explicitly staged. They intentionally frame a virtual stream of moments so that they tell a story—a very carefully skewed story, which if we were honest, is a staged performance of our lives. Digital pictures are a virtual flip-book memoir of our lives, a sort of lie by increments.

I love the volume of pictures we can take today. I’m as much an addict as anyone else, but honestly I’m not a fan.

JO’B: Similar to how “Pinhole of Light” addresses the effects of digital & analog photography on our reality, “Signal and Stone” touches on the effects of hyperconnectivity on our psyches. It made me think how funny it is that so many horror stories used to involve people who were in danger because they were far from civilization and unable to call for help; yet in recent years, however, we’ve discovered how being instantaneously connected to everyone & everything can be just as scary. Personally, I feel obligated to engage in the hyperconnectivity to a degree, but I also feel I have to actively & strictly limit that engagement in order to maintain my sanity. So I’m curious: what’s your relationship like with the wireless world in this regard, and to what degree did it inform “Signal and Stone”?

JCD: I’m one of those antennae people, wandering both the virtual and physical world with my sensors on almost constant alert. I startle easily, can’t sleep well when away from home, and find the company of others lovely, but after a time, overwhelming. Which isn’t to say I can’t function. It’s more that I’m the canary in the emotional coalmine. I keep hearing the prevalence of depression and anxiety has skyrocketed in Generation Z as compared to Millennials. It’s no coincidence that this is the first Western generation to be deluged with the virtual world since birth—at the expense of human interactions.

For me hyperconnectivity equates with isolation from others and myself. Friendships that are fed almost exclusively online are a curated experience. You can never entirely trust the other person’s immediate reaction as emotionally truthful—the first response you experience is always formulated.  When you are with a person, even a stranger standing next to you on the bus, they blush. They look away or look into your eyes. They looked bored. We don’t have to speak words, our bodies speak for us.

Which is my roundabout way of saying, yes, “Signal and Stone” was definitely informed by my attitude toward the virtual world. Spend too much time out there and you or I or anyone may become a networked ghost, disconnected from our authentic physical self and experiences.

JO’B: Your stories take place in settings all across the US– Oregon, Arizona, Florida, Ohio, to name just a few– and it seems like you have a good deal of first-hand experience with the places you write about. Have you done a lot of travelling across the country? If so, how have the places you’ve traveled inspired your story ideas?

JCD: Okay, secret revealed: I’m a deep virtual traveler. Driving along a street via Google maps isn’t unusual for me when writing a story. In some cases, I’ve traveled to the place I’m writing about: Florida, Maine, southern Indiana, and in the case of my Flapperhouse story “Faerie Medicine,” New Brunswick; but even in those cases, there was more research than you might expect. For whatever reason, a place will evoke a certain mood or thread of an idea, even if I’ve never actually been there. Research allows me to understand the place more fully and grow that initial story-spark into something specific and surprising to me.  Committing to the location always changes and deepens a story.

At the same time, I often write stories while traveling. I wrote “Faerie Medicine” while on a road trip that included New Brunswick. The trees in the story are trees I actually came across, though minus the hidden women. Probably… I worked on “Signal & Stone” while on the island of Vinalhaven. I even walked certain areas to get a sense of that particular stretch of land.  Honestly, my vacation pictures are always filled with images of plaques, museum labels, and even the odd dead mouse–whatever seems helpful to the swirl of ideas in my head.

JO’B: Do you often think of a speculative premise you’d like to explore in a story first, and then think of what kind of characters might play best within such a premise? Or do you generally have the characters come to you first, and then you look for a speculative premise for them to live through? Or is it a little of both?  

JCD: For me it nearly always starts with a weird emotional jolt. If it’s going to work, the central character follows, and then there’s a swirl of detail—historic, geographic, cultural, scientific—and finally, at some point, the plot itself. Sometimes I wonder how much of what I’m doing is just trying to evoke that initial emotional moment in the reader. The real world, the world we experience, is surreal. Our personal realities are related to, but not the same as, what we call our common reality. I want my readers to find themselves in that more personal reality. In my stories, the surreal isn’t just metaphoric. It’s the literal truth. That’s part of the point…

JO’B: I love that statement– “The real world, the world we experience, is surreal.” For better or worse, I very much agree. Of course, the world is surreal in good ways and bad. It often seems like the people who make the world surreal in nightmarish, oppressive ways think that they’re actually being completely logical, and they’re frequently hostile to those who make the world surreal in daydreamy, liberating ways. And as a result I can’t shake this conviction that in order for all of us to see reality more clearly, and fix its more dire problems, we need to embrace positive surrealism tighter than ever before. Does that make sense? Am I onto something here, or am I being a bit too naive?

JCD: You are being delightful. We definitely need a universe of dreamy surreal people, I say, being one of them…

We are all experiencing and interpreting our experiences so differently. I think it’s folly to pretend there is a single truth that explains any one moment or situation. People who experience the world as a single, from-their-viewpoint experience and demand the rest of us agree are dangerous. Their need to control the narrative is entangled with a desire, conscious or subconscious, to wield power—financial, political, cultural—until the world conforms to their vision of acceptable. Blech.

The human world is a pluralistic experience. To define a narrow band of humanity as acceptable is the equivalent of declaring all the toys in the preschool yours and deciding who gets to play with them. It’s territorial, hostile nonsense. It dehumanizes. It justifies our more violent impulses. It’s all bad.

I’m not immune to feeling insecure or uneasy. Like everyone else, I have a comfort zone. But when I trip into a situation that makes me uncomfortable, I know I’m trapped in a maelstrom of my own making. Dreamy positive surreal, as you describe it, seems the antithesis. It’s about letting go of certainty and rigidity and being open to what the world offers up.

And now the big reveal: this wasn’t quite what I was getting at in my previous answer, though it is related. My sense of the world is often overlaid by specters of all the things we humans are physically incapable experiencing. Our so-called real world is just human sense-organs and electro-chemical neural networks translating a far richer universe. Everything we understand is the equivalent of a mole trying to imagine the experience of a bee in flight: the movement of those translucent wings, the ultraviolet markings of something called a flower, the hive-centered desires. Okay, let’s be honest. Our ability to take in the universe is far more limited than any surreal mole-dream of a bee’s life.

JO’B: With your particular style of magical realism, I have to imagine that writers like Kelly Link might be a big influence on you. What writers and stories have inspired you most– especially ones that your readers might not readily guess (ie, ones that are less “magical” and more “realist”)?  

JCD: Ha! I feel like such a brat revealing this info, but I came to Kelly Link rather late. I love her work, but I read her for the first time when I started my MFA program along with the short fiction of Miranda July, Maureen McHugh, Karen Joy Fowler, Steven Millhauser, Nathan Ballingrud and oh so many others. I think we all play in related universes and likely have some of the same influences. Or maybe we just have some sort of common sensibility…

I’ve always been an omnivorous reader, and I find reading a lot of fiction that is similar to mine, or similar in any way, dull, which is another way of saying I’m easily distracted. Perhaps that’s why I’ve always loved short fiction so much…

For thirteen-year-old me Jane Eyre was it along with Aldos Huxley’s Brave New World.  And then there was Anne McCaffrey’s The Dragonriders of Pern

Going a little deeper, in terms of influences there’s what I think of as a female-centric tradition of authors, a sort of weirdwomen lineage, that travels back to Charlotte Perkins Gilman’s “The Yellow Wallpaper,” along with Jean Rhys, Tanith Lee, and of course Shirley Jackson. Isak Dinesen is somewhere in that mix as well.

But if you want to go for an extremely deep but unexpected influence, I’m going to have to throw out The Good Soldier by Ford Maddox Ford. It’s a story that is told in four parts, with each part relating the same story from a different POV. With each repeat Ford twists your understanding of the specific scenes. Yet each time you think you’ve finally gotten to the “truth.” I read that novel quite a number of times. It made me so happy.

JO’B: Your story “Mourning Food”, with the way it blended cooking and magic, was one of my favorite stories in your collection. Are you much of a cook or food-lover yourself? If so, do you have any personal favorite dishes you like to make? Are there any special recipes that have been passed down through your own family? Have you ever prepared any meals with unorthodox ingredients, such as “tears of rage”?

JCD: I’m thrilled it’s one of your favorites. It’s a series I’d love to expand on. I wish I could illustrate. I keep visualizing a Julie recipe book broken up into sections based on esoteric recipe type and then deciding images are a must for a such a project and leaving it alone.

I used to cook. But as my partner and kids can attest, I’ve become a hazard in the kitchen. Neither kid wants me to even make the attempt. It’s actually purposeful on my part. Work, kids, writing, something had to give, and I choose to dodge out of cooking. Thankfully, I have a supportive partner, though I know his dream is for my life to slow down enough to give that kitchen some love.

I do have recipe box of that includes recipes I collected when I was younger. One of them is a folded half-sheet white paper covered in a single-spaced typewritten recipe for apple strudel—or apfelstrudel as my family calls it. It was my Gran Yetti’s recipe and involves stretching the puff pastry across the entire length of a table. When I was a little, I helped her make it, but I’ve never made it by myself. When I do I already know it’ll be one of those dishes that includes “tears forced to the back of the throat” along with “unconsciously clenched teeth determined to hold you in the here and now.” For me that particular dish is weighed with personal and historic baggage.

JO’B: Much of your writing is rooted in fairy tales, most notably the Red Riding Hood riff of “Raven Hair.” Do you remember “Red Riding Hood”, or any other specific fairy tales, making a particularly strong impact on you as a child? Do you have any favorite fairy tales that are more obscure, which most readers might not remember or even be aware of?

JCD: Truth is, my writing style derives from my weaknesses as well as my strengths. I have a very poor memory.  I’m forced to do research to include the kind of specificity I feel my fiction requires. I’m also full of vague impressions and conclusions without the facts to back them up.  I think more than the fairytales themselves, what’s made an impact on me are the ways in which more contemporary authors, such as Angela Carter, have used folktales to subvert the original moral or intent. There is so much rage and power in all such revisionist work. I took a myth and folklore class in college but really I only read them when in search of inspiration. How does a story strike me? What does it make me feel? What POV would I inhabit and how angry would that character be? I guess I see them as shortcuts for story-based commentary on cultural expectations or norms. And an excuse to get extreme. Folktales are great at that…

JO’B: The book’s final story, “I Want to Be Here,” is a powerful, even devastating, portrayal of how the past can consume us. Are there any long-gone people, either relatives or strangers, with whom you’d wish to visit if you had a portal to the past?   

JCD: That feels dangerous. A part of me wants to see, smell, hear specific places and people in the plural, much like an episode of Dr. Who.  The other darker part of me wants to visit my mother as a young child, my father at eleven years old, my grandmother at sixteen, and experience, or interpret, moments in their lives that formed the personalities I grew up with. The most terrifying idea is to meet my young self. There’s so much risk in all of that. The vulnerability of these earlier selves unknowingly being assessed and judged by the voyeuristic future. Even thinking about it makes me feel protective.

So let’s just agree to Dr. Who it, bring a knowledgeable guide we can trust and land in Cairo, the Scottish Highlands, or the Valley of Mexico and feel the past press against our skin!

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JULIE C. DAY has published over thirty stories in magazines such as InterzoneSplit Lip MagazineBlack StaticPodcastle and Flapperhouse. Her debut collection, Uncommon Miracles, was just released by PS Publishing.

Julie lives in a small town in New England with her family and a menagerie of variously sized animals. She holds an MFA in Creative Writing from the University of Southern Maine’s Stonecoast program and a M.S. in Microbiology from the University of Massachusetts at Amherst.

Some of Julie’s favorite things include nighttime glasses of ginger libation, rewatching all except the last season of Trueblood, and baths, oh-so-many baths.

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