PUBLISHED IN: 2012
THE AUTHOR: Margaret Hermes
THE PUBLISHER: Carolina Wren Press. The mission of CWP is to seek out, nurture, and promote literary work by new and underrepresented writers, including women and writers of color.
SUMMARY: A collection of short stories, Relative Strangers won the Doris Bakwin Prize for Writing by a Woman and a special second place award in the 2012 Balcones Fiction Prize.
The fourteen stories are thematically linked by their close examination of relationships. In the title story, relatives are shocked by revelations about the buried pasts of family members. In ”Transubstantiation,” a long-wed couple discovers they are strangers to each other. In “Meet Me,” a much younger couple is all too willing to believe they are strangers to each other. “The River’s Daughter” explores an uneasy relationship between siblings: “Even though I came first, once Carrie was on the scene I never came first to mind. I bore the distinction of being both the oldest and an afterthought.” With effort, they’ve managed not to let men come between them, but the river of the title threatens to permanently separate the sisters.
Sometimes the connection, or misconnection, is cross-generational, as in “For the Home Team,” where a boy is sent away to his uncle’s farm during the breakup of his parents’ marriage. When Daniel bemoans his father’s absence and silence over the course of the difficult summer, his uncle replies, “Sure, sure. He is stupid. I mean no disrespect. Men are stupid is all. They don’t know how to act.”
Daniel tells us he was glad to find that he and his uncle were somehow “excluded from this society of morons.”
The characters in Relative Strangers – ranging from a high school valedictorian fascinated by bees to a boy who goes through sexual awakening against a backdrop of bigotry — experience warmth as well as alienation, humor as well as heartache.
The collection is meant to draw the reader in with characters and settings that might seem familiar but never ordinary. I grew up in Chicago and live in St. Louis and some of the stories are set in those cities, while others take place on a South Carolina farm, in a hospital in Duluth, at a baseball game at the Polo Grounds in Manhattan, in a mythical town in the Missouri Bootheel, in a suburban nursing home, or in a nameless village in Eastern Europe where “everything was heavy — the coats, the shoes, the sky, the hearts.”
THE BACK STORY: These stories, published singly in literary magazines, were written over many years.
“Meet Me” (see sample chapter) took about two hours, plus subsequent airbrushing. I had asked my partner to just pick a title for a story out of the air. I wasn’t feeling inventive and apparently neither was he. In a hurry, he declined and began to lay out plans for the afternoon. “Meet me–” he said and I said, “That’s it!”
On the other hand, “Growing Season” took two years. That’s a story enriched by fragments from other people’s pasts. Various men among my acquaintance shared details from their youth that lodged in my memory and gave heft to the boy who matures over the course of the story. I worked long and hard on the structure to achieve a flow – an undercurrent really – between two forms of bigotry, religious and racial. So the innocence lost in this coming of age story is more than just sexual.
WHY THIS TITLE? The stories in this collection are tied together by a common theme. In some fashion each explores the many ways in which people remain unknown to one another. I think we’re all strangers from time to time to the people who should know us best. How we get through that — or run from it — intrigues me.
The title story was originally called “Family Matters” and that was the rubric I intended for the book. Then I became aware of Rohinton Mistry’s novel by that name and abandoned it. I tried “Family Business” and a couple other clunkers before I settled happily on Relative Strangers. I love that it suggests both people who are merely acquainted and relatives who are estranged from one another.
An additional benefit is that the title inspired my artist daughter, Lucy HG Solomon, to create the striking image that the publisher used for the cover.
WHY WOULD SOMEONE WANT TO READ IT? Change is what really drives my interest in any story. In theatre, I am not a fan of the one-person show. I want to see a character develop on stage, not see them at the end of their development or hear about how they developed into what they are now. The change can be internal – an epiphany – or external. Ideally, for me, a story will have both.
In the first of two connected stories, “Second Lover,” the change, apart from the change in the primary relationship, is in what the first person character is willing to accept in order to have a physical relationship; in “Foreign Exchange,” the following story, or the story within the story, it’s in how the protagonist views herself.
Aside from being intrigued by the way the characters – people! — develop, I hope that readers will be drawn to the writing. I am an ardent admirer of the short story form, the spareness and precision of it.
“Relative Strangers is a stunning collection of stories. Every single story is vivid and memorable, and yet, equally powerful is the collective thematic effect. So many of these characters are strangers within their own families and their own lives – people thought to be dead are resurrected and another’s survival is akin to death.
Change, loss, alienation; it’s all here. But so is humor and compassion and a fresh spin on the way people deal with the most vulnerable aspects of life. The range in vision is also powerful as we view – in one story – the adult world through the eyes of an adolescent who senses in his mother’s tremor ‘an earthquake unsettling my world’ and then just as easily we view life from the other end of the spectrum as characters look back on the change and loss and choices that shaped everything in life that followed. This movement between innocence and experience is constant, as is the weighing of love against passion and lust. Margaret Hermes is a wonderful writer and this is a moving and powerful collection.” —Jill McCorkle, Doris Bakwin Contest Judge
“Stories that feature a keen understanding of what makes people tick, but not click, in a dysfunctional America…sprinkled with tender and provocative examinations of familial relationships.” — St. Louis Beacon
“Hermes’ descriptions are colorful, her dialogue believable, and her word-play wondrous.” — Walrus Publishing
“The stories are short, but the characters’ histories are deep and immediately intimate to the reader; Hermes has a knack for inviting the reader into her prose with brevity amid description. There’s something about the way Hermes’ characters portray themselves to their external worlds while battling their conflicting inner selves that makes them so human, so relatable, and yet so intriguingly dysfunctional.” – Los Angeles Review.
“Hermes rewards readers with deftly drawn portraits and an economy of language that perfectly matches her short-story template.” — St. Louis Post-Dispatch Sunday book section:
AUTHOR PROFILE: My short stories have been published in a wide range of literary magazines and university journals and occasionally anthologized (Under the Arch, Antares Press; 20 Over 40, University Press of Mississippi). My published and performed work includes a mystery novel, The Phoenix Nest (Contemporary Books), and book and lyrics for a stage adaptation of an Oscar Wilde fable, The Birthday of the Infanta, commissioned by Metro Theatre Company. (I think of the latter as a musical tragedy for children.)
As a child growing up in Chicago I was much read to, and then evolved into a voracious reader. It helped that I had no sisters, four athletic brothers, and myopia that went undiagnosed until I’d become a hopeless bookworm. But I also inherited my aspiration.
My mother grew up with a passion for books in a small coal-mining town. Having no library and no wherewithal to purchase books, she began writing her own in grade school. Mostly tales of adventure in the American West. They were written on butcher paper and shared with friends and their families. Instead of becoming an author, she turned herself into a full-time housewife and mother, so somebody had to take up the pen.
A resident of St. Louis, I am a longtime advocate of the Missouri Coalition for the Environment. When not writing fiction, I’ve written about the dangers of radioactive wastes and worked on behalf of a better built environment as well as for clean streams, the preservation of parkland, and the protection of wilderness areas.
AUTHOR COMMENTS: Most of the stories in Relative Strangers contain slices of the real. For some, no research was needed, but the opening story, “The Bee Queen,” was inspired by an incident that haunted me since childhood. Planning to write about that vivid event involving wasps, I decided to spend an afternoon at the library familiarizing myself a bit with stinging insects. That research stretched out not only over time but into my main character. The facts that fascinated me gave rise to Bette who also found them fascinating, even if most of those facts didn’t make it into the story.
“Transubstantiation” emerged from a horrific event that befell friends. Writing about that was difficult on so many levels. I wanted to examine the transformative effect of calamity on individuals and relationships, the notion that even if the victim returns to her former life she can’t resume it: she is forever altered. I didn’t want to turn the couple I knew into characters, so I was acutely conscious of choosing attributes that would distinguish the husband and wife in “Transubstantiation” from my friends. That complicated the telling of the story.
On the opposite end of the spectrum, there’s “Parings,” a fable that came directly from a dream.
SAMPLE CHAPTER: the 5th and shortest story in the collection:
Deborah’s knee protested with each step she took down the basement stairs. She tried balancing the laundry basket on her other hip, but the pain persisted. She was afraid she was going to have to give up running. Another part of herself gone.
Some of the changes were the by-product of marriage – the loss of autonomy, the compromises in taste. Some were the direct result of Rob’s asking her to change: she gave up smoking; she took up bicycling. Other changes were harder to pinpoint, or to pinpoint their cause. Did people find her less interesting and attractive simply because she was married now, settled? Because she and Rob had settled for each other? When she was single, and even engaged, she felt the eyes in a room, men and women’s alike, appreciating or appraising her. Lately, she felt invisible.
Mechanically, she set about emptying the pockets of Rob’s pants. This was one of the changes he’d failed to make to accommodate her. Pens, stamps, his watch, antacid tablets were but a few of the items she had rescued. Kleenex was the worst offender. When it disintegrated in the wash cycle, the bits would be distributed over the entire load in the dryer and adhere like elfin flecks of papier maché.
She pulled dimes and pennies from his left pocket and a book of matches from his right. A tilted silver cocktail glass with three bubbles rising from it shimmered on the black matchbook cover. On the flip side was printed Christopher’s in silvery script. Deborah frowned at the object in her palm. She didn’t know of a place called Christopher’s. And why would Rob, the anti-smoking crusader, be carrying matches from there or anywhere? She fumbled with the matchbook and the lid slid open revealing a scrawl of blue ink against the white interior: Meet me.
Deborah sat down on the concrete floor amid the piles of laundry. Was he cruising bars? How long had this been going on? Was it just the one woman or was he a serial pick-up artist? Who was this person she was married to?
She thought about how he, more often than she, was too tired or distracted for sex. Now there was a context for his tiredness and for what was distracting him.
Maybe he, too, had never been to Christopher’s – yet. Maybe the matchbook was her way of choosing the place for their next assignation.
She tried to stand, but the pain in her knee radiated to her ankle.
Suddenly her first suspicion rebounded within her. Cruising bars. What if he wasn’t chasing women after all? Christopher’s. It even sounded like a gay bar. No wonder she had never heard of it.
A wave of nausea hit her. She lay down, her cheek against the cool concrete. Well, the difference in their sexual appetites was accounted for. She had hated him for those moments while she believed he was seeing other women, but now she didn’t know what she felt. Revulsion, yes, and anger that he’d deceived her. But pity, too. For the two of them. Her last conscious thought before retreating into sleep there on the basement floor was that they would have to talk about this but she didn’t know how and she didn’t know when.
* * *
When Rob returned from taking the last of their garden tomatoes to his mother, he found Deborah sitting at the kitchen table folding laundry, one leg propped up on another chair and an ice pack draped over her knee.
“Nothing,” she said. “At least nothing I can be sure of. “ She pushed a stack of his underwear toward him. “I think it’s probably the running.”
Rob heard the sadness in her voice. He wasn’t surprised. Deborah was addicted to running like he was addicted to caffeine. “It’ll be okay.” He gave her shoulder a squeeze.
“You’re doing all the right things.”
“That’s what I thought.”
“Rest. Ice. Just give it a little time.”
“You know, I won’t be able to go biking tomorrow.”
“I guess not.” Rob was disappointed. They had signed up for the Labor Day ride months ago. “So we’ll go next year.”
“We’ll see. Anyway, you’re going tomorrow.”
“Not without you. We’ll do something else.”
“Rob, I know how much you were looking forward to it. I’d feel a lot worse if you didn’t go.”
“Are you sure?” he said, already gone in spirit, coasting down a hill on a curving county road.
She nodded. “The one thing I’m absolutely sure of.”
The next morning, in semi-darkness, he packed his pannier while she slept – trail mix, wrench, sunscreen, windbreaker. He rummaged through Deborah’s purse for the essential gadget – the little can of pepper spray attached to her key ring. Too often he’d been chased by dogs while biking along country roads. He hoped he wouldn’t have to use the spray, but he was taking it. Before his fingers found the keys, they hit upon a familiar, disturbing shape. He drew a matchbook from the leather folds. “Shit,” he said softly.
She had promised him she’d given up smoking. How could a runner continue to fill her lungs with smoke? And lie to him about it. He hated deceit more than anything.
He looked at the cover. Now she was going to bars without him. Looking for a safe haven for smokers, he supposed, a smoking club with dues to be paid later in the cancer ward.
He wondered where this Christopher’s was. Near her office probably. That would explain why she was late getting home twice last week.
He flipped the lid and in the dim light squinted at the hasty scrawl. So that’s what the late nights were about. And now the farce of the injured knee. She wanted Rob out of the way. She’d have the whole damn day to meet him.
WHERE TO BUY IT: Relative Strangers can be purchased online from the publisher’s website http://carolinawrenpress.org/relative-strangers
It is also available from Amazon.