Craving the Impossible: An Interview with Karen Tucker

Tuesday, June 1, 2021

Noteworthy for its sensitivity, well-drawn characters, authentic plotting, and brisk pacing, Karen Tucker’s debut novel Bewilderness is a carefully crafted depiction of substance use disorders. Tucker writes, “Bodies are such fragile things," and the primary protagonists, Irene and Luce, reveal this truth, representing a slice of society often marginalized and victimized due to difficult family lives, economic disadvantages, and opportunity (or lack thereof) afforded them. 

Bewilderness is further striking in its visceral portrayal of the consequences of addiction and recovery, survival and loss. Yet, Tucker’s exploration of the power and pitfalls of friendship—how it can both support and sabotage—is what readers will remember most. 

These characters are imperfect, as we all are, and the author’s love for them, despite their challenges, sparks our own humanity.

TQ: In many ways, this is a love story, whether it’s for another person, or drugs, or chaos. Yet for most of the characters, love is elusive, and ultimately destructive. Many of these characters are lonely, seeking love in the wrong venue, and loyalty is in short supply. (I’m thinking of Irene’s comment: “So what if I was clean, if I was also lonely and frightened” even though being with Luce was at times also lonely and frightening).

KT: It's hard to single out a favorite bit of advice from the craft book Never Say You Can’t Survive by Charlie Jane Anders, but a key one is this: "Give your protagonist a goal they can never have." 

My guess is each of us wants something impossible. For me, I want my cat Mabel, who is sleeping next to my laptop as I write this, to live forever. I want my partner to live forever. I want my sister to live forever.

More than anything, Irene wants her friendship with Luce to be a different, better version of itself––and over and over she makes wrong-headed, even dangerous decisions in her attempt to achieve it. It's an impossible wish, and on some level, Irene knows this. She goes for it, anyway.

TQ: There’s a sense of the epic in your book; the hero’s quest, though perhaps a battered hero. What kinds of narratives inspired you in creating this novel?

KT: Thank you for saying that! It's funny, but throughout the drafting and revising process I felt a keen sense of writing not from the hero's perspective, but from the point-of-view of someone who would be referred to as "background" on a film set. A walk-on extra who has no lines, who is paid the least, who goes uncredited, who appears as little more than a flicker in the scene's poorly-lit margins.

As someone who waited tables for most of her working life, I wanted to foreground the experiences of two low-income women who live in those margins. To draw the spotlight away from the conventional center.

So it probably makes sense that the stories and novels that most influenced me feature characters from this same realm. The single-mother food server in Merritt Tierce's Love Me Back, the lonely bookstore clerk in Problems by Jade Sharma, the butler in Kazuo Ishiguro's The Remains of the Day, the student/server in "Passion" by Alice Munro, the child narrator of Bastard out of Carolina by Dorothy Allison. The existence of these narratives and others helped me imagine that mine might one day also exist.

TQ: The language is so true that I could imagine it being triggering for some. What were your thoughts about using such visceral detail? (I’m especially thinking about the section that starts off Part Two).

KT: Though it's not the one you mention, there is one scene that gave me pause as I was drafting because of its contents.

In the end, I decided that omitting those explicit details held greater potential for harm than including them. Avoidance felt fraudulent and had the whiff of a controlling parent––but my primary concern was that leaving out certain details might cause some people to feel isolated. I wanted readers who have experienced substance use disorder to feel seen and understood, not stranded alone in their own unhappy experience. Isolation and loneliness are probably more triggering than anything.

TQ: Did the characters come first for you, or was it their situation you wanted to explore? Indeed, what about this subject matter drew you in to write a novel about it?

KT: In no way did I plan it out ahead of time, but looking back I suspect was drawn to these particular characters and their experiences because they're the best metaphors I could find to describe some of what I've experienced in my own life––and most spookily, what I would come to experience once the book was done.

During the writing process, it felt sort of like assembling a collage from the scraps of dreamland, itself a scrap heap. A junkyard is another way to put it, with junk doing double-time in the meaning department.

It's probably a no-brainer that even in the most fantastical, other-worldly stories, writers draw from their own world of experience. Is it possible not to? Which is why lately I'm less interested in how art rises out of life's ash heap, and more compelled by how life will come busting unexpectedly through the door––in an absurd costume, making a scene––of the thing you dreamed up and tried to call art.

An example. A few months ago, well after the final edit of Bewilderness was turned in, a loved one came very close to fatally overdosing on the exact pill described in chapters one and two. We're talking blue-in-the-face close, part two climax close, and thank god the EMTs and paramedic were close enough to get there in time to administer Narcan.

People. If you take one thing away from this interview let it be this: get yourself some Narcan. I don't care if you think you'll never need it. I was certain I'd never need it. But in one of the oldest plot twists out there, it turns out that's the exact kind of obtuse, prideful thinking that propels you into a high-risk category for a fall.

If you're a US reader, check this site for more info, which varies state by state.

TQ: Once I started reading, I couldn’t put it down: part of that is how you structure the chapters and the momentum of the story. From a craft perspective, what were your intentions, and how did they change as you kept writing (and editing)?

KT: Bewilderness is my debut novel, but I wrote two novels before this one, both of which turned out to be unpublishable. One editor, in his decline email, asked my now-former agent to remind me that books work by getting readers to turn pages. Oh, really dude? Is that how books work?

But even though my initial response to that mean little jab was to mock it, it ended up sneaking back into my brain and setting off all kinds of alarm bells. Maybe I really don't know how books work! Maybe I've thrown years of my life into the garbage. Thank goodness my writing professor Mark Winegardner recognized what was happening and summoned me for a meeting/intervention, where he got me to commit to a new novel, advised me to make it as "lean and mean" as possible, and reminded me to keep an eye on speed and momentum.

With the fear of failure hot on my back, I took off running. Most days I wasn't sure if I was sprinting toward a finish line or if I was just being chased. The good news though, as I came to discover, is if you're running hard from pain and grief and panic, it's not so difficult to get your characters to run hard, too.

TQ: I’ve mentioned the deep sense of loneliness and despair many of these characters feel, but another emotion that comes up subtly is shame. How much does that play into their situations and perhaps, hold them back from lasting change?

KT: Thank you for this question. You're so right that shame plays a sizeable role in the events of this story, as well as in the stories of countless individuals with substance use disorder. It's a medical condition that continues to be deeply stigmatized in our culture.

Just like you can't shame someone with cancer into remission, you can't shame someone suffering from opioid use disorder and expect a healthy result.

I hope in the future we'll abandon the fatally flawed tough love approach, which leads to isolation and secrecy. That we'll stop with the stigmatizing, which compounds a pain-sufferer's pain. Instead we need to create public policies that support people and communities with evidence-based healthcare. Only then will we see the lasting change you mention.

TQ: There are moments which the reader assumes will end poorly and they don’t, and also the unexpected consequences that strike to the core. One is also left considering how a single decision could have changed the trajectory of the story. Both in terms of this novel, and life itself, do you feel there are such inflection points, Maginot lines? 

KT: It's probably natural, following a traumatic event, to try to figure out how it might have turned out differently. Years later, I still find myself retracing certain steps to see where things took a fateful turn, where it all went sideways. It feels a lot like revising, except you're always stuck with the same shitty first draft.

While this compulsion sucks in real life­­, it can be a useful tool for writers as we go over our stories. Where does the road fork unexpectedly and where can your character make the wrong decision––not accidentally, but out of pride, selfishness, greed? Compulsion in general is probably a cool thing to saddle your characters with if at all possible, and my guess is most writers have some familiarity with compulsive tendencies––otherwise how would our writing ever get done?

TQ: The story is pitch-perfect in the sections about Reddit.  What are your thoughts about social engagement in the technological age?  How does that kind of engagement influence our, and the characters’ feelings of connection?

KT: I'm so glad to hear the Reddit stuff worked for you! It was pretty fun to write, even though the content is rough and follows a terrible event in the story. Coming up with usernames that made me laugh was good medicine for me during that time.

That chapter also came out pretty easily, in no small part because, like the novel's narrator, I'd been spending a considerable amount of time on Reddit. It's true there are poisonous little nests of activity to be found in certain corners, but there are also some pretty great communities. Recently, r/dementia has been a source of comfort and information for my family.

Few experiences are as isolating as a serious illness––though you'd think the opposite would be true, given the mortality rate for our species. And since individuals and families struggling with substance use disorder have the additional burdens of shame and stigma to contend with, an anonymous community like Reddit where people share resources, advice, stories, or simply bear witness, can be pretty remarkable. Internet connection isn't just about bandwidth and speed.

TQ: Would you talk about language, especially the limitations of what the characters can and can’t express, in the hands of a writer who can clearly say so much, so eloquently.

KT: You're very generous to use the word eloquence when it comes to my writing: if there are any lines that sound even somewhat smart or graceful, they were almost definitely labored over in multiple revisions. What I mean is, the characters in Bewilderness are far wiser and more eloquent than me.

Which is what I wanted! People make lots of foolish assumptions about food servers, and some of them are willing to say all kinds of quiet-part-out-loud nonsense. Having waited tables for well over twenty years, I've heard a lot. Gross jokes, innuendoes, propositions, insults. It's like we're a toy they get to bat around for amusement. A captive audience for their little comedy routine.

The real story is that people who work in restaurants are among the most creative, brilliant, generous individuals out there. Because come on: You have to be smart and creative to work in food service, an industry where you're forced to navigate the historically racist, sexist, classist, ableist construct of tipping in order to support yourself. And if you're in one of the sixteen states where restaurant owners are allowed to pay tipped employees a sub-minimum wage of $2.13 an hour? In my book you're eloquent as fuck.

TQ: Given how the book ends—I’m staying away from spoilers!—what kind of hope do you have for these characters? I’m thinking especially about all the Day Ones, and how they both symbolize the fall from grace and the hope for a new beginning, one of the many dualities that you explore in this book.

KT: I have all the hope in the world for these characters, and if they came over for dinner I'd make the most elaborate feast ever and tell them how they've taught me about courage and grief and pushing through hardship, and that I’m so grateful for their existence. Knowing them, they'd probably grow bored out of their minds within minutes and invent some ridiculous excuse to leave.