“Afterlife” seems to focus heavily on alienation, not only of the main character, but thematically throughout the narrative. The depth of abuse and the detachment from reality which the protagonist experiences create a sense of horror, not of the supernatural, but of the material world and its treatment of Mary Hogan. Was that your goal at the beginning?
I wrote this story about eight years ago, and, though I loved the premise, couldn’t make it work. Then, about three months ago, I realized the problem. I’d been skating the line between psychological and true horror—I’d never answered whether it was all in Mary’s head, or a true haunting.
Once I answered that question, I could move forward. Basically, I got stuck on symbolism, which is silly. I mean, whether it’s ghosts or psychology, it’s a symbol. You don’t lose anything by clarifying plot.
As for alienation, that’s where my life was back then. I can’t imagine that brand of misery these days, since my house is so full of life, which is one of the reasons I think this story works. It’s got a young person’s angst and an adult’s cold eye.
The fact that Mary has never seen the ocean is repeatedly hammered home. What is the importance of the ocean to Mary?
Growing up on Long Island, I went to the beach pretty much every day during the summer. Then when I got older, I went there with my friends every night. It’s a fond memory. The ocean is an islander’s delight.
What’s strange about city living is that people forget their natural surroundings. Queens is in on an island. So is Manhattan. But nobody ever goes to the beach, or even looks at the water.
The city swallows some people. It raises them on mesh wire teats—they can’t drive, they can’t talk to strangers, they can’t navigate any place but the local deli. Like Corrine Hogan, it’s Mary’s prison.
I think the ocean would be freedom.
The protagonist is slowly revealed to the reader, the eventual reality of her world coming into focus late in the narrative. Was there a goal there to build rapport with the reader before revealing her as person?
I like the idea that she’s so rarely out of the house that she doesn’t see herself properly. We’re in her head, so we wouldn’t see her, either. Given how she grew up, she’s surprisingly sane.
I’ve read that you’re from Long Island, and currently live in Brooklyn. The location of this story has a strong presence and is well realized. Is there a real place that was the inspiration for, or that provided background to create, the dark, intricate, and atmospheric feel of Mary’s world?
I lived on 48th Street in Astoria, and it was a dog show. The carpet was dirty, deep pile that messed with my asthma. The landlord had a mail-order bride from Russia. I’d been trying to get published for several years with zero luck. This nut next door fed chicken carcasses to the pigeons, so our lawn was covered in meat. I ate tuna out of a can for dinner because it was both nutritious and cheap, and worked as an assistant literary scout, where I got yelled at a lot and typically went the whole day without eating or even drinking a glass of water because no one at that office would give me the break. So, hmmm.
On the plus side, there was this great donut shop on Broadway and 46th called D-Lite where they let me smoke, drink coffee, write, and eat chocolate-coconut glazed donuts, all at the same time!
We love this story—do you have something else in the works we might see in the future at Nightmare?
Yes! A story called “In India, they Worship Cows” has been accepted for publication sometime down the road. It’s about a woman haunted by her mother’s very strange ghost.
I’ve got a three-year-old and an eight-month-old. Once they’re in school and daycare part-time starting mid-September, I should be able to finish my fourth novel, Empty Houses. The break from working on it initially frustrated me, though I think coming to it with a fresh perspective will make it a better book.