I first met Sara Batkie in the offices of One Story, where we read fiction submissions, stuffed envelopes, and ate pizza.
Nearly ten years later, her debut short story collection Better Times has won the Prairie Schooner Book Prize in Fiction and has been published by the University of Nebraska Press. It’s a wonderful book that looks at the past, present, and future through the eyes of disparate, often dissatisfied women, evoking loneliness, perseverance, and sometimes dark humor with Batkie’s crystal-clear prose.
Besides being a talented writer, Sara is a delightful human being to talk to, so I met up with her at her Brooklyn apartment to discuss every story in Better Times.
Jesse Hassenger: Before we get into each story, I wanted to ask something up front. These nine stories were written over the course of ten years. So how did you go about choosing which of your stories made it into the collection, and how did you go about tracklisting them? I always want to know if it’s like making a mix CD.
Sara Batkie: Kind of, yeah. I like to joke that it’s a real Sophie’s Choice, and Choice, and Choice, and Choice…
If somebody could only choose nine of their children . . .
Then I think I did pretty good! I’m trying to think of when exactly I realized I actually had enough to be a book. I think I got to the point where I had maybe five or six published stories, and I thought, that’s a pretty good number. So starting with those, and looking and seeing if there were some loose themes or nonsense that they all had in common, and then seeing which stories that I’d written but hadn’t published that kind of fit along with it, and I ended up selecting four more, a couple of which got published in the interim after the book deal happened.
After that, I started going through and some of them had a historical vibe to them. Not like old-old history, but . . .
You could have included a caveman story!
Well, in a way, aren’t all men cavemen?
I call it the Recent Past in the book, sort of WWII era to Gulf War era. And then another batch for modern stories, and one that takes place in the near future. And then from there, after realizing I could put them into these sections, it was a matter of, well, I don’t want to put two stories that have a child protagonist next to each other. It’s the up and down, right, like a mixtape? So I didn’t want things where the voice was a little too similar right next to each other. Then shorter stories versus longer stories, varying it that way, too. It’s very much like sculpting a mix. For everyone in the world. [Laughs]
Did you make tapes ever, or is that before your time?
Well, I burnt CDs, in the Limewire era. RIP. I don’t know that I made them for other people, I think I just made them mostly for myself, or my friends every once in a while.
I still have my mixtapes that I made in high school and college, and it’s weird to see how many I made for myself. I guess it was because I had a Walkman, and once in a while I’d be taping some songs from a CD I borrowed or something, but like 80 percent of the music was music I already had on compact disc or mp3s, just repackaging it to myself.
And you’re so against Spotify!
I’m only against Spotify in that it’s a shitty deal for artists—not that mixtapes are such a great deal for them either. But I will also say, it’s less tactile. I think that’s part of why I’m so interested in how people track short story collections, because it’s permanent in the way that making a tape feels permanent, and in the way that making a Spotify playlist doesn’t. It’s so easy to move things around. And your book, once it’s published, that’s it. So let’s talk about those stories.
“When Her Father Was an Island”
A Japanese soldier lives out his days defending an island long after World War II has ended as his daughter grows up without him.
I believe you said that this story originated from an obituary. What drew you to that obit and how did that come about?
I don’t remember how I first found it, actually. It was a New York Times obituary, and he died a while ago, before I was even looking for it. I must have read about him somewhere else and then looked it up. But yeah, it was basically a guy who thought WWII was still going on, not because he was deranged or delusional, but because he was so supportive of the Emperor of Japan that he didn’t want to believe that he would admit defeat. I just found that aspect of it really interesting, because what kind of person would choose to stay isolated like that, for a cause like that? That’s something very foreign to me, for someone who considers herself a pacifist.
I don’t think he was married before he left, so I invented that aspect of that, and gave him a child. But yeah, I was interested in that dynamic.
Had you tried writing something from an obituary before that worked out?
No, that was my first time doing it, although I do try and do it every once in a while, now. But I have yet to recapture the magic, so to speak.
The launch of Sputnik 2, and its canine occupant, makes an impression on a resident of a home for wayward girls.
There’s a line in the story about what it must have been like for a girl to hear Bob Dylan for the first time, or to see Paul Newman in Hud for the first time. I thought those were such cool striking examples, instead of like, Elvis’s hips, which everyone uses . . .
Well, couldn’t you not see Elvis’s hips in the actual broadcast?
So it was because it wouldn’t be factually accurate, of course.
Of course. So were there other reasons besides your stringent factual accuracy that you relied on those two? There aren’t a lot of overplayed cultural references in the story in general. Not a lot “it’s 1957!” cues. So I thought it was interesting to pick those two to talk about.
I was trying to think of the sort of figures who would be totems for girls who came after [this character] started [getting older], so by the time Dylan was becoming famous, eight or nine years after the events of this story, she would have a sense of how striking those figures were. In the way that I’m sure my mom was totally flummoxed by me being into N’Sync. And also like, have you seen Hud?
I actually haven’t seen Hud. My mom will be flummoxed and angered by me admitting that I haven’t seen Hud.
The young girls would probably not have something like The Hustler on their radar, but a cowboy movie with this guy, sure. And Bob Dylan, he’s kind of shorthand in a way. People know what you mean when you reference Bob Dylan—the kind of folksy, Greenwich Village-y vibe that had a lot of mystique, I think, for a lot of people who weren’t there. And also, you want people to know exactly what you mean, and they know what these figures looked like back then, and of course could credibly be a girl’s obsession at that time.
A woman with a troubled son finds out her neighbors have been arrested as Russian spies.
I’ve read this story a couple times but I never caught whether the story says where it’s set.
No, it doesn’t.
What did you have in mind when you were writing?
I think—maybe I’m wrong—that when these actual Russians were found, it was in Massachusetts or something like that. So I was thinking of a suburban town that’s maybe not that far from a major metropolis. But I didn’t want to name a city in that story because it was really important to me to be able to capture how any sort of suburban town has that cattiness to it, where everyone’s talking about each other and everyone’s seeing each other everywhere but they’re sniping behind each other’s backs. And I didn’t want to put that to any one place. Because I think it’s kind of universal. Or at least very American.
The blame can be shared on that one.
We’re all to blame!
So you grew up in Iowa, mostly?
Yes. Born in Seattle, moved to Connecticut, then back to Seattle, then back to Connecticut, then Iowa from when I was nine years old.
I know your hometown mainly as a place that is bedeviled by Cary Grant’s ghost [he died in a hotel in Davenport]. Was your experience growing up in Iowa like the experience in this or any of these stories? Are any of these most connected to where you grew up?
I guess it would be “Foreigners,” less in the Russian spies next door and more in the sense that my parents definitely had wind of things going on with the neighbors that I didn’t know about that were pretty serious problems, and just kind of learning about that as you get older, and realizing your neighborhood is different than you thought it was when you were little, that was something I was trying to capture in that story. But I don’t really write about Iowa itself that much. Maybe in the next one.
“No Man’s Land”
Two sisters witness their parents’ relationship falling apart during the summer of the first Gulf War.
Continuing the historical thing, this is set in the very early ’90s, when the first Gulf War is happening. So again you have something set in a very specific time period, and you’re very clear about it, but you don’t have a lot of on-the-nose cultural touchstones—to the point where the girls in choir are singing “Camptown Races,” this super old-timey song. So I was wondering what brought you to that period. Big Lebowski excepted, it’s not really drawn upon that much.
I should say that the seed of this story was something my friend Danny told me about. He had a babysitter who used to take him and his sister to a Veterans Hall all the time. I just found that interesting, because it’s kind of a weird thing to do. And it’s this the war no one ever really remembers that we had. It’s kind of quaint, even!
It was over so quickly. It was barely a quagmire at all!
I found that really interesting, because when you’re a kid that stuff seems really outsized because you don’t really understand what any of that means. So I wanted to write about that. I would have been about five, so the age of the younger sister more than the protagonist. But I do sort of remember that weird feeling of that summer. I think it’s a really neglected part of our country’s history, and has some weird resonances now. I think I’ve said this before, but I’m always more interested in the areas of history, or people of history, that other people don’t really want to write about. There’s a lot more for fruit there for fiction.
Another thing I like about this story: it’s a really good babysitter story! I’m a fan of the sub-sub-genre of babysitter fiction. I’m just fascinated by the babysitter-child dynamic, especially something set a little further back. Now, it’s very easy to find a babysitter who’s wildly overqualified and super-responsible. But that’s not always the case.
Yes! Somehow, at one point, it was agreed upon by everybody that some older-ish kids in the neighborhood would look after the younger ones.
Yeah, we used to have pretty regular babysitters who would watch us in the summer, rather than us going to camp or anything like that. That was always kind of fun, and I hope I’m not blowing up anyone’s spot, but when they would take us out to do something, or their friends would come meet up with us . . . it wasn’t bad or illicit, but there was always this sense of ooh, something exciting could happen.
And that sense is captured so well in this story. I think it belongs in the babysitter pantheon, is what I’m saying.
Along with Baby-Sitters Club, and . . . ?
I think there’s an R.L. Stine book called The Babysitter. Maybe even a trilogy.
Yeah, that sounds right.
A woman experiences phantom sensations after a mastectomy.
This story is about a woman in her twenties who has breast cancer and gets her breast removed. I really loved how angry this character is. I was wondering if you find it freeing, or exhausting, or something else entirely, to write a really angry character.
It’s definitely different from the characters that I usually write, which generally speaking are . . . I don’t know if I want to say repressed, but they’re definitely reticent in certain ways. But I was going about it thinking, how would I feel if I were that young and going through something like that? And I would be pretty angry. So I was curious about writing for somebody who does have an anger that you can’t do anything about. There’s no real release to it, really. I don’t know if I would say it was exhausting, but it was definitely different, and in some ways it was invigorating, because you can step away if it gets to be too much. But it was a new challenge in a way. It feels weird to say that it was fun to write, but it kind of was. It’s one of the stories that’s more plotty, and that was more fun to write as well. I mean, there’s a lot for women to be angry about these days and sometimes writing it down helps.
I really enjoyed how she’s not polite to the doctor that she sleeps with—funny and sort of cathartic that she never says the nice thing, when she could say the more direct and honest thing.
That is kind of fun, because generally speaking my impulse isn’t to write a straight love story. I always want to dig at it a little more and find the complicating factor, and definitely her attitude is that. And [the doctor] is kind of lame.
More than kind of, really.
So would say you don’t gravitate toward plottier stuff?
[shakes head, laughs] Would you?!
Well, I struggle so much with plot because I’d rather just have characters talk and fuck around, so almost anyone’s stories seem plotty to me. Yours didn’t strike me as non-plotty—it didn’t occur to me that it wouldn’t come naturally.
It’s harder. It’s harder to know when I’m first going through, what’s a situation and what’s a story. Generally, I’ll come up with the character or an inciting incident first, and the rest I’m sort of struggling through. I’ve written a novel, a couple of novels at this point, and something I always struggle with is a lot of plotting feels really false to me, like my hand is too obvious. I might just be reading that wrong and it’s fine. But I am hyperconscious of not wanting to do rising action, falling action, putting characters through paces . . . I’m much more interested in inner conflict than outer conflict.
“North Country, Early Morning”
A band of robbers hold up a hospital.
This to me feels like a turn in the book, toward the blurring of reality in a way the rest of the stories follows a little bit as you move into the “Modern World” section of the book. And it feels very different from your other stories. So I was curious about how this one came about.
I knew I wanted to write about the opiate problem in the Midwest, but I wanted to come at it from a weirder angle. So when I first started writing it, I thought it could be about these guys who break into a hospital to steal drugs, but from the point of the view of people who work at the hospital. Then I started thinking about what it means to be addicted to opiates—you’re so obsessed with this one thing that it becomes your whole life. I can’t remember exactly how the idea came about that maybe there’s something happening in town that’s kind of inexplicable and that makes it a good target for crime.
And then the strand of the character’s ex-husband being maybe born-again, that’s something I think about a lot because there are a lot of evangelical Christians where I grew up, and it was a weird dynamic in our town, and still is. But again, I didn’t want to write the obvious story in that sense either, so I combined all these things into probably the most genre-y exercise that I’ve done.
It also sounds like maybe the most Iowa-y story.
But not in the sense that it was coming from any experience, per se! Just some things I picked up on.
Growing up, you guys weren’t evangelicals. Did you have some other religion?
Well, my parents were both Catholic, and I think we went to Catholic church in Connecticut, and then when we moved to Iowa we switched over. We were going to a church that wasn’t evangelical, but it was something like that, and frankly, they were fucking scary, so we pulled out of that and started going to an Episcopalian church.
Ahh, church lite!
Church lite, which is good, because we’re all pretty lackadaisical. But [in school] a lot of students were pretty vocally religious, and would bring stuff up in class. A lot of the very religious kids were also very popular. As someone who came from a background where religion isn’t all that present in our daily lives, to have that dynamic so present, especially in a classroom, was a little off-putting. It’s a part of where I grew up that I’m still trying to figure out how to write about, because I think it’s really interesting, but it’s easy to make it stock, and not find shades in it.
A woman attends a funeral posing as her neighbor.
The character’s name in this Betsy. I feel like you often choose kind of old-fashioned names for your characters. There’s Nan in “Cleavage,” and Betsy in “Departures.” Do you enjoy naming characters?
Yes! I do really like that, I don’t know why. My mom will tell you, I would have her buy baby-name books for me. I was like, “Well, my name means princess! And my sister’s name means industrious! That sucks, mine is so much cooler!”
It sounds like she’s named to be your servant, which seems great.
I mean, I guess it fits a doctor. But I do take a weird pleasure in figuring out what the right name for this character is. In the case of Betsy, I think I came up with that line about being led around on a leash—no offense to any of the Betsies of the world—
It’s fine, they’re all very old.
It just has that kind of suggestion—like there are always cows named Betsy. It’s not dumbness, per se, but it is a certain…
That name did make an easy transition to the animal world. You don’t hear about a lot of cows named Rebecca.
No, but we should start doing that. I like when a dog or a cat has a very human name.
Your facility with names reminds me a lot of story songs. Are there any story songs you particularly like from a narrative or a writing point of view?
Neko Case is really good at that. She’s often writing modern murder-y ballads. “Deep Red Bells” is a perfect example of that sort of story song, and I think she even wrote it about serial killer. Leonard Cohen is also really good at that. “Chelsea Hotel,” which is a tiny little snapshot of two people—him and Janis Joplin, purportedly.
I know from our experience together that you like the rock and roll music.
I do like the rock and roll music.
Was there music that got you in the headspace for any these stories? Or stuff you wrote to?
I’ll listen to music [when I’m writing], but it can’t have words, or it has to be something like Beach House or Radiohead, where you can kind of make out what they’re saying but you can also tune it out. Though Thom Yorke is a great lyricist.
But as far as music that was inspiring, it’s hard, because I wrote so many of these piecemeal over the years. I will say there’s a singer named Karen Dalton, who came up with Bob Dylan, she has an album called In My Own Time, I think it was one of two or maybe three albums she put out. She has a really unusual voice, it’s kind of Joanna Newsome-esque so I think it turns a lot of people off, but she’s amazing. She has this great song called “Something on Your Mind” that’s a perfect. I hate to say crazy-girl anthem, but that’s kind of what it is. Also Nina Simone, who has a lot of really interesting political stuff. And Paul Simon, a nice little comedown.
A woman unexpectedly lays a group of mysterious eggs.
There’s a line in this story, where you talk about something that “only happened to other people—like parents with cancer or getting accepted to grad school.” And that brought me immediately back to “Cleavage,” where you talk about “something she could put off—like taxes, or grad school.” I love that, and I love that the other thing in “Lookaftering” is cancer, which is what happens in “Cleavage.” So I’m interested in your thoughts on grad school! Which I know you did attend, so you didn’t put it off, or watch happen to other people. But psychologically it must seem like something that could be put off or happen to other people.
It’s a recurring joke on, I want to say, 30 Rock: “Who’s the worst? Grad students are the worst.” I find it charming because we are the worst, we’re terrible. I mean, my grad school experience was really nice. But also very expensive, and I recognize the privilege I had in even being able to do it. It’s also something I hear other people talking about doing one day.
It’s always the second or third choice. If I get fired, maybe I’ll go to grad school.
I feel embarrassed that you caught that, it makes me feel like I’m repeating myself!
No, I thought it rhymes really well in the book, and the cancer thing ties it together. So it wasn’t intentional?
It was not. “Cleavage” was the first story I wrote and “Lookaftering” was the most recent.
So that’s perfect! A nice bookend. Was “Cleavage” written before grad school?
It was way different. But yeah, I wrote the first draft my senior year of college.
Wow. That’s pretty sophisticated. I don’t think, if I was putting together a collection of stories, one I started my senior year of college would make the cut.
Well, it changed a lot.
“Those Who Left and Those Who Stayed”
In the not-too-distant future, an ice sheet breaks, sending some residents of a small town permanently out to sea.
There’s a bunch of stuff I found interesting about this, and I hope I just don’t list the things I noticed like an idiot at a film Q&A. But one thing is that the book’s one “future” story is so desolate—it describes a future situation where the environment has reacted in such a way that we’re pulled back to before a lot of technological advances, and that desolation makes it another island that makes it rhyme nicely with the first story in the book. So I was wondering how far apart you wrote those stories, or if they informed each other at all.
I think I wrote “Those Who Left” first, but within the same two-or-three-year period. But no, I wasn’t thinking about it when I was writing “Island” at all. But it’s very nice that you thought of the island thing.
So I am the guy at the Q&A, going, “Acknowledge my thought!”
Acknowledged, sir. But I read an article, probably in the New Yorker, that was talking about ice sheets breaking off, and I was like, that’s fucking scary, and what if that happened when people were on it, and the story blossomed from there.
Are there other stories you’ve worked on that are set in the future?
Oh, that’s so good, because otherwise that’s a really stupid question on my part.
I hesitate to talk too much about it because I’m still tinkering with it, but I did, not long after so-and-so was elected, write a story about what it could conceivably look like if Roe v. Wade were overturned and a woman got a job driving women across the border to Mexico to get abortions. Which, again, is not so far in the future. This probably describes a lot of dystopian or apocalyptic fiction, but I’m always interested in how realistically speaking, a human would be affected by stuff like that. And I also don’t know that our behavior would change that much, either.
And that’s kind of what “Those Who Left” is about. Because really, they’re kind of the same people, and interacting in ways that aren’t totally alien, just in a really weird and desperate situation. So that’s what I’m trying to explore with the future.
- Here’s a playlist of songs Sara chose that connect to the stories in Better Times.