Liberating and Lonely: Talking Escape with Micah Perks

January 18, 2019   •   By Michael Ursell

EARLY ON IN Micah Perks’s True Love and Other Dreams of Miraculous Escape, Harry Houdini smuggles himself into the mansion built by rifle heiress Sarah Winchester and begins to commune with ghosts. What follows are linked short stories that take place some 100 years later, in our present time, along California’s Central Coast, where the author lives and works. Throughout, Perks (We Are Gathered Here) draws out the fantastical from the quotidian.

Her expanding cast of characters — a romantic if melancholic bookstore owner, an enigmatic writer, a martial artist — binge-watch Friday Night Lights, post obsessively to neighborhood discussion forums, take karate lessons, cook with each other. They are sensitive souls, and Perks captures their feelings and perceptions as they move through the beauty and privilege and vulnerability of daily life in a smallish city on Monterey Bay.

In her novel What Becomes Us (2016), which is narrated by unborn twins, and her memoir, Pagan Time, about growing up in a utopian project, Perks has conjured singular individuals who are never really alone. At one point in True Love, a character describes learning a second language from a lover by reciting words at his prompting, “as if it were a magic incantation that will coax a golden coin from my mouth.” The moment is emblematic of characters in the new collection who become a little less isolated by literally and figuratively casting spells. But the potential for true connection that really works — whether between people wildly in love or anonymous neighbors — risks turning out to be an illusion. Luckily these stories, like successful magic, leave room for the impossible. 

Just back in Santa Cruz after a yearlong sabbatical in Europe, Perks talked with LARB over Skype. Easy to laugh, curious, and energetic, she’s a writer thinking about the play of transformation who knows how to make a connection.


MICHAEL URSELL: The stories spin out from this brother-sister duo, Sadie and Isaac. Was that an organizing principle to begin, or was that something that you came to as the stories were accumulating and you were working on them?

MICAH PERKS: Definitely when I was working on them. I wrote those stories over about a 15-year period in between when I was writing books. When I went to put the collection together, I read through all the stories and I thought, this isn’t gonna work. I felt like I needed to link the stories up more overtly, because they were too weirdly similar but not similar enough. And so I started trying to figure out ways to link them up. Originally, I was stuck. I’d never written a linked collection before.

I went to visit my teacher from undergrad and grad school, this woman named Alison Lurie. She’s 90 years old now. She’s incredibly sharp. She made me this delicious meatloaf dinner. I told her about the stories, and she said, “Well, you have too many characters, you need to narrow it down. And I think you should have a trickster figure that runs through all the stories. He or she is kind of a magical figure, and they’re a different character in every story, but you always know it’s them from their golden eyes.”

It energized me, and I did that. I ended up taking it out, but it was a way to get started. It was a way to back into the stories and figure out how they’re connected.

Many of the characters that show up are performing escapes in their own way, escaping marriages, family bonds, neighbors to varying degrees of success. Diane the chef has a special “get-away” car. The hilarious neighborhood watcher Mr. Nowicki disappears from Santa Cruz — and his neighborhood message board — under suspicious circumstances. Did you feel drawn to these escape artists as you were working on the stories?

I am deeply drawn to, and also suspicious of, the urge to escape. My own father is a consummate escape artist who fled six marriages and whose life philosophy has boiled down to the Buddhist tenet “do not cling.” I adore Huckleberry Finn and Houdini, but I also long to be a twin, long for that closest possible connection to another human being. Houdini is longing for his dead Mama, Diane runs away with her true love, perhaps Mr. Nowicki disappears to find his frenemy — I think many of my characters share these twinned desires to find true love and “to light out for the territories ahead of the rest.” Or sometimes they see true love as the miraculous escape.

Knowing your memoir, and that you grew up in a really tightly knit community, I wondered if you were thinking about that as you were representing this Central California/Santa Cruz world.

In some ways I can’t not think about that. I mean, you know, I grew up in an intentional community, and I can’t really get away from that experience of feeling both this longing to be embraced and intensively immersed in the lives of other people and this claustrophobic desire to escape that intensity. I worked at a Quaker summer camp for millions of years, I worked on a kibbutz, and I live in a blended family. I love these spaces, and like everyone else who lives in an immersive, intentional community, I find it hard. Super hard.

Does Santa Cruz, and wider Central California, feel like a place you can go and escape?

What do they say? California is America in escape from itself? Do I feel that way? No. I don’t feel that way anymore. I’m in a moment in my life where my mom and my dad are getting older, and my kids have moved to the East Coast, as well. And I think rather than escape I feel more isolated, a little more lonely. Like, I live out West in a more empty place. It’s not populated by my family as much as I wish it was.

That’s interesting, because it’s something that the character Isaac goes through with his family moving away.

Escape can be so liberating. But it also can be really lonely.

In this collection it’s not a hit-you-over-the-head utopian vision, but many of the stories have this undercurrent of people trying to figure out how they fit into their community.

It’s so interesting you say that, because I feel like my other books were explicitly about the utopian project, and the nonfiction book I’m working on now is explicitly about utopias and apocalypse. But I think of this book as the anomaly — it’s not about that, it’s about something else. So it’s so interesting that you think it may be about that. I guess when you have an obsession it just continues on.

Like I say, it’s an undercurrent, but these characters are really searching for something, for ways to relate to each other. So you spend a year away from Santa Cruz knitting this collection together and getting started on a new nonfiction project?

Yeah. I started working on this book about utopia and apocalypse. It’s looking at stories about women in utopian communities historically, as well as weaving my own history in there, and looking at the way that utopia and apocalypse are so entwined — the threat of apocalypse is always there. And thinking about our own moment that feels apocalyptic, but there are still utopian possibilities within that.

I love that you include the teenage daughter Lilah, who ends up becoming an anarchist.

I spent a lot of the time looking at Barcelona during the Spanish Civil War and that utopian anarchic moment. There’s a woman who wrote an unpublished memoir at 19 years old, and she was there for that moment, which was fairly short, less than a year when it was fully flowering as an anarchist city. So I’m writing about her. I’m writing about other women in historical moments. None of them went so well.

That’s kind of the way it goes.

Ursula Le Guin says utopia is process not stasis. It’s not like you can freeze a human being or a culture in amber and make it perfect. That’s not how it works.

A thing I’ve been thinking about is how much our moment right now is being affected by people’s willingness to believe what would seem to be fictions, what at other moments would seem completely unbelievable. There’s this line toward the end of the collection — “It’s not even a story, it’s like a fact or a quote or something.” — that seems to catch this tension between story and fact, and I’m curious about how that’s working for you.

It’s a really hard question. Like, why do I choose to write something in memoir or in fiction? Sometimes I’ll write something in fiction and it won’t work, and I’ll try it in memoir. I’ll have something I’m trying to work out, and I’ll try it in different genres and see what will work. Even in this nonfiction piece I’m working on right now, I’m trying this repetitive conceit where I say, “I want to tell a story about…” It is a kind of story-making that feels fictional, but it’s based in fact.

What’s liberating about writing fiction is it’s my space. When I write memoir, I really have to think about how what I’m writing might affect other people. It’s about truth. It’s about memory. And I’m thinking about other people’s points of view. Actually, when I write memoir I always check with the people I’m writing about. And I often incorporate what they think about what I’m writing.

Really? Do you have an example?

Yeah. When I wrote this long personal essay about me and my daughter I showed it to her, and her reaction changed the whole piece. She had felt something so different than I had, and that made me reevaluate the whole experience.

That’s what’s so cool. I guess memoir is — for me, anyway — a more communitarian genre. Whereas fiction is not. Fiction to me feels like, that’s my space and my dream and my world, and I don’t ask for anybody’s permission. I just play it out. Maybe you’re supposed to ask permission with fiction, too, but I never got that memo.

In “The Comeback Tour,” you include a wonderful description of chopping and biting a piece of celery: “It was satisfying to cut the celery, the crunching sound, the growing pile. She popped a few bits into her mouth and they burst, watery and thready.” How do you cultivate your sense of attention and bring it to your writing?

You know Housekeeping by Marilynne Robinson? That book is so ridiculously sensorially dense. It takes place in the Pacific Northwest, about where she grew up. She just kept thinking, “What was it like, what was it like?” That’s useful, and that’s what I try to do. A lot of her work is very mournful. I tend to think about the senses in a more celebratory way. “What was it like” as a kind of party. Let’s have a party with celery.

Yes! There’s a lot of joy in the descriptions of being in a body in Central California, being with other people, eating things. It is a real celebration.

I love that description. Just being in a body in Central California. That’s it.


Michael Ursell is associate publisher of The Believer. He holds a PhD in literature from the University of California, Santa Cruz, where he wrote about French and English Renaissance poetry and taught many classes, from Shakespeare to intro composition.