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Kate Walbert on Entanglement and Separation

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This week’s story, “Marriage Quarantine,” is about the state of a marriage in the middle of the pandemic. When did you first start thinking about this as the subject for a story?

Photograph by Deborah Donenfeld

I thought of the title first—just the words, side by side, which felt like they might have some humorous possibilities. (The only other time a story has started this way for me is with “Playdate.”) I guess I thought that there might be a lot to excavate in “Marriage Quarantine”—with both of the words, for obvious reasons, potent.

The story is told in the third person, but the perspective often shifts between the wife, Mary Jane, and the husband, Daniel. Did you sketch out the structure of the story ahead of time, or did the transition from one perspective to another emerge as you were writing?

I try to resist knowing the structure of a story until I actually have a first draft, so, yes, the perspective, as it loops from the narrator to Mary Jane to Daniel and then around again, came about in a fairly organic way. Thinking about it now, I’d say the phrase “yammering, or hammering” in the first sentence was the clue, since it seems to contain the DNA of those vying perspectives: I heard the voice of both Mary Jane (yammering) and Daniel (hammering) in this correcting, redefining description of how it is for the two of them, which I suppose then naturally led to their intersecting, interrupting versions of how it was—familiar to the long-partnered. Each seemed to know when it was time to take over the narrative, although I can’t say enough about the usefulness of a space break.

The couple, whose grownup children have moved out, spend every day and night during the pandemic in each other’s company, yet in many ways they exist in separate worlds.

That’s what I found most interesting to explore as the story unfolded—in quarantine, Mary Jane and Daniel are confined to the things of their house and garden, and an almost rote trajectory of movement around this prescribed space. It’s as if the enforced limitation creates a kind of dulled vision—bathroom, garden, chair, device, screen, garden shears—where familiar objects, even words, are suddenly strange: earbuds? Maybe each memory serves less as a retreat and more as a pull, like a gravitational force, a black hole, that takes them from the present to a past far more vivid. If I had to film it, I’d say the front story would be in black-and-white, the backstories in Technicolor.

A significant portion of the story takes place, as you say, in the past, as the early years of their relationship are recalled. But the narrative keeps circling back to the present tense of the story. Why was it important to come back to this far less eventful time?

Mary Jane and Daniel may have long conversations outside of the frame of this moment, but it became pretty clear to me, pretty quickly, that the truth of the story was in the details of their inner lives through the eve of a sunset—maybe a half hour? an hour?—when nothing actually happens, and less is said. And maybe this is because nothing happens and less is said. “She walks in, she walks out, she comes back, he looks up,” might have been a better title!

Daniel has taken to watching home-improvement shows. What’s the appeal, do you think, for Daniel, or for any viewer?

My niece worked for HGTV, and my sister renovates old houses for a living, so talk of “balloon framing” and “hand-hewed beams” is like talk of the weather in my family. This may have led me to Daniel’s viewing habit, though once I understood what he was watching it made perfect sense—things happen on home-improvement shows. Progress is made. Something is created of value and substance, or, better, something is revealed that no one knew was there before—and often by hobbyists, like Daniel’s father. To get some of that toolbox language, I went to my local hardware store and stood awed in front of a massive display of toggle bolts. Who doesn’t love a hardware store? Everything is possible. It’s like promise and possibility writ large: if you only have the tools, and a little know-how, nothing is out of your grasp. Or at least that’s the hope.

Daniel’s father’s toolbox is an image from Daniel’s childhood that reverberates in the present day. What about Mary Jane? Did something similar come to mind that helped to bring her into focus?

If I had a singular image for how Mary Jane evolved for me as I was writing “Marriage Quarantine,” it would be the experience of asking my Magic 8-Ball questions as a kid. Do children still ask it questions? Or do we ask questions only of Google? I still remember the anticipation of waiting for the answer to lock into place, even though the answer was always more vague than the question and one of a finite number of possibilities. Still, somehow the fact that an answer was given was deeply satisfying. So Mary Jane’s determination to continue to ask difficult questions and dispense with easy answers intrigued me; I came to recognize this faith as her belief in having some control over her circumstances—or over her garden, at least—some better understanding. Mary Jane may indeed eventually learn the way the world works, just as Daniel may learn the way a house is put together, and it’s through these shared, albeit parallel, pursuits that I began to see just how connected the two were, and are, despite their separate worlds: entanglement, etc.


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This week’s story, “Marriage Quarantine,” is about the state of a marriage in the middle of the pandemic. When did you first start thinking about this as the subject for a story?

Photograph by Deborah Donenfeld

I thought of the title first—just the words, side by side, which felt like they might have some humorous possibilities. (The only other time a story has started this way for me is with “Playdate.”) I guess I thought that there might be a lot to excavate in “Marriage Quarantine”—with both of the words, for obvious reasons, potent.

The story is told in the third person, but the perspective often shifts between the wife, Mary Jane, and the husband, Daniel. Did you sketch out the structure of the story ahead of time, or did the transition from one perspective to another emerge as you were writing?

I try to resist knowing the structure of a story until I actually have a first draft, so, yes, the perspective, as it loops from the narrator to Mary Jane to Daniel and then around again, came about in a fairly organic way. Thinking about it now, I’d say the phrase “yammering, or hammering” in the first sentence was the clue, since it seems to contain the DNA of those vying perspectives: I heard the voice of both Mary Jane (yammering) and Daniel (hammering) in this correcting, redefining description of how it is for the two of them, which I suppose then naturally led to their intersecting, interrupting versions of how it was—familiar to the long-partnered. Each seemed to know when it was time to take over the narrative, although I can’t say enough about the usefulness of a space break.

The couple, whose grownup children have moved out, spend every day and night during the pandemic in each other’s company, yet in many ways they exist in separate worlds.

That’s what I found most interesting to explore as the story unfolded—in quarantine, Mary Jane and Daniel are confined to the things of their house and garden, and an almost rote trajectory of movement around this prescribed space. It’s as if the enforced limitation creates a kind of dulled vision—bathroom, garden, chair, device, screen, garden shears—where familiar objects, even words, are suddenly strange: earbuds? Maybe each memory serves less as a retreat and more as a pull, like a gravitational force, a black hole, that takes them from the present to a past far more vivid. If I had to film it, I’d say the front story would be in black-and-white, the backstories in Technicolor.

A significant portion of the story takes place, as you say, in the past, as the early years of their relationship are recalled. But the narrative keeps circling back to the present tense of the story. Why was it important to come back to this far less eventful time?

Mary Jane and Daniel may have long conversations outside of the frame of this moment, but it became pretty clear to me, pretty quickly, that the truth of the story was in the details of their inner lives through the eve of a sunset—maybe a half hour? an hour?—when nothing actually happens, and less is said. And maybe this is because nothing happens and less is said. “She walks in, she walks out, she comes back, he looks up,” might have been a better title!

Daniel has taken to watching home-improvement shows. What’s the appeal, do you think, for Daniel, or for any viewer?

My niece worked for HGTV, and my sister renovates old houses for a living, so talk of “balloon framing” and “hand-hewed beams” is like talk of the weather in my family. This may have led me to Daniel’s viewing habit, though once I understood what he was watching it made perfect sense—things happen on home-improvement shows. Progress is made. Something is created of value and substance, or, better, something is revealed that no one knew was there before—and often by hobbyists, like Daniel’s father. To get some of that toolbox language, I went to my local hardware store and stood awed in front of a massive display of toggle bolts. Who doesn’t love a hardware store? Everything is possible. It’s like promise and possibility writ large: if you only have the tools, and a little know-how, nothing is out of your grasp. Or at least that’s the hope.

Daniel’s father’s toolbox is an image from Daniel’s childhood that reverberates in the present day. What about Mary Jane? Did something similar come to mind that helped to bring her into focus?

If I had a singular image for how Mary Jane evolved for me as I was writing “Marriage Quarantine,” it would be the experience of asking my Magic 8-Ball questions as a kid. Do children still ask it questions? Or do we ask questions only of Google? I still remember the anticipation of waiting for the answer to lock into place, even though the answer was always more vague than the question and one of a finite number of possibilities. Still, somehow the fact that an answer was given was deeply satisfying. So Mary Jane’s determination to continue to ask difficult questions and dispense with easy answers intrigued me; I came to recognize this faith as her belief in having some control over her circumstances—or over her garden, at least—some better understanding. Mary Jane may indeed eventually learn the way the world works, just as Daniel may learn the way a house is put together, and it’s through these shared, albeit parallel, pursuits that I began to see just how connected the two were, and are, despite their separate worlds: entanglement, etc.


More New Yorker Conversations

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