Join us again for another Issue 038 author interview, won’t you? This week we chat with Allison Epstein about her story “The Plover’s Egg“.
LSQ: Tell us a bit about the relationship between Marya and the mariner. He knows her “secret” and yet chooses not to tell anyone, instead taunting her with his own pursuit of Elizaveta.
Allison: The relationship between Marya and the mariner is definitely a testy one, which made it really fun to write! One of the things I wanted to explore was relationship power dynamics, which informed the performativity and possessiveness that both Marya and Aleksander display. In Aleksander’s mind, are you even in a relationship if you aren’t flaunting it in someone’s face?
I also see Aleksander as sort of a grifter—someone who doesn’t play by court rules, but who plays to win. He’s less concerned about the fact that his competition is a queer relationship, and more interested in the fact that he’s come out on top. In that way, I have a deep affection for him: he’s a self-serving garbage person, but in an honest way.
LSQ: Marya and Elizaveta, in their own ways, are both outsiders who seem not to belong. How does this shape their characters and their interactions with each other?
Allison: You’re right, I think it’s partly Elizaveta’s outsider status that draws Marya to her. Marya is on the margins in a number of ways: class, gender, sexuality, etc. Finally, someone even more of an outsider than her arrives—and, incredibly, that person shows an interest in her. It’s a sort of freedom, one she can’t help but take.
However, what Marya can’t understand is that Elizaveta’s outsider status isn’t just societal. She’s something else altogether. It’s not that Elizaveta doesn’t have emotions; it’s more that those emotions can’t be tracked in human terms, the way a god’s can’t. In a way, mistaking one sort of outsider status for another is what dooms Marya in the end.
LSQ: Elizaveta’s change at the end is hinted at from the very start, given where the mariner found her. Do you know what her plans were if she had married him? Or was that not in her plan at all?
Allison: I imagined Elizaveta having one specific aim: to be in full control, always. It’s a cliché that relationships are a game of give-and-take, but Elizaveta’s only real offering is the grace of her attention. If she’d married Aleksander, she’d have expected more of the same total devotion. However, I don’t think she expected either Aleksander or Marya to live up to that. Her demand of submission was as untenable as their attempts to possess her. (Don’t date any of these people, is what I’m saying.)
LSQ: What was your inspiration for this story?
Allison: There’s a scene at the end of Helen Oyeyemi’s short story “Drownings” where two characters look over the side of their boat and see the city of the drowned below. The story is about more than this, obviously (and it is amazing), but my brain latched onto the idea of one person looking down into the water and another person’s open eyes looking back. Of course, an image isn’t a story, but I knew that’s where I wanted to begin.
This particular story was also a therapeutic exercise for me. Just before I began, a writing instructor told me flat-out that my stories were dragging, and he could tell it was because I was bored with my subject matter. I took this as permission to start putting my pet obsessions back in my fiction: Imperial Russia, atmospheric weather, ballroom dancing, salmon. (For some reason, I spend a lot of time thinking about salmon.) “The Plover’s Egg” is basically the result of combining that initial image and deciding to have fun again.
LSQ: What was the most challenging aspect of this story to write and why? What was the most enjoyable?
Allison: Getting the ending right was a nightmare. My earlier drafts included at least four different unsatisfying endings. It took me ages to realize what the problem was: letting either Marya or Aleksander get what they wanted made the story about them, while my gut always knew this was Elizaveta’s world entirely. Once the power dynamics between the trio finally clicked, Elizaveta’s final move felt both inevitable and satisfying.
The most fun part was the setting, for sure. Historical fantasy is my happy place. I love the research, the costuming, the dialogue quirks, and when you add in magic it’s just everything I enjoy. I’d love to spend more time writing in this world, but we’ll see where that goes…