Welcome to our chat with Nicole Lungerhausen, Issue 040 author of the short story “Tell Me Something Good“!
LSQ: There are plenty of stories about men having doubts about fatherhood when their wives are pregnant, but yours has a woman in that role. What made you decide to take this road less traveled?
Nicole: I wish I could say that I made a conscious decision from the start to take the road less traveled. It probably would’ve taken me a lot less time and fewer drafts to write the story if I had! But as with most things I write, I didn’t really decide what kind of story “Tell Me Something Good” was going to be, so much as have Naomi and Jenn, the main characters, show up on my right brain doorstep and say, “Hey, you don’t know us but we’re here to visit. And we’re going to stay awhile because we’ve got some things to say.”
Although Naomi and Jenn arrived together, Naomi was the point of view character from the beginning. I was really interested in her perspective because she is so directionless and seems to carry a lot of unacknowledged fear. On one hand, this makes total sense because she’s recently gotten out of prison and is trying to put her life back together. But the way Naomi exists in the world also comes from getting the message from her parents in her youth that what she wants is unacceptable. For her, it’s easier to live without thinking about her own wants at all.
Then enters Jenn, who is so driven, clear, and ambitious about what she wants to do with her life, and Naomi falls under the spell of all that charisma and buoyant energy. I wanted to explore how and why a person will go along with the desires of the person they love and not question whether they share those same desires until it’s too late. Putting Naomi right into the thick of big life stuff with marriage, pregnancy, and impending motherhood seemed like a good way to go about that exploration.
LSQ: What makes Dream Awake daydreams different from regular daydreams?
Nicole: I imagined Dream Awake as making regular daydreams into more immersive full-sensory experiences. I know when I daydream, sight and sound are most prominent and I experience the other senses far less or not at all. With Dream Awake, all the senses are involved: sight, sound, taste, touch, smell. While I envisioned Dream Awake as allowing the user to be more directed about what they want to experience, it is definitely not a perfect VR nanotech drug. In Naomi’s case, her use of Dream Awake somewhat backfires because the drug ends up manifesting the desires of her unconscious mind, rather than the good life with Jenn she believes she wants.
LSQ: What do you think you would see if you did Dream Awake?
Nicole: Oooh, that’s a good question. It stumped me for a bit. . .
The smart-ass answer, courtesy of that sublime 80s movie Real Genius, is that I’d see myself standing in sort of sun-god robes on a pyramid with a thousand naked people screaming and throwing little pickles at me.
The real answer is far more mundane. If I did Dream Awake, I’d want to see an event I’ve already experienced in my life. Like the last time I snorkeled at the Waipio tidepools on the Big Island of Hawaii before they were wiped out by the Kilauea eruption in 2018. Or my first bite of this white chocolate mousse they served at my grandparents 30th anniversary wedding party when I was seven years old; it’s my first food memory and I’d love to experience it again.
LSQ: What was the most challenging part of this story to write and why? What was the most enjoyable and why?
Nicole: The toughest part for me was figuring out Naomi’s journey. In the first draft of the story, I had Naomi and Jenn doing Dream Awake together in their apartment. Jenn was in the process of trying to get pregnant and the big secret that was revealed during the couple’s Dream Awake experience was that Naomi had been in prison. And that was pretty much the end of the story.
When my critique group looked at this first draft, they were kind but also put my feet to the fire and said, in the nicest way possible, “Is this really what the story is about? We think you can do better.”
All told, I did about 20 drafts of this story, and it was only when I got up around draft #14 or #15 that I finally figured out Naomi’s journey. And that was thanks to a revision exercise in this terrific writing book called Naming the World. The exercise asks you to incorporate a gift into the next draft of a story lacking adequate conflict. When I revised the story based on this prompt, a bunch of things fell into place. Like the fact that being in prison isn’t the secret Naomi is keeping from Jenn; it’s that she has major doubts about becoming a mother and being part of a family. And also that Jenn should be pregnant at the start of the story so as to give Naomi’s quest greater urgency.
One of the most enjoyable parts of writing this story was fleshing out the relationship between Naomi and Jenn. I love how they interact together and play off each other, the sense of humor they share, the love they have for each other, even in the midst of struggle. Me and my husband are very much a classic “opposites attract” couple, so I had a good time writing a same-sex couple who have a similar dynamic.
I also enjoyed writing the scene between Naomi and her father. I hadn’t included any scenes with her parents in the early drafts. But once I got a better handle on Naomi’s journey, I wondered if it would make sense to include a scene between her and her parents. I drafted it, figuring at the very least I’d get some useful back story out of it. The scene ended up being so easy to write – what you see in the finished story is very close to that first draft – and fit so well within the story. This was an unexpected treat, considering all the other scenes in the story were much harder for me to get right!