LSQ: This is a story with so many layers, I could read it five times and glean something new from it each time. Where did you get the idea for this, and how did you build it up into something so complex?
D.L.: It started as a nightmare. It’s been banging around my drive since about 2010, with edits and revisions, but the bulk of it was a nightmare. I wrote a collection of magical realist stories based not all that loosely on my hometown in West Virginia in my MFA program, and this one takes place in the next county over. Most West Virginians identify their place of origin by county to outsiders, since there aren’t a terrible lot of cities to speak of.
Matewan is a real place, in McDowell County, WV, where union leader and scallywag of the people Sid Hatfield really was assassinated in broad daylight by Company thugs, which kicked off the Battle of Blair Mountain, the first time the US government literally bombed its own people to put a miner’s rebellion down in the ‘20s.
This is the world our narrator is living in, that’s been beaten into accepting injustice for, at the time she’s speaking, more than a century. She has this congenital nihilism, even before her father dies so gruesomely, that is sort of endemic to the area.
The Immigrants, and Stella, in particular, represent something new and beautiful– something hopeful, even, and you see what happens to them…honestly I struggle with the whole “what does it MEAN?” bit of this story. It’s partly a manifesto on the foolishness of hope from the narrator’s perspective. It’s partly my own struggle trying to shake off that mountain-bred nihilism–I moved away a long time ago, but that stuff is in the DNA. The immigrants will come back some day, and who will we be then? There’s a glimmer of hope at the end, at least something that feels like hope, and neither of us, the narrator nor myself, trust it entirely. But, it is there.
That said, it may be important to remember it started as a nightmare.
LSQ: I love your rich descriptions of the Immigrants and the place they came from. What inspired you to make them so plant-like?
D.L.: If I’m honest, the Immigrants are plant-like because it seemed really cool. I liked the aesthetic–they are so very unlike the locals in every way. It’s a tiny bit of foreshadowing, too, though. Microscopic, even, to the point that it’s pretty much just for me. It isn’t easy to get plants to grow in soil that’s been wrecked by mining, in low valleys where it’s dark all the time. If you know that, you know the immigrants are doomed from the start.
LSQ: This story’s ending makes me think there could be a lot more to this world. Do you have any plans to revisit it?
D.L.: This is the revisit!
I wrote a collection of magical realist stories based on my hometown for my MFA thesis. My cohort was pretty split on some of the stories–they said it was impossible to tell the era stories were taking place. For some people it was a complaint, others, less so. But I never tried to make those stories unstuck from time; it’s just the nature of cultural poverty. When I wrote this story, I wanted to give it a more specific sense of time, even if it was subtle, like naming the different groups of refugees who had lived in the Immigrants’ houses in the past. “For God is in Sleep…” is me writing a story set in the “future” of the town I’d been writing about for so long. (For what it’s worth, the cohort was less split on this one–all but about 3 of my friends despised it because it is ‘genre’.)
I want very badly to be done with this world. I am always glad when readers like to visit it, but writing about it is painful. The real life model these stories sprang from is not an easy place to live, and I have not lived there for over 15 years. I wanted “For God is in Sleep” to be a capstone to the whole thing, but I suspect I’ll be back.