Karin Lin-Greenberg’s story, “Escapees,” appears in the Winter 2023 issue of The Southern Review. In this interview Karin discusses fugitive monkeys, gas stations as setting, writing complex characters in fiction, and more.
Zach Shultz, editorial assistant: When I first read “Escapees,” I found myself rooting for your protagonist, even though the obstacles she faces seem insurmountable, at best. How did this character first come to you?
Karin Lin-Greenberg: Usually I start writing a story with a character in mind, but this time the story was inspired by something in the news. In January 2022, a truck crashed on a highway in Pennsylvania. The truck was carrying one hundred monkeys that were being taken to a research lab in Florida. Four monkeys escaped after the crash, three were quickly captured, and a day after the crash one of the monkeys was still missing. The three monkeys who were found were euthanized, and it was clear that if the fourth monkey was found, it would also be euthanized. I wasn’t sure what was worse: being euthanized or spending a lifetime in a cage as a research subject.
So I was thinking of an escaped monkey and about who might find this monkey and whether this person could give the monkey a better life. It’s all really impossible from the start, though, from the climate the monkey has escaped into (in the story I changed the setting from Pennsylvania to a cold and snowy winter in upstate New York, which would be difficult for an animal from a tropical climate to thrive in), to the space and resources required to care for what is essentially a wild animal. I like your use of the word “insurmountable” here because both characters are facing insurmountable obstacles. Both of them have situations and people to escape, and I wanted to think about whether the characters could help each other in some way.
ZS: Lulu, a fugitive monkey the protagonist finds and decides to harbor in her secluded cabin in upstate New York, is one of the story’s main characters. You have previously written stories featuring animals—such as “Roland Raccoon” in your second story collection Vanished. Where does your knack for writing animals as characters come from?
KLG: I think in real life how someone treats animals reveals a lot about who they are. Someone who is kind to animals often tends to be a kind person. Someone who is cruel to animals is likely to exhibit cruel behavior in other aspects of their lives. So I think putting characters in fiction in contact with animals is a way to characterize. The protagonist of “Escapees” is someone who hopes for the best, even though she’s had to deal with a lot of difficulties in her life. She’s smart enough to know she can’t harbor a fugitive monkey forever, but she hopes that somehow things will work out and she and Lulu can go on living together undiscovered.
I think the relationship the protagonist develops with Lulu shows her desperation for connection and interaction. While many people her age (twenty-two) would spend their free time with friends and family, all the protagonist has is Lulu, and she’s content to watch nature videos and documentaries with her on her phone. The protagonist desires companionship, and she gets that from Lulu.
The protagonist had to leave a job she loved working in a hospital cafeteria because she’s hiding from an abusive ex-boyfriend. She misses talking to and comforting nervous and upset people who have come for a meal or a snack in the cafeteria and are worried about their loved ones who are being treated in the hospital. Caring for Lulu allows the protagonist to feel helpful and useful once again.
ZS: I found the theme of compassion, in all its possibilities and limits, to be one of the most poignant, and devastating, aspects of this story. Your narrator remembers her late grandmother saying, “[P]eople are usually the way they are because of what they’ve gone through in life, and if you can think about [that] . . . you can end up feeling compassion toward them.” What is this story trying to say about compassion and what it means to be a compassionate person in the world today?
KLG: For me, one of the main projects of writing fiction is to figure out why characters behave the way they do. I’m interested in their pasts and what has shaped them, and I think oftentimes even a character who is difficult or awful in some way has a reason—which often isn’t apparent on the surface—for their behavior. I’m not sure the story is saying something in general about compassion in the world today, but I did want to create a character who can be compassionate toward others, even though the world has treated her unfairly in many ways. I think the narrator could have easily become someone who is driven by bitterness and anger, yet instead she’s kind and compassionate.
I was thinking her way of seeing the world was shaped by her grandmother, who was an important figure in her childhood. I didn’t include a lot in the story about the narrator’s parents, but they’ve moved away and don’t have much to do with the protagonist. When she thinks about how to be in the world, she thinks back to what her grandmother taught her. Her favorite place to visit is a spot in the woods her grandmother used to bring her when she was a child, so I wanted to show that the fact that she keeps returning to this place and eventually brings Lulu there shows how influential and important her grandmother was.
The protagonist hopes to be a guide and a source of comfort for Lulu, much like her grandmother was for her. I think compassion is one of the biggest characterizing traits of the protagonist. She’s willing to give up a lot, both financially and in terms of her own safety, in order to attempt to give Lulu a good life.
ZS: The workplace as setting is another important element of “Escapees.” In another interview you state, “I think the type of work someone does . . . reveals a lot about character.” What does Stewart’s, a gas station and convenience store in the story, reveal about the characters who work there?
KLG: In this particular story, I was thinking of the narrator’s job less as characterizing her but forcing her to spend many hours every week in a space that constrains her. I liked the idea of a gas station as a setting because it’s a place people stop and fuel up on their way to somewhere else. And yet the narrator is stuck there day after day because she both needs a steady income and doesn’t have enough money to make a significant geographic move.
I was thinking of this space as an echo to Lulu having been trapped in a cage in the truck and later being caged in the narrator’s home. An animal in a cage can watch people outside come and go and might even wonder where they’re going. The narrator is likewise a trapped observer in a small space during her workday. She’s also stuck with her annoying coworker, Noreen, in this space. I wanted the cramped quarters of their workplace to amplify tension between the characters.
This space is also dangerous for the narrator. People filter in and out of the convenience store at the gas station, and she’s always on guard that her dangerous ex—whom she’s hiding from—might either find her or just stumble upon her if he comes inside to pay for gas or buy a drink. If given the choice, she would have preferred a workplace where she could be hidden away. Occupying this small and exposed space reveals her desperation to simply have a job—any job that would hire her—so she could support herself.
ZS: Speaking of coworkers, your protagonist’s relationship with Noreen creates tension throughout the story in such an effective way. At one point, the narrator says, “I know I’m doing something cruel, preying on Noreen’s desperation to be liked, her desperation for companionship, but what else can I do?” As readers, we understand the dramatic irony in this statement, since the narrator is also “desperate for companionship.” Tell us more about how you develop complex characters like Noreen.
KLG: Thanks for describing Noreen as complex. I wanted her to be annoying and nosy and self-involved, yet also someone who was not only these things. She’s a clear antagonist in this story, and her actions put the narrator and Lulu in jeopardy, but I also wanted her to be a round character. You’re right that in many ways, she’s not that different from the narrator. Like the narrator, she wants to connect with people, and she’s been disappointed by the people in her life. There are some quick clues in the story about how her husband and children have essentially abandoned her, and I hope these details help readers understand that ultimately she’s a sad and lonely person.
A lot of the details about Noreen emerged in revisions. At first, I was just thinking of her as an obstacle in the protagonist’s life, but then I thought about how she could be more complicated and included information about her past and how others who work at Stewart’s treat her in the present. This is a passage I added in a late revision:
I think about what I was told by Cam, the night shift manager, during my first week of work, about the party Noreen threw last summer. She invited everyone who worked at Stewart’s to her house and no one went. Cam drove by her house and saw her in her backyard, standing over the grill, a pile of hot dogs and hamburgers in buns on a table next to her. And then he drove by an hour later and that pile was still there and Noreen was sitting at a table with her head in her hands, surrounded by a dozen two-liter bottles of Diet Coke and Sprite. I wanted to ask Cam why he made the effort to drive by her house twice, why he couldn’t have found it in himself to stop the car and go eat a hot dog and drink some Sprite.
My hope is the image of Noreen sitting alone after making all that effort to throw a party for her coworkers builds a little sympathy for her. The image of a dozen two-liter bottles is meant to show she invited a lot of people, was hopeful they’d all come, and none of those people showed up. What I think Noreen doesn’t understand is why no one wants to spend time with her; she doesn’t have the self-awareness to understand that it’s her actions and comments that drive others away.
ZS: The narrator in this story is full of loneliness and longing. Can you talk about the choice to write in first person from an unnamed narrator’s point of view?
KLG: I thought the character needed to be unnamed because she doesn’t have many significant interactions and the customers she sees at work likely don’t know her name. She’s hiding and kind of anonymous in the world right now. Probably the thing she’d like best is to be surrounded by people who are close to her who call her by her name. I imagine her grandmother, the person she was closest to but has passed away, was someone who called her by her name (and perhaps a nickname) often. To me, the choice to not name her links with her loneliness. We don’t really see her interacting in the story with anyone who would know her name, so there aren’t opportunities for her name to be said aloud. And of course Lulu can’t say her name.
I think a story of this length might be unwieldy in third person if I used only a pronoun for the protagonist or called her something like “the young woman” throughout. First person point of view allowed me to keep her unnamed. I suppose I could have achieved this in second person as well, but I also wanted to capture her voice directly, so I settled on first person.
ZS: Your debut novel, You Are Here, was published this month. First of all, congratulations! What can readers expect from this book, and what was it like to make the shift from writing short story collections to a full-length novel?
KLG: Thank you! It was challenging in some ways to move from writing stories to writing a novel. I’ve struggled in the past to write in this longer form and have two novels I consider unsuccessful tucked away on my hard drive somewhere. I had trouble sustaining a longer narrative in the past because I was so used to writing short stories, so this time I wanted to be really conscious of creating an overarching plot that could drive the novel forward while still keeping the book character driven.
You Are Here is about a mall that’s closing in a suburb of Albany, New York, and it follows five characters who all have some sort of relationship to the mall, including several who work at the mall. The novel spans the ten months leading up to the mall’s closing. Each of these five characters is a third-person point-of-view character, and the chapters rotate between their perspectives. The throughline in the novel is the closing of the mall and what each character will do after it closes and they lose their jobs and community there, but each character also grapples with individual conflicts that are unrelated to the mall’s closing. Dealing with these individual conflicts in the chapters devoted to each character felt almost like I was writing short stories; although each chapter dealt with the larger conflict of the mall’s impending closure, I was also able to play with smaller, daily conflicts the characters experience.
I hope one of the elements that echoes between “Escapees” and You Are Here is the compassion you mentioned in an earlier question. I wanted the characters in the novel to be able to feel compassion for each other (often not initially, but after they come to know each other), and as a writer, I wanted to delve enough into their backstories and motivations in order for readers to understand them deeply and, I hope, have compassion for them too.
Karin Lin-Greenberg’s first story collection, Faulty Predictions, won the Flannery O’Connor Award for Short Fiction from the University of Georgia Press, and her second story collection, Vanished, won the Prairie Schooner Raz-Shumaker Book Prize and was published in September 2022 by the University of Nebraska Press. Her novel, You Are Here, is out now from Counterpoint. She currently teaches creative writing at Siena College in upstate New York.
Zach Shultz is a current MFA Candidate in Creative Writing at Louisiana State University and former nonfiction editor for New Delta Review. He is a 2019 Lambda Literary nonfiction fellow and a 2022 Indiana University Writers’ Conference fiction fellow. His work has appeared in Lit Hub, Electric Literature, The Los Angeles Review of Books, and elsewhere.
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