Editorial Assistant Evan Jurmain’s Interview with Spring 2023 Issue Contributor Chelsea Peters
Evan Jurmain: Part of what drew me into this story was your choice in protagonist. The Mudlark seems to see himself as an idle observer of the world, yet as readers we ourselves are made into observers of both the profound sense of isolation that his behavior has created, as well as a distinct lack of self-awareness on his part. What made you want to write from the Mudlark’s perspective? Was there something about this voice that you wanted to explore?
Chelsea Peters: There was definitely something in this character’s voice and worldview that intrigued and kind of mystified me, and thus felt worthwhile to explore. I’ve known a lot of men like him in my life and have often wondered what is going on inside those heads of theirs – this story is my best guess! I feel like I learned a lot about those men through the process of writing this story. That lack of self-awareness that you mention, and especially the isolation it can engender, is also something that scares me a lot when I recognize it in myself or others, and I think the best thing to do with something you fear is to explore it – especially if it’s something you worry could be present in some form inside of you. I find value in writing from the perspective of someone who I hope I’m not too much like, but whose flaws still feel very relatable and even, on some level, familiar to me.
EJ: The Mudlark is never named. This is particularly interesting when contrasted with how frequently the names of Sal, Lacy & Cora are used. Could you tell us a bit about the decision to leave him unnamed and the role of names in this story?
CP: The honest answer is that I struggle to name all of my protagonists and avoid it whenever I can! I find that giving them a name, especially early on in the writing process, makes them too solid, too formed, for me to feel free to explore them and who they are and who they might be as I continue to write them. Sometimes that changes, and I eventually give them a name (usually out of necessity), but it’s almost always when the story is complete, and I know who that person is and can feel like a name won’t spoil that process of letting them “become.” A name has so much power, and I think part of me doesn’t want the reader ascribing any associations they may have with a certain name to the protagonist they’re meeting – kind of like when a couple is naming their child, and one half keeps shutting down all of the proposed options because they knew someone with that name that they didn’t like. The protagonist in this story even hints at having been that kind of parent himself, so I guess he and I have that in common! Maybe it’s a bit extreme or silly, but in my mind both I and the reader need to discover the protagonist for ourselves, without too many associations or prejudices, and even something like a name can sometimes affect that in a way that makes me squirm. And, in this story, it felt especially fitting for the protagonist to be nameless, for all the perhaps obvious reasons, so I was happy to have an excuse to help me get away with avoiding naming him!
EJ: Perhaps related to his own namelessness, the Mudlark seems to only ever interact with or think more deeply about the women he encounters (typically about their appearances). Why did you choose to have him as the only male presence in the story, and what role does his insistence on only observing women play in defining him? Did you ever consider having him interact with other men more directly while you were writing?
CP: I felt that, because it’s a short story – and, although short stories can of course be wildly complex and rich, the medium is also gloriously constrained, and thus demands restraint from the writer – it was best to focus on just one or two particular aspects of this character’s psyche. And since the close third-person perspective I chose to write from is so much about how that person views the world, but is also separated from that world, I decided we would focus almost entirely on how he sees, and fails to see, the women in his world. I didn’t consciously decide that he wouldn’t interact directly with any men, but it didn’t feel like it would serve the story’s central focus and goal of getting into the psyche of the male gaze as I imagine it. I think, or at least I hope, that the reader will be able to imagine what an interaction between this man and another would be like, so it’s not necessary to depict it outright. Every writer has to decide what to include and what not to include in a given story, with the aim of providing the reader with what they need – and, in my opinion, only what they need – for the story to be entertaining, engrossing, or whatever other aim for it the writer may have.
EJ: The ending is quite compelling. For much of the story, the Mudlark avoids seeing himself as subject to observation. But in that final moment after sunset, after having a realization about his own behavior (and un-evolved status), he seems desperate to be observed. Would you mind talking a bit about that final moment and what it means for him and for the story?
CP: To me, the ending is meant to convey that it can be both too late and also never too late to change. I very much believe in a person’s ability to change and grow, if they can acknowledge their harmful behaviours and truly wish to alter them and, thus, themselves. I think that believing ourselves to be forever or essentially “bad” because we’ve behaved “badly” only serves to perpetuate the kind of internally- and externally-destructive behaviour that perpetuates cycles of pain and suffering. So I wanted to give this somewhat antagonistic protagonist a bit of a bittersweet ending to this part of his story. I think it might be too late for him to repair his relationship with Sal, for instance, but that doesn’t mean it’s too late for him in general; personal growth is something always worth pursuing, and I think that internalizing some feedback from those around us can be helpful in that pursuit and certainly would be for this protagonist. As you noted, in the end, his rather harsh, judgmental, and careless perspective finally gets flipped and reflected back onto him in a small way, and it’s not the most flattering or encouraging feedback that he receives: the unknown women on the boat laugh, and I think it’s up to the reader to decide whether they’re laughing at him or whether they didn’t even see him – like he’s beneath their notice, and they’re just happily laughing at something else in their own safe world, entirely free from his gaze. Either way, I think that moment offers up some options for the protagonist: he can finally internalize his impact on the world, and try to shift his behaviours, and thus improve his relationships – or, more tragically, he can remain alone and unmoored on the shore.