Blair Hurley received her A.B. from Princeton University and her M.F.A. from NYU. She is the author of The Devoted, published by W.W. Norton, which was longlisted for The Center for Fiction’s First Novel Prize. Her work is published or forthcoming in Electric Literature, The Georgia Review, Ninth Letter, Guernica, Paris Review Daily, West Branch, and elsewhere. She received a 2018 Pushcart Prize and two Pushcart Prize nominations in 2019. Her story “The Disappearing Place” is forthcoming in the summer 2021 issue of Story.
Blair teaches creative writing at Grubstreet, Catapult, and elsewhere. She is the host of the Writerly Bites podcast.
“The Disappearing Place,” is set in Michigan’s Upper Peninsula. Are you from there?
Just as a tourist. I’m from New England originally—a very Boston kind of girl. I also lived in Chicago for a couple of years. It was a wonderful city. When my husband and I were there, everyone talked about how the place Midwesterners got away to was the Upper Peninsula. We started taking trips there, mostly for off-season hiking. The place really stuck with me. It was this magical, quiet, remote space and as a city person, I was very impressed by the absolute remoteness of it.
I started writing a bunch of stories about it. I have “The Disappearing Place,” and also the novel that I’m currently working on is set partially there. It just seemed like a really compelling, wild environment. I also got interested in the location and its history. I’ve always found when I’m writing stories that I need to have a strong sense of place. If it’s notmy own familiar place, then I need to do research and really immerse myself. For my novel and for this story as well, I’ve been reading books set in Michigan and the Upper Peninsula.
On my shelf right now, I have a book called “Forgotten Tales of Michigan’s Upper Peninsula.” Just to try to immerse myself in the locals and the lore.
It is a really interesting and remote place. “The Disappearing Place” is somewhat eerie. Is there something about the Upper Peninsula that specifically drew you to telling that kind of story?
Yes, I think so. As an outsider and a city-oriented person, stepping into a very quiet, wild place like that made a deep impression on me. I think for people who have grown up in that space, it’s probably not unsettling, but for me it was unsettling and eerie. My husband and I took some long hikes through the woods. There were a couple of moments when we were unsure where the path was and which way was right. When he went off to check if a trail path was correct, and I realized that I’d never been so alone. Just for a moment, I couldn’t even see him around. It had been so long since I’d been isolated in that way.
So, the quiet really made a strong impression on me. And the sense of how easily someone could get lost in the woods. That was one of the big inspirations for this story: an eerie sense of isolation, and a sense that you could turn around and your life would change. You would be alone, and feel that aloneness. There was also a setting that’s important in the story. My characters walk through an abandoned summer camp. I walked through a similar place. We couldn’t really tell what it was, but there were all these abandoned buildings and we were a bit lost. It just felt haunted. So, I definitely was going for a story that had a haunted feeling to it. A quiet menace.
I started this story thinking about arriving in a strange place at night. At this point, I wanted to tell some kind of a ghost story. I was trying to evoke classic “arrivals at the rainy mansion” scenes. It started with the way that the final version starts: with the feeling that something is off when the couple arrives at the bed and breakfast.
I generally work in a fragmented way where I stitch scenes together and then figure out how they fit together later. The next part I wrote was the hiking scene. I thought, Let’s get to the woods and see what happens. As I wrote deeper into it, I realized that it wouldn’t be enough to have an eerie ghost story. I also wanted to get curious about this couple in particular— what they were like, what their dynamics were. A sense of threat that wasn’t just coming from the outside, but from the inside as well. I think the ghost stories, or unsettling stories, that I like best have that element of internal disquiet. The call is coming from inside the house. There’s a problem on the inside too.
I started diving deeper into how the main character, the woman, thinks that she’s in a happy relationship. She’s in the first flush of honeymoon feeling. But the more she thinks about the way they work together, the more she realizes there are problems. There are things that she’s not happy with, or ways that she’s already making compromises to keep harmony in the relationship.
I knew I wanted the husband to disappear. I knew that from early on. There was another inspiration: I had recently read a news article about a couple who went kayaking on icy water. Only the wife returned. She claimed that a terrible accident had happened and that her husband had drowned. But as the facts came out, apparently her story started to fall apart and it seemed like there was foul play at work. It seems like it was a murder. I was definitely thinking about that as a looming possibility in this story.
That’s so interesting. When I read The Devoted, your novel about a young woman navigating her Catholic upbringing and her current Buddhist faith, I was struck by this idea of secretive desire that is often said to be shameful, especially for women. For Nicole, the main character, it has to do with Buddhism as she pushes back against her family, and her desire for sex. For Dicey in “The Disappearing Place,” it seems like a desire for her husband to disappear, even though she might not realize this herself. Do you find secretive desire to be a theme in your work, and if it is, what draws you to that feeling?
That’s such an interesting question, and thank you for noticing that parallel. I’m not sure I was aware of that, but I think you’re absolutely right. I’m definitely interested in buried desire, desire that’s considered shameful, and ways in which women particularly feel they aren’t entitled to want things for themselves. The desire doesn’t go away, it just goes underground.
I write a lot about women characters who have this subsumed desire for something in their lives. I can feel that in Dicey as well as my novel character Nicole. Since writing my novel, I’ve been deliberately trying to push myself into more risky territory. I’ve written about some of the quiet ways that women close desire in a drawer and don’t allow themselves to experience it, but I’m really interested in women that ultimately open that drawer. They decide that they can’t bury it anymore. They’re on a dangerous edge.
I saw Dicey as thinking of herself as a very quiet and compliant person. She seems to be willing to go along with what the men in her life want her to be and do. But in this rare space, she finds that she can’t do that anymore. The desire is coming out of her. I think of her as someone who is beginning to feel anger and rage about the compromises that she’s made.
The scene in which she talks with the park ranger, for example, was trying to show something that I think a lot of women have experienced: interactions with authoritative men where women are expected to be dumb and pliantly hope for rescue. And to be treated as such.
I hope that I was showing that Dicey was starting to become aware of that, and become frustrated and angry.
Especially since her husband treats her the same way. She was aware that she kept asking those dumb questions because it was expected of her. I think for women, this can feel very familiar.
Yeah, I think there are so many interactions in which some men enjoy instructing women about things, and they like having a naïve subject. Even women that are maybe more informed. I’m not saying anything new—other people have invented better phrases for this, like “mansplaining.” Sometimes it can be the sort of things where you protest against it and push back, but in a lot of interactions you decide to play the role because you feel quiet frustration.
I feel like Dicey is a character who often does that in her life for the sake of harmony. But there are moments in her life where it is no longer acceptable for her to do that. That doesn’t mean, though, that the anger comes out in a positive and healthy way. I think she’s going down a dangerous road. That was the other aspect of this story I wanted to include. That’s why I wrote about that other couple, for whom maybe things had gone very badly.
How did you begin writing in general? What draws you to writing?
I’m one of those people who loved writing from a very young age. I knew I wanted to be a writer. I felt this urge to tell stories. I loved the sense of being able to shape the world as I saw fit. It was exciting to me.
As I matured as a writer, what I came to really love about it was the sense of control and insight that I can get from writing. On one level, I love being in the sandbox, making sculptures and a world, shaping and having total control of these characters. That’s definitely a pull, and I think other writers feel similarly.
I also learn about myself and about the world in the process of creating. I’m my most thoughtful self, my most generous self, my most compassionate self, when I’m writing and getting curious about the characters I’m creating. It’s really important to me to be a curious person and a curious writer. To be willing to get curious about people, even who I find repugnant or different from me. I think it’s worthwhile to dive in and get inquisitive about why they do the things they do. That’s another big driving force for me.
Why do you think fiction is so conducive to that environment?
Certainly there’s an element of control. I don’t write a lot of nonfiction because I like to be able to change what happened. I like to have that power over the story, and set a scene and create a mood. “The Disappearing Place” was a really fun story to write. I wanted to get into the atmosphere and get eerie, and unsettle a reader, hopefully. In fiction, you can cast a spell in a beautiful way. I love that feeling as a reader. I think fiction does that better than any form of writing. It really allows you to fully immerse yourself in the character’s world. There are truths that can be said in fiction more effectively than in nonfiction, in an odd way. I realize that when I want to learn about the world, I’ll read novels about something rather than reading a biography or a history book.
Of course, it’s important to read these things and know the facts, but I find that I really get a better understanding of the feel of a place and a time and a people by reading novels about that world. There’s a possibility of imagination there. That’s a crucial part of feeling like you’re there.
You wrote a piece in Electric Literature called “How Playing ‘Myst’ Taught Me to Write Fiction,” which I just loved. You write, “We can’t perfectly slip into the experience of others. We must acknowledge the partial, fragmentary nature of our disappearing.” I thought this was really potent. A lot of authors are wondering what it means to tell a story, and what stories are theirs to tell, especially as we think about the importance and necessity of representation in work. Do you have any thoughts about that experience, especially when writing fiction?
Yeah, absolutely. It’s such an important question that’s very much up for debate right now in the literary world. In that essay, I was trying to get at that question—the question of incomplete knowledge, and how intriguing it can be in fiction to not have the full picture. I also think it’s a really important part of the realism that I’m trying to get at. The more that I look at characters, particularly characters that are different from me, the more I have to acknowledge that I have an incomplete understanding. I can’t fully put myself in the shoes of someone who has experienced things that I’ve never experienced.
I think one of the things writers can do is try to acknowledge the limitations of experience in that way. To show how the knowledge is incomplete. In the case of “The Disappearing Place,” I feel like I’m fully in the woman’s perspective, and ultimately her husband is mysterious to her. There are things that he’s experienced in his life that he doesn’t give her access to. She feels that as a kind of denial. It makes him mysterious and maybe a little bit frightening. But it was also something that I was trying to get at about the realism of any gender difference or racial difference or cultural difference. There is a point at which we have to acknowledge the gaps in our understanding. That can still be a point of human connection, but we have to acknowledge uncertainty to some extent.
For authors who are trying to write outside of their own identity groups, it is a tough challenge. I would say that I am still very much for the effort and work, and for trying to imagine or write into the lives of others. But it definitely requires this curious, patient uncertainty. Walk yourself cautiously into the life of someone else, do your homework, and really think hard about the things you don’t know. There might be things someone from that group may not have shared with you. Having that element of uncertainty in the portrayal is an important part of it.
Your novel focuses on this as Nicole moves between two faiths and goes into Buddhism with that sense of uncertainty. Over time, she becomes ingrained in it. When did you start becoming interested in writing about spirituality?
I’ve been interested in it going way back. I’ve always had dual interests in fiction writing and in religious
traditions. I was not raised in any kind of strict religious upbringing. I had a secular-Christmas childhood. I noticed friends, colleagues, and neighbors who had a rich heritage of different religious faiths and it was something that was sustaining and meaningful to them.
I longed for that sense of belonging that other people in a religious community experienced, to the point where my parents said apparently I demanded a bat mitzvah for myself. I just wanted that sense of ceremony and belonging.
I joined a bunch of religious identity groups in high school that were welcoming to non-believers. I never really was a believer myself. I was curious more about the cultural and community aspects of it. I got interested in Buddhism, researched it, tried to learn a lot about it, and took classes about it, without ever being an official member. I started seeing my interest in religious experience popping up in my fiction because it was something I thought about a lot. I just started getting more and more interested in what religious experience was like—maybe because it was something I had always felt a barrier from. I had never actually experienced it. I wanted to know about people who had.
Another aspect of it is that there’s tremendous beauty to be found in the writings of different religions. I started reading a lot of Zen koans and things like that. That’s where my novel The Devoted really came from. I’m curious about a character who is a seeker, who has always longed for religious belief, but feels alienated from her own belief.
To get back to your question about writing about backgrounds and identities that are different than yours, that was something I was nervous about while I was writing The Devoted, such as writing about Zen and Buddhism from the outside. I tried to approach it the way that my character was— as a kind of outsider trying to break in. That’s how I tried to navigate it.
Religious feeling and faith is something that I continue to be curious and write about. My next novel that I’m working on is involved in an extremist Christian group with an apocalyptic lens. That got me researching another branch of faith. A dark, extreme branch. It is interesting to me to try to get into the mind of someone who feels this fervently. I think of it as a good challenge for myself to try and understand where the belief comes from and what it feels like.
Especially since religion can be such a high stakes experience. You mentioned in an interview with Tricycle that there is this student-teacher relationship between Nicole and the Master. She is sexually exploited by him, and he claims that her spiritual self is at stake.
Yeah, the other aspect of exploring religious life and community is the dark side of it. That was something I was learning about hand-in-hand with my curiosity about the benefits of religious life. The dark side of it was something that I always found very angering. Fundamentalism and religious doctrine has always been a way of keeping people under control— particularly women. Some people use religion as a weapon for governing lives. I found it so poisonous to hold someone’s soul, their sense of their immortal self, in the balance. To say, “You must obey, or else.” It’s not just that you could get in trouble, but that you could become distanced from your vision of God.
That’s such a terrible weight to put on someone. I was definitely interested in that dark aspect of religious control. I researched a lot about the sexual exploitation that has gone on, both in some Buddhist communities, troublingly, but of course in my character’s Irish-Catholic upbringing. That’s the dominant scandal of our time in Catholic news. The more I learned, the more I saw parallels there between abuses in the two different religions. No religion comes out clean from my novel, for sure. It’s heartbreaking to me that people who are of genuine faith, who want to explore and be a student, can be exploited. Once I realized that I felt deeply about this, I knew I had to write about it.
What has your research been like for this new novel about the apocalyptic, fundamentalist Christian sect?
I’ve been reading a lot of intense things about cults in general, not just Christian ones. I find there’s a lot of universal qualities across cults. And there’s always a fascination with cults in our culture, which is compelling to see. Why are we so interested in cults?
I was interested in the cult mindset in general, so I’ve been reading a lot of books about that, and about charismatic cult leaders. I’ve also been reading memoirs about people who have left strict Christian churches. They’re often people who discovered that they were not as welcome as they thought. I’m thinking of Garrard Conley’s memoir Boy Erased about growing up a strict Baptist and discovering he was gay. He was sent to conversion therapy by his family. It’s harrowing to read. There’s that element of it. As I mentioned, writing needs a strong sense of place for me, so I’ve been reading a lot of books set in Michigan and the Upper Peninsula specifically. I’ve even gone back to my Hemingway, since he writes about the Upper Peninsula. I also love the writing of Bonnie Jo Campbell— she always has really interesting things to say about Michigan. And Julie Buntin’s “Marlena” is a great depiction of Northern Michigan life.
I’m definitely an outsider to the area, but I’m trying to be that curious outsider and immerse myself. The few trips that we’ve taken there, I’ve been actively doing research and wandering around, talking to people about their lives. I’ve talked with the owners of the places we’ve stayed about what life is like in the off-seasons when tourists aren’t around.
You get this sense that there are at least two ways of experiencing life there. On one level, there’s a very friendly Midwestern warmth and openness. But underneath that, there’s a level of toughness and a sort of militancy where the friendly veneer might be stripped away if we got into a political discussion, for example. Or, the people who are so friendly might hold beliefs that are very different than mine. I’m trying to think about that underside of rural life in general in America, but especially the particular flavors of Upper Peninsula life.
I feel like a lot of people have only become sharply aware of this during the Trump administration, figuring out this new level of divide and how people are living and perceiving two different worlds right now, and not speaking the same language. Even though we’re able to meet on a polite level, perhaps, there’s tension. That’s something I’m definitely curious about and trying to carve away in this novel right now.
I really look forward to reading it. If you’re looking for more books set in Michigan, Megan Giddings, whose fiction appeared in Story, has published a novel called Lakewood, which has a similar haunted quality. She’s incredible. How has being in Canada influenced your writing about what’s happening in the United States?
It’s a strange time to be living as an American in Canada. We moved in January 2016 coincidentally because of jobs, which is what brought us here. We’ve been very grateful for the very pleasant time we’ve had living here. But it’s definitely strange to be looking at the U.S. from beyond the border. What Canadians seem to feel, and what I, as an American expat feel, is that the volume of the American news is louder than anything that’s happening in Canada. I still follow more American news than I do Canadian news. It’s true that Canada is a more orderly nation, and overall, there’s a sense that everyone should be pitching in and supporting the common goal of orderly managed life.
In American culture, there’s an emphasis on standouts, high volume, who can shout the loudest, and who can be the best. There is something in Canadian arts and culture that’s sometimes considered a problem, where the most talented and extraordinary people in a lot of fields dream of going to America. Many celebrities and comedians are “secret Canadians.” They started in Canada and once they made it big, they went to America because there’s a bigger audience and payout.
There’s a sense of a risk of a talent drain into America. I can see better how from an outside perspective, it seems like many aspects of American life have gone off the rails. When I teach Canadian students, they often ask me, “So everyone’s just shooting each other down there, aren’t they?” I think the perception about gun violence is worldwide. The perception of Americans and their relationship with guns is really interesting to see, and they’re not wrong. It is a part of American insanity, to some extent.
So, I can see the more extreme aspects of America from the outside. I can see them sticking out, these spiky things. I will also say that along with those spiky things, there are amazing aspects of American arts and storytelling. I still think American writers are tapping into these twisted aspects of their lives and telling amazing stories about them. I’m fascinated in what’s happening in American writing at all times.
Overall, Canada has been an amazingly welcoming place, but it has the same problems that America does, just muted. There’s no utopia out there. It just often gets drowned out because of its very loud neighbor.
I’m sure it’s been quite a year with the pandemic. Has that influenced your writing, either in your topics or your process?
Definitely. Everyone has had an unusual year, and I’ve had an extra unusual year in that I had my first baby in the first week of March last year, when the pandemic was starting. I’ve been parenting with my husband in isolation, learning how to be a parent and learning how to get back to my own writing self. I think a lot of parent writers, and particularly mother writers, feel that there’s a total readjustment of your identity once you become a parent. You have to find your way back to a new managed sense of self, but you also have these other aspects of yourself that you don’t want to lose.
It took some time, and it’s an ongoing project, to find my way back to my writing self. It’s a crucial aspect of who I am. I wouldn’t want it to go away. So, I’ve been writing a lot, actually, and trying to make time every time for little bits of writing. I didn’t have attention for the big projects in the early days. I set humble goals. And I have seen my topics of interest changing. I’m writing more motherhood and parenting stories these days. I feel an urgency and obligation to be honest about it. I think this is a new trend in Women’s Lit, showing all the gory details of motherhood.
There’s a really good book I just read called The Upstairs House. It’s about a woman going through postpartum depression who starts to believe that the ghost of Margaret Wise Brown— the author of the children’s book Goodnight Moon— is haunting her house. Now that I have a child who I’m reading Goodnight Moon to, I can see how deeply unsettling and existentially eerie Goodnight Moon is. It has these lines of saying goodnight to everything in the room. And then at some point, it says, “Goodnight nobody. Goodnight air. Goodnight stars.”
I didn’t realize as a child how creepy this was, but this writer, Julia Fine, runs with the creepy factor of it. It’s something in my own writing that I’m trying to dive into very honestly. Especially with newborn years, it’s a phase where you have to accept that a kind of savagery has entered your life. You’re completely sleepless, recovering from a major change to your body, and trying to learn how to do maybe one of the hardest things you’ve ever had to do in your life.
It’s often made light of and trivialized, but it’s amazing to me how many women in the world have had to live through this period of absolute strangeness. So I’m definitely writing postpartum stories these days. And the themes that haunted me in “The Disappearing Place” are still there. Anger, buried selves, buried desires, and how these things can come out in very ugly ways.
Sarah Hume is a Junior at Denison University, where she studies International Studies and Narrative
Journalism. Photo courtesy of Ann Yooper; view more of her work on Flickr.