Samantha Hunt on the Unbearable Flatness of Being

“I’m interested in how mystery and wonder enter lives that are common and gray. Because no one is really common and gray.”

Joe Hagan / The Atlantic

Samantha Hunt’s new story, “Go, Team,” will appear in the March issue of The Atlantic. To mark its publication, she and Thomas Gebremedhin, an editor at the magazine, discussed over email her thematic preoccupations, the elements of a good story, and the origins of “Go, Team.” This interview has been lightly edited for clarity.

Thomas Gebremedhin: In “Go, Team,” a group of mothers recounts the disappearance of a woman at a soccer game. The story is set almost entirely in dialogue, with minimal dialogue attribution—it’s a dazzling gambit. The effect is that of a Greek chorus. Did you arrive at the structure or the plot first? Why does the story necessitate the form?

Samantha Hunt: Strange things happen at soccer fields. When I was a student, there was a coach who pointed to an empty hillside and asked the children, “Do you see that man?” To our eyes, there was no man. “It’s Job,” the coach said. “Job walking the Earth.” Then we all just went back to playing soccer. The fields where my daughters play now are surrounded by agriculture. This past fall, the farmer grew hemp. Every game smelled of weed! Some luckless criminal stole tons and tons of the farmer’s hemp one night, imagining a big marijuana payday that never happened. All that to say, the plot came first. I was on the sidelines at an away game. There was a forest beyond the field. It was rainy, and the woods seemed welcoming. Sidelines are a wild place where worlds collide; there are lots of emotions and so many different ways of loving our children. I didn’t walk into the woods. I started writing “Go, Team.” The rest of the story, the cluster of women’s voices, came after that as a late-night, chatty surprise package.

Teams are terrifying and gladdening. Teams are hateful nationalism and joyful singing in a choir. One of my great-grandmothers couldn’t nurse her newborn son. She followed the advice of the local women who told her cow’s milk would make her child beastly. The baby starved to death and my great-grandmother never spoke again above a whisper. The chorus is that powerful. And the internet is one big Greek chorus now. I read some terrible posts when I was a new mom, ideas that were like poison, good mothering as a perfectionism of hand-knit sweaters, trilingual homes, cake pops, on and on. The chorus can be cruel. At the same time, I’m a beekeeper, and the collective work bees do is glorious. Belonging can feel so sweet. Belonging can feel like love.

In Janet Cardiff’s Forty-Part Motet, the Salisbury Cathedral Choir sings Spem in alium (“Hope in Any Other”). Cardiff recorded each voice of the choir separately. A listener stands inside a circle of 40 speakers. In the middle, all the voices are equal. But sidle up to one speaker, and an individual’s singing, throat clearing, and breathing soars. I hope “Go, Team” has that same ability to zoom from the micro to the macro and back again. I want to hear individuals, but also allow the women to be collectively moved by waves of boredom, fear, anger, love. The chorus of voices in “Go, Team” sounds like gossip. Gossip interests me as a traditionally female form that is thought lightweight and wasteful. But gossip can destroy. It can plumb mysteries of death and violence, the forest, the human body. “Go, Team” is gossipy. It is not light.

Gebremedhin: Does writing dialogue come naturally to you?

Hunt: I am the youngest child of a large family; I am an extreme listener. Also, my own head chatter is conducted in dialogue. Who am I talking to? Good question! Dialogue does come easily to me. I enjoy considering the performance of personality. Interior thought is nonperformative, we hope. The pleasure in writing dialogue is accounting for all that’s not being said, plus deceits, thoughtlessness, desires. Moments like, “Wait. You had sex with a tree?” That word wait is so full of emotion, it delights me. There’s judgment, titillation, horror, jealousy, disbelief, longing. Dialogue is swift and complex at the same time. Moments where people don’t hear each other or where they work to manipulate each other—I love writing those sorts of moments.

Gebremedhin: You’ve written three novels and a short-story collection. How are the demands of a short story different from those of a novel? What makes a successful story?

Hunt: I love to think about precision of language. I grew up with a fantastic bunch of poets by my side. While economy with words is still very important to me in my novels, it is, of course, even more so in my short stories.

Gebremedhin: Like a lot of your fiction, “Go, Team” explores the hidden contours of a woman’s life—specifically, her fraught relationship to motherhood. At one point in their conversation, the mothers discuss the possibility that the vanished woman had children, which prompts J, one of the mothers, to ask, “She should behave because she’s a mother?” What intrigues you about this theme?

Hunt: The tyranny of normalcy is one of my favorite topics. I’m working on a new novel about this right now. We expect mothers to be more “normal” than other people. Mothers’ “abnormal” behaviors are strictly stigmatized, instilling a fear of difference because behind the tyranny of normalcy is the threat that if you don’t behave, you will lose that thing most precious: your children. Mothering—the most wondrous, bizarre, ocean-of-love, way-out thing a body can do—is at times like middle school. The pressures to conform, to purchase and consume the “right” products, is paramount. I have said it elsewhere, but it bears repeating: mothers make life; mothers make death. Mighty and mysterious. Yet mothers are often cast as caricatures of simplicity. My own daughter recently called me a “Karen.” Ouch. Ouch. Ouch.

Gebremedhin: There are two interludes centered on J and her fascination with a childhood friend, now an avant-garde artist living in Detroit. The artist and her posse raid abandoned houses for left-behind items (photo albums, quilts, a check signed by Martin Luther King Jr.). To J, the woman represents a kind of freedom, unbound by the conventions of domesticity. Why did you decide to include these scenes?

Hunt: My mother keeps a quote from Flaubert on her fridge: “Be regular and orderly in your life like a bourgeois, so that you may be violent and original in your work.” I write about middle-class women because I like to start with a dull, gray background. This despised and easy-to-judge group gives me a surface against which the violence and shock of red is most visible. It’s permissible to dismiss entire populations of people. It’s easy to root for one team alone. And it is so boring. What flatness are we trying to achieve? In the avant-garde artist, we have a life lived in all scarlet, which is wonderful, glorious, but there is also a self-interest in extremes, an idea of one’s specialness. I’m more interested in how mystery and wonder enter lives that are common and gray. Because no one is really common and gray. Life is extraordinary if we listen and observe without inserting a self. For the record, my mother is neither regular nor orderly.

Gebremedhin: The specter of death hangs over this story. The mothers imagine the vanished woman decomposing in the woods; one mother jokes about driving her car into a tree; we learn that one woman’s mother died. How does death function in this story?

Hunt: I’d dare say that same specter hangs over all my work. I am a ghost activist. An important moment for me in “Go, Team” is when J says, “Then someone gets sick and it’s like, oh shit, it’s her fault she’s going to die. She did something wrong. Not enough moisturizer or exercise or something.” The pact is, if you behave normally (whatever that means to the chorus, usually some sort of proper corporate consumerism), you will not die. We act as if death is abnormal, shocking, and shameful. I am fascinated by this absurd belief system. In truth, death is common. Twenty thousand honeybees died in my backyard this winter. I wish we could find a way to make it hurt us less, to remember the forest that grows from fallen trees.