“Mudslide Milkshake” presents the mundane between bookends of the absurd (but perhaps not impossible): aliens landing in an Applebee’s parking lot. Can you talk about why you chose to start and end “Mudslide Milkshake” the way you did?
There’s an Applebee’s I pass frequently out in the world, and it seems to always be doing a brisk business. No matter the time of day, it has a full parking lot. I don’t know why, but it takes up space in my mind, wondering about the people there. One day, the first line of this story popped into my head, and I just couldn’t shake it. I kept thinking about all the reasons why someone might be crying in an Applebee’s parking lot (there are so many!), and then all the reasons someone might actually be relieved to find aliens had landed in that moment. And we can probably blame the aliens on echoes of my teen X-Files obsession. So I always knew where I was starting and where I wanted to end, which you might also call a beginning depending on how you look at it, and the rest of the piece grew in the middle of those two points. It’s absurd, yes, but also a little poignant, I hope.
The story uses humor rather flawlessly. It feels funny without trying too hard. That can be difficult to pull off through text alone. What advice do you have for writers who want to incorporate humor (successfully) in their work?
That’s kind of you to say. I think the key to the humor in this particular piece is the voice. I wasn’t necessarily trying to make it funny, but I could hear this character’s voice very clearly in my head, and I let that voice speak as naturally as I was able. She was funny, a friend telling me a wild story, unafraid of how she might look, just being wholly herself and interjecting these little asides. And I think humor feels more real with some pathos in it. There’s something cathartic about being able to see the funny in a situation that might not be very funny on its own.
In the middle of the piece, the narrator, who is about to be fired from her job at Applebee’s, presses her finger into a pile of sticky crumbs on a table and then puts that finger into her mouth. Ron, the narrator’s boss, seems worried by the action but doesn’t address it. What’s happening in that moment? Does it speak to the inner workings of the narrator and what might be going on beneath her surface?
Yes, absolutely. It’s meant to be a moment of unraveling, a moment that shows that emotions have piled up on this young woman and perhaps have not been dealt with in a healthy or satisfying way. I think when that happens, there is always the possibility of a boil-over, of giving in to an impulse that we might be better able to control under other circumstances. Humans are weird. I think most of us do our best to try to hide it, but sometimes we let it slip. When she sticks that finger in her mouth, she’s breaking the social contract, and Ron doesn’t know what to do with that. For his part in the story, Ron is in no position to be calling out anyone’s inappropriate behavior and yet he is in that position of authority, so there’s a tension there.
Near the end of “Mudslide Milkshake,” we learn that the narrator’s mother has died recently. That information is given quickly, almost as an aside. Is the mother’s death central to the story or is it an addition?
In my mind, it’s central. It’s at the heart of this narrator’s boil-over, something that’s always lingering there in the back of her mind but that she tries not to dwell on. It starts the mudslide, if you will.
If you had to pick just one, which living writer has most inspired your work?
Oh wow, this is hard! Is this like The Highlander? There can be only one? OK, I’ll stop stalling and pick Kelly Link. She has the most amazing brain. Every time I read one of her stories, I’m in awe of what her imagination has conjured up. She embraces the weird and fantastical, follows tangents that lead to unexpected places. I read her stories with my heart in my throat.