Debbie Urbanski is still looking for her portal to take her to another world. In the meantime, she writes stories, often about other worlds, while living with her family in Upstate New York. Her fiction has been published in The Sun, Nature, the Kenyon Review, Terraform, and the Magazine of Fantasy & Science Fiction. Find her at debbieurbanski.com/@debbieurbanski
CICADA: In “The Thread,” the concept of soul mates is taken to a pretty chilling extreme. Why do you think this concept can be so damaging? What kind of power can be found in not “living the life everyone expects you to live”?
DEBBIE URBANSKI: I think any concept that is applied equally to everyone is probably damaging. Because that assumes we’re all alike and that we all want the same thing. If you don’t want that thing, then you have to pretend to want it to be considered normal. Nowadays, thank goodness, we’ve become a lot more accepting of many of our differences. Yet with love and romance, we still seem to apply this one storyline to everybody’s life: you meet someone, you kiss etc., you fall in love, and you live happily ever after with them. How many times do we hear that story, in songs, movies, fairy tales, books, by the time we grow up? Not everybody wants that particular story, but it’s really hard to exist outside of a narrative that’s everywhere. It’s hard to feel normal and good if you’re not part of the story. On the other hand, it’s hard to pretend to be someone you’re not. It takes up so much energy. And it only gets harder the longer you do it. I don’t think it’s sustainable.
So I think it’s important, if you aren’t fitting into a story that’s everywhere, that you break out of that story and make up a different one—which is what the narrator finally does in “The Thread.” She decides to live how she wants to live, true to who she is. That’s the first step in changing the world, you know: to be who you are, not who others think you are. If you want to fall in love with a lot of people, go ahead. If you don’t want to fall in love with anybody, then don’t. Tell others, “You know, what I’m doing, this is normal too. It’s normal for me.” Forget about the fairy tales. Or better yet, write your own.
CIC: Your narrator finds healing and affirmation in her friendship with Hazel. What makes their relationship so important? What kinds of relationships do you want to see more of in media?
DU: Because I’m an introvert, like many writers, I really loved this idea of a relationship where quiet and absence becomes a legitimate form of connection. We don’t get to see that kind of relationship often. It seems to go against the grain of how we, as a society, define closeness, usually through conversation and/or physical touch. Sometimes people who don’t connect in those ways are labeled as “cold” or “distant,” but that isn’t right. It’s just that not everyone connects via talk and touch. After the narrator is forced into intimacy with Jared via the maroon thread, I wanted her to get to define what intimacy looked like for her. I wanted her to discover what kind of connection she wanted without anyone judging her. That’s what she ends up finding with Hazel: how sitting beside someone and not talking feels good to her. That even just knowing Hazel is out there in the woods too is enough. Such a realization is very empowering and, I imagine, normalizing for this narrator—to find out that she is capable of closeness too. She merely experiences closeness differently from many in her town.
I’d love to see more characters who reflect the fact that romantic and sexual attraction is on a spectrum. It seems most of our stories focus on one tiny end of that spectrum. This means more stories about aromantic characters, asexual characters, and characters involved in a poly-romance. I’d be interested in seeing a relationship between an asexual character and a non-asexual character and watching how they negotiate intimacy together.
CIC: “The Thread” is set in an unnamed place that is recognizable, yet strange in many ways. How does creating a speculative society allow you to explore new truths?
DU: Lin-Manuel Miranda wrote this wonderful tweet: “You can fume at the world if you like. You can also use your words, art & gifts to let us in. Build us a bridge to where you are.” That’s such good advice for everybody. I feel like speculative worlds are my bridges. An essay about how I’m tired of living in a sexualized society where everybody needs to like kissing and be attached to somebody blah blah blah would probably be very off-putting, ineffective, and dull. But if I could create a world that captures some of those ideas—that, for instance, turns our current requirements for a life partner into something physical and restraining, like a maroon thread—the reader might be more open to imagining how it would feel to be forced into a connection/physical relationship they don’t want. I think of my speculative worlds as little experiments.
CIC: We’re thrilled to see all of the positive, honest representation of asexuality in your work. Can you recommend any other works featuring ace protagonists or exploration of asexuality?
DU: There’s a great speculative novella by Seanan McGuire about a boarding school for teens who have gone through portals (Every Heart a Doorway)—it’s an amazing idea, and the main character Nancy happens to be asexual. I love how her asexuality is not this huge part of the story—it’s just something Nancy brings up on occasion and is a little worried about when another character starts showing her some attention.
I wish I came across more ace characters in my reading. Traditional romance seems so entrenched in the stories we tell. But on the bright side: every week there are more articles about asexuality in the mainstream news (like the BBC!). I’m hoping for a trickle-down effect into fiction. That said, if there are any ace writers out there—help the world understand and accept asexuality by writing how you experience the world!
CIC: What is your greatest source of inspiration right now?
DU: Nonfiction books! There’s so much good nonfiction out there right now – not the dry stuff I had to read in school, but really personal, interesting, well-written nonfiction about, well, anything (like de-extinction! And witches in America! And altruism!). It blows my mind how I can learn about practically anything through a good book. All that stuff I read influences my writing in some way or another. Right now I’m interested in global warming, and how the planet is changing, and what’s ahead for us—one generation out, two generations out, three generations out. It’s kind of a struggle, even now, for me to figure out how to live an ordinary life while all these huge messages are streaming by (POLAR BEARS ARE DYING, WE ARE RUNNING OUT OF EVERYTHING). But I find that tension, that people do somehow live ordinary lives even while the permafrost is melting or the oceans are rising, to be a rich place for storytelling. Currently I’m working on this huge project about the last generation of humans on the planet—and what computer games they’ll be playing. So I’m reading a lot about computer games, global warming, and what the world might look like without us in it.
CIC: You’re walking home alone when someone falls into step next to you. You look over and realize that this person looks exactly like you, down to the tiniest detail—a doppelgänger. What do you do?
DU: I would ask where they’re from, with the secret hope that they would be from another planet or time. If they were from some faraway place, I would try to convince them to change spots with me for a while, so I could finally go to another world, like I’ve always dreamed about doing. Then I would write a great story about the whole adventure.
But if it turned out they were actually me from present day, and there were two of us now, then I would make sure they could go about living my life, while I slip out to the Canadian Rockies and do some extremely long hikes there. Then I would come back after a few weeks and we would have to negotiate how to live life with two of me. As I’ve always wished there were more of me to go around, this could be perfect. Maybe my other version could sit around reading all the books on my “to read” list (there are honestly about 400 books on it right now), while I write, sleep, go on long runs, and take care of my kids.
Maybe we could become best friends. I imagine we all could be really good friends to ourselves.
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