BY MARC VELASQUEZ
[This is the last in our series of interviews with authors featured in our anthology of outstanding stories from the web, The Chamber Four Fiction Anthology. You can find more information about the anthology and download it for free here, or you can read all the interviews and find new ones here.
Scott Cheshire earned his MFA in fiction at Hunter College, City University of New York. He is currently working on his first novel. “Watchers” was published on AGNI Online, And can be read here.
Marcos interviewed Scott by email]
Chamber Four: I’d be remiss if I didn’t ask you first about the story’s setting. The Racetrack is real, correct? And stones really do move by themselves across it? Do people really go out to watch?
Scott Cheshire: The Racetrack Playa is in Death Valley, a very flat and now dry lake surrounded by mountains. And the stones are sometimes referred to as “sailing stones,” they’ve been studied since the forties. There are still only theories as to how they move. No footage has been captured. But they do move, depending on size, some as much as ninety miles an hour and some only a few inches each year. To my knowledge, watchers, as I imagine them, don’t exist.
C4: So how did you come to know this place and what about it inspired your writing?
SC: I first heard about the playa on television, not sure how long ago. It was brief, the tail end of a nature show, but it stuck with me. Years later I read about it in National Geographic. I found the idea kind of chilling and beautiful. At some point, I read of viewing benches in the valley and wondered about who sits on these benches.
C4: What, if anything binds these “watchers” together? Do they have anything in common besides the time they spend together hoping to see a stone move?
SC: We live in a strange and special time, we seem to know more and more every day and at the same time we know so little. I’m not one for nostalgia, in fact I generally find it not very helpful and often destructive, but mystery does seem in short supply these days. Or maybe I mean an appreciation of it. Answers are always a button-click away. The characters in this story all have a sort of religious sensibility. That is not to say they are religious, and that difference is big and makes for much more interesting characters, in my view. They have experienced what I think of as religious disappointment—not so much disappointment in religion per se, but a profound sense of disappointment, and one they’ve nearly reconciled with. Watching the rocks, waiting for them to move I think is a beautiful act of futility. It’s an act of faith in a way but one centered on the natural world. They all hope to see one move, to get as close as possible to mystery. I think they watch because they know the chances are not so good. And I know all of this veers too closely to nostalgia.
C4: Your narrator makes a poignant and somewhat bittersweet observation when he says, “there’s no real room for miracle in the believer’s world,” and yet your cast of characters are believers waiting for the miraculous. It seems important, then, that the watchers never actually see what they came to observe. Is that off base?
SC: This is really one of the great conundrums. Miracles by definition should not take place in the natural world—or to be clear, a miracle is an act that must be attributed to some supernatural agency because it remains unexplainable without it. Really, what’s missing in a situation like this is the appropriate information. I don’t mean to say I have no regard for the miraculous, rather I mean very much the opposite. In the believer’s world, anything can happen, Gods can walk the earth and the dead can rise. For the narrator, this means, well, then really what’s the point? If anything can happen at all, then there’s really no room for miracle is there? He prefers a far more generous and modern understanding of the miraculous, that of the remarkable and singular experience. Ironically, I think it is this perspective that better allows for mystery.
C4: Can you speak a bit about your narrator’s relationship with his regularly absent father?
SC: I think we pass along our yearnings to our children, how they deal with these yearnings is a different matter entirely. A scratch can be itched in countless ways. I think the narrator has inherited a certain reluctant loneliness from his father who started a family and likely loved that family, but nevertheless had to be alone. I think the narrator’s time in the desert is a way of trying to inhabit his father, to know his father, and yet it’s also his way of dealing with those very same yearnings. He is doubly damned, or maybe doubly auspicious depending on your perspective. I would side with latter.
C4: How about his relationship with Lorraine?
I think Lorraine is possibly a way of happiness for him, a way out of the cycle he seems to be caught in. Not because she is a woman, but because she is in a similar sort of cycle and seems to be leaving from it. When she hears about the possibility of actual footage of the sailing stones, she vomits and walks off with the researchers. For me this was a crucial moment and it struck me even upon writing it: she has finished. I think the narrator knows this and sees a possible finish for himself as well, but one that will demand human interaction. This probably frightens him.
C4: Is your narrator taking his mother’s advice at the end? Is he giving in? or is he feeling both heartbreak and love simultaneously?
SC: I think that’s a good way to put it: heartbreak and love simultaneously. One isn’t possible without the other, I think. And if we’re honest, we love many things and we hope for many things. And some of these things we just can’t have because they’ll hurt us, and some because they’re just impossible. I think we choose what we love. And, inevitably, this demands disappointment and soon enough heartbreak, another of the great conundrums.