Sarah Pinsker’s dazzling debut includes infinite Sarah Pinskers
In “And Then There Were (N-One),” the last story in Sarah Pinsker’s debut collection Sooner or Later Everything Falls into the Sea, a narrator named Sarah Pinsker attends SarahCon, an interdimensional convention of alternate-reality Sarah Pinskers. Standing in line, she hears another Sarah say aloud something she just thought.
“I looked her over. The invitation said ‘be yourself.’ We both wore jeans and Wonder Woman T-shirts, hers with a graphic from the ‘70s T.V. show and mine from the 2005 Gina Torres movie.”
As the story’s title, which riffs on Agatha Christie, suggests, it’s a murder mystery.
Sooner or Later Everything Falls into the Sea was published this month by Small Beer Press, founded in 2000 by Gavin Grant and UNCG graduate Kelly Link. In 2001, Small Beer published Link’s now-classic Stranger Things Happen. With this new collection by another award-winning and hard-to-categorize writer, Small Beer continues its nearly two-decades-old tradition of quirky, original and literate science fiction and fantasy.
In an email, I asked Pinsker how “And Then There Were (N-One)” came to be written. Her answer was delightful enough to quote in full.
“I went on a writing retreat in spring 2016. Somebody brought a bag of marshmallow Peeps, which ended up open on a plate, and kind of dry and gross, so we were building random Peep formations with them. There were 11 for a while, and then at some point, there were 10, and by then the whiskey had come out, and we staged a dramatic Twitter retelling of Agatha Christie’s And Then There Were None, killing off one peep at a time according to the novel. I woke up the next morning with the title “And Then There Were (N-One)” in my head. If you have an equation with (N-1), it means there were a number of something and then one less, and I started thinking about a multiverse convention all of iterations of one person, and the questions that would arise if one was found dead.”
A much less substantial question I couldn’t resist asking was about who directed the alternate-universe 2005 Wonder Woman.
“Ava DuVernay took it over from Joss Whedon when his awful script leaked. She and Anna Boden rewrote it from scratch.”
When interviewed by Uncanny magazine, Pinsker said her narrator was originally named Daria in homage to MTV cartoon character. I asked why she changed it.
“She felt like a placeholder; the story didn’t really work until I made the horrible realization that I had to use myself as a character to make it work.”
Pinsker’s stories almost always feature intriguing titles and resonant last lines. I asked her about another story I loved, “And We Were Left Darkling,” which takes its title from a line in King Lear not as well known as the one about flies and wanton boys, but which should be: “So out went the candle and we were left darkling.”
“I love stories where the title helps unlock part of the story,” she answered. “I was trying to come up with something that spoke to the character’s situation and the danger inherent and remembered that line. The line before it is ‘for you know, nuncle, the hedge-sparrow fed the cuckoo so long that it’s had it head bit off by it young.’”
As for Pinsker’s facility with memorable final lines, the collection’s title story ends with what may be my favorite of the last decade.
“My final lines and images often come to me very early in the process,” she wrote. “Rarely first, but occasionally not long after I’ve written the first lines. Sometimes I’m wrong about where a story ends, but it gives me something to write toward, even if the target shifts a bit. I don’t necessarily need to hold the whole story in my head, but that target helps keep me focused.”
Pinsker is also a singer-songwriter and has released three albums. I asked her being a musician has helped her as a writer.
“On a prose level, songwriting has taught me a ton about word choice. When you only have three verses and a chorus to convey a message, you have to write with precision, and I try to carry that into fiction. It helps with the rhythms of words and sentences, too.”
Pinsker will be at Greensboro’s Scuppernong Books at 6 p.m. on Saturday, March 30. She will perform her music as well as read and take questions from the audience. Her story “And Then There Were (N-One)” can be read online.
Ian McDowell is the author of two published novels, numerous anthologized short stories, and a whole lot of nonfiction and journalism, some of which he’s proud of and none of which he’s ashamed of.