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Exploring the idea that truth lies in life’s extremes, the partially linked stories in Yes, Yes, Cherries follow girls and women who are outsiders and find themselves in unusual circumstances. A lonely teenage girl falls in love with an older, married neighbor. A woman attends a party at the home of her boyfriend’s ex-wife. A schoolteacher gets fired for teaching time incorrectly to grade-school students. And a young woman recovering from a breakup receives guidance from a drunk therapist. Poignant and sharply rendered, Otis’s stories seek answers to the questions of whom we love and why, how we search for love, lose it, or find it—sometimes at the last moment and in the most unlikely places. Quirky and hilarious, these stories display a knowing affection for human strangeness.
"Most underappreciated, besides my own scandalously overlooked novels, would be Yes, Yes Cherries by Mary Otis."
— Mark Haskell Smith, E!Online Books You Must Read: Picks for 2007
"These are invisible people in pockets of the city that go under-chronicled... What ties them all together is Otis' strong voice, which is jittery and electric, unsettling like the Santa Ana winds...bringing the same eye for detail from one story to the next."
—Los Angeles Times Book Review
"Otis does a fine job recreating the contradictory impulses of reason and feeling. Her sharp, lively prose affectionately pinches the sallow cheeks of her many Allisons and maintains a tautness of rhythm that speaks to her ability as a sentence-crafter."
—Small Spiral Notebook
"Yes, Yes, Cherries offers an intriguing batch of imperfect characters and unstable conditions. Otis has a sharp eye for people’s habits. She knows how to draw flawed relationships. And under her guidance, hearing about the agony of lust and love never gets old."
"In a collection of powerful short stories, Mary Otis shines light on how and why we fall in love…intimate stories of vastly different characters…Otis entertains with her remarkable observations about one of life’s great mysteries."
— Wish Magazine
"Shame, spurned love and seething desire run through the sometimes-connected stories in Otis's adroit debut collection."
— Publishers Weekly
"The characters in these stories— whether a teacher who teaches time incorrectly, a policeman-philosopher at the scene of an accident, or a young girl who wears a frosted blond wig and knocks on her neighbor’s door to sell “what you need to buy”—show us what it means to be human. That’s all a reader asks of any story. That is, of course, everything. Mary Otis writes stories that radiate intelligence, compassion, and humor."
— Ellen Slezak, author of Last Year’s Jesus and All These Girls
“Mary Otis sees things from the odd angle, which is the literary one. It makes her stories true-to-life, funny, brave, and amazing.”
—Lorrie Moore, author of Birds of America and Who Will Run the Frog Hospital?
“An assured collection, linked occasionally by character but always by Otis’s remarkable voice, her gift for the luminous detail, the surprising turn, the transcendent finish.”
—Karen Joy Fowler, author of The Jane Austen Book Club
“Yes, Yes, Cherries skates through the margins of American dreaming, its great poignancy balanced on heartbreaking absurdities. Mary Otis offers a dead-on candor spliced through with perceptual leaps, her realism glinting with near-psychotropic sparks. An irresistable collection, Yes, Yes, Cherriesbeautifully enacts the poetry of bewilderment.”
—Nancy Reisman, author of The First Desire and House Fires
For another second Allison is safe. She’s outside the Wingerts’ house, and the front door is still shut. But Janie Wingert is coming down the hallway, her tasteful heels clicking on the terra-cotta tiles, and Allison has dressed up as a traveling saleswoman, though she doesn’t know why. She has no products. Why didn’t this occur to her before now? It seemed like a great idea when she was in her bedroom, not raking her shag rug, the thing she was supposed to do when she got home from band practice. It seemed like a great idea to root the frosted-blond wig out of her mother’s stocking drawer, where her mother hid it after the Lions Club Mardi Gras party. It seemed like a great idea to jam it on her head and walk across the street.
Janie Wingert opens the door, holding her orange cat, Mr. Teddy. Janie is in sales, real sales, important sales that include clients, accounts, quotas, and jumping on planes, and this occurs to Allison, the unreal salesperson, too late. Janie looks at Allison in her band blazer and the black funeral skirt that she filched from her mother’s “occasional wear” drawer.
What was Allison thinking? Perhaps she was trying to “get out of herself,” something her mother made her write on a piece of paper last Sunday—“I, Allison, will try to get out of myself”—and sign and affix to the refrigerator.
“Hi, Janie,” Allison says. “I’m a saleswoman.” And she can see the look in Janie’s eyes, the kind she would, for example, give a Hare Krishna, the sort of individual that Allison recently heard Janie describe to her mother as a “tangled soul.” Though Allison suspects Janie would just as soon kick a Hare Krishna as look at one.
Janie is deft at appearing out of herself. She pries Mr. Teddy from her shoulder, Mr. Teddy of the six toes on each foot and the continually shell-shocked look, and holds him in her arms, as if he were a homecoming queen bouquet.
“What are you selling, Allison?” Janie says as she stares at Allison’s white vinyl and yellow-flowered overnight bag, which Allison grabbed at the last minute as a sales prop.
“What you need to buy, Janie.” Allison is completely aware of her crummy sales technique. Mr. Teddy, who is generally inactive, suddenly bats one paw in her direction.
Janie squints at Allison and begins to back away from the door. Then she stops and says, “Rick, honey, come here. Allison from across the street is trying to be funny or something.”
And then it hits Allison. Rick. Rick. Janie’s husband who has a blond beard and works at an insurance company, but seems very outdoorsy nonetheless, the type that she could easily see as a carpenter, for one day Allison hopes to move to California and marry a carpenter. It’s Rick. The reason she is pretending to be a traveling saleswoman. Again, this occurs to her too late.
“Hey, Allison, what’s shakin’?” Rick always knows just what to say. Once, when Allison was riding her bike home from school, Rick asked her if she was all right and she said she was, and Rick said she seemed totally depressed. That was one of the happiest days of her life, so far.
“What’s the good word?” Rick takes a bite from a roll in his hand. It seems more exotic than the rolls at Allison’s house. It has seeds. She looks at the bread between his index finger and thumb, how he’s squeezing it just a little bit, ever so gently in between each bite.
Suddenly her head is itchy. Sweat runs down the back of her neck.
“What’s in that suitcase of yours?” Rick says. And Allison remembers that she hid her sketch in there, the one she’s been working on for two months, entitled “A Woman’s Mind.” Allison is a terrible artist, but she has taken great nightly comfort in working on this picture of a woman’s brain that extends upward like a multilayered parking lot, on each level squeezing in all kinds of subversive thoughts and romantic hopes, each of them encoded in strange symbols that would mean nothing to anyone but her. Still, she hid it. Rick must not see this.
“Products,” she whispers.
“Allison,” Rick says. “Allison, you’re a real laugh riot.”
At home, Allison’s mother and Aunt Tuley are waiting in the kitchen for her. Tonight is the last night of the Family Fun Expo at the mall, and her mother really, really wants the three of them to go to a costume photo booth called “Old-Fashioned Days” and get their picture taken as pilgrim ladies, because they live only two towns away from Plymouth, Massachusetts, because this photo could have Christmas card potential.
“Where have you been, Allison?” says her mother.
“Trying out for the seventh-grade play,” Allison says, using the fabulous excuse she cooked up while crossing the street from Janie and Rick’s driveway to her own, and already she sees that her mother is fixated on the fact that she’s wearing her wig and funeral skirt. But for a moment Allison has special powers. She has been referred to as a laugh riot by a twenty-four-year-old man.
“Well, that’s a step in the right direction,” says Aunt Tuley. Aunt Tuley is her mother’s younger sister. “Much younger,” Tuley will always add. Tuley is only eight years older than Allison. She was voted Most Pert in her high school yearbook. “What play?” she says.“A new play.”
“About?” says Allison’s mother.
“About salespeople,” Allison says. There’s a horrible feeling inside the wig, as if there are warm scrambled eggs on top of her head. She’d mushed down her long brown hair with Vaseline, such was her eagerness to get that blond shag wig on her skull.
“I could see you onstage,” says Aunt Tuley, lying.
That’s not a thing that would come to anyone’s mind, Allison thinks. She’s too still, for one thing. Actresses move around a lot. She has dead arms.
“Though you are a little static.” Aunt Tuley is an English major at Salem State College, and she constantly throws around her “Power People” vocabulary words.
Allison bursts into tears. Aunt Tuley and her mother are both so used to this that neither one reacts, and her mother, not even looking at her, pours her a bowl of Apple Jacks to eat in the car on the way to the mall. Allison watches Tuley and her mother walk out the door, and she stands there, crying in her hot wig with her dead arms. And it’s completely out of the question that her mother’s going to wait in the car while she changes out of her traveling saleswoman getup. Allison yanks the wig off her head and savagely whips it across the kitchen table. Then she picks up the bowl of Apple Jacks and dumps it in the trash, a pathetically tiny “fuck you,” and every bit of her newfound, Rick-induced composure has vanished, as if she never had it at all.
How does your urban environment affect your stories? Could they be set anywhere else, or is Los Angeles intrinsically entwined in these stories?
I witness a remarkable number of strange, comic, beautiful, and sad incidents in Los Angeles on a daily basis. And it does affect my writing. I walk a lot and drive even more and am constantly struck by what I see and hear, or what I’m left to imagine. Last week, while walking my dog one afternoon, I came upon a nude pregnant woman being photographed in the street, I saw a man dressed as Spider Man coming out of a bar, and I overheard a woman patiently saying to a child, “All the fish have died.” For a sprawling, “open” city, there is so much about it that is hidden or a mystery to me, and it endlessly compels me. That said, I think many of my stories primarily depend upon a kind of emotional geography. In a number of the stories, the characters are looking for a place where they belong, whether it be in a relationship, a family, or a job. Many are dealing with some kind of loss amid the fantastical circus of life, which cranks on, regardless. I think this kind of thing is possible anywhere, and especially possible in Los Angeles.
Are you a parent? You depict the accumulation of small guilts and the causal effects of parenting in a knowing way.
I am not a parent at this point, but I am pulled to write about children, particularly about their strange secrecies, bizarre worries, and intense desires. Writing from a child’s point of view offers me the opportunity to access a kind of “clear channel radio” to the subconscious. With children, there is that immediacy, the lack of a filter, and there are extremely high stakes (even if the stakes are forgotten five minutes later.) The writer Penelope Fitzgerald once said, “I like to bring in children because they introduce a different scale of judgment, probably based on the one we taught them but which we never intended to be taken literally.” I find that very funny and true.
How do you get into the heads of your characters – is first-person narration a helpful method for this?
I’m not precisely sure how I get into the heads of my characters. I think they tend to get into my head first. And I don’t usually choose them (not consciously anyway). I always have to understand something about a character, even if they’re not exactly a model citizen. I once heard that you can’t trust what you don’t understand, and I need to feel some click of inner appreciation or empathy toward a character in order to trust myself to write that character.
I think first-person narration is helpful for melting that line between a character and the writer who created him. However, most of the stories in my collection are in third person. Someone recently told me that my point of view in the stories is a very “close third, that’s almost like first person – as if the narrator of the stories is standing only slightly behind the main character.” If that’s true, then perhaps they’re told from a third-person point of view that feels more like first.
What is your writing process?
My writing process has to do with being captured by something to the extent that I become somewhat obsessed about it. That’s how I know I really want to write about it. I buy index cards 500 at a time, and I keep these index cards in a few places around my house. Whenever something pulls me I usually jot it on a card and hide it in a box or envelope. I don’t open the box or envelope for a while – there is usually a “gathering” time – for most stories. In the past I’ve been surprised to take out a handful of cards only to find the same phrase written four or five times on different cards. It’s usually just a small phrase that has to do with a specific detail like how a woman used her hands. Sometimes it’s a phrase that I keep hearing, which is not unlike being unable to get a song out of your head, except you haven’t heard the melody yet.
Do you add or subtract much to a story from the first draft?
I usually write pretty slowly and fairly intensively on the first draft, line by line. I don’t tend to write the entire story out from start to finish in a hurry and then do numerous different drafts. However, once I get that first draft as far as I can take it, I do go back and cut and edit quite a bit and add new pages. And I pretty much edit the story every day as I go along. It helps me pick up the thread before I start writing something new.
What is it about the short story form that satisfies you?
I once heard something like “a short story delivers large truths in tight places,” and I’m drawn to that task. I think that when a story works there is something magical that happens. If you’re lucky, it seems to me that a story starts working on deeper, unconscious levels that weren’t apparent to you when you first started to write it. I find that a story will usually have a certain kind of emotional urgency that pulls you to write it. It’s a scary, compelling feeling, like trying to run down a balance beam.
Was there a teacher or editor who had a profound influence on your writing?
Yes, the writer and teacher Jim Krusoe. I learned so much from the way he thinks and how he teaches. He has an almost supernatural power to locate what a story wants to be about. That’s a real gift. He also has the ability to pinpoint the potential strengths of each student and foster them in a truly caring way. He’s also incredibly funny and unpretentious. I have been lucky to study with him.
Lee Montgomery, who is my editor, published one of my first stories, as well as later stories, and she has been very important to my growth as a writer. She is both graceful and insightful in her editing, and her encouragement has meant the world to me. I’d still be working on the collection if she hadn’t urged me to complete it and send it to her.
What is it about Allison that kept you revisiting her?
Allison is out there in the world, and she’s trying. I feel that life acts strongly upon her, and sometimes, in reaction, she makes some odd or unusual choices. But with great passion. I liked being able to travel along with a character who, when she’s a teenager, goes dead in the arms due to extreme sensitivity – a character who will later grow up to be so distracted by life that she accidentally teaches time wrong to children. She is at ends a fair amount and sometimes fails at the situation at hand. But she doesn’t usually stay where she landed, and sometimes ends up in a better or at least more interesting place. She seems to me to be the sort of character who “falls upward” in some strange sense, even if that only has to do with her view of the world.
Have any of your stories/characters taken you somewhere completely unexpected?
Yes, in fact most stories surprise me at different points. Sometimes it’s having a character take a turn I wouldn’t have expected or say something I didn’t see coming. I hope for these things, or feel that I need to be available for the possibility of them happening. Otherwise, I’m not sure a story could really breathe if I had everything all figured out ahead of time. I remember one time writing a story where two people were going to run away together and I could NOT get one of them to show up at the end when it was time to leave. Needless to say, the story ended on quite a different note. Still, I’m glad that I thought it was going to happen, since it pulled me through to the end of the story.
Your stories often feature an expert who ends up just as fallible as the rest of us. What do you think about our relationship with experts?
Well, experts can be deeply flawed. I also think it’s human to idolize experts, or to tend not to want to see their flaws (until sometimes it’s too late!) as in the case of Allison’s drunk therapist.
To rotate this question slightly, I also noticed after I’d written the stories and had some distance from them that there are a number of characters in the stories who, while “experts” or professionals in a certain area, actually seem to offer themselves in a unexpected way that has nothing to do with their work. For example, there is the policeman in “Stones” who, after Allison’s car crash, offers her comfort in his comment “People just make mistakes. That’s what people do.” The dentist and his hygienist in “Welcome to Yosemite” also come to mind. While they are there to perform a service, they appear to Allison as the only people who might actually understand her. And I don’t think that’s just the dentist gas talking. The truck driver in Five-Minute Hearts also strikes me as someone who steps in in an unexpected way. These characters seem to offer unexpected small graces in moments of grief or defeat. I am glad they showed up. For me, they pay respect to the idea that a person who crosses your path during the day has the possibility of completely changing how you see things.
What do you identify as the emotional and intellectual challenges in your stories?
The emotional challenge is to head fully toward something that mainly scares me, frightens me, or gives me great joy. I’ve been surprised to find that the emotion that yanked me into a story in the first place has the ability to crack open another emotion–usually one that I wasn’t expecting. Finding something hilarious that on the face of it seemed tragic comes to mind. My intellectual challenge is to try to learn something I don’t know (or learn something new about something I do know) and share it in a way so that readers can deeply connect with it. That’s my hope, anyway.
January 17, 2007