Emily Mitchell is the author of Viral. But who is Emily Mitchell, really?
“Emily Mitchell has worked as a waitress, a receptionist at a bakery/tanning salon, a short-order cook, a snowmobile driver, a crime-scene cleanup technician, an exotic animal trainer, a war correspondent, a phone dispatcher, a secretary, an environmental campaigner, a freelance journalist, a bean counter and a holistic pediatric oncologist,” Mitchell writes in “Biographies.”
“Biographies” isn’t her biography, but one of a dozen delightfully diverse stories in her debut story collection. Viral is no memoir. No bakery/tanning salon likely exists—but couldn’t another word for “tanning salon” be “bakery”? You might catch these kinds of thoughts from Viral.
“If you are willing to accept this first premise then we can go on this amazing ride together—I love work that does that,” says Mitchell, speaking of recently discovering Michael Martone’s Blue Guide to Indiana. It’s perfect praise for Viral.
Mitchell, who teaches at the University of Maryland, is the author of the historical fiction The Last Summer of the World. Writing the novel took a long time, so she wrote shorter, unrelated pieces in-between. They ranged from naturalistic and historical to speculative and sci-fi and were not intended to be collected.
“What happened is that at a certain point I realized that they have a lot of thematic concerns in common, chief among those being that they’re all about strangers and outsiders of different kinds,” she says. “Whether that’s something that manifests in being a traveler who’s literally outside of your home and your culture, or being a person who thinks you’re at home and then suddenly finds that the place where you are is not what you thought it would be—the experience of the uncanny, which is something I’m really interested in as a writer and also as a person. Once I began to perceive that they had more in common than I thought, then I could start to think of them as a book.”
One example of the uncanny sort is “My Daughter and Her Spider,” about a mother who acquires a robotic pet, intended to benefit her daughter’s emotional health. “States An Itinerary” is of the more literal variety: a fantastical foreigner’s guide to driving across the United States.
“When you leave Vermont, drive west. Go around those enormous lakes through Ohio, Indiana, Wisconsin and Minnesota. Eventually, you will come to a place that is as flat and empty as an ocean. Stop at a restaurant by the side of the road and order something to eat. Ask the couple sitting in the booth next to you where you are. If they look first at each other and then back at you and then the man of the couple sighs deeply, like his heart might break from disappointment, you will be sure you are in North Dakota,” she writes.
The story was inspired by the cross-country road trip Mitchell and her husband took in 2006, when they moved from New York to California.
“We did it at a point in our lives when we were a bit older than most people do this, and it made such an impression on me that I tried to think of a way to use that to structure a story,” Mitchell says. “In trying to create something that had a more traditional narrative structure, continuous chronology, recognizable characters, I ran into the limits of my knowledge. You can probably hear that I wasn’t born in this country—I’ve lived here a lot of years and, in a way, I know a lot about America, but there’s a limit to what I know. So I became interested in writing not about the actual places but about some imaginary impression that we have of them, which I think is often as powerful as the lived reality of a particular place.”
“The official state vermin of New York rotates biannually between the greater glowering cockroach and the egg rat, which can be distinguished by its blue webbed feet,” she writes.
Another thing Viral’s stories share is a bewitching sense of humor. But the highest compliment a reader might pay Mitchell is to call them haunting.
“The stories that I love the best are the stories that come into my mind in a month or even years after I’ve read them,” she says. “There’s some fiction that becomes a touchstone that you return to as a way to understand your experience in the world, or the questions that you have about your experience, about your emotions. If somebody told me that one of my stories had had that effect on them, or that the collection as a whole had stayed with them in that way, that would be about as good as it could get.”
Megan Labrise is a freelance writer and columnist based in New York. Follow her on Twitter.