issue #196
“Meteorologist Dave Santana” by Diane Cook
Issue #196 September 8, 2014
Diane Cook is the author of the story collection Man V. Nature, forthcoming from Harper in October, 2014. Her fiction can be found in Harper’s, Granta, Tin House, Zoetrope, Guernica and elsewhere. Her nonfiction has appeared in The New York Times Magazine and on This American Life, where she worked as a radio producer for six years. She earned an M.F.A. from Columbia University, where she was a Teaching Fellow. She lives in Oakland, CA.

sample:

More than once when watching Dave Santana give the local weather report, Janet put her hands in her pants. On the day he introduced the new weather screen—over which he smoothed his hands, bringing clouds in from the west or heavy rains south instead of moving Velcro-backed pictures of happy suns or mischievous-looking puffy clouds—Janet imagined she was the weather screen as she bounced astride the arm of her sofa.

But during the winter’s first nor’easter, Dave Santana was on the air five whole days, in hourly updates and long talk spots during the regular news. And Janet’s slender vibrator waited in her robe pocket or under the band of her underpants: at the ready, both necessary and a privilege, like a limb.

He’d carried them through the storm. From the first weather watch, through preparations, to the storm itself and its sad aftermath. Sad because people lost their homes, some even their lives, but Janet thought Dave looked sad because it had to end. As if he was thinking, as he recapped those tragic days, about getting into his car and going back to the condo he’d bought with his meteorologist’s paycheck, which was big enough to support a family though he was a bachelor, and making some macaroni and cheese and watching reruns until he fell asleep.

Q&A by Hannah Tinti
What was the seed of this story? What was the first thing you wrote?
The seed was the role of the weather man in people’s lives. Until my more adult life, I, or my loved ones had always lived in places where weather really mattered, it had to be watched because there was always the possibility of a big dramatic event. The midwest with tornados, Florida with hurricanes, the northeast with nor’easter—the hurricanes of the north. These were big storms that could wash away coast lines and houses. When a big storm would come, we would hunker down and watch the local weather report. Everyone watched local weather back then. Everything was local then. This was before the Weather Channel. CNN was the only all news channel. (I do realize I’m writing as though I’m a thousand years old, but a lot has changed in the last 20 years!) After the storms, we’d all talk at the grocery or coffee shop about what the weather man had said, but more, how he’d helped us. I was sure people in town felt love for him, and I’m sure it was a wide range of different kinds of love. You could hear it in the way they talked about him, about how he had kept them informed and safe. I’m fascinated by people’s connection to weather and also how weather is a thing that often needs to be explained to us, even though it affects us every second. An interpreter like a weather man, in a place where weather matters becomes a kind of figurehead. I liked the idea of the figurehead being someone normal, everyman, someone’s neighbor. I really enjoy writing about neighbors. Having him be Janet’s neighbor set the stage for her to think of him as special and think of him as attainable, as potentially hers.
What was the most challenging aspect of writing this story?
With this story, I had a vague sense but not a strong enough one as to why these characters were hanging out in my computer. I liked them, there was something about them, but we didn’t always have anything to talk about. Like, I’ve got all these THINGS happening....but what is this story about? I think the reason revision is so so so hard is that you’re trying to actually figure out what you want to...figure out. A breakthrough came when one of my readers asked to know more about Dave Santana. Because he’s not the focus, he was coming off as a clichéd man, one dimensional when it came to his behavior. I thought a lot about this note. I’d been so focused on Janet’s desires that I hadn’t thought much about Dave’s reasoning. I didn’t want to focus on Dave, but I knew I had to think about why he would take advantage of Janet’s offers. So I began to explore what it would be like to be the object of Janet’s attention, of any kind of firm sexual attention or affection, and how that may or may not change over years through various life changes. With that, I finally had something complex to dig around in. It allowed the story to grow from being about a chase, to, I hope, something a little more psychological, more complicated about both Dave and Janet. Something not just entertaining to read but something a reader can pull a feeling from. I hoped to make desire, need, “bad” behavior and so-called weak moments, something a reader could respond to and feel.
There is a lot of glorious, fun sex in this story. How does sex figure into Janet’s vision of herself, and why is it so important to her?
I think Janet’s pursuit of sex as a pure thing, a joy-filled thing. She has a big, big appetite for it and is always on the lookout for someone who can match hers. She’s willing to do a lot to have that kind of a match. But I also think her desire for sex gets conflated with other desires and this muddies what could just be pure. For example, it is made shadowy by her complicated pursuit of Dave, which may start out purely physical but quickly becomes something else. The pursuit isn’t particularly joyful. She is fixated, obsessed, but not crazy. Janet, I think, tips toward extreme but she’s still in the realm of the very real. You read her and think, “Well, I wouldn’t go that far,” but you’re also noting just how far you would go and then suddenly you’re engaging with some new or buried part of you. I really love to explore these dank, murky areas. It shortens the spectrum of human behavior in a fascinating sometimes scary way.
This story seems to be about obsession, but also finding ways to move beyond it. Interestingly, it also ends up being more about Janet herself than about the object of her affection—do you think that’s so, and why do you think Janet gets “stuck” the way she is at this moment in her life?
I think getting stuck is the definition of obsession. It’s like a loop, a record going around, ending, but missing the groove that sends the needle back to its home. It long overstays its welcome, the fun parts of it. Maybe Janet is susceptible to it at this moment because she’s been having fun but also searching for a while. Janet is used to getting what she wants. She’s never wanted much however. And Dave has a lot of interesting things going for him. She genuinely admires him, likes him. He’s a local hero possessing a plain, everyman quality. He’s a surprisingly great match for her in bed. And he isn’t perfect. It would be a different story if he’d always kept her at a distance, politely or rudely. Then, she would seem unhinged. But she is witness to his pauses, changes of heart, weaknesses. There was positive feedback, so to speak. Like she says in the end, she clouded the picture for him and there is at least the notion that she can do it again if she wants to try. We see how easy it is to get that record spinning again.
What’s next for Janet? Do you think she’ll really have a child with the Phys Ed teacher?
I do often have a sense of the character beyond the pages, but Janet has a long way to go and that future is blurry. It was important to me that the end of the obsession or the pinching off of desire have a physical anguish component. Like the pain of withdrawal. But since the behavior is mostly mental, there is nothing stopping her from relapsing. Obsession is so much about the imagination. In the end of the story Janet is still occasionally slipping into fantasy and thoughts of Dave, though it seems she has been pretty successful at moving on. Perhaps she’ll have a kid and time and love will fill up whatever hole having her feelings unrequited hollowed in her. But even still, there’s part of me that thinks she’ll carry thoughts of Dave with her for a while to come.
“Meteorologist Dave Santana” is part of your story collection, Man V. Nature, which is about to be published by Harper. Can you talk about the collection, and how this story fits into the overall nature of your book?
The book explores the wilder nature in people and several stories feature more fantastic conceits, somewhat skewed worlds. Other stories in the collection, like “Meteorologist Dave Santana,” are more realist, but still the characters follow a kind of instinct or yearning others might mediate or tamp down. To me, going with your impulses is a kind of wildness—you’re following your own logic, rather than a societal one. Janet is a wilder person. Dave, in some ways, is a wilder person, or has a wildness to him that Janet can bring out. They go against a generally accepted behavior. So to me that makes them different than people who reason things out, who pro/con, who follow familiar rules. Who think, “I really shouldn’t do that,” and so don’t. Also, attraction is so animal and basic, you can’t help it when it happens. You can only help how you handle it. A story on the power of attraction and sexuality feels essential to a book where characters often follow their baser instincts.
What are you working on now?
I’m writing a novel about people who live in the wilderness. It felt like a natural next step after my story collection and I kept having this idea that wouldn’t leave me alone. Plus, it was a way for me to incorporate writing about place and the natural world, two things I love to do and love to read about. But writing a novel is really hard. Or rather, it’s new to me. So, it’s like I’m building new muscle for it and then I walk around for days groaning, all stiff and unhappy.
What is the best bit of advice about writing you have ever received?
I remember having a story workshopped in grad school. It was half of a half of a story, but there was a situation there and the beginning of some ideas. My teacher was Sam Lipsyte and we were talking about the story after class. It was an end of the world story, a flood story, and he said that as he read it he’d thought a lot about another story that had been in The New Yorker a couple months before—“The Diary of a Interesting Year” by Helen Simpson. It’s a fantastic story and I had read it and loved it but hearing someone reference a wonderful already-published-and-in-The-New-Yorker-no-less! story in a conversation about my half-baked, weirdo, typo-ridden and not even finished end of the world story, made me think continuing was totally futile. I probably put my head down on the desk and moaned, then shakily asked something like, “What’s the point of writing mine when hers is already awesome?” Which was really me throwing my arms up and crying, “Everything’s been written!” And Sam, poor Sam patiently dealing with his oversensitive, catastrophizing student, said something simple like, and I’m paraphrasing here, “But it hasn’t been written by you.” And what I took that to mean was, Yes, everything has been done before because everyone is writing about the same basic things. But anything I attempt will be different from anything that came before or will come after because I’m a different writer/person/mind/heart/thinker. It didn’t matter that Helen Simpson wrote that great story. She didn’t “beat me to it.” It sounds so simple and rudimentary when I say it now, but when you are starting out or struggling and don’t know what you are, who you are as a writer, or what you want to do or say, watching everyone else’s work launch into the world can be totally overwhelming. This was a reminder, a reminder because somewhere deep down you know this: You have to write what you write, what you want to read, what you can write, regardless of the rest of the world. You actually can’t write anything else.
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