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"The Truth her Great-great and Great-great-great Grandchildren Would Not Perceive": An Interview with Jill Stukenberg

Jill Stukenberg, a graduate of the MFA program at New Mexico State University, lives and teaches in Wausau, Wisconsin. Her stories have appeared recently in Devil's Lake and Burrow Press Review.

Her story, "The Lady," appeared in Issue Fifty-Five of The Collagist. 

Here, she speaks with interviwer Keaton Maddox about religious inspiration, inter-generational connectivity, and fiction founded in reality.

You capture very well the plight of immigrants trying to make their way in America with little support or help (other than what they believe is helping them from the divine). What kind of research did you conduct in order to capture this difficult way of life so accurately? And once you learned the necessary history of these circumstances, how did you translate that into the formation of this piece?

Thanks. This was definitely a different story for me to write—I usually write about contemporary life. But here’s some unveiling, which will probably reduce the magic of the story: I was drawn to the material from an actual New York Times article read over my breakfast cereal one morning about the formal papal recognition of a 19th century Virgin Mary sighting in northeastern Wisconsin near where I grew up and where my extended Belgian immigrant descendent family still lives. So there’s a lot of the story right there, which came to me through unintentional research. I was taken with the story, though, because I’d never heard of the little shrine, though once I started asking family members they all had stories, for example of crawling on their knees to the shrine, of people leaving crutches there. When I began writing, I started with the contemporary descendants reacting to the national news of a miracle connected to their own family (my first ideas are pretty imaginative, huh?) but then I became more interested in the idea of someone else living at the time and hearing the news of the vision. What would that be like—that the Queen of Heaven made a visit to your neighborhood, but not to you? I realized I’d have to do more research, which I had mixed feelings about. I wanted to keep the people I was creating at the center, but I also didn’t know anything about them or the details of the visitation. I started reading more about the sighting and that led to some reading about Belgian immigrant life at the time, mostly just on websites though. I had this idea that I wanted to be loose about it. I just wanted details that appealed to my imagination—cholera, carrying shoes to town. Even up until the end (final editing for The Collagist) I had the story set in the wrong season because I liked the images of high summer and the feeling that it would have been hot when Mary visited. But at the last minute I begged the editor (thanks again!) to let me change those details; suddenly it seemed to me that the story should be more anchored in the historical fact that it had been October. Still though, there’s some research I have never done: I’ve never been to visit the shrine. I understand there’s a large parking lot to accommodate all of the visitors now—that made me not want to go there while I was writing.

The Lady herself seems to represent a large swath of different ideas for each of your characters, even if that representation only assumes mere skepticism for some. What does she mean to you personally, and how did that vision play out in your world creation process?

I guess the fact that I had never heard of the little shrine, while my older, baby-boomer relatives had as children made pilgrimages on their knees says a lot already about the cultural and generational viewpoint from which I was writing. I was raised Catholic, though I didn’t choose to confirm, and I later chose a Jesuit university, though mostly because it meant going to a big city—for me, Milwaukee! So I’m not religious, though I have had some Catholic education and I do find religious ideas, including the idea of Mary making visitations of her own —like a First Lady on tour—interesting. And as a writer, I hope I’m not insensitive to mystery.

Your story emphasizes intergenerational connection and the importance of lineage in context. What was your goal in establishing such distinct familial pasts and futures?

Those things sprouted in the story because of my own family history. Though even my great-grandmother was born here, my mother is still a “full-blooded” Belgian, and she has nearly fifty cousins, many of whom still live around Brussels, Wisconsin. If we need an electrician, interior decorator, or city councilman we call up a cousin. One reason the notes of modern family members stayed in “The Lady,” though, is because it balances out—or perhaps illustrates the weight of—the miracle. If the Mother of God makes a visit to someone (or even someone’s neighbor), it had better toll through time, right? It should rank up there with the most outstanding events of any family history for generations to come. Another reason it’s there is because it’s the other, if more quiet, miracle of the story that any pair of settlers, like Tellie and her husband, did survive, and that what resulted from their gamble to cross an ocean and have children in a dangerous place are hundreds of people driving around in cars and reading newspapers online at their breakfast tables. By the way, by comparing that to a miracle, I don’t want to say that European colonization was unquestionably good or reflective of divine will, just that it is miracle-like in its hugeness to think of how many lives, with all of their stories, can result from one pair of humans and their one choice (plus maybe some luck, magic, grace, or what have you).

What are you working on now?

I'm working on a novel set in northern Wisconsin, though in contemporary time. There’s a mother and a teenaged daughter who live at a fishing resort, and a visiting grandmother who may have kidnapped the “grandchildren” who are with her, with a plan to lead them into the Chequamegon National Forest.

“The Lady” is also part of a collection of short stories mostly set in the upper Midwest, and I’m seeking a home for that book. So if you know anybody interested…

What are you reading?

Vacationland, by Sarah Stonich, a novel in stories set in northern Minnesota. I keep going back to it with the intention of studying it, and then just get distracted again by the characters and sentences and place. It’s really outstanding. Also, The Sixth Extinction, by Elizabeth Kolbert, which is nonfiction and yet also completely absorbing. It is also, perhaps, leading me again down that dark path of toying with fact in my fiction. How many details of climate change can my novel set in northern Wisconsin include? Can climate change itself be a force, a character, as real and unreal as the Mother of God? 

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