Love Songs for the Quarantined
On the Creation of Love Songs for the Quarantined:
Every Story is a Love Song
A few years ago, frustrated with the novel I’d been laboring over, I turned (or rather returned) to short stories—my first love. I found it refreshing and liberating to move from story to story, to actually finish pieces and send them to editors and have them published. My work with these stories also led to experimentation with other short forms—sudden fiction, poems, lyric essays, memoir, personal essays, and criticism.
At a certain point, I realized that I had more than enough stories for a book—about thirty-five pieces, some as long as twelve thousand words, some as short as two hundred. But I wanted the book to be a thematically organized short story cycle, with its own integrity and unity, not a conventional collection of miscellaneous tales. I wanted the stories to talk to, counterpoint, inform, and build upon one another, creating a cumulative aesthetic effect. I wanted the whole to be greater than the sum of its parts.
The process of tracking the patterns and discovering the secret design in my own work revealed to me both conscious and unconscious obsessions. It reminded me that putting together a collection of stories is a vital act of not just revision but investigation and re-visioning. And that, I believe, is what we’re all after, as writers—to discover what haunts and inspires us and to find more conscious ways of getting that on the page.
One of my stories was about an epidemic of whooping cough that quarantines a family of four. I was surprised to discover that many of the characters in my other pieces seemed quarantined in one way or another—not just physically, but also emotionally, psychologically, erotically, spiritually. There were hospitals and diseases and recoveries, of course, but also figurative forms of isolation—especially as the characters contemplated their destinies and obligations to families, friends, and lovers. So my first attempt at organization resulted in a rather heavy-handed symbolic structure. The book, in this incarnation, contained twenty-five stories, was called Quarantine, and was divided into five sections that reflected a sickness-to-healing progression: Exposure, Intensive Care, Quarantine, Experimental Treatment, and Miraculous Recovery.
I saw the book coming together as a unified collection, but I was nonetheless dissatisfied with the overall thematic design. It seemed too dark in tone, masking what was redemptive and comic in the stories. These pieces weren’t relentlessly grim. Many were celebratory, even ecstatic, in spirit. I remember my agent once telling me that “every story is a love story,” which made me think of two of my favorite stories, touchstones that I return to again and again for inspiration—Chekhov’s “The Lady with the Pet Dog” and James Baldwin’s “Sonny’s Blues.” Both are love stories, both love songs. Without knowing it, I had been writing with that idea in mind. My stories were, in fact, love songs—to spouses and lovers, to children, to parents, to siblings, to friends, to mentors.
Clearly I had been fascinated, in ways I didn’t realize consciously, by the unexpected transformations in our lives, how we embrace or resist isolation and solitude, how we become quarantined—or, more often, quarantine ourselves. But it now seemed equally obvious that I was also obsessed with the ways we respond to suffering—the ways we console one another and ourselves in times of grief, the ways we find not just solace but pleasure. That’s what love songs are all about—joy and resiliency in the face of suffering.
With this in mind, I now worked to wed these two thematic strands—quarantine and love songs. I kept thinking about the haunting beginning of T. S. Eliot’s “The Love Song of J. Alfred Prufrock”:
Let us go then, you and I,
When the evening is spread out against the sky,
Like a patient etherized upon a table….
I wanted, like Prufrock, to take readers on an intimate journey. I wanted to take their hands and head out under that ominous sky. I wanted to share these stories, these songs, about a visit from Bonnie and Clyde, about brothers hearing disturbing prophecies from a fortune teller, about a snipe hunt gone awry, about siblings coping with their brother’s suicide, about a couple’s precarious journey into full-throttle parenthood.
Once I figured out this essential intention—this core of yearning—in my work, I was able to reorganize the stories, cutting those that didn’t serve the larger thematic and narrative design and revising with the idea that every one of the final sixteen stories needed to become a song. A love song for the quarantined.
Which became, in the end, the title of the book.
Winner of the Spokane Prize for Short Fiction
Long-list Finalist for the Frank O'Connor International Story Prize
Includes stories anthologized in Best American Mystery Stories and Best of the West
K. L. Cook’s award-winning Love Songs for the Quarantined illuminates the unexpected, the unforeseen—the moments when, without warning, everything changes. A surprise visit from the infamous Bonnie Parker and Clyde Barrow disturbs a thirteen-year boy’s routine—and future. A fortune teller’s ominous predictions unsettle two brothers during their first visit to the Cotton Bowl. Whooping cough quarantines a family and reminds them of their precarious history. A miniscule filament of hot steel lodges in a man’s eye and irrevocably alters the course of his marriage. Sixteen love songs about the transformations that await us—whether we’re ready or not.
Praise for Love Songs for the Quarantined
“Reading K. L. Cook’s Love Songs for the Quarantined, I had the giddy feeling I was privy to a secret, that somehow I was being let in on a great, hidden story that few were lucky to read, and as I continued to the next story and the next, I had the same remarkable feeling. This is a lucid and luminous collection—an extraordinary book. K. L. Cook works a rare magic.”
~Debra Magpie Earling, author of Perma Red, American Book Award Winner
“I love K. L. Cook’s stories. Riveting and deeply moving, these intimate stories make it impossible to keep a safe distance.”
~Linda Swanson-Davies, Editor, Glimmer Train Stories
“As the title suggests, these are songs for people entrapped by love. Sometimes it’s a happy entrapment, but more often it’s unhappy, and most of the time just inscrutable in the way that love can be. These stories are plain spoken and fine, not the least of which is the lead story, where a dying man with a deformity is revisited by his cousin, Clyde Barrow… yes, of Bonnie and Clyde fame…and the protagonist takes a Kodak picture of woundings upon woundings. The stories are also savvy and compelling. K. L. Cook knows the landscape of love in modern times perfectly.”
~John Keeble, author of Yellowfish, Broken Ground, and Nocturnal America