Courtney Sender’s braided story collection In Other Lifetimes All I’ve Lost Comes Back to Me—described as “fierce” by Danielle Evans, “a stunner” by Deesha Philyaw, and a book that “upends . . . what it means to tell a love story” by Alice McDermott—is available now. Sender talked with Vesto PR for the blog.
When did you start writing the stories in this book?
I am a structuralist at heart—or at least, my instinct is to look at structure second only to voice—so I wanted to create a collection that reads like individual stories at first and like a novel by the end.
So this is a braided collection that becomes one story by the final word. Characters recur and offer refractions against each other. One set of characters shows one outcome when a lost lover comes back, and another set shows a very different outcome.
Most of all I view the book as existing in three parts: “In other lifetimes,” which is the longing and the recourse to magic and the spiritual; “All I’ve lost,” which is that deep loneliness that I know so well from being single throughout my twenties; “Comes back to me,” which is the longed-for thing. And the question is whether, after all those longing and loss, the longed-for thing is even what we want or can accept anymore.
The stories have changed so much as I’ve shaped them into a unit for a book project. To me, they all feel new in the terms of the words on the page. That’s a testament to the work and vision of my editor, Sarah Munroe, who helped me think about the relationships of one story to another. I went through and matched last lines to first lines, and created an emotional arc from story to story by drawing a thread from one to the next.
The collection centers around love, sex, and romance, but then religion, ancestral ghosts, and the Holocaust are equally important themes. Could you talk about your process and how you came to expand and test the boundaries of the love story?
I definitely aim to expand and test the boundaries of the love story. Above all I’m trying to get at this unbearable longing that comes of loneliness. This feeling that a single turn long ago would have taken you to a different, better life. There’s a recourse to the spiritual that happens at some point when you’re in that degree of longing.
What was fun about writing the book was that I did get to give the characters what they want in the “comes back to me” section of the book. And this thing they feared—being alone—turns out to be what some of them maybe start to desire.
The very last story has a direct address from an “I” in the middle of it, and it ends the book with “Believe, believe, believe.” Can you talk about the ending?
I hope the book winds up offering some alternatives to romantic love, as a solution to the problems of longing and loneliness. Friendship love, familial love, ancestral love, self-love. I think most things I write seem like love stories on the surface but area actually secretly female-friendship stories underneath. And yet I think the book recognizes the singularness and non-interchangeability of romantic love, too, separate from the other types.
The ending is a nod to hope. Even as some of our earlier characters rail against hope intellectually, they still find comfort in it emotionally and spiritually. So I hope the ending is consolation that’s also honest. Consolation you don’t need to deceive yourself to believe.
Coming back to the themes of Jewish inheritance and the Holocaust, can you talk about how that fits into the boundaries of a modern love story?
That longing for love I described feels significant in modern lives—it’s been significant in my life, and it’s all-important in my characters’ lives! But I’m also aware of its smallness against large-scale historical tragedy—the Holocaust, in the case of my characters. What’s interesting to me is that both constitute the pain of our lives: the personal, and the world-historical. It’s false to pretend that one doesn’t inform the other when we’re constructing our worldviews.
In my book, the horror of what happened to the Nana character is what makes the Dinah character believe in the possibility of this smaller horror: that she will spend the only life she has alone. What reason does she have to believe in platitudes about things working out, when she has the example of the greatest breakdown of what should work out?
This is very much a “the way we live now” book: how did lost love and memories become the dominant themes of your fiction?
I wanted to write the book that I hadn’t seen written. A really honest book about what it actually feels like to be in the throes of loneliness and longing. No platitudes. I’m on the phone all the time with beautiful friends of mine who are not finding love, who are being left behind or left out of this part of life. It’s brutal.
I think Elena Ferrante gets closest to it, in the Neapolitan novels and also in The Days of Abandonment. The latter is like a howl. I wanted to write a howl. My friends joke that I’m like a literary Taylor Swift. And honestly music is constantly talking about lost love and rejection, so I wanted to write a book version.
Male readers have certainly resonated to my work, and ongoing singleness is difficult for all of us. But I do think it can be especially difficult for women, who can find strength and fulfillment on our own here in the 21st-century—but that doesn’t make the loneliness or longing go away if love comes hard instead of easy.
Can you say what your next project will be?
I’m so excited for it! I’ve been trying to get a first book out for a decade. Lots of failure first. But what’s happened in the meantime is that I’ve been growing and changing as a writer. And I’m so grateful to get this first subject out in the world, so my next project can use everything I’ve learned as a writer.
All to say the next project is, I think, funnier. More gallows humor. A little more knife’s edge. It’s a novel called My Favorite Holocaust Movie, which I’ve found, anecdotally, makes people start to laugh and then pull back the laughter unsure if they’re supposed to laugh. That’s where I want to be. Is something funny and ridiculous or real and a threat? It’s about anxiety and a little bit of post-love.