Nicolette Polek is the author of Imaginary Museums (Soft Skull Press, 2020) and a recipient of a 2019 Rona Jaffe Writers’ Award. She grew up in Northeast Ohio and currently lives in Maryland, where she is working on her first novel.
A yearning lives under these stories. That’s what I thought when I first began reading Imaginary Museums by Nicolette Polek, a slim volume of even slimmer stories that pack a quiet darkness, a silent wonder, and a grounded reality amidst beautiful absurdity.
I spoke with Polek via email. She answered my questions in the quiet moments between holiday chaos and her own writerly activities. We talked a lot about the things that draw us, that propel us to write, and how we can find balance between the darkness and the wonder.
Chelsea Sutton: I want to first praise and ask a little about the style and tone of this collection, Imaginary Museums. It has this heightened, weird, surreal bent to it that is something I love. When did you know that this was your voice as a writer? How did you find your voice?
Nicolette Polek: Someone recently described it as “only child fiction,” which I liked because in childhood I was often alone making things out of lack, like dolls out of wood chips and masking tape. Kids make bizarre, bursting versions of things, and perhaps I never grew out of that. I always loved fairy tales, Jan Svankmajer, Kafka, dress-up, and theater sets. I also lied a lot growing up, and tended to exaggerate everything. That, coupled with being a quiet observer, lent itself to a misty reality, something supranormal that’s endured into adulthood.
CS: The stories are based equally in the American Midwest and Eastern Europe. Being the only child of immigrants, what connections do you see between these two locations, and what drew you to want to explore them in Imaginary Museums?
NP: Both of my parents immigrated from former Czechoslovakia then raised me in Ohio. I grew up hearing pieces of another place. My parents didn’t find community in the Midwest, and I didn’t have many companions, so I learned to mimic their longing for somewhere else I’d never been and that no longer existed.
There’s an atmosphere of being a child of immigrants that includes whispers behind closed doors, hidden histories, unanswered questions, gaps in knowledge. Going back to what I said about exaggeration, I made up a lot of context about my parents and the world they came from, because I didn’t know, and I was a kid, and I felt I could get away with authoring their history because I was my parents’ only witness. When I started going back to Slovakia with my mother, I was startled with what I recognized. Its familiarity, with shocks of reality that recalibrated me, out of the dreams I’d built. In that way, the stories in Imaginary Museums are my cockeyed imaginings of Slovakia, and the inherited stuckness I felt in America.
CS: Can you talk about your draw to characters who have lost, discarded, or are searching for ways of communication? So many of the stories seem to touch on miscommunication or a loss of language with characters who sometimes relate to objects more than people.
NP: Communicating is difficult. In college, when I started writing these stories, I was very depressed and turned around. I monitored myself and said very little, remained silent, or dissimulated what I felt. I became interested in other people’s feelings of rottenness and their methods of masking them with language.
After college, something changed and I didn’t want to write dark stories anymore. That didn’t mean that the characters became better at being in the world, but I tried to give them better worlds to live in, filled with wonder, even if they couldn’t see it. Wonder can be polarizing. A thing of beauty can be what makes us feel small, far, and undeserving, or what lifts us up and saves us.
CS: The story “Winners” really stood out as this beautiful picture of palpable anxiety and its power over people; our desire to not look stupid or lesser, and the fallible quality of memory. There is a kind of anxiety in many of these stories when it comes to relationships or how we appear to others, such as in “Thursdays at Waterhouse.” Can you talk about that?
NP: I think this connects back to voicelessness and silence. All the quiet years didn’t bring me peace. I had tidal waves of anxiety sloshing around inside of me, trying to get me to say something. The best I knew to be was to wear character masks that best matched the company. I think most people experience this and hate to admit that living to please the world is a dead-end task that results in losing a part of yourself. In “Thursdays at Waterhouse,” Laszlo goes to a bathhouse every week in order to improve his reputation, even though he can’t afford it and his clothes always get stolen. When you cater to the world, the world will take from you. I like that C.S. Lewis quote that goes “aim at heaven and get earth thrown in. Aim at earth and you get neither.”
CS: Like any good surrealist, you take mundane tasks and bask them in a new light that makes them seem ridiculous and heartbreaking at the same time. One of my favorite stories is “Grocery Story,” which details a kind of chaotic, ritualistic trip to the grocery store. What drew you to the grocery store landscape?
NP: I recently heard about “Stone Tape Theory,” which is a kind of woo-woo idea that inanimate objects and places can absorb emotional states, and supposedly “play them back” like a recording. It’s meant to explain why people hear footsteps, voices, classic “haunted” sounds where traumatic events have occurred. I don’t believe it, but I do have places where I go when I need to calm down, and they feel more charged because of it. Like now, I drive the same route through the USDA farmlands—past roads with names like “Soil Conservation,” “Bio Control,” and “Animal Husbandry,” all the way to a service road that leads to the NASA Goddard center— and back home. When I lived somewhere else, it was a grocery store, or a certain bench in a town square. Grocery stores and places of habit are good at reflecting mood. Sometimes I’m surprised by how powerful my inner chaos can be. How it can latch onto a place and turn it into a nightmare or a place of comfort.
CS: When did you know you had a collection? What was the process of putting it together?
NP: I wrote this book twice. The first time I wrote it with the intention of it being a book. I wanted to write something about willfulness or ways people try to escape their psychology, and tried writing stories to serve a shape. That didn’t work very well. The second time I was just writing stories and making a mess. The shape emerged at the end when I started filing stories into sections like they were wings of a museum.
CS: What is your favorite piece of writing advice you ever received? Would you add to that advice, at this point in your career?
NP: To bring things down to earth. Some of these stories had at one point been stranger, and as a result, more inaccessible. Sometimes I want to bring people all the way into my world and I forget about clarity.
Another piece of advice is to remember movement. I can get stuck in a scene. I’ve always enjoyed movies that were atmosphere heavy and less focused on overall narrative, like Black Moon or Color of Pomegranates. At one point while writing Imaginary Museums I started watching crime movies, like Heat, L.A. Confidential, and Casino, and I felt liberated by verbs and action. “She sits,” “She stands,” “She walks across the room!” Wow. I was able to break up the emotional weather, bring it to life.
CS: What is the thing you want people to walk away with from this collection?
NP: Empathy, awe, patience.