Originally published in Willow Springs 78
From the author
Notes on “Dear Mistress”
“Dear Mistress” began as a response to a prompt I was given when I read for the Hugo House Lit Series in Seattle a couple years ago. The prompt was to write about/around the idea of the American Dream, and as I wrestled with where to take that, I thought more and more about the distance between that dream and the reality of most families’ lives. I wanted to write about that distance—the illusion versus the reality.
That same autumn I had begun teaching high school English, and I was suddenly immersed in the voices and lives of teenagers—and in the YA literature they were reading (which I loved). It returned me to my own teenage self, and I remembered how hard it was to let go of my childhood view of reality, and how painful it was to individuate from my parents (to whom I’d always been very close). Elisabeth is wrestling with the same struggles here. She has to separate from her parents—from her childhood—but it hurts. She has to distinguish childhood illusion from adult reality, and that hurts too. I think this is a tension a lot of teens feel, though, and I wanted to dig into that tension in this story.
The other thing I remembered early in the writing process was how much I loved soap operas when I was a teenager. I used to rush home from high school to watch Days of Our Lives. (There’s a shameful bit of personal trivia for you!) When I started drafting “Dear Mistress,” Elisabeth’s dad was unemployed (and that was another subplot in itself), but I quickly saw the fun (and the metaphorical benefit) of casting him as a soap writer instead. There’s no more delusional version of reality than the soaps!
Music, Food, Booze, Tattoos, Kittens, etc.
I’ve been working for a couple of years on a longer narrative—unrelated to “Dear Mistress,” but also centered on a family in the midst of a divorce—and (maybe inevitably) my listening life has been infiltrated by songs of romantic sorrow. The Avett Brothers’ album I and Love and You played on fairly continuous repeat in my car for several months, along with a few equally sad songs—Outkast’s “Hey Ya,” The Wailin’ Jennys’ “Firecracker,” and Bill Withers’ “Ain’t No Sunshine.” I love the range of emotions a song can tackle in the contrast between lyrics and music. Listening to these, I felt reminded that the dissolution of love is as complex as love’s making.
About Kirsten Sundberg Lunstrum
Kirsten Sundberg Lunstrum is the author of two collections of short fiction, This Life She’s Chosen and Swimming With Strangers (both published by Chronicle Books). Her fiction has appeared previously in Willow Springs, as well as One Story, The American Scholar, and elsewhere. She’s been the recipient of a PEN/O. Henry Prize, and she is currently a Jack Straw Writing Fellow. She teaches at the Hugo House and at a private high school. She lives with her husband and their young children near Seattle and can be found online at http://www.kirstenlunstrum.
Check out her Willow Springs Interview here.