“I grew up in a very non-nuclear family”: An Interview with Nicole Callihan


Nicole Callihan’s new novella, The Couples, brings to light the lives of people who, from the outside, look like they have it all figured out. But, looking deeper, the opposite is true. Callihan is the author of two books of poetry, SuperLoop (2014) and Translusence (with Samal Abdel Jaber, 2018), and chapbooks A Study in Spring (with Zoë Ryder White, 2015), The Deeply Flawed Human (2016), Downtown (2017), and Aging (2018).

We talked about The Couples and subjects such as class, nuclear families, and marriage.

Growing up in the South, spending your childhood there, then moving up to the North to live out adulthood is a theme that radiates through the pages of The Couples. Is this something you have personal experience with? As someone born and raised in the North, I’m intrigued by the different world you paint the South to be.

I was born in North Carolina and spent a lot of years moving around before my mom and I landed in Oklahoma, where I went to high school and college. Now, I’ve been in New York for almost twenty-five years, my whole adult life. So yes, for me, the South feels very different from the North. Everything about it feels different, but those differences are also deeply interwoven with everything else, time, experience, class, independence. To be a child in a certain part of the South is very different than being an adult in a certain part of the North.

Speaking of class, that comes up a lot in your descriptions of the lives of your characters. What would you say is the role of class in The Couples?

I think a great deal about class, and it often comes through in my work. In many ways, it feels like the greatest divider of humans. Julia, the main character in my novella, has managed—and perhaps embarrassingly, through marriage—to move between classes. This causes her a great deal of anxiety—that panicked feeling of “being found out,” of just sort of play-acting in a life she had never imagined for herself, making things “look so in order to be so.”

She’s also quite out of touch, not recognizing her easily-won privilege as part of a larger, broken system but thinking only of what it means in her own small life. In many ways, this lack of awareness fuels many of the decisions she makes in the book. She’s abandoned her poems; she settles for superficial interactions; her reflection is often overly self-indulgent. And yet, still, I love her, even her meaningless grasps are at least attempting to reach for meaning.

I’ve often considered fiction as a way to get out my worst fears, to put a mortifying or scary way of being onto the page, so that I won’t actually have to live it. These characters, and the way they often handle their “pretty lives,” helped me do that.

I think all of us fall in love with Julia in the pages of The Couples. What is your take on the idea of the “Nuclear Family?” The equation of Mother + Father + 2.5 Kids = a happy life? As someone who didn’t grow up as a part of a Nuclear Family, I’m curious to hear what your thoughts are on the subject.

I have long been suspicious of the “nuclear family.” I sometimes joke that I’ve robbed my daughters of the chance of ever becoming writers because they are, in fact, growing up in a nuclear family. I grew up in a very non-nuclear family. For this book, though, I made a conscious decision to have these families look much the same as each other, and also, all in contrast to the way that Julia grew up. At the same time, I don’t want it to be a critique of two-parent households. I think there can be a great deal of value in having multiple adults in the household, whether they be mother/father, mother/mother, or some other version of grandparents, stepparents…I hope the character of Lou, the stepfather, brings this out in a way.

Also, I will say that your “.5” struck me. Years ago, between my daughters, I had a very late miscarriage. I was exactly half way through my pregnancy, twenty weeks, and had just found out I was having a boy, seen what the doctor called “his two beautiful femurs and strong spine” in the grey of the ultrasound machine. A few days later, after a very strong thunderstorm, my water broke. I remember thinking, “oh, this is where the ‘.5’” comes from.

I’m very sorry to hear that. Thank you for sharing something so personal.

And yet, only the people closest to me knew about my experience. It wasn’t something I could talk about. In this culture, miscarriage is like that. In the book, Julia’s lack of access to reproductive education and resources as a teenager; her embarrassment later in life about postpartum depression; Isla’s middle-aged choice to (probably) have an abortion without telling her husband; Diane’s likely entry into perimenopause; even just the deep bodily desires of women—these are all part of that, too: the .5; the unseen; the unspoken.


Are the couples based on actual people?

I’ve known plenty of couples, but the characters in this book are completely fictional. Some of them share habits with some of the people I know, but ultimately their struggles and behaviors arrived in the process of writing. I’m not someone who can write with an end in mind; otherwise, why write? I knew that I wanted these couples to celebrate Julia’s birthday party, and I knew she was feeling antsy—a “coming of a (certain) age” tale, my friend called it—but I didn’t know what would happen or who these characters would become. I was surprised by who emerged as more sympathetic in a sea of largely unsympathetic characters.

So, they’re a part of your own “arsenal of metaphors,” a term you use for your protagonist, which is very applicable to life, especially as a writer.

Yes, I believe strongly in my arsenal of metaphors; I don’t have much else to fight with.

When did you know you wanted to be a writer? Every writer I ask has a different answer, and I’m eager to hear yours.

I realized I wanted to be a writer when I was fourteen and came to understand that it helped me to say the things I could never say. I’ve gone through many phases, but really, I just love the art and craft of writing. Four or five months a year, I write a poem-a-day, and I’m always working on something else, too. This summer, it’s poems and the last act of a stage play.

I very much believe in the whole “you’re only as good as your next sentence” way of writing. I don’t get too wrapped up in finished projects because I’m almost always working on the next thing. It’s a very long game, so much to create. I try not to get too precious about things. I just want to make poems and write stories. In many ways, I’m a lot like my fourteen-year-old self, just trying to say the things on the page that I can’t—or won’t—say out loud. It never occurs to me to be humiliated or embarrassed until something goes to press, and even then, I try to value the impulse of what I was trying to get at in those hours or weeks or months.

Are we all going to become our parents? Is there anything that can be done to break the chain?

I have lots of parents—my mom, my dad, my stepmom, my mom’s ex-husband who I’m still very close to—and they are all very human, and have each been quite forthcoming about their humanness over the years. Which is to say, I guess, in that way, I hope I too can be forthcoming about my own anxieties, desires, and struggles.

I understand that. I’ve had my own clutch of parents and stepparents in my life, some easier to deal with than others.

At my age—45 come August—my mother, who had dropped out of tenth grade, had been married multiple times, had five children (one a daughter living in New York, trying to be a writer), but had also gotten her GED, put herself through college and medical school, and worked sixty hours a week in the E.R., which she still does. There is good and bad; there is so much to being a person living in the world, and so much to trying to raise children to be decent, vulnerable, empathetic people. One of the great surprises of my life is how much I love being a mother, how much I love sharing these years of being a human with my daughters, and how much I value the very particular humans they are becoming. For me, it feels more important to focus on the particularities of humanness—my mother’s, mine, my daughters–than to think about breaking any sort of chain.

Marrying the wrong person comes up a lot between all the couples in this novella. Does this idea have any weight outside of the pages of The Couples? Are we all doomed to marry the wrong person? Or is it the weight of the secrets we all carry that makes a happy marriage impossible?

I don’t know if there’s really a wrong person or a right person when it comes to who we marry. The question certainly preoccupied me and my characters three years ago when I was drafting this book, but, ultimately, I think marriage—any marriage, though perhaps even more so with children—is much bigger than two people. I choose to be married to a man who I love and who loves me, who raises my children with me, who lets me make whatever art I want to make. That said, there are plenty of good marriages that don’t last a lifetime and plenty of bad marriages that do. As for happiness, all I know is that it comes in waves and flashes; less a descriptor than a momentary reprieve.

Sunny Leigh is currently studying English at The College of Saint Rose in Albany, NY. She’s worked on her college’s newspaper, The Chronicle, as a staff writer. She is managing editor of Pine Hills Review.

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