All of the stories in Pleasant Drugs were written over a certain period of my life, during my twenties and thirties, and I think that in different ways the stories all reflect that time of young adulthood, that feeling of standing at a border and crossing, or choosing not to cross, into the next realm. So many of the characters are struggling to create, to come to terms with, or, in some cases, to postpone indefinitely their identities as adults in an adult world. It might be adolescent misfit Deenie in “Elaine, I Love You,” longing to grow up and escape her small town by air, sea, or budding B-cups: “I would watch the planes flying overhead on their way out to sea, hoping they would notice me, hoping, I think, that they would come down and get me. I wanted to be somewhere else. I wanted to be someone else.” It could be thirty-something Scotty St. George, uneasy husband, father of two, reluctantly sober and looking with envy at the teenagers in a convenience store parking lot: “Drive too fast, play your radios too loud, drink tequila out of paper cups, make love all night at the reservoir and don’t come home till dawn. Do it while you can still do it and not be pathetic.” I’m drawn to them, these characters in flux, those who live on edges and in the spaces between, all of them waiting for love or transformation or a second chance or some other kind of perfect someday.
Most of the stories are grounded in the real world, but there’s also an undercurrent of magical realism that carries through the collection, an overlay of myth and fairy tale: resourceful orphans, perilous journeys, a quest for something lost, a longing for transcendence. There’s always a sense in these stories that you could step away from the known path and become lost—I think of Eddy in “In the Land of Mars” looking at how the snowstorm has covered everyone’s footprints and thinking that was how easy it was for the snow to erase them—and that can be a frightening thing. Anxious, map-reading Maggie in “Cartography” fears her flirtatious mother may lead them to “a country outside the map, where getting lost means being lost forever.” But there’s a lure to getting lost as well, to taking that strange, uncertain route, and some characters, like Michael in “How the Light Walks,” never do return to the daylight realm. Perhaps their fates are not so dark; perhaps they simply found another way back to the innocence they lost, like Conover, the regretful atomic scientist in “The Night Copernicus Died,” who imagines a world of “no planets, no universe, no vastness of space, only one small earth and a bowl over the sky, carefully tended, carefully rocked.”
I’m not sure I ever started out to be a regional writer, or that I really think of myself as one, but when my stories have been published abroad I’m always instantly recognizable to Europeans as an American writer by the number of cars passing each other on the roads of these stories: Barclay’s 1974 Pontiac LeMans with a front grille like two friendly eyes, Mr. Lillicrop’s yellow Chrysler. Contemporary pilgrims in a world of soulless televangelists and fractured post-nuclear families, these travelers live with a vague sense that at one time, in their own past, or the distant past, things had been better, and that they will never be that good again. Yet they find hope, or at least solace, in the “pleasant drugs” that sustain them on their journey, whether it’s Mr. Lillicrop’s liquid consolation or simply the vision of a red door on a lonely house in the snow, glimpsed from a passing train window.
When I was fifteen, sleeping but not sleeping in a sleeping bag in my friend’s living room on a hot night at the very end of June, the moon shone on my face through her window. I could smell the river. “I wish I could take this summer night and put it in a Coke bottle and keep it in my room for when I need it,” I wrote in my notebook. And in a way, every story I’ve written has been an attempt to do just that. An argument against mortality, the only one I can offer. Like the all-night café whose neon cup calls to the weary traveler: salvation.
Kathryn Kulpa was born in Rhode Island and has spent most of her life in small towns in her home state and in nearby Massachusetts. She earned her B.A. in English from Mills College, her M.A. in literature from Brown University, and her M.L.I.S. in library and information science from the University of Rhode Island.
A lifelong writer, her first professionally published story appeared in Seventeen in 1994, and she has published work in a variety of magazines and journals over the last decade. Her story “How the Light Walks” received the Florida Review Editor’s Award in Fiction, and “Los Gatos Bus” was honored with a supplementary award in the Bridport Prize International Writing Competition. Two other stories, “Insensates” and “Mr. Lillicrop’s Shining Moment,” were nominated for Pushcart Prize awards.
Kathryn is a librarian and from time to time leads fiction workshops for teens and adults. She has served as an editor for Merlyn’s Pen, a magazine of teen writing, and Pif, an online zine, and is currently associate fiction editor of 4x4/The Newport Review, a small literary journal of poetry and flash fiction.