‘The world is richly weird and inspiring’: An interview with author Nicolette Polek

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Most of the 26 little worlds in “Imaginary Museums,” author Nicolette Polek’s debut collection of short fiction, had already found homes before being carefully curated into the collection’s four sections. Many had been published in literary magazines such as New York Tyrant and Hobart. Others were introduced to readers through less conventional routes — art shows and, in one case, “a marquee board somewhere in Portland,” Polek said in an email interview with The Daily Californian.

“I knew I wanted to write a book of short fictions, but I didn’t know I had a collection until I started filing the stories into categories, and a precise shape appeared,” Polek said.

Polek’s little worlds come together in this precise shape, most of them no more than two or three pages apiece. When asked what draws her to this form, she commented on the “potent and expansive” nature of short fiction, noting how terms such as flash fiction and micro fiction — categories her stories might be thought of as fitting into — suggest that stories told with brevity feel small. One need look no further than Polek’s own fiction to find evidence of brief stories that don’t feel brief; in “Imaginary Museums,” entire worlds are built in a literal handful of pages. 

“I have a lot of anxiety around speaking, so working in the short form allows me to empower language with very little,” Polek said. With how dynamically Polek empowers language in her debut, it makes sense that her calling for writing began with a childhood “doomy prophecy” that she would someday become a writer, a prophecy so anxiety-inducing that Polek occasionally branched out into music and film, for example.

Now it’s clear that the prophecy was true. Having recently received the Rona Jaffe Foundation Writers’ Award, Polek — who was previously completing an MFA in fiction and teaching writing at the University of Maryland — has been spending the past few months working on her next book. 

The literary future for Polek looks bright, and in “Imaginary Museums,” she also turns to and examines the past with the stories in the section titled “Slovak Sceneries,” largely informed by her life as the daughter of parents who emigrated from former Czechoslovakia. 

“Those stories … started in some way from a memory of being there, a story my parents told, or an image,” Polek said. “The story ‘Sabbatical’ started off as a conversation I had with my grandmother’s neighbor’s goat through the chain-link fence when I was feeling homesick, and later expanded into a story about a tour of her house.”

Polek also cited literary influences for “Imaginary Museums,” including “Karate Chop” by Dorthe Nors, “The Middle Stories” by Sheila Heti and “Berlin Stories” by Robert Walser. She attributes the dominance of third-person narration in her writing to her fondness for fables and parables that utilize this point of view. 

One such story told in the third-person is the titular story — a standout in a collection of standouts — which stemmed from an anecdote that mirrors the experience of the story’s main character. Polek was told there was an “air conditioning and refrigeration museum” in a nearby town, only to find there was no such thing. Like many other stories in “Imaginary Museums,” this story contains a character stuck with themself. The main character yearns to have a “trapdoor to her heart” and figures this imaginary museum to be this potential trapdoor.

“I think we all prescribe things to be trapdoors from our present circumstances — a different job, partner, moving across the country, fame,” Polek said. “We place hopeful bets that x, y, z will make our lives better. But a trapdoor is a trapdoor.” 

Polek’s stories are themselves trapdoors, to worlds that, though they feel like they could be our own, are separated to some degree by elements we might construe as strange in our everyday life. 

But in Polek’s view, the real world is already quite strange. When asked about the nature of her stories, she shared another anecdote: Having incidentally found themselves on the campus of an old psychiatric hospital in Dover, New York while hiking, Polek and a group of friends ran into a well-dressed woman holding a suitcase. The woman stopped them and asked if they “had a video.” Unable to help her, the group left and did not run into her again. A story like this one sounds as though it could easily fit somewhere within the pages of “Imaginary Museums,” and comfortably so.

“There’s some kind of meaning (in this encounter) that’s complex and almost impossible to get at, except through presenting it in a story,” Polek said. “Those sorts of encounters happen all the time. The world is richly weird and surprising.”

Alex Jiménez covers literature and LGBTQ+ media. Contact her at [email protected]. Tweet her at @alexluceli.