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The Metaworker Podcast | 001 The Dinner Party by Alexa Hailey

Episode Description: 

In this pilot episode, Editor-in-Chief Matthew Maichen and then-intern (now editor) Melissa Reynolds have a conversation about The Dinner Party by Alexa Hailey, in which they touch on comedy, magical realism, originality in writing, and the wonderfully bizarre suburban parody that is this story.

Referenced in this episode:

The Dinner Party on The Metaworker website
And Then He Died writing tips by Matthew Maichen

Author Bio: 

Alexa Hailey is a freelance and fiction writer living in Massachusetts. Her fiction work has been published in Flash Fiction Magazine, Vamp Cat Mag, and Detritus. You can follow her on Twitter at @lexabobexa.

Episode Transcript:

Matthew Maichen (00:00):
My name is Matthew Maichen. I’m the editor-in-chief of the Metaworker, and today we are talking about “The Dinner Party” by Alexa Hailey. We are joined by Melissa Reynolds. Melissa is technically an intern, but she’s really been pulling her weight, and I don’t know what the difference is between an editor and an intern anyway, since none of us do this for money, but it was actually your idea to do this [Melissa], which is so cool. So, thank you.

Melissa Reynolds (00:36):
Thank you for being willing to entertain my ideas. It really, I would say, furthers my education and, plus, it’s exciting to have that level of respect from you all just being the lowly intern, so to speak. I appreciate it.

Matthew Maichen (00:55):
You’re not lowly. I don’t even know. The only reason you’re an intern is because your program says you have to be an intern. But, anyway, let’s start talking about “The Dinner Party” by Alexa Hailey. I’m going to share with you some of the takeaways that we had during our discussion, alright, because the way that our grading metric works is that every person has a rating. We look at the averages of the scores and this one made the discussion threshold, and sometimes I think that’s better for the story, because it means that the story is interesting enough that it doesn’t click right away for every single person. And I love that. That’s one of the things that I set out to do starting this. So, when we get things like this, it’s great. I was going to say magical, and that kind of ties nicely into…we get a lot of magical realism—and I love it, so I’m not complaining—I just find it really fascinating. Because this one, halfway through, we didn’t think this was magical realism. There was no obvious evidence that it was, right? And that’s what’s so fascinating about it. ‘Cause all of a sudden it’s just…what’s the moment? I think it’s the jumping meat. Is that right?

Melissa Reynolds (02:38):
Yeah, that’s the moment for me that it became more surreal and I really love the way that, when you first enter the story, you don’t expect it. Everything just feels kind of, ‘oh, this is just the awkwardness’. Sure, they’re acting strange, but this is just because they’re new to the neighborhood and they just don’t know each other, but then all of a sudden the meat starts jumping around and I’m, like, ‘what the heck is happening here’? And that’s when I’m like, ‘okay, this is at a whole different level than what I first expected’.

Matthew Maichen (03:15):
And it’s funny, is another thing. I didn’t want to get through this without mentioning that we…honestly, we don’t get a lot of stuff that is genuinely funny. It is harder than people think it is. I would definitely consider this smart comedy. Particularly, like, I know I mentioned the magical realist part first, but it’s not my favorite part about it. My favorite part about it is the writing, the way it’s written. The weird, interesting way that it’s written and how every single sentence and paragraph reinforces the separation between us and them, right? The fact that it’s written in first-person collective. It’s first-person, but it’s not “I”, it’s “we”, and the fact that when “we” speak, it isn’t in quotations, but when “they” speak, it’s always in quotations. And so, It’s like the “we” in the story starts to feel kind of inhuman, kind of this entity in a way, but then “they” take on these very distinctive qualities, right? “They” argue with each other and “they” have individual personalities, so we’re so focused on “them” when we’re reading the story, inevitably. It’s impossible not to focus on “them”. So, we kind of jump totally into the head of these narrators who…they’re just obsessed with “them”, you know? They’re just thinking constantly about “them” and being at this party is all about “them” and finding out about “them”. It’s so interesting, and I just really like it when the writing works with the story and the concept like that.

Melissa Reynolds (05:26):
I agree. Another aspect of this I like was, as I mentioned before, it’s this unexpected turn into the surreal. You know, at first I thought, ‘okay, these new neighbors are just eccentric and maybe she’s a little bit too caught up in being thin, and that’s why she’s got the tapeworm’. Or maybe they just seem so strange because they’re in a different place, but then the meat gets up and walks away. I’m like, ‘okay, what in the world? What are they hiding’?

Matthew Maichen (06:06):
Yeah, yeah! And the tapeworm, right? It’s like, you start out in weird, but still not magical. That’s a thing that someone could do, I guess. Possibly. It’s that slow transition, so that when the meat starts jumping, you’re like, ‘wait, did a magical thing happen? I don’t know. I’m not sure’. I think I remember reading that line over three times, because—did we just transition into full magical realism at this point? Wait, or did we do it earlier with the tapeworm? When did we transition?

Melissa Reynolds (06:51):
There is the table with the leg moving, but they kind of write it off. It’s normal enough that you can say, ‘oh, well it’s just a wobbly table’. So, I like that it kind of ramps up. It starts with things that you could easily explain away, but then all of a sudden—bam—you can’t do this. And I love the reaction too, because they just…the couple that’s hosting act like [it’s] no big deal. And the other two, I just kind of picture them sitting there going, ‘uh, what do we do? I don’t know. I guess we just act like nothing happened, too’. It felt like a very realistic reaction to someone put in that situation.

Matthew Maichen (07:40):
Yeah. And that’s good because, you know, [the] key to anything magical realist is, I would say, the underreaction, you know? Something weird happens and then the character kind of just treats it like, ‘yeah, this is life’, you know, ‘this is something that’s going on right now’. But here, it almost feels like…honestly, there is kind of an underreaction, but it’s also natural, right? The “they”—”we” vs. “they”—are underreacting, and the “we” is like, ‘I don’t know what’s going on here, I guess I don’t even know what to do’. And by the end, it’s like, ‘I guess I’ll just run away. I don’t even know what’s going on’.

Melissa Reynolds (08:37):
Well, the giant ants though, too.

Matthew Maichen (08:39):
Yeah, yeah.

Melissa Reynolds (08:39):
That was…I’m not sure if I was supposed to laugh at that one, but there was something just so comical about it, with the idea of this couple trying to wrestle away the dessert from these giant ants, almost like…not offended, but the guests saying, “wait! where?”…it was just…I loved it!

Matthew Maichen (09:00):
Yeah. And that’s the thing, right? It works because no one has ever been attacked by giant ants at a dinner party, but we have all hosted…well, no, not all of us, but some of us have hosted parties that have gone wrong. And we have definitely felt like we’re being attacked by giant ants. That’s definitely a feeling that we’ve had, and that’s why it works, right? And this is…so, I got into this argument recently, and this is me going on a diatribe that is semi-related to the story. I don’t know if you’ve been on the Reddit writing communities recently, but the ‘circle jerk’ currently—I’m calling it that just ’cause that’s what it’s called—is that writing anything original is a waste of time, you know? Like writing something different that is really genuinely different is not worth your time. You’re better off just not worrying about whether it’s original or not, and just writing whatever, right? And I had to tell people recently, ‘no, there’s a lot of really weird stuff that is also really well-written and good’. And they were like, ‘are you sure’? And I’m like, ‘yes, we get it all the time. I publish stuff and we get it constantly’. It’s just that people don’t publish it. And it’s things like this [“The Dinner Party]. I’m really glad that this is the first one we’re talking about because every once in a while we do get something where it’s like, ‘this is what I wanted’. And this was definitely one of those, so I’m just really happy that we have it, you know?

Melissa Reynolds (11:02):
And, you know, I know people who want a story that’s clean and tidy so that it can be sold. So, that’s the focus more. Do you feel like maybe that’s what they’re thinking on Reddit, is that it’s not going to sell if it’s slightly strange?

Matthew Maichen (11:24):
I mean, I’m going to be real in response to that. We’re not a paying market. I want to be…we just aren’t. If we had enough Patreon donations coming in, that’s our number one goal. The thing is, I think that it’s misguided. Even if you’re trying to sell something, I think that it’s misguided, because I think that you need to stand out enough that you’re not just ‘generic writer number 27’, right? Even we have a standard kind of story that we get. It’s the reason why I wrote the whole thing about ‘and then he died’ endings because for a while we were getting a lot of stories about: Character discovers something, Character has no feasible way to get out of it without dying, Character dies. That was just the standard thing we were getting for awhile. But when we get something like this, that’s when I actually pay attention. That’s when I actually look and read and am interested because I haven’t seen it before, you know? I haven’t seen someone writing about a dinner party that goes wrong in this way before. I don’t know, maybe someone did it in the entire history of human writing, but if it happened, I haven’t seen it.

Melissa Reynolds (13:10):
Yeah. Well, you mentioned ‘and then he dies’. So, that’s sort of the type of ending that ties everything together. There’s no going forward. But this one is still open-ended. We don’t know what the relationship between the neighbors will be going forward. Will the host try to reach out again or will the established neighbors avoid them at all costs? Who knows? But it’s up to us to decide, and I like that.

Matthew Maichen (13:40):
Mm-hm. I will admit, there is a kind of…you know, when you’re…I think this is why it got in the discussion threshold—between two and three—when you’re reading something that’s different… For example, that ending, it does not tie things off, and I think that was one of the discussion topics. There’s some things in it that are a little bit loose, where you’re reading it and, because it’s different, you’re like, ‘is this good writing’? Your threshold of judging writing is like, ‘does this do the things that I have typically expected writing to do well’? So, I think that sometimes you have to hold back your judgment a little bit and just think about it on the terms of the piece and what it’s trying to accomplish and what it’s trying to say. I’m not even totally 100% sure, to be honest, what this is trying to say. I talk about the separation between “us” and “them”, and I talk about how effective this is, but really it’s effective at instilling a feeling, right?

Melissa Reynolds (14:45):
Yeah. I agree.

Matthew Maichen (14:46):
Yeah. I do not 100% know if there is a message that is being signified by this. I know that the feeling that I had from it is very effective, you know? There is a level at which I do not understand it and I’m not really threatened by that. I just think that it’s really interesting. It was funny, and I enjoyed it.

Melissa Reynolds (15:14):
I did too. And I’m learning—a part of my learning process here—is that sometimes in poetry, it’s not so much about understanding. It’s making meaning for yourself and trying to take that away from it more than understanding clearly exactly what the author is wanting you to take from it. Does that make sense? I mean, what I’m trying to say here?

Matthew Maichen (15:45):
And you know what, I envy writers who do that because I have this problem now where when I write, I’ve been getting on the nose lately. I notice when I write things, I get on the nose too often, so it’s good to remember the qualities that things like this have, that they bring to the table, because it doesn’t matter…you know, when you read this silly dinner party story, it’s clear that there is more going on than it just being a silly dinner party story, but you’re kind of left to figure that out yourself, right? And that’s totally fine. There’s nothing wrong with that.

Melissa Reynolds (16:25):
Yeah. I think…I was actually watching a video on writing earlier today that was talking about how readers actually prefer to have to puzzle and figure out the meaning. For example, Wall-E. There’s no dialogue. You have to figure it out yourself. So, they were advocating for stories such as this one that requires you to be open. Then also you have to contribute to it in your own way by…you know, the characters aren’t described, but I can see them clear as day in my mind. That’s what I feel like I am contributing to the story. The image of the people sitting on the back porch and, you know, I just took it as people in…oh, the word is leaving me. But suburban people who are just transported suddenly out of their boring, ordinary lives. And for me, that was enough. I didn’t have to worry about existential things. I just enjoyed it for what I was given.

Matthew Maichen (17:38):
I’m going to ask a somewhat pointless question, but maybe it’ll illuminate something about the story that we don’t think of at first. How many people do you think the “we” was?

Melissa Reynolds (17:51):
I imagined two couples.

Matthew Maichen (17:54):
Oh! That’s so interesting. So that was your first reaction? You imagined two couples?

Melissa Reynolds (18:01):
Yeah. The “we” and then a married couple that was coming by to have dinner with them. Do you picture something more?

Matthew Maichen (18:11):
Oh, okay. I thought you mentioned that the “we” was two couples. So, my first reaction was that the “we” was another couple, but I realized, I don’t think there’s very much in the story that means that the “we” has to just be one other couple. I think it’s almost like the “we” is the neighborhood. That’s just me. I mean, it could literally be another couple, but I feel like it’s “we” because the “we” symbolizes, you know, the new place that they have moved into. The neighborhood, the people who already live there.

Melissa Reynolds (19:06):

Matthew Maichen (19:08):
I mean, is there a number?

Melissa Reynolds (19:10):
No, there isn’t. And I think that the story could support that type of interpretation because…

Matthew Maichen (19:19):

Melissa Reynolds (19:20):
Yeah, I’m looking at it now, and, no, I think if you wanted to picture…it does say party, so, I mean, if you wanted to populate it with many more party-goers, I think that would be a valid [interpretation].

Matthew Maichen (19:39):
Yeah. ‘Cause I’m trying to see if I’m in any way wrong in seeing that. That’s why I’m asking you because when I read it the second time, that was when it really jumped out to me that there is no number given for the “we”. The “we” is not individualized at any point. There’s no point where any member of the “we” steps away from the rest of the “we”, right? It’s—uh, God, I’m saying we a lot—but it’s just this collective. It’s this hive mind. And it becomes even funnier, I think, when you imagine it that way, because you just imagine this host is leading these, I don’t know, ten, fifteen people around, and showing off the house then the dinner party to them. And then the ants show up and they just all leave at once. You know, they’re this hive-mind of gossipy neighbors that busy-body around, and then when it gets too heavy for them, they’re like, ‘Ahhh, run away, it’s the ants!’

Melissa Reynolds (20:56):
Yeah. Once it gets real, people don’t want real, they want surface level. And if there’s something they don’t like…maybe that symbolizes this idea of: everything’s going great until something kind of—not exactly monstrous, but, you know, unpleasant—comes to the surface and then off they go. Because they don’t want a real relationship with you, they just want to have the nice party and then go about their way. I didn’t even think of that. Yeah.

Matthew Maichen (21:26):
You know what, maybe as we talk about this, I’m getting closer to some kind of takeaway about this story, because I’m looking at this line right before the last line, and this is right after the ants show up. It says: “This was too much, even for us, we better go. We said – it’s getting late. Thank you so much for everything. We’ll see ourselves out, we told them. Whatever was inside the house, whatever fancy life we had imagined for ourselves, it wasn’t worth this.” Even that. Taken out of context, that seems a little blunt, but it’s also, like, there’s so much else going on in the story that you miss it, you know?

Melissa Reynolds (22:11):
Yeah. ‘Cause I’m busy picturing the big ants and the battle over the macaroons. And so I can see…well, it’d be easy to gloss over and say, ‘oh, it’s just because of the ants’. It’s deeper. In light of our conversation, it does take on a bit of a deeper meaning. Especially “whatever fancy life we had imagined for ourselves”. I think that’s a truism there, that we all want the fancy life with the big bank account, but the reality of it isn’t what we might expect. I like that.

Matthew Maichen (22:53):
And then, taking it to the next level of interpretation, couldn’t you say then, that, I don’t know, the ants and the bouncing meat and just the idea of this intricate dinner party going wrong. It kind of symbolizes the complexities that come with wealth. The things that you have to worry about once you are wealthy.

Melissa Reynolds (23:21):
Yeah. Because it’s not the things…most people would think, you know, you’re rich, there’s no other worries. That’s it. You’re good to go, life is done. But, then you have songs like “Mo Money, Mo Problems”, so…

Matthew Maichen (23:39):
You have more things to worry about. You have more things that can go wrong. Like you own… you can’t have car problems, If you don’t have a car, you know? You can’t have a leaky roof if you don’t have a roof. Obviously that’s an extreme example. I don’t want to be homeless, but, you know, you throw this intricate dinner party and the more intricate the dinner party is, the more wrong it can go. The more pieces there are that can go wrong.

Melissa Reynolds (24:12):
That makes sense. It doesn’t strike me so much as it was…you know, they had, what, three courses in the meal? So, it doesn’t seem like an overly elaborate one, but the hostess struck me as trying to make everything perfect and trying to control all of the different elements of the party. And, I mean, she has a tapeworm, she wants to have that perfect as well.

Matthew Maichen (24:40):
[laughs] Oh my gosh. That…when you look at it that way, the tapeworm…it’s funny, ’cause that comes in so early, but that’s almost the perfect symbol. Because it’s this thing that…no middle-class person could even do that. It wouldn’t be done. Only a very eccentric rich person would have the time and resources to actually even, you know, begin to consider doing something like that. And it’s this perfect symbol because it’s this thing that is just— it’s so bad. Giving yourself a tapeworm is just not what you want, or it’s not what you should want, but you can do it because you’re rich. I mean, you can give yourself those problems.

Melissa Reynolds (25:39):
Well, yeah. But also having a tapeworm, she’s probably sick and miserable, so she probably would need somebody to clean her house because she has no energy because she’s…all of her food’s going to the tapeworm.

Matthew Maichen (25:52):
Oh god!

Melissa Reynolds (25:52):
Yeah, so there’s that level, too. Because, you know, a poor person, sure, they might have the tapeworm, but not out of choice.

Matthew Maichen (26:02):
Oh yeah.

Melissa Reynolds (26:02):
And—yeah—so, I see what you’re saying there.

Matthew Maichen (26:06):
I mean, yeah, that’s what I meant. I meant the choosing to have a tapeworm is something that only that rich, wealthy person would ever do. No middle-class or poor person would ever be, like, ‘yeah, I got myself a tapeworm’. That’d be crazy.

Melissa Reynolds (26:29):
What I like about that element, too, is she speaks like it’s no big deal. Like it’s commonplace. So, perhaps all of her people that she’s used to being around also do similar things. I think that’s an interesting way to think about it, too, is just how she thinks so differently simply because she’s from another place, but maybe a different…well, I think it’s implied—the fancy life. So, you know, a different level of wealth, too. It’s just a different mindset. What matters to them is way different.

Matthew Maichen (27:05):
Yeah. God!

Melissa Reynolds (27:07):
A hundred dollars would be chump change, but maybe to someone who doesn’t have that, it’s a bigger deal.

Matthew Maichen (27:15):
God, this is reminding me of…just look up doctors telling women not to put wasp nests in their…

Melissa Reynolds (27:24):
Oh my…

Matthew Maichen (27:24):
Google might fill out the rest for you.

Melissa Reynolds (27:31):

Matthew Maichen (27:31):
But it was a thing. It was a thing, and I don’t know how it got started, but, yeah, it was upper-class women who were doing it. Because, I don’t know, maybe there’s something about self-preservation that just goes away when you have that much money. Maybe you don’t think about self-preservation the same way someone else would.

Melissa Reynolds (27:59):
Well, they have access to better healthcare, so those things may not seem as big of a deal, you know?

Matthew Maichen (28:09):
Yeah, you’ll get away with it.

Melissa Reynolds (28:09):
Exactly. Oh, goodness. Well, somehow half an hour has flown by.

Matthew Maichen (28:18):
We delved into it.

Melissa Reynolds (28:20):
Yeah. I was glad Alexa [Hailey] was here and I was going to ask her if she wanted to say anything.

Matthew Maichen (28:27):
Even if she doesn’t, I just—thank you, Alexa, for submitting to us. I appreciate it a lot.

Melissa Reynolds (28:35):
Yeah. I also very much enjoyed reading, and I’m glad that you came this evening because not only is it super cool that the author is here, but it’s a bit of an experiment that we’re doing. It’s nice to have you here to show a little support, so thank you for that, also.

Matthew Maichen (28:57):
I was also laughing because she said in the chat that her microphone is broken.

Melissa Reynolds (29:01):
Oh, no.

Matthew Maichen (29:01):
[laughs] So…yeah. But thank you for being present, anyway. I really want to do this again. Stay on the discord because we post things here and…I don’t know….anything else?

Melissa Reynolds (29:21):
Keep writing the strange, because you are very good at it, Alexa, and next time you have something similar, definitely send it our way. And, I just gotta say again, I really enjoyed this story. It was a delight to read.

Matthew Maichen (29:40):
I like the phrase, ‘keep writing the strange’. I want that to be a slogan or something. I want to hang on to that. I’m not going to let that go. Thank you for that.

Melissa Reynolds (29:52):
Oh, you’re welcome.

Matthew Maichen (29:52):
Anyway, thank you, Alexa. Thank you, Mel. And I think we can log off.

Melissa Reynolds (30:02):

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