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A new book of short stories twists familiar moments in unexpected and chilling ways


Nothing is as it seems in "Seven Empty Houses." That's the new collection of stories by author Samanta Schweblin. The seven short tales mostly begin as domestic scenes that are familiar enough - a mom and daughter out for a drive, a neighbor knocking on the door, a family rushing to the ER when a little kid drinks something they shouldn't. But the vignettes morph in surprising and - let's be real - creepy ways. Samanta Schweblin originally wrote the stories in Spanish and joins me now. Welcome.


RASCOE: The characters in these stories, they're doing some - they're odd things. Like, they sneak in, and they rearrange other people's homes. Some people are dancing naked in their yard. It feels like you're kind of saying to us, wait a second before you judge these people because you can't be too sure of your own perspective on things.

SCHWEBLIN: Yes. OK. So I think the stories, in different ways, are a kind of open question about, well, how dangerous it could be to keep living inside these kind of overstructured boxes that we built about everything, you know, like what love is, what family is, money. It's strange because the moment that we really get attention off of what is happening is the moment that we get silence - you know, that moment that everything suddenly is suspended and you think, what happened?

RASCOE: Once those things get shaken up, that's when we...

SCHWEBLIN: Exactly. Exactly. The uncanny moment. It's a kind of key to open these boxes.

RASCOE: A lot of the stories seem to involve clothing. Like, there are clothes thrown on the yard or characters in some state of undress. Was the intention there, like, a sense of vulnerability or transparency?

SCHWEBLIN: Absolutely. Absolutely. In fact, there is also, I think in half of the stories are boxes where people put things...

RASCOE: Yes. That's - I wanted to bring up the boxes.

SCHWEBLIN: You know, there's also something very personal there is that I wrote this book when I was moving from Buenos Aires to Berlin. I remember, like, in apartment, whenever I see some object, I was thinking, should I keep it? Should I leave it? But also because, well, the houses works also as a kind of boxes - very structured boxes. And in order to really do a kind of new movement in your life, all these characters, they have to go out, you know, to leave these structures.

RASCOE: We talked about kind of the unease that you can feel reading these stories, either from things that happened or from wondering, like, what's going to happen? Like, how do you craft that sort of unease for the audience?

SCHWEBLIN: There's small events that have happened in my life. So, for example, all of the beginning of the story of "Unlucky Man," when there is a very little girl who drink, all of a sudden, a whole cup of bleach.

RASCOE: Yeah, she drank - a little girl drank a cup of bleach.

SCHWEBLIN: Yes. In that same story, also, there is a girl stealing underwears from a store. These two things are in my life.

RASCOE: They happened to you. But it wasn't - but there wasn't a strange man with you...

SCHWEBLIN: No. It was not...

RASCOE: ...When you did it, right? OK.

SCHWEBLIN: So many times, I have a very, very specific feeling. I know exactly what kind of feelings I want to deliver to the reader. So many times, I can change everything in the story when I'm talking about a plot. But that last emotion, that's the thing that always came from my own life. I need to say this.

RASCOE: I guess I wonder, how do you decide what to tell the audience and what not to tell the audience? Because you leave a lot unsaid.

SCHWEBLIN: Whenever you write something as an author, there are some words that should go to the page and some words that should go to the reader's mind. And I love when I can feel this dance when I am the one who is reading. You know, I'm just about to think, oh, then it was she who did it. And I can feel in the next words of the writer that he knew I was saying that words in my mind.

RASCOE: Almost all of these stories have these profoundly complicated and sometimes dysfunctional relationships between kids and their parents or between spouses. Did you build on some of these stories from your own relationships?

SCHWEBLIN: Well, there's a little bit of reality in each of them. So, for example, the first story is a story about a girl who realize how strange it is that in the free time, what she does with her mother is to go out with the car to watch the other ones' houses. I was doing that with my mom (laughter).

RASCOE: A lot of people do that, though. They look at other houses and they dream about what...

SCHWEBLIN: Yes, and giving opinions and criticize...

RASCOE: Yes, what they would like, what they don't like. Yeah.

SCHWEBLIN: But, of course, fictions makes everything more, I don't know, intense. So in this story, they go into the houses. They took things. But the kind of feelings that you are dealing with are more or less the same. I have so many, many events in my life that leave me just in the - you know, in the line where something even more interesting could happen. In real life, we don't usually cross that line. But crossing that line doesn't mean to go to the fantasy world. That means just go to a world where things can happen.

RASCOE: Like, crossing that line, you can still have it rooted in reality.

SCHWEBLIN: Yeah. But if you cross the line, you get new kind of vital information about yourself.

RASCOE: Yeah. When you look at, like, the human connections in this book, a lot of them are fragile. They're fraught. But there's this tenderness there, too.

SCHWEBLIN: Of course. Of course. You know, there is a saying from David Lynch that I love. He used to say that every piece of art should only be saying one thing - this world is very strange.


SCHWEBLIN: And I love that. It's so simple, and it's so true. But at the same time, I think that preciousness could be very, very hard to deal with. If you really touch it, it's so frightening. So it's nice to have a kind of, you know, tenderness.

RASCOE: Author Samanta Schweblin - her new collection of stories is "Seven Empty Houses." They were translated by Megan McDowell. Thank you very much.

SCHWEBLIN: Thank you. Thank you, Ayesha.

(SOUNDBITE OF MUSIC) Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

Ayesha Rascoe is a White House correspondent for NPR. She is currently covering her third presidential administration. Rascoe's White House coverage has included a number of high profile foreign trips, including President Trump's 2019 summit with North Korean leader Kim Jong Un in Hanoi, Vietnam, and President Obama's final NATO summit in Warsaw, Poland in 2016. As a part of the White House team, she's also a regular on the NPR Politics Podcast.