I can trace most of my fiction back to a question: “What would happen if…?”
In this case, the question came on a three-night stop in Marfa during a road trip through Texas. Marfa is a place of contradictions: a hip art town surrounded by sparse desert that attracts minimalist art-lovers from around the world (and Beyoncé and JAY-Z) but only has one stoplight. On our way in, my partner and I were greeted by Donald Judd’s box-like sculptures in the yellow grass of the Chinati Foundation, a sprawling art museum founded by Judd on a defunct army base. Crows perched on the white clocktower in the center of town. Tourists rented vintage Airstream trailers to sleep in. Everything was quaint and photogenic, as if composed specifically for visitors to share on social media. Then there were the more unsettling sights, reminders that we were very much still in Texas: a rifle icon on the “No Trespassing” sign at the entrance to Ryan Ranch, where the movie Giant was filmed; a decommissioned military tank parked in an old gas station; and the Tethered Aeronaut Radar System—a surveillance blimp positioned in the middle of flat grassland and deployed to keep watch on the US/Mexico border. These complexities fascinated me—the urban transposed onto the rural; Instagrammable cuteness (and art by internationally renowned artists) set against a bellicose backdrop.
The “What would happen if…?” question arose when we tried to see the Marfa Lights: glowing orbs that float over desert horizon just outside the town’s main drag. The guide who led us through Chinati believed they were ghosts, others said they were UFOs. We decided to see for ourselves and saw nothing except Marfa’s expanse of stars. What would happen if someone faked the Marfa Lights? I thought to myself.
Over the course of the seven-hour drive back to Austin, the question nagged at me. For all the stimulation travel offers, there’s also a fair amount of boredom, perhaps the most underrated aspect of the creative process. And so, in that boredom, more questions followed. Who would do such a thing? Why?
When I started drafting the story in earnest, I’d answered some of those questions, which gave the story the beginnings of its skeleton. I had a concept (faking the Marfa Lights), a setting (Marfa), and a protagonist (Wendy). Marfa felt rich and real, but Wendy felt thin: nothing more than a difficult boss. I kept asking questions. What was she so uptight about? Well, I discovered, the prospect of aging out of her job, for one. But also her fraught relationship with her daughter. Wendy’s anxieties about her career and family play out in her interactions with her employees. They influence every decision she makes—most of them ill-advised.
Each story I write teaches me something new. “Mystery Lights” was an exercise in subplot, setting, and dialogue, but most of all it was an exercise in character: a deep-dive into Wendy—a protagonist as complex as Marfa itself—one question at a time.
LENA VALENCIA’s writing has appeared in Joyland, 7x7LA, The Masters Review, and elsewhere. She has an MFA in fiction from The New School and is the recipient of a 2019 Elizabeth George Foundation Grant. She is the managing editor of One Story and teaches writing at Catapult and the Sackett Street Writers Workshop. For more information, visit lenavalencia.com