"Return to Sender," much like my first story in IGMS, "To Know All Things That Are In The Earth," draws heavily on my experience growing up as a fundamentalist Christian who went on to embrace atheism. My emotional connection to the story comes from my sense of confusion on encountering the outside world and finding things to be not quite as black and white as I had been informed.
It's really tough to explain the degree to which I was raised apart from mainstream culture. For instance, when I got to college, one of the many odd jobs I took to help pay expenses was that of a theater projectionist, even though the church I'd been raised in had denounced movie theaters as cesspools of sin and corruption and forbade going to see even "G" rated films. My first year as a projectionist was kind of amusing: every movie I saw became my favorite movie. I had no filters by which to judge a film, and wound up loving some stuff that I now look back on as fairly awful. (One of the first movies I saw, for instance, was Romancing the Stone, which for a week was the best movie ever, until I saw whatever was shipped the following week. I watched parts of Stone it again a few years ago and was stunned by how boring and formulaic it was.)
Also, much like Crystal in the story, I had grown up without being exposed to rock and roll music to any significant degree. My first exposure to bands like Pink Floyd and the Rolling Stones, singing about sex and drugs, was genuine culture shock. Even though I was identifying myself as an atheist by my first year of college, I still cringed when I heard people using the f-word in songs, and wondered why these people weren't afraid of going to hell.
Finally, I vividly recall the first time I was around a group of fellow students who were drinking beer. Drinking may not be the word I'm looking for--inhaling might be more accurate. They would shake up the beer, then puncture the can with a key, to suck down the entire can in something like thirty seconds. Shockingly, I learned that my fundamentalist Sunday School teachers had been right: Alcohol turns people into monsters! After inhaling a six-pack in about five minutes, guys I normally enjoyed hanging out with turned into surly jerks with unfocused eyes and slurred speech, laughing loudly at their own jokes and crudely boasting of their sexual prowess to women who were equally inebriated. It would be a few more years before I witness alcohol consumed in a more responsible, even genteel fashion and come to see that it didn't have to lead to to such boorish behavior.
It's been close to thirty years since I last sat through a fundamentalist church service, complete with speaking in tongues and the casting out of devils. I've reached as stage in my life where I can look back and be grateful to have been raised isolated at least some small degree from mainstream culture. I think it's useful for any artist to be able to step back from the world that swirls around them and study it with an outsider's point of view. Of course, sometimes when you step outside your culture, you discover you can't get back in.
That, however, is a theme for a whole 'nuther story.