Listed below, in date order descending, are interviews conducted by Gloria Garfunkel, with writers from 2014 A Year in Stories. Gloria spoke with each writer about the first stories in their story cycles, for 2014 January Vol. 1.
On this page, you will find interviews with ...
Gloria Garfunkel (conducted by Guilie Castillo Oriard)
Gloria Garfunkel: This is the diary entry of Joan about the “Palm Valley Moms’ Group”. How did the story come about?
h. l. nelson: This is the first story in my 7-story serial “Manicures and Vicodin in Palm Valley.” I began with the hope that it would be a novel, a strange mish-mash of Fight Club and Desperate Housewives, but I could never get past the 18k mark. So, when I learned about the 2014 series, I figured it might be a good fit. But I decided to make it diary entries, to keep it in-the-moment. The serial deals with suburbia, the ennui and addiction experienced by affluent “soccer moms,” and one woman’s attempt to break through the facade of dinner parties, expensive furnishings, spoiled teens, etc.
GG: Are these total fabrications or based on people you know?
H.L.N. I’ve known a few women like those in the Palm Valley moms’ group, so I’m drawing in part from reality. But it’s also a commentary on shows such as Desperate Housewives.
GG: Do these women read or do anything constructive besides plan parties and buy things?
H.L.N. No. But Joan, the MC, is different, and ends up pulling her friends in the moms’ group along for her shenanigans.
GG: There is not only constant drinking at parties and groups to plan parties, but there are collections of addictive pharmaceuticals in medicine cabinets. Are these high class drug addicts?
H.L.N. Pretty much. It’s my opinion that suburbanites must medicate themselves to get by in such an environment. Rush’s song “Subdivisions” is the soundtrack for this series.
GG: This is a sad, funny and angry story all at once. What are your own feelings about the story?
H.L.N. I’m not sure exactly where it came from. I lived in a rural area until I was 16. Perhaps it’s just stemming from my own contempt of fakery, consumption just for consumption’s sake, HOAs, commuting, and all things we tend to associate with the suburban lifestyle.
GG: What sorts of reading do you like and did any of it inspire this story? Or was it inspired more by TV shows and movies?
H.L.N. Certainly by Desperate Housewives and Fight Club, as well as other transgressive fiction. Recently, for graduate school, I read Revolutionary Road by Yates, and was floored by what an excellent novel it is. In particular, I realized how nothing much has changed in suburbia in the 53 years since the novel was written. Mind boggling.
GG: This was a very entertaining story. Thank you for your interview.
H.L.N. Thank you for reading!
Gloria Garfunkel: Tell us about your story.
Margaret Bingel: My story is about a guy named Ned, which sounds pretty boring, until you actually meet him and you learn that he’s all sorts of messed up.
GG: Why does he hate Wednesdays?
MB: It’s not Wednesdays that he hates specifically; it’s the passage of time outside his control. He feels like his time is not being utilized to its fullest extent.
GG: In what ways is he messed up?
MB: What kind of guy needs a gun to feel control? This is a huge debate in the United States right now, guns represent power and self-control, things that Ned feels he lacks in his life. He feels this way because he feels stifled, and not in control of his own life. He is stifled to the point of preparing himself for an eventual suicide attempt, but something (literally) smacks him in the head and when he wakes up, he feels like he is seeing things for the first time, like a child fresh from the womb.
GG: Is the smack in the head when he goes out into the cold and slips on black ice, unconscious, with blood coming out of his ears?
MB: Is it that obvious? Maybe you have to read on to find out. January does seem to stop a little short, doesn’t it?
GG: Any story about a man with a gun is alarming, especially when there are lots a people around in the street who he’s been watching from his window. Did you mean his intent to be ambiguous?
MB: I wrote this because, like all authors, it’s a feeling to share, and an action to work through. The toughest part about this project is omitting the other things that happen on all the other days every else is writing about. All the doubts.
GG: What does Ned do when he regains consciousness?
MB: Ned goes to therapy with Dr. Stanley, who begins his slow courtship of Nora Billingsly, Ned’s mother. Everything else I want to tell will have to wait until another day.
GG: What does he do with his gun once he’s hospitalized? Do they take it away from him?
MB: (laughs) Editing can be a doozy! Ned is actually on the way to the gun shop; he doesn’t own a gun yet. That bit got edited out for size, and I guess I couldn’t work it back in.
GG: Who’s your favorite writer and what do you like to read in general?
MB: I enjoy books about trivia and other interesting facts so I can win at bar games, but I have a weakness for well-written science fiction.
Gloria Garfunkel: Tell me about Claire’s job?
Rachel Ambrose: She works for an older lady attorney, in a mostly secretarial position - this is in part inspired by my work in a law office when I was a teenager, filing and proofreading and dusting. It’s a comfortable job, but not one that provides a lot of mental or physical stimulation. But Claire likes that, the way it doesn’t ask much of her, because she’s so burnt out.
GG: It sounds rather isolated. How does she feel about socializing?
RA: Socializing is hard for Claire because she feels so disconnected from her peers. To her mind, they all have awesome jobs, passionate inner lives and perfect hair. And to Claire, that’s just not how she is choosing to live her life, although it’s how she wants to live her life, so there’s this awkward feeling of not being enough.
GG: Why does Isa have to move out and how does Claire react to it?
RA: Isa has to move out because her brother got into an accident and concussed himself, and her parents aren’t available to take care of him, so Isa has to do it. Claire is naturally upset by this, since she hates change.
GG: How will Claire help her cope?
RA: There isn’t really a lot that Claire can do for Isa, short of taking her brother to appointments and things herself, which she doesn’t offer to do, and Isa doesn’t ask that of her.
GG: Do you think Claire is depressed or just going through a stage? Do you think she will find meaning?
RA: Claire is certainly depressed, although it’s more of a situational depression rather than a clinical depression (and they are different things!). You’ll just have to keep reading in order to figure out if she ever gets out of her rut!
GG: What are your favorite books?
RA: Falling in Love with Natassia by Anna Monardo, Born Confused by Tanuja Desai Hidler, and The Gargoyle by Andrew Davidson.
Gloria Garfunkel: The story opens with Sandra, a wreck of a woman, who is relying on her friend for moral support. What exactly is her trauma?
Shane Simmons: Sandra has a penchant for choosing the wrong men and she certainly didn’t buck that trend seeing as her last one left her for her sister! Although such a betrayal ranks quite high up on the scale, her friend feels Sandra has been allowed quite long enough to wallow in her own pity, especially seeing as she was hardly an angel in the last months of her disastrous relationship!
GG: Do you think her demands are at first reasonable, having her friend accompany her everywhere from Christmas through New Year’s?
SS: To a degree, Sandra’s friend understands their roles in this relationship well enough, at times he’s merely there as a sounding board for Sandra’s rants. But, even if he dare not admit it, he gets something out of it too and that something is her company (as well as the perspective that as long as he’s aware of Sandra’s catastrophic life, his own could never seem that bad!)
GG: She has selected the protagonist as her “life coach” to get her life back. How does friend respond?
SS: What Sandra doesn’t know is that her friend finds the idea of being anyone’s “life coach” hilarious, mostly due to the fact that his life has had more than its fair share of ups and downs, and he could probably do with someone to help him get his own life sorted out ... someone akin to a good therapist!
GG: And now the most basic question: is the protagonist male or female, and does it matter?
SS: This is a great point that came to my attention courtesy of fellow 2014 contributor, Stephen V. Ramey. Being the writer of the stories I had completely overlooked the fact that the protagonist’s gender is fairly ambiguous throughout the first story. Is it important? I’d hope not, although I was worried about readers’ perceived notions being forced to shift as the story progresses and the character’s gender becomes clear. It is interesting to see what people decipher from the protagonist and the shroud of mystery over him, who he is, what is his background, what are his motives. But now that the next instalments are out there in print I’m happy to confirm that the character is a gay man!
GG: Sandra gets increasingly out of control and drunk, flinging expletives at her ex and her sister as well as her friend. She basically verbally abuses her friend out of the house, the friend thinking Sandra won’t remember any of this the next day. That suggests an ongoing relationship despite this outburst and similar episodes in the past. Is that true?
SS: Sandra isn’t a newbie when it comes to dramatic outbursts, especially when under the influence of one or three bottles of wine. But what these two have is far more tolerance for each other than anyone else might find the time and patience to spare, and that’s why you could class them as ‘friends’. What you don’t see between is that the retort her friend blurts out in sheer frustration proves a wake-up call for Sandra, slicing through the wine-induced haze and hitting the message home! These two have a rough year ahead of them, and through the thick and the thin they’re going to need each other, even if they don’t realise it just yet!
GG: Does Sandra have any other social supports?
SS: Sandra works on the reception desk in the Accident & Emergency department of a local hospital, and she has a plethora of people at her disposal for daily doses of idle gossip. But what she doesn’t have in amongst her workmates is someone she can really talk to, a confidant. And that’s where her ‘wine buddy’ comes in.
GG: What about the friend?
SS: At one point during the first story, Sandra’s put upon acquaintance states that his only adult friend is Sandra, and to a degree this is true. He’s a closed book, but he has his reasons for being that way. Having kept so much to himself over the years he’s found less and less need for others in his life, but this of course isn’t the healthiest way to live.
GG: Who else do they each rely on besides each other and would you call this an abusive relationship?
SS: Sandra has a mother she sees occasionally but often clashes with (much like most people in her sphere of close acquaintances!) and a sister whom she now despises. The protagonist’s family life isn’t much better to be honest, save for an aunt and uncle he dotes upon. But I’d never class their relationship as abusive. There most certainly is a push-pull element from both sides, Sandra finding her friend’s secretive, almost reclusive nature infuriating, and her friend finding Sandra’s sometimes histrionic behaviour beyond irritating!
Gloria Garfunkel: You’ve talked about how happy you are to be included in this collection.
Vanessa Weibler Paris: I’m both flattered and intimidated to be involved in a project with so many writers I’ve read and admired, often from afar. I go through spurts of being active at showmeyourlits.com, a weekly flash challenge site where Steve Ramey is co-moderator, and he in particular is a source of admiration and inspiration for me. He works tirelessly to make each story of his the best it can be, and is so dedicated to improving his craft.
Matt (Potter)’s dedication and diligence just blows me away. Not to mention, of course, his editing instincts. I’ve never gotten a note from Matt that I disagreed with; usually it provides a light-bulb moment of “--of course! so much better this way. why didn’t I think of that myself?”
GG: How do you feel about your character?
VWP: Remember that Publishers Weekly interview with Claire Messud that got a lot of internet play last year? The one where the interviewer asked her if she’d be friends with her latest book’s main character in real life, and she responded with exasperation, saying, “For heaven’s sake, what kind of question is that?” She then listed off a dozen or so dislikeable characters from well-known novels, punctuating it with, “If you’re reading to find friends, you’re in deep trouble. We read to find life, in all its possibilities.” That really struck a chord with me. My main character for 2014 is Slim Jim, but I’m not sure how much I like him. I sympathize with him, and I understand him, but would we be friends in real life? No. And Iris, who we meet a few months later - never. She’d intimidate me in real life. I’d more likely be friends with Jim’s childhood buddies and Lunch Lady pals.
I once had a conversation with another writer friend about the common threads in my stories. We concluded that, if they were pulled together into an anthology, it could be called “Lonely People Doing Strange Things For Sad Reasons,” because I’ve written so many stories that involve just that....without even realizing it! Well, I realize it now that we’ve discussed it, but I didn’t until then. You see where I’m going with this, though, right? That’s Slim Jim too, a lonely person doing strange things for sad reasons.
GG: Who inspired your character?
VP: I think a tiny kernel of Slim Jim was inspired by a close male friend who didn’t have a real, serious romantic relationship until his 30s. (He’s not reading this, is he? If he is, um, tell him I’m talking about some other guy.) And it’s a tiny bit autobiographical: I had casual dates from high school on, but nothing serious until I hit 23. Both in terms of my own life, and later, in terms of my friend, I wondered, how long would someone wait until just taking the best option available? Or maybe even the only option available? As a single woman, you hear a lot of “don’t settle! never settle!” female empowerment type stuff, but do men get that same propaganda? I’m not sure they do. I’m not sure Slim Jim does.
GG: Why did you choose the 29th?
VPW: The reason I chose the 29th is because both my children were born on the 29th. The younger one is a Leap Day baby, just like Jim. Unlike Jim, though, we celebrate his birthday on non-Leap years. Poor Jim.
GG: What was the hardest part of being in 2014?-
VWP: For me, the toughest aspect of being involved with 2014 was trying to sustain the storyline over the course of 12 - well, 11, since there’s no Leap Day this year - months. I’m still not entirely sure how it ends. (Matt, avert your eyes!) It was also a challenge to maintain at least some consistency in tone ... when I reread my stories in order, I realize that it does drift from funny to dark to light to deep, and so on, though I hope none of the turns are too abrupt. Hopefully, instead, the variation keeps things interesting.
GG: Slim Jim is skeletal skinny and constantly mocked by his friends. He is also socially awkward in the doctor’s office trying to talk to a woman patient. The ending of that section is hilarious.
VWP: I just hope my varied tone from section to section works.
Gloria Garfunkel: What is the significance of the title of your story?
Townsend Walker: La Ronde is the French title of a movie by Max Ophuls released in 1950. I saw it recently and liked the structure. The film has ten scenes; two characters in each scene; one from the previous scene and a new character. The last scene features a character from the first scene. La ronde, in French, means a circle dance. Start with any dancer. They are the beginning and the end of the circle. My story has the same structure. La Ronde is based on a play written by Arthur Schnitzler in 1897 titled Reigen.
GG: This powerful story opens with a brutal scene of verbal and physical abuse of Frank towards Madge. What precipitated the attack and where were the two children?
TW: Frank got tanked watching his college team lose the Orange Bowl. He’s a mean drunk and when Madge made a remark he took after her, fueled by his feeling that she had put him down in front of his parents over the holidays. The kids were with their nanny in the park.
GG: The next day Madge met her best friend Gina at the Plaza Hotel. Both married rich, but Madge to a brute and Gina to a sweet cousin. They both wore designer clothes and mink coats. Both were poor scholarship kids from Catholic School who married money. What was their subsequent education?
TW: They received degrees in journalism from Barnard and worked together at the New York Post.
GG: Gina once again told Madge to divorce Frank and once again Madge gave her a list of reasons not to. What were those?
TW: Madge thinks Frank would out-lawyer her and she wouldn’t get a fair share of his money and might not get joint custody of the kids.
GG: Madge had other plans for Frank and how did she think she’d benefit?
TW: If she offs Frank, she gets all his money, there’s no question about the kids, and she’s in a better position to find a new husband.
GG: What did Madge say to Gina that insulted her?
TW: Because Gina is Italian and lives in Jersey she must know gangsters or people in the Mafia, a supposition that Gina resents however accurate.
GG: Nevertheless Gina came through with a friend of her brother. Yet in the middle of the conversation Gina suggests Madge and the kids stay at her place until Frank cools down. Why did you decide to stop there?
TW: I wanted to end in a place that would encourage the reader to pick up the next episode. Forefend any pretensions that I have done as well as Dickens or Dumas who wrote novels for weekly journals, but that is the idea.
GG: You are a powerful writer, starting with a scene of startling action and ending with quiet, intense suspense. How did you learn to write like that?
TW: I have always read widely: Fleming, Hardy, Balzac, Calvino, Wilde, Poe, Sciascia, Spillane, Duras. I’ve learned from workshops I attended, notably at Stanford and Aspen.
GG: Who are your favorite writers?
TW: Alexandre Dumas, Georges Simenon, Jean Anouilh, Maile Meloy, Jeanette Winterson, Tobias Wolfe.
GG: What else have you written and what else are you working on?
TW: About sixty short stories have been published since early 2007. I am seeking publication of a collection of stories titled Forgiving and Forgetting were not Options. The stories are about what happens when past events shape individuals’ futures. Two women, neighbors and lovers, until one is betrayed and extracts revenge. A single tortellini points Gianni Nero to the man who murdered his client’s lover. The spoils of war are snatched from the conquering soldier by Margriet, a young school teacher. Timmy’s parents were killed by a red-light runner. We watch how he escalates his payback. Lives collide in San Francisco, London, Baltimore, Bologna. In time, from 1840 to the present.
Gloria Garfunkel: What is the role of death and loss in your story?
James Claffey: Death and loss infiltrate all my writing in some manner of speaking. We’re surrounded by both in this life and I can’t imagine writing without some reference to both. As far as in the story, I’m following the Bird character as he deals with the loss of his parents, and in subsequent episodes, losses of other sorts. I’m drawn to what is missing, echoes in an empty room, the resonance the dead leave in our lives after they depart this world. I see the body as a sounding board, one which collects the voices and sounds of our journeys in this life, and at different times these sounds and voices surface and break like bubbles of air on the surface of a pond. I am drawn to loss and its exploration because it’s so much more compelling than the ease of a straightforward happy ending story. There are no simplistic answers to the puzzles we deal with and I refuse to address such simplistic answers in my writing.
GG: Your writing has the rhythm of the Irish. Were you born here or there and what influences your speech? I have never heard it in person. Would you say you have an Irish accent or are just influenced in your imagery by your Irish ancestors?
JC: No, I’m 100% Irish, born and bred, educated, lived, worked in Ireland for my first thirty years. My speech and writing is shaped by the voices of my family, my friends, the stories I heard as a child, the patterns of speech of my parents, their friends, and the cadence of my writing is because of those influences, sort of a fingerprint of my cultural upbringing.
GG: The story begins with the protagonist’s repetitive nightmares of seeing his dead mother at night. He goes to Father O’Herhir he has seen at his small church all his life. He convinces Father it’s not at dream or nightmare but real and Father gives him a flask of holy water to sprinkle in the room. Does this work?
JC: Does the holy water work? No, the weight of memory for the Bird is heavier than the presence of the sacred water! As the narrative unfolds the mother and father will reappear in places, and there will be boundaries between faith and the otherworld that the Bird pushes up against.
GG: Your prose is very poetic and humorous. I love the sentence: “Four silent confession boxes flank the back of the church, the dark chocolate wood stained with the absorbed sins of so many years.” It is both visual and profound. Or the explanation of no friends in childhood because his father was the town undertaker and “most of the children were afraid of ‘catching’ death if they touched him.” How does Irish superstition influence your work?
JC: I draw some elements of Celtic mythology and Catholic ritual in my writing, and it’s not surprising, given the enormous weight placed on me when I was a young boy, particularly by the priests at my school, and those in our parish. It’s impossible to avoid the Roman Catholic Church, and the ritual and rites are in a way, intoxicating, the mysteries of the Mass, the transubstantiation, all of that and more. Also, reading all the Celtic legends and fairy stories as a kid gave me a sense of wonder about supernatural things, and it’s something I’m only nosing around with my writing. I don’t quite feel confident to fully explore the Celtic mythology at this point, but I have some ideas about other stories where it could figure more prominently.
GG: Later in the story he goes to the town seisuin to listen to Irish music and meet with people socially. Can you explain a seisuin and what its role is in Irish society?
JC: Music, drink, conversation, are the cornerstones of Irish social life, or were at some point. Impromptu music sessions where folk gather and play music, dance, sing, are wonderful to experience, and the shared enjoyment of the reels and ballads of the past is quite something. In the old days it was the equivalent of the television set, where you could go to the pub, or a neighbor’s house, pull up a chair and either play, sing, or simply listen. Small, tight-knit communities had this shared sense of where people are from, both literally and historically, and the music and stories functioned to strengthen those communities.
GG: He tries to flirt with the musician whistler who is outside for a cigarette but doesn’t succeed. Does this continue to be his pattern in adulthood, constantly let down by women?
JC: You’ll have to watch the scenes unfold to see whether or not he fails or succeeds with the women he encounters. I’m hoping the French woman will reappear in the course of events.
GG: He ends up riding his bike five miles home, alone, in the rain, whistling loudly his loss. Has he lost hope or does he continue to seek a partner later on in the story?
JC: Again, the Bird is a survivor, and he’ll keep hoping for love to arrive, even though it might not be on the cards. That’s part of his charm, I hope, his constant expectation of better things to come. Even loss and the lack of love contain the fragments of what might have been, and in these shards we find the spark of hope to spur us on to the next encounter.
Gloria Garfunkel: Your first story in the January volume opens on a wild ride, with adolescents riding a stolen car which they seem to do regularly. The scene presents as much action that is not happening as is happening. How did you come to write this scene in this complex and mesmerizing way?
Michelle Elvy: The location came first. Place is always important for me. I knew this series of stories was going to take place in the quasi-realistic geography of South Anne Arundel County, the area where I grew up. As for action – I am pleased that you see as much in what’s not happening as what is happening. In this story, I wanted to plunge in headlong and get things moving quickly. I also wanted to include hints at complicated things lurking beneath the surface – what the story is about, what it’s not about – that are yet to be explored.
GG: Can you say a little about the pacing of your story? Was it structured or did it just flow?
ME: I must say, I’m not a big fan of that “oh the story just wrote itself” thing you hear writers say from time to time; I believe that writing is a craft that requires focus and effort, and, because I’m an editor, I think the many subsequent drafts are as important as the first. But in this case, the story did unfold in a rather natural (and for me unusual) way. It meanders from the opening to the middle section to a dream sequence, and those sections poured out, in the order they were written. This story just made sense to me as it flowed (even with lots of edits).
The way the scene ends in the cornfield was not a foregone conclusion, but the boys speeding past frozen fields on long flat roads of southern Maryland was already painted in my mind, and I knew that would determine the rest. The stolen car, the speed – that flowed from the setting. The pace was important, yes – both the speed of the opening and the slowing at the end.
GG: The story ends in a dream-like sequence in a hospital bed with no mention of the outcome for the other characters after an accident. How did you decide to do this as a segue into the next chapter?
ME: Oh how interesting to hear you ask that! I did not decide to do that as a segue into the next chapter. In fact, the dream becomes a recurring theme in the series, but at the time I wrote the January story, I had no idea where that would lead me. I only knew I’d begin with Stevie and he’d become the protagonist. He’s not a particularly strong person – I think there is potential for someone like Manny, or even Lucky, to be a stronger character. But Stevie is the one who’s in the middle of it all – watching, observing and even participating, albeit with reluctance. Even in the final scene of this story, Stevie finds himself in an ambiguous situation, with the outcome not entirely clear. This is just how Stevie is to me: his future is very uncertain.
As for the rest (and back to the idea of speed): the boys had to be going somewhere fast, but I was not sure where (indeed, much like the boys themselves). And given where they end up… now that I think about it, this scene opens the series of my 2014 stories in which the whole underlying question is Where to? I think that sums up my whole approach to this project.
GG: You have mentioned this story as being very American. Talk about the roles of place, character and plot development for you.
ME: I’ve lived in many different places, and I’ve been on the move for a long time. My life is focused more in New Zealand these days, but for this story, which was going to be about kids in their teens, it had to be set in the US. I guess for me that came most naturally, since that’s where I grew up. Driving down roads at that age in cars – with my brothers, mostly – is a very American memory for me. And, even more specifically, Stevie’s journey begins in the tidewater region of the Chesapeake, even if it eventually flows elsewhere.
It’s so interesting that you ask these questions, because now I see similarities between Stevie and me… and the way his story will keep him connected to the Chesapeake, even as he’s dreaming about leaving. Kinda cool. Is Stevie me? Never thought about that till now.
GG: Is your series mapped out from the get-go or not and how does that impact the direction the story takes?
ME: I’ve come to understand that some writers visualized or even wrote all twelve stories from the beginning – see the conversations and comments on Stephen V Ramey’s blog, for example. For me, that would have been impossible – partly because of the pace of my life as we’ve sailed from New Zealand to Indonesia this year (and there’s a parallel here too: our path changes regularly, depending on wind and current and various other things, and it’s nearly impossible to say where we’ll be in a year), but also because for this series I wanted each story to find its own natural pace, and I could not rush anything. I work quite fast when it comes to shorter pieces of flash, but I have enjoyed slowing down to observe and feel the way the characters are changing as we work our way through this period in their lives. It’s a life-changing time for them – this year marks the end of high school and also the process of dealing with death, something that perhaps makes them grow up in ways they don’t even yet understand. And none of that can happen too quickly.
GG: What was the biggest challenge in writing this story series?
ME: Keeping on schedule enough for the publisher! Once you get behind on a series like this, it’s hard to recover. I’ll admit here that I’m one of writers who fell behind at first – but like I say, these stories could not be rushed for me. They are fictional characters, yes, but they seemed to require a kind of slow deliberation on my part, possibly because the emotional elements of their stories touch some deep part of me.
GG: What do you like best about goal-orienting writing on the same day every month and how does this touch on your work on the 52|250 project?
ME: This project creates a framework in which to write, and I like the central conceit here: that we’re checking in on our characters once a month over the course of a year. It’s like peering in on their lives: “Hey, Stevie, how are you this month? Have you moved forward, or are you stuck?” And then the characters cross paths with each other in unlikely ways as they meander from month to month, too. I did not set out knowing who would feature in each monthly installment – and I like writing that way. For me, there is a balance here between the structure of the framework and the surprises that come each time I sit down and visit the project. The similarity to the 52|250 project is that there is structure to the whole thing (in the 52|250 project, we had to write a story a week for a year), but each time you approach a new installment, you’re in for something new and unexpected.
And I like the way this project encourages a community of writers. I love reading the stories written by the other 30 writers in this series, and to see the differences and discussions in our various approaches. There is great variety in these monthly collections, and there is real camaraderie among some of the writers, too. It’s the kind of project that allows flexibility and critical discussion – again, take a look at Ramey’s reviews and discussions. And then there’s this interview series – the 2014 project creates the space for things like this to spin off, so we can take a closer look not just at one story or one writer, but at the threads that connect them. That’s also a happy by-product of this experiment.
Thanks for the chat, Gloria!
GG: Thank you Michelle for your thoughtful answers.
Gloria Garfunkel: You seem concerned that your January story is very brief. My own was one page too. I think of flash fiction as very compressed and yours conveyed well the beginning of a story. Can you say a little about what that story is?
Sally-Anne Macomber: Thanks Gloria, it’s the beginning of a story, very much the beginning. But my stories for 2014 are like an upside down funnel and January is at the very top, and it just gets wider and messier as the year progresses. It has been fun so far. But there’s the barest hint (in January) of where the story is going. Even I’m surprised where it’s going and where it’s gone since then.
My stories involve a woman dealing with the publisher or potential publisher of her book Nuclear Fission in the Pyrénées. She thinks she’s written a masterpiece. She probably hasn’t.
GG: What prompted your story? And what prompted the form it takes?
SAM: I’ve worked for newspapers and magazines (under my professional name) and have heard some interesting stories about writer temperament (not mine!) and my husband works as an editor for a science publisher and he has some funny stories about science nerds too so it all sort of gelled.
I wanted the story to be one-sided, and for the reader to then have to interpret what the real story might be behind Trudy Polaris’s ideas. And emails just lent themselves better to being one-sided and also meant I did not have to worry about how truthful she sounded. That’s why I called her Trudy. The truth is out there, and the reader has to find it. Because Trudy probably has no idea what the truth is. She’s a very unreliable narrator!
GG: Your protagonist is clearly some sort of scientist. What kind and why didn’t she try to publish with a university or scientific press?
SAM: The stories have veered so far away from science now that I forgot people might think she’s a scientist! I think the reader will pretty quickly forget Trudy is a scientist. I have, and I am about to start writing the September story. Science has not really come up again, and Trudy has been trying to find work, doing anything, none of it remotely science-based.
I guess Nuclear Fission in the Pyrénées does present itself as science and non-fiction but as the stories progress I think the reader will seriously question everything Trudy does and even wonder if what she is writing is real in the first place. There is a blurring between the fiction and the non-fiction and Trudy in her life and her book and her emails has no problems traversing the divide most of us think should not be traversed.
I also wonder just how scientific the book really is, because the way she writes about it and the way she wants to change things, she treats it (in further stories) like a design project. I don’t think Trudy lets the facts get in the way of a good story.
You know Beaker from The Muppets? I think Trudy is probably that sort of scientist.
GG: Does she have colleagues at work whom she has consulted about her writing?
SAM: No. But maybe she should. Soon Trudy gets stuck living in Alpine Europe for financial reasons and she is very isolated and her emails to her publisher - editor (Milton Flaxmill) become a lifeline. Trudy writes that she is free associating in her emails to Milton, and that’s been much the same approach I have taken to writing these story emails myself. Things pop into my head and make me laugh so I put them in the story. I know what Trudy is wearing at the very end of her last email, but I haven’t worked out what happens in that email.
But she treats Milton more like a confidante than an editor.
GG: Does she have friends or family, other supportive people in her life?
SAM: She mentions her husband a lot but she never names him, and he is the reason they are stuck in the Alps. (I am trying not to give too much of the plot away!) Trudy has a series of misadventures that grow in craziness and have made me laugh a lot while I’ve been writing them. But as I wrote above, the truth is very elastic with Trudy, so everything she says or writes is open to interpretation.
GG: Does anyone else know the trouble she is having publishing this book and given her any advice?
SAM: I think Trudy is a loner, so perhaps she is a scientist, to use a science nerd cliché. I’ve thought a little about Trudy’s relationship with Milton before she says she’s taking her book elsewhere, so pre-January 2014, and I think they had minimal contact. She probably rages to her husband about the ineffective, unresponsive Milton but I don’t think Trudy and her husband figure a lot in each other’s careers. I don’t know her husband’s name and I have no idea what he does for a living. But Trudy does have a son, who is not in the same country she’s in. I also think Trudy is pretty intense and probably puts off a lot of people. She is quite single-minded but in ways she shouldn’t be.
I also think Trudy would consider all other writers of any kind to be a threat. So it’s quite likely no one knows about the book, other than her husband.
GG: You were the last writer to become involved with the 2014 project. How did that come about?
SAM: I met Matt (Potter) in June 2012, at the Bata Shoe Museum in Toronto, where I was working at the time. A lot of my journalism has been about the history of fashion and he made a loud comment about some Native American footwear. My mother is Australian (my father is Québécois) and so I recognised his accent and we started talking and met up again later and have kept in touch since. I kept looking at the themes on Pure Slush and wanting to submit but none of the theme prompts appealed! I thought they were all too proscriptive. And then last October Matt emailed me and said, someone has dropped out of 2014 in a fit of pique (his words, not mine) so there’s a place for you if you want to take it.
But Matt also said that because it was so late in the project, the writer who had left had created stories of only one page each for January and February and all the other stories for those months had been accepted so could I please keep my first two stories to a page or under otherwise the pagination would be ruined! As a journalist I am used to writing on spec, so I wrote the first two very quickly, and have taken more time with the rest. And definitely more space.
I didn’t know until later that the writer I replaced had used the form of emails in his stories too, so it was serendipitous. Perhaps I was meant to be part of 2014 from the beginning. I like to think that.
GG: Do you expect the other flashes to be as short? If so, that is a major challenge, but quite doable with flash fiction.
SAM: February is almost as short as January, but the tone is very different. And from March the emails grow longer and more conversational and confessional. Trudy describes her life and the dramas of living in central Europe high in the Alps. In fact, she spends a lot of time writing about her life and very little really dealing with the real purpose of her emails, which is getting her book published. Trudy also changes her mind about what she wants in the book, and has a lot of suggestions, most of which would not be met with enthusiasm by Milton ... if he were reading her emails. I’m unsure at present if he is or isn’t reading them, as we only hear or read her side of things.
GG: What else can we expect from your main character Trudy Polaris? Is there meaning behind her name?
SAM: Isn’t Polaris the British missile system? I like the idea of Trudy Polaris being a truth missile. I think that’s certainly how she sees herself.
What is coming? What can Trudy expect? Lots of “oh dear” and “pick yourself up, dust yourself off” moments.
GG: You clearly have a sense of humor, the absurd name of the press in contrast to the obscure nature of the scientific book, the fact that she has worked with them for three years and they still don’t get the title spelling right so she is going elsewhere. Science has to turn over quickly and is very meticulous. What took her so long to fire them?
SAM: Trudy is a novice and lives in her own world much of the time. Things happen to Trudy which most other people would have run away from months or years ago but Trudy is nothing if not dogged and enthusiastic and so she keeps on trying. I think she wore her husband out years ago but he is certainly too old to change now, or too worn down.
I can’t claim credit for the name Red Cow Publishing. I said aloud, as I was writing the first story, “What should be the name of the publishing company Milton Flaxmill works for?” and my husband said, straight off the bat, “Red Cow Publishing.” A family joke involves a blue cow in a dress so maybe it came from that.
Nuclear Fission in the Pyrénées as a title and idea came about because I wanted Trudy to argue with Milton about punctuation and Pyrénées has two accents. (When I studied in Montreal, I was not good at remembering French punctuation either, so it’s a personal reference.) And I don’t think anything nuclear has ever happened in the Pyrénées, has it? It’s a mountain range, surely the worst place to build anything nuclear.
GG: Can you say a little bit about her personality?
SAM: I think the world constantly surprises Trudy, and Trudy constantly surprises everyone else. But she’s always in there dreaming and scheming.
GG: Thank you for sharing your insights about your story.
SAM: Thanks Gloria, I enjoyed answering your questions.
Gloria Garfunkel: You stated that this is a man who has suffered such an extreme trauma he ends up in a psyche ward.
Darryl Price: A pysche ward of sorts. That’s where the mystery comes in. Who put him there and why? What caused this to be the only answer to his condition?
GG: You decided not to reveal the nature of the trauma in this episode but only his symptoms. Why?
DP: Because the story isn’t about the trauma. The trauma is secondary to the story being told here. This is the story of a process, a journey. A decision. It’s about his coming back to a functioning life, back to the possibility of more life to come, back to the ability to relate again to being alive and present with others. Of saying goodbye to the ghost of guilt that haunts him still. To hurt. To a wound so severe it derailed his capacity to think straight for himself. He goes very deep emotionally in the beginning, which sets him up for the later wreckage.
GG: You said that his only relationship is with Doc. Who is Doc and how does he feel about him?
DP: Doc is his only true friend in the world of the story because he is someone who sees him and sees in him a real person capable of doing the ordinary everyday miracles of most human beings. Doc is loyal to his belief in his friend. He will not abandon him. So he is tested by our main character over and over.
GG: Does Doc seem hopeful he will get “better”?
DP: I think that’s the point. The protagonist keeps trying to prove Doc wrong, of course, but eventually he needs the reassurance that Doc provides that there is some hope yet to be found in his present uncomfortable circumstances.
GG: Psychiatrically, the protagonist’s speech would be called a “flight of ideas,” one sentence after the other not necessarily relating to each other. Trying to follow a flight of ideas is mind-bending, but there is often some truth in it. Do you see any truth in his speech?
DP: Absolutely. He’s trying very hard to find the right words to send him home again. It’s the search for an ancient magic of sorts. Say the magic words and Presto! you’ll be free.
GG: His thoughts range from grandiose to a sense of failure, “anything becomes everything” and “everything is a miracle.” How do you explain his fragmentation of self and ideas?
DP: He’s still in healing process mode. His “friend” has helped him identify the obvious pieces, but can’t put the puzzle together for him. He can however offer sympathy, wisdom and a steadfast reassurance.
GG: Some professionals interviewing him would say he is schizophrenic. How would you describe his functioning before and after this episode? He’s certainly fragmented,
DP: I think this is because he can’t stop reliving the trauma but he also can’t stop living or being alive period. These two things have to eventually become one, if he is to heal, or not, if he is to remain too fragmented to carry on in any real sense of joining the world’s daily business.
GG: Is there mental illness in his family?
DP: Has he had an episode like this before?
GG: Is he suicidal?
DP: No, just sad. And that’s the sad part. His heart is broken.
GG: Does he have family members or anyone else who is concerned about his mental status?
DP: This again we don’t know because everything is told only through the experience of his relationship with the mysterious Doc. All things are only seen through his literary attempts to elicit a response from Doc. He’s seeking direction both physically and mentally in every missive.
GG: Thank you for your insights on your story.
DP: Thank you for asking.
Gloria Garfunkel: Your opening January story is hilarious. Rachel, the protagonist, didn’t get a raise at work because she needs to work on her “People Skills,” and she proves her boss right in one blooper after another, especially on a blind date. How do you see Rachel?
Teresa Burns Gunther: Rachel, is always saying the wrong things, often socially inappropriate. I see her as on the Autism spectrum, though I hate labels. She’s very bright, she’s the kind of person who says what she thinks and doesn’t mince words. She’s precise, meticulous, and pragmatic and admires that in others, expects it really.
GG: The minute she saw her blind date at the door, she challenged him for claiming he was 5”11’ by calling him a “creative writer” when in fact he’s a political science professor.
TBG: She’s tall and has been trying this dating service but finds that people aren’t honest, something she can’t abide, they lie about their height, their age, and many basic things that are hard to fake.
The premise of the series is that the previous year ended with her alone, on New Year’s Eve, just turned down for a promotion she’s more than qualified for because of her poor people skills. She’s not satisfied and resolves to change in 2014. In each month she’s assigned herself a new challenge to tackle: improve people skills, be more generous, be patient, be compassionate, be open to new experiences, throw out the old, try something totally new ... and more. Most of these things are hard for her. She gets into a number of awkward situations that involve her saying inappropriate, but funny things that are true for her.
GG: Rachel’s dog Stella is big and frightening to other people but very loyal to her and, in her eyes, very beautiful. Tell me about her relationship with Stella.
TBG: Rachel adores her dog, and assumes anyone who has issues with Stella is a dog hater or missing an essential part of their DNA. Stella is a beautiful dog, a long-legged blend of 3 breeds: akida, ridgeback, German shepherd. Rachel has a blind spot when it comes to Stella. Over the course of the stories she begins to understand that Stella is her truest friend, because she’s loyal, smart and strong, and unlike most people, Stella doesn’t see her as someone who needs fixing.
GG: I know you don’t want to label people, but relating better to animals than to people is a classic symptom of Asperger’s Syndrome and Rachel does seem to fit the bill. Temple Grandin is a perfect example, a brilliant woman with more compassion for animals than humans. Rachel can’t comprehend her date’s fear of her gigantic dog. Can you mention something else Rachel does on her blind date that demonstrates her social inappropriateness?
TBG: Her date, Grant, seems to be trying to make the best of it. He tries to make a joke and without realizing it shoots him down and dooms the date. She makes a joke about her job at the IRS: I take money from dead people. When he starts to ask a question she cuts him off assuming he’s going to share his own sob story about the IRS. But there are a few people with whom she connects as the year progresses which are surprising and not always clear to Rachel.
GG: This is a great premise for a story and does convincingly convey someone on the Autism spectrum without disrespecting or mocking her. She is a very lovable character. How did you come up with her?
TBG: I had to come up with a character I could work with for a year, someone to write a story about each month. The structure of resolutions seemed to make sense, and I needed a flawed and interesting character. I think we’re all quite odd in our own, original ways with everyone bringing his / her talent and expression to the table. This fascinates me. I suppose that’s why I write – to be able to imagine life inside someone else’s skin, to imagine what makes them who they are. It seems people who don’t fit whatever is considered the social “normal” of the time are dismissed, deemed “inappropriate”, even shunned. Our society has an overabundance of labels without a lot of tolerance for differing behavior. And yet we live in a world that financially rewards individuals like Rush Limbaugh and Fox News commentators because they are inappropriate, hysterical and insulting!
GG: Have you done any reading that influenced you in formulating this character?
TBG: Yes. And I’ve known several people of differing ages who struggle with the subtle art of social interaction – some labeled, some not.
GG: Who are the writers you like best?
TBG: Oh, I always find this question so hard, there are so many writers whose work I love. Off the top of my head, my old favorites: Jane Austen, Alice Munro, Tobias Wolff, Mary Oliver, Richard Yates, John Steinbeck, Anne Tyler, and so, so many more to love ... Flannery O’Connor, Ursula Hegi, Charles Baxter, Jumpa Lahiri, Antonya Nelson, Elissa Chapell, Robert Boswell ... I’ve just read Bill Roorbach’s story collection Big Bend that someone recommended to me after reading a story of mine - I’m wowed by his writing, so immediate and alive. As soon as we’re finished I’ll be thinking Oh, and him! or her! There is always someone new to discover. Aren’t we lucky, to have access to such an abundance of art!
GG: What do you do when you aren’t writing?
TBG: Lead writing workshops through Lakeshore Writers Workshop, read, work one-on-one with writers, do interviews, read, garden, move my body, listen to podcasts, read, sing, drive myself crazy trying to stay on top of social media, walk my dog – who is so not Stella and did I mention reading?
GG: Do people see you as someone with a sense of humor? You are very funny.
TBG: Why, thank you! Yes, I love to make people laugh.
Gloria Garfunkel: What inspired you for the setting in this story?
Len Kuntz: As with most authors, my writing typically has bits of truth in it. I live on a lake and in winter it often freezes over, ducks cluster on the ice, and we regularly get our share of power outages. Also, my wife grew up on another lake a few blocks from ours. It’s called Storm Lake, a name I really like, especially for this story. So all of this figured into the piece.
One day I was staring out my window at the lake and thought about this man, who’s a bit of a weakling, with his life falling apart, when a storm hits leaving him with four feet of snow, no electricity, cell phone service, water or heat. He finds himself alone and stranded but for his wife’s ornery dog, who - for the story’s purpose - is supposed to represent the wife.
GG: So now he has two catastrophes to deal with.
LK: Yes, a broken marriage and a severe blizzard - leaving him with the choice of hunkering down and likely freezing to death, or else braving a dangerous trek across the frozen lake in search of safety. As a boy, he and his brother used to try to cross the lake, but he was afraid to go far because he had heard a boy had fallen in.
GG: His brother seemed much braver, suggesting the passivity of the protagonist, whose therapist blamed him for his wife’s affair because he didn’t pay enough attention to her. Yet here he was in a situation where he had no alternative but to brave danger, to set out across the lake to the houses on the shore with lights on. As he leaves, he thinks he will never come back. How rational is this given that he left his ambivalent dog loyal to his wife in the home alone?
LK: Yes, I wanted to show his cruel streak, or at least give him one. He’d been something of a milquetoast up until then. But maybe if he makes it across the lake he calls someone to rescue the dog.
GG: How does this opening fit into the rest of your story line?
LK: It gives him the opportunity to go on a quest, to be free and independent for once. Prior to this, he’d been a cuckold for his wife more or less. I liked the idea of sending on a jag across the country without any specific mission as to where because it allowed me the opportunity to play with all sorts of different settings and characters, and to get him into lots of trouble.
GG: Your language is very simple and straightforward with great emotion brewing under the surface. How do you do that?
LK: Thank you for that. In the past, I’ve sometimes been accused of navel gazing, especially with longer works. After having written a lot of flash fiction, I’ve learned to write tighter and hopefully pack as much into a piece as I can. I’m a big fan of Willy Vlautin. He has this mesmerizing way of captivating the reader without using any “fancy” words whatsoever. His writing isn’t necessarily spare, but it’s simple, straightforward and fluid. I wish I could write like him.
GG: Who are writers whose work especially inspire you?
LK: There are so many, aren’t there? Some of my favorite novelists are Tim O’Brien, Sara Gran, Susanna Moore, Elizabeth Benedict, Charles Baxter, Updike, Richard Price … The poets I love are Dorriane Laux, Louise Gluck, Sharon Olds, and Bukowski, but he does everything. The list for short story writers I admire would take up several pages. Most of them are good friends.
GG: You are an editor at Metazen. How do you balance your writing and editorial work?
LK: Well, I’m very fortunate because I write full-time. I try to treat it like a job and get started by 9:00 am, then I’ll usually write until 5:00 or so. I love being at Metazen. It’s really thrilling when you get a fabulous submission, and of course I know how gratifying it is getting an acceptance, so it’s fun to be able to do that.
Gloria Garfunkel: Here we have a story that harks back to Kafka’s Metamophosis. Can you explain the connection?
Nathaniel Tower: I think the connection only runs as deep as here we have a main character waking up confused. I wasn’t thinking of Kafka at all when I wrote this. Of course, I think we often aren’t thinking of our influences when we craft our stories. They just find a way to creep in there.
GG: Waking up next to a clone of oneself is disorienting. Am I me or is he me? Can you describe how you conveyed this sense of disorientation and how Samford reacted to it?
NT: When I first conceived the idea, I honestly wasn’t sure whether Samford was the clone or the real person. I wanted to be surprised along with him. I think we’ve all had moments where we’ve woken up and wondered where or even who we were. Even if it’s just for a moment. And I’m not talking about those nights when you get blackout drunk. But I suppose this idea does build off the old “who am I waking up next to” dilemma.
GG: How much of your story is supernatural and how much scientific?
NT: I think the story is purely sciensupernaturalific.
GG: What draws you to the idea of clones?
NT: I’m not really that interested in clones, but I am intrigued by how similar a clone of a person really would be. I think one of the most fascinating things about the Samford experience is when he and his “likeness” achieve erection at the exact same time even though the act that elicits erection only occurs to one of them.
GG: How did you enhance the believability of your story and its immediacy for readers?
NT: My secret to believability is in not trying too hard to make it believable. I think as soon as you start to explain things or give a lot of details about how something came to be, then the reader starts to doubt you. It’s like a lie. When we give too much information, people become skeptical.
GG: Did you just go with it, chapter by chapter, or did you plan it out?
NT: Up until the fifth chapter (May), it’s all been chapter by chapter. Only once I hit the June story did the rest begin to plan out. I’ve been on the journey with Samford, trying to figure out life along with him.
GG: Without giving anything away, can we look forward to more clones or just a struggle between these two clones to claim which is the “real” Samford?
NT: There will be plenty more clones. And plenty more male nudity.
GG: The point of view suggests the narrator is the real Samford as he awakens with a woman he doesn’t know and the clone next to him. He thinks she might be a witch and it stays that way until the end of the story when he goes for a walk looking for his real house. Is there anything symbolic about this story, as in Kafka, or it is literal?
NT: It’s an experiment in identity and knowing oneself in the face of uncertainty. Perhaps there is symbolism there.
GG: How does this story relate to your other writing? Have you written about clones before?
NT: I have a couple other stories that involve clones, but none are overly scientific. Most of my stories have some type of absurd, surreal, or bizarro elements. I’m not sure this story really relates to anything else I’ve done though. It’s an independent entity.
GG: Thank you for your insight about this very imaginative story.
NT: And thank you for believing in Samford’s journey.
Gloria Garfunkel: Your story opens on a scene of Nadia plunking down the food shopping while her mother sits scowling at the dining room table complaining that her son never writes her. She has a dog that is so lethargic Nadia thinks he is dead, reflecting her own stagnant life. Tell me about the role of Nadia and her relationship with her mother and siblings.
Mandy Nicol: The narrator, Nadia, is 34 and still lives at home with Mum and Mum’s dog Peregrine. She is the youngest and her two siblings have scampered, leaving her to look after their bossy and ungrateful mother on the family farm.
GG: What type of farm is it and are there other characters involved who are active in the story?
MN: The farm land is leased to a local farmer who runs cattle and grows wheat and barley. Nadia and her Mum still live in the farmhouse but the family hasn’t worked the land since Nadia’s father died some years back. The story is set in rural Victoria, Australia.
Nadia’s sister appears in February’s story and other characters will get involved at different times. The constants, though, are Mum and Nadia. And Peregrine.
GG: The story immediately conveys Nadia’s sense of suffocation and Mum’s constant demands and displeasures. Mum resents her son’s apparently glamorous life travelling the world neglecting his mother. Is that in fact what Nadia’s brother is doing?
MN: Well, he’s certainly neglecting his Mum if he can’t manage to send her a birthday greeting of some sort. Nadia’s brother is very taken with himself and his globetrotting life. His work is a bit of a mystery but he always seems to have plenty of money, that much he does manage to convey to his family.
GG: You write the story in a straightforward way putting us vividly in the scene. How did you decide to tell the story in that way?
MN: I am telling the story in short flashes, glimpses of Nadia’s humdrum life with a subtext showing her dissatisfaction and exasperation. But Nadia has never tried to change her situation. She’s not one for confrontation, she’s a pushover, so is it partly her fault for not asserting herself? The question is does she really want things to change? Is the discomfort enough for her to leave? Life can be comfortably uncomfortable sometimes. Or should that be uncomfortably comfortable?
GG: What does Nadia do for work?
MN: Nadia has her own sewing business. She does a bit of everything, from making wedding dresses to repairing overloved teddy bears. She can reupholster furniture and has been known to repair horse rugs even though they clog up her machine.
Nadia works from home and this intensifies her pressure cooker situation.
GG: Does Nadia have other people in her life who perhaps are encouraging her to move on?
MN: Nadia hasn’t had a close friend since high school. She deals with a lot of people through her business and they think she’s happy because that’s what she tells them. Nadia is adept at keeping things to herself.
GG: How are you feeling about being part of the 2014 project?
MN: These are my first stories in print so it’s all very exciting, if a little daunting. Matt (Potter) is a great help and so easy to work with, his support has given me a lot of confidence and the project is a great motivator - and what a wonderfully innovative project this is. I’m enjoying all of the stories and it’s lovely to get to know the other writers involved.
GG: These being your first stories in print, how did you learn to write so well?
MN: That’s a very kind question, Gloria. I’ve always enjoyed reading, and I’ve always loved words. For a number of years I’ve been a part of a women’s writing critique group that has been extremely helpful and encouraging.
GG: What authors have inspired your own writing?
MN: I have so many favourite authors. Dick Francis, Nevil Shute, Monica Dickens, Ruth Park, and Arthur Upfield are old friends. Tim Winton, David Mitchell, Rohinton Mistry, and Arundhati Roy astound me. John Steinbeck’s Grapes of Wrath is still my favourite book. As a child I loved book series like Enid Blyton’s Brer Rabbit, Elyne Mitchell’s Silver Brumby, and Mary Grant Bruce’s Billabong books.
GG: What are you doing when you aren’t writing?
MN: I have a hobby farm with an assortment of pets – current count is 3 horses, 20 sheep, 2 cats, a dog, a galah, a duck, and a chook. A lot of my time is spent feeding or talking to them. To pay their food and vet bills I need a real job so I also do part time office work.
Gloria Garfunkel: Morgana, the main character in Morgana Malone and the Case of the Mysterious Flood, has dyed her hair carrot orange. Why?
Matt Potter: Morgana doesn’t always make the best decisions, although, actually, she’s quite passive so probably her professional hairdresser – and not an amateur hairdresser, there’s a distinction – said it would be a good idea: “You’ve got just the right head shape and complexion to carry off an orange bob!” And Morgana no doubt didn’t say no. Morgana doesn’t say no to a lot of things. So consequently, she spends a lot of time doing a lot of things she’d rather not do, with a lot of people she’d rather not be with. It’s a pattern in her life.
GG: You go into detail about Morgana’s clothes and ill-fitting shoes. What do they tell us about her?
MP: She’s entirely dressed in variations of orange, from her carrot-top bob to her apricot broderie Anglaise dress with wide shoulder ruffle to her “open-toed two-tone peach and tangerine” very high-heeled shoes. She looks completely out of place in the art gallery (Grigor is right on the money with that one), and her outfit is quite impractical too, leading tours of the gallery’s artwork, tripping along the wooden floors. She has to concentrate so she won’t topple off her shoes – she can’t point to the bas-relief on the ceiling otherwise she will fall off her shoes, plus Grigor is part of the tour and is criticising her and making her nervous meaning it’s even harder for her to concentrate – and her shoes are rubbing her ankles raw too. So despite her desire for something new – it’s her first day as a volunteer gallery guide – she is quite out of place. After all, she’s a 46-year old woman wearing an apricot broderie Anglaise dress with a wide shoulder ruffle!! She is lucky no one is laughing at her … though patrons of art galleries tend to be too well-mannered to do that. Patrons would probably have a gentle laugh at her later, in the gallery café, if the topic was brought up.
GG: Morgana offers a plethora of artistic information. Do you spend a lot of time in art galleries? Have you come across a Morgana?
MP: She offers that information because she is well-prepared. I know that to become a gallery guide – and I am sure all western art museums are the same – it’s quite an onerous task. In this particular gallery – the Art Gallery of South Australia (AGSA) in Adelaide, my home city – you have to study for many months to be a guide (and then you sit a test / exam which you either pass or fail) and each time a new exhibition comes along, you have to attend lectures etc and study some more. Many of the guides carry notes with them when they lead tours, especially in the first weeks of an exhibition. I have never been a gallery guide – never say never though! – but did sit on an AGSA volunteer committee for a few years, a lot of which I found boring. South Australia is the only state in Australia founded as a free colony, of which South Australians with ancestors who were here in the colonial days are inordinately proud … and which pisses the other Australian states off. I walk past the AGSA twice a day, to and from work. So I know it well, and wouldn’t mind a job there. The gallery was built with donations by wealthy pastoralists and mine-owners, many of whom upped their donations every time someone else donated money. And there’s a reference to that in the January story.
Yes, I love art galleries. And a visit to a new city – or even a city I’ve visited before – is not complete without a visit to an art museum. (Actually, my favourite gallery to visit is The Queensland Art Gallery in Brisbane. A visit to Brisbane – and I go most years, as my sister lives near Brisbane – is never complete for me without a visit to the Queensland Art Gallery.)
And no, I have never met anyone like Morgana working as a volunteer gallery guide. I don’t know how she got that gig. I think the gallery must have been so busy the day she enquired she just slipped through, or it was a very hot day and the gallery guide gatekeepers were too exhausted to care! Or maybe they felt sorry for her.
GG: Does Morgana understand all the information she is imparting?
MP: No. Because she is trying to be someone she’s not. Just who that person really is, I don’t think she even knows.
GG: I’ve never heard that name. Did you make it up?
MP: Morgana? No … not at all. But it is unusual. Fata Morgana. Wikipedia says Fata Morgana is a superior and unusual type of mirage, as well as a sorceress in Arthurian legend. And Fata Morgana is also a 1971 film by Werner Herzog. It’s one of those names that’s been in the back of my head for years. Morgana as a name sounds very theatrical and bizarre and kind of ugly and is not her real name anyway. Morgana’s real name is – or was, before she married Grigor – Susan Green. But you are right to ask: it’s not unusual for me to make up a completely new name for a character. Names are important. Green took ages to settle upon, whereas Susan was decided even before it ever came up in a story.
GG: At one point Grigor challenges Morgana’s knowledge of how bas-relief is made. Is this a real or fabricated answer as she holds back a scream: “Plaster of Paris, creek water and old egg cartons all mooshed together in a big cauldron and slapped up there with large paint brushes made of virgin horsehair.”
MP: Morgana is exasperated with Grigor’s questions and snide remarks – they used to be married, plus he was also her therapist, which may be how they met (though I’m unsure quite how they met) – so she says something completely stupid because she can also be a funny person. She’s exasperated but she’s also funny. But is it that far from the truth? … maybe not. Craft techniques are fascinating – it looks so beautiful in the end, after it’s finished, but the process towards making this beauty could well be stinky and hot and ugly and even poisonous – so it might not be too far from reality. Egg cartons is a newer invention than the late-Victorian building itself, I’m sure, but cardboard and plaster and water and large brushes and somewhere to mix it all are not so far-fetched … but the words mooshed and creek and cauldron and slapped and virgin are all comic. (“Slapped up there with large paint brushes made of virgin horsehair” makes me laugh. I picture late 19th century workmen taking big swings, white plaster stuff on the end of huge brushes, trying to catapult the glop at the ceiling.) Those words are meant to be funny. And the truth pops out of Morgana’s mouth at relevant times. It actually happens in every story in this cycle I’ve written so far: the truth as revealed by Morgana in a moment of humorous clarity.
GG: What is the true nature of Morgana’s relationship to Grigor, the man who heckles her talks and follows her through the art gallery?
MP: They were married once. He was also her therapist. He changed his name and made her change hers. But she needed to get out of the marriage. Though the likely story is, he’d done the Svengali thing and wanted to move on. So he left her. She could well have supported him financially while he was studying to be a psychotherapist, and then, once he was ready to practice, having convinced her to pay him for therapy even though she was the guinea pig and he needed the practice, he called it quits on the marriage.
But Grigor is very good-looking and can be charming when he chooses to be. But his world is about him, despite his profession. Hence his plastic surgery. And the ego of the man! “It hasn’t escaped my notice that you’ve dyed your hair the colour of my favourite vegetable,” he tells her. Ha! What a creep!
GG: What causes the flood in the ladies’ room?
MP: I imagined that to be real. Basement toilets that are not working. I work in a building in the CBD that was built over a creek, and that creek can sometimes flood the bottom basement (there are two basements). But seeking refuge in a toilet is not so uncommon. Yes, flushing the toilet despite a sign warning of imminent flooding is not such a wise thing to do … but Morgana does it because she is caught and needs to do something. Grigor is demanding a reaction … so she stands up and flushes the toilet, even though she doesn’t need to, she was just sitting on the toilet with the lid closed. What causes the flooding is poor / blocked plumbing. Morgana should have heeded the sign! I mean, as soon as the reader reads DANGER – subject to flooding, he / she should know there’s going to be a flood, even if the title of the story doesn’t tell you that. It’s inevitable. That’s why you plant things like that. The anticipation is part of the tension.
Plus, DANGER – subject to flooding is not the usual sort of sign you would see on art gallery toilets! You’d expect to see that on a country highway, and I thought it was funny … and the sign comes at the very end of the first section of the story so again, it’s also about comic timing.
GG: Is Morgana really looking to find a new man in her life, and is the Art Gallery of South Australia the best place for her to find one, with old ladies following her around with pesty Grigor?
MP: Ha! Absolutely not. She would have done better to have sat at a café and accosted men as they came in to order their meat pies and iced coffee! Older men, gay men, art students … these are the men she would find at the Art Gallery and none of them are remotely eligible. But it’s a running joke … she’s doing things to meet men, but really, she’s just filling in time. She’s being active – when usually she is so passive – but it’s misguided activity (pardon the pun!) and as so often happens, when you are looking for a partner, you can’t find one.
GG: What’s next for Morgana?
MP: Morgana’s life is not going to get better … otherwise, where would the drama be?! But it involves Grigor … for a while at least. And her hair is going to grow out too. Though she does meet some men later who find her striped hair sexy. There are worse things in this world than turning men on with your striped hair! And Morgana is just the person to do it!
GG: This made me curious about your books. What are titles?
MP: My only published collection thus far is Vestal Aversion (2012) but my flash novella on the bitch is with a publisher at the moment and a collection of email / journal entries from my time living in Hamburg in 2008 and Berlin in 2009 is being readied for publication, Hamburgers and Berliners and other courses in between. I’ve edited them and just have to commit those edits to my MacBook!
GG: Most people think of you as an editor. How do you balance being a writer and editor?
MP: It’s a dilemma, yes, largely of my own making, this editor v. writer deal. I think the writer is losing out. Well, I know the writer is losing out. Other than for PS projects, I do little writing.
I have restructured Pure Slush online for 2014, because PS print in 2014 is so huge (i.e. 2014 A Year in Stories), to give me more time for my own reading for pleasure and also my own writing. Hamburgers and Berliners and other courses in between and on the bitch have taken way, way, way longer than they should have. But I’m like a dog with a bone with editing (and publishing), I keep coming up with ideas not just for me to write but for others to be involved in too!
I wish I was more productive with my own writing but I can’t decry my productivity in general.
BUT, I am doing more reading now, and that is fun, reading books I choose and not things I have to read. (Therefore, non-fiction. I read mostly non-fiction for my own pleasure.)
I wish there was more time … but I have a reputation now more for being an editor, so I need to get cracking, write more and turn that around (in a way).
Gloria Garfunkel: This is a very sad story written in a very flippant manner in the first person voice of a man planning to kill himself. It’s as if talking about suicide isn’t serious and yet it very much is. How did you come to that particular voice?
Gwendolyn Joyce Mintz: I’d been thinking about writing a story about people who wanted to kill themselves — a suicide club. When I agreed to do 2014, I went through ideas I’d been jotting down, looking to find one that would lend itself to 12 stories. I further played with the idea — could it run twelve stories, and deciding it could, sat down and wrote. But I didn’t make a conscious decision to make the narrator male: I sat down to write and the story came out.
GG: How did you decide to casually segue into the story with a woman smoking a cigarette? Was there any intention of associating smoking with death?
GJM: No. The way I write is to sit down and encourage someone to “tell me your story.”
The context of the work, the setting, is familiar to me — I’ve worked in a lot of restaurants and there’s always people smoking — but, again, I let an idea incubate and then I sit down and invite it to reveal itself.
GG: How did you decide on this particular subject matter and will it carry through your twelve stories?
GJM: My best friend killed herself years ago. We were going to lunch on Thursday. She called me Tuesday and we talked. On Wednesday, she shot herself in the head.
I believe a person has a right to kill themselves if they want to (not teenagers though) because if adults are living with pain, and can’t find a way out of it, despite therapy and treatment and whatever, then I believe they have that right.
So, because my writing is me searching for answers to the questions that make up my life, I am wondering, through this story, what if my friend had told me she was going to kill herself? What if she thought she could be that honest with me? Would I be a good friend and support her or would being a good friend mean I would’ve tried to talk her out of it?
GG: The bringing up of suicide in the context of New Year’s resolutions and getting one’s affairs in order is very jarring to the reader. It takes a while to sink in as something more than black humor. The reader is startled as it sinks in he is serious.
GJM: I was going to kill myself as a teenager. I spent the day getting things in order, calling friends, appreciating the things I’d collected, reading favorite lines of books. I was so in love with Elton John and, of course, that day I listened to his autobiographical album “Captain Fantastic and the Brown Dirt Cowboy” which included “Someone Saved My Life Tonight” though I was not looking for someone to save me.
This part of the story is mine — to go with some sense of no loose ends, with a sense of accomplishing something.
GG: It seems bizarre for two women and a man to meet for drinks, one having tried suicide and planning to try again, one contemplating it and one planning it. Then “the suicide club” decides to meet in a month if they are all still here. That certainly injects tension and suspense to your story.
GJM: When I was looking for the idea that would span the 12 months and I decided on this one, I wondered who would come back and who wouldn’t. As I’ve written them, I’ve been surprised.
GG: What else have you written and what are the topics that you are drawn to? How does this relate to other things you have written?
GJM: I used to write a lot of poetry but now I write fiction. I’m drawn to topics that I’ve experienced: abuse, molestation, alcohol and drug addiction (not mine but others around me), racial and gender issues.
Again, seeking answers to the questions. The Suicide Club is about me and the times I’ve thought it’d be better to end it as well as those suicides of friends that I’ve experienced.
GG: Thank you so much for your personal insights
Gloria Garfunkel: This story opens with a divorced protagonist whose life is so chaotic he has no clothes in his old house because they are all in a bag in his new house. Does this describe his life at this point?
Gary Percesepe: In part, it does. The narrator (whose name is later revealed to be Val Hollow) is in a mell of a hess — in between everything. Housing, clothing, relationships, health (both physical and mental) — you name it. It’s a cliché to say that death is a kind of death, and the French have it exactly right that even sexual pleasure is la petite mort, as its true meaning is ambiguous. Transition is a far too gentle a word for so violent a state.
GG: A post-divorce relationship coincides with a root canal. What is and isn’t breakable here?
GP: Everything changes, everything ends. Our man Val is coming to understand this, however late he may have arrived to the show. A love he thought might have saved him has not, and once again he is assigned to himself. In the end we all make our own death, and we make it alone. Also, he misses his dog, that human companion of inestimable worth whose very name is transposed as god.
GG: What is the role of moving gigantic furniture into a tiny house?
GP: It’s furniture left over from the marriage, comically large, the house-of-the-marriage having been a huge Victorian. He’s like Gulliver in the land of Lilliputians. His thoughts are large, comically oversized for his new surroundings. Plus, he’s a bit dramatic. We overhear his thoughts and don’t know whether to laugh or cry. Recently-divorced people frequently make the mistake of thinking their situation is more interesting to others than it is.
GG: Your writing style is very concrete, yet you convey a well of emotion underneath. How do you think you do that?
GP: Meg Wolitzer, whose fiction I adore, has called my writing “crisp but sad.” This is a writerly trick as old as Flaubert, that unreconstructed modernist. The idea is to employ the most ordinary sentences, wringing out every trace of sentimentality even as the situation becomes bleaker and bleaker, so that even the simple placement of punctuation can draw a sigh or a wince. I’d point you to supporting evidence in the chapter on Flaubert from the critic James Wood in his book How Fiction Works, but that book has already been packed into one of fifty book boxes. Yeah, I’m moving again.
GG: You have recently written two books. Can you say something about them and if they relate in any way to each other and to this story?
GP: I was hanging out with my friend Kim Chinquee last summer in Buffalo. I’d known Kim for years — we were both editors for Mississippi Review (now named New World Writing) — and I’d had occasion to publish a few of her stories, and she had published two of mine in elimae. But we had never met in person. So, when we finally figured out that we were now living in the same city, we met up at the Café Aroma on Elmwood, and the conversation turned to our short stories and poetry. We have both been prolific in our literary production, but Kim had the good sense to pull her stuff together and publish them as collections. Thumbing through one of her fine story collections, I realized that in fact I had published nearly a hundred short stories and poems, and, well, maybe it was time? So I approached Matt Potter at Pure Slush Books. Matt is an indefatigable supporter of indie lit, who had published a few of my stories. I asked Matt if he’d be interested in bringing out two collections, one of my flash fiction (flash here defined as 1,000 words or less) and one collection of my poetry? Matt said sure. The result is collection of flash fiction titled itch, and a poetry collection, falling, both published in late November, 2013The enormously talented Frederick Barthelme designed the covers, I’m pleased to say. I also have a collection of longer short stories, Why I Did the Grocery Girl, forthcoming from Aqueous Books next year.
As for how these two collections relate to each other, that is an interesting question, as it is sometimes difficult to distinguish between flash fiction and a prose poem. Breakable and a few longer stories from 2014 will possibly go into the Why I Did the Grocery Girl collection — we’ll see. I had some difficult choices to make as to what goes in each collection, but in the end I’m happy with my choices.
Gloria Garfunkel: This tiny gem of a story from title through the end is incongruous and fraught with inner conflict. Can you tell us why you started the story where you did?
Jessica McHugh: Father Edward McKenzie is a frazzled character often at war with his environment, as well as his true desires and beliefs. By dropping readers right into his ambivalence regarding dressing as a woman, I wanted them to get that feeling of being pulled in two directions: one, the joy he feels in pretending to be Eleanor, and two: his devotion to the religion condemning his choices.
GG: I wondered if he was a cross-dresser or a transvestite and if there is a distinction?
JM: That’s a good question, and it’s one that generates debate due to people’s preference of certain labels. As I believe “cross-dressers” or “transvestites” are often associated with straight men who dress as women, I’d prefer to call Edward “transgender.” Inside, he sees himself as a woman forced to live as a man because of his religion and fear of being ostracized from the community.
GG: Where does the ghost of Grandma Eleanor fit into the story and why do you think she is encouraging him to cross-dress?
JM: Grandma Eleanor was the only one who really seemed to know Edward. Whether she understood his proclivity to cross-dressing while she was alive, we don’t know, but he certainly feels like she did. She was the opposite of Edward mother, Betty. While Edward mother’s judged him to no end, Eleanor represented complete acceptance. She was pure beauty and class in life, and in her death, she remains a beacon of hope for Edward. Maybe one day he can be as accepting and lovely as she was.
GG: How did you decide what Edward could get away with wearing to church that day and how the corset bound not just his body but his identity?
JM: As tortured as Edward is by his desires, as much as he’s terrified to be exposed, I believe he’d find relief in being caught. At this point I don’t think he’s trying very hard to conceal himself. He’s been playing a part for decades, and he’s tired, but he’s too afraid of judgment to reveal himself. Wearing the corset under his vestments symbolizes his need to “hold it together” as well as his imprisonment by fear.
GG: Do you believe his grandmother that the Lord and his church would accept him as he really is?
JM: His grandmother, yes. And in this modern age, I believe the church would as well … or at least accept that his love in God is not lessened by his desire to dress a certain way. But no matter what, Edward won’t be able to embrace someone else’s acceptance, the church especially, until he accepts himself.
GG: He seems on the verge of acting on his impulses? Will there be other characters to help him along?
JM: More characters will file in and out of his life, but they’ll mostly appear to help him better realize who he is and who he should be. 2014 is the year of Edward McKenzie’s inner evolution.
GG: What else have you written and how does this relate to other pieces?
JM: This serial story, which I’ve actually named The Face in the Jar, is one of my first literary fiction pieces. I mostly write speculative fiction – often a lot darker than this tale. I’ve had fourteen books published in the past five years, my most well-known being Rabbits in the Garden, published by Post Mortem Press. Just using Rabbits as an example, there are a few themes that match those in The Face in the Jar: the relationship between parent and child, especially. Also, while Edward McKenzie feels trapped by wearing men’s clothes (or wearing his vestments over a corset), the main character of Rabbits, Avery Norton, is trapped in a Taunton State Asylum for crimes she didn’t commit … or at least, she believes so. Both of these stories are about freedom, literally and metaphorically.
GG: What authors have inspired you?
JM: Roald Dahl inspires me to no end. His ability to entertain, enlighten, and frighten so effortlessly keeps me striving to become a better writer. I’ve also been lucky to meet dozens of talented writers over the last few years, all of which inspire me. Max Booth III, Tim Waggoner, Stephanie Wytovich, Red Tash, John Edward Lawson, Michael A. Arnzen … there are way too many to name. This is a wonderful time for discovering new and varied writers.
Gloria Garfunkel: This story starts with the narrator, Jenn, sitting next to a dominating coworker at a table of new coworkers. Bill Plover has taken them to an all-you-can-eat buffet and he instructs his fellow employees on strategic planning to maximize the all-you-can-eat experience. Eat expensive meats first and not fill up on starches. He then announces that he will be on a reality show that will tell him what to do for a whole year, from what tie to wear to whom to date. Everyone looks at Jenn. How did you come up with this unique premise for a story?
Lynn Beighley: If you’re like me, or Jenn, you don’t like attention. You sit in the corner, and hope no one notices you. You’d rather watch than be watched. So, the story begins with Jenn being the center of attention, and being forced to remain so because she needs to get along with these curious strangers in her new job. The scene flows from the characters. Bill and Jenn are opposites.
If I had to describe my story, it’s peer pressure meets social media. It’s high school, amplified and made grotesque. I’m exploring the limits of how someone realistically lets fame push him or her. While Jenn is my vehicle, all the characters in this story are being coerced by our increasingly public social interactions.
GG: I like the pace of the story, starting with the flies copulating on the window giving a sense of the absurdity to come. Was the pacing deliberate or did it just flow?
LB: It’s deliberate in that it comes from Jenn’s mood. Her sense of time slowing down when she’s uncomfortable drives the pace.
GG: Jenn’s voice is that of a passive observer. Does it change as the story progresses?
LB: It does. As she is reluctantly pulled from her seat in the corner, she is no longer watching the story, she is the story.
For a long time I wanted to write a novel in which my main character is part of a reality show where her decisions are crowdsourced for some period of time. But I had a tough time writing a character I could relate to who would submit to public humiliation for any amount of money. Instead, I used Jenn’s naivety and her fundamentally kind nature to put her in a situation where she felt she couldn’t say no. As the story progresses, I test her limits. And if or when she finally does say no, where does that leave her with her relationships and her own sense of fair play?
GG: Have you followed any reality shows for “research” and if so, which ones and what was your impression?
LB: I’ve watched a few, and seldom enjoyed them. There is very little “reality” in these shows. Is there more in my story’s reality show, You Tell Me? You tell me.
GG: Are there authors who have inspired your writing? Who are your favorites?
LB: Oh, certainly. Growing up, I loved Austen, C.S. Lewis, Kafka, Steinbeck, Twain, Wodehouse, Wilde. Later, I discovered Atwood, Raymond Carver, T.C. Boyle, Vonnegut, Oates, Roth. So many more, how can I choose favorites?
GG: What else have you written or are working on?
LB: I’ve written a lot of computer and programming books for a living. For my soul, I’ve written a lot of short stories.
I’ve found a way to combine my technical and creative sides. I am writing my first novel, tentatively titled “str4ng3m4g1c”. I never expected to find myself writing a young adult novel, but that’s what this is. I’m under contract to create a work of fiction that includes a few pages of simple computer programming. The idea is to get teen girls and boys to try out writing a little code. But I hope it’s also a good story that allows you to skip the pages with code, if you’re so inclined. It should be in print by June.
GG: That sounds fascinating.What do you do when not writing?
LB: I’m a development editor for Pragmatic Publishing, a well-respected publisher of programming and business books. They’re the ones publishing my novel, and I appreciate their confidence in me. I also write books about computer programming and technical topics. I’m revising one of my books, Head First PHP & MySQL.
Oh, and when I’m slightly less busy, I play with my two big Bernese Mountain Dogs and travel wherever I can afford to.
GG: I really look forward to reading more of your work. Thank you for your thoughtful responses.
Gloria Garfunkel: On the surface this is the story of a high class prostitute hired to give regular blow jobs to a well-dressed man whose wife is sexually exhausted. What led you to start your series with this particular story?
Gill Hoffs: I tend to write fiction in two distinct styles: ‘vintage’ as Matt (Potter) calls it, and ‘raw contemporary’ which tends to be sexier and sometimes a bit gross. Since the ‘2014’ series was to be written in the present tense and follow a character through his / her / their year, I thought raw was the way to go. It’s also a world away from my non-fiction projects on Victorian shipwrecks and tragedy on the high seas! Since my narrator is a sex worker it seemed sensible to start with the crude reality of her job (as I imagined it) as, unlike work in accountancy or childcare, sex work seems to be something that people use to colour how they view a practitioner’s every move.
GG: The voice in this story is very formal and kept the scenes at almost an asexual distance. What was the purpose of that?
GH: The voice came with the character, that’s just how she sounds in my head. When I write ‘through’ a character, in first person, they usually come fully-formed, and I only get to know them as the words pour through my fingers onto the screen. Luckily for me, I like her - a blessing since I’ll be writing her for a year!
To her, it’s work. Just as a model specialising in wedding shoots will go through the moves and smile and glow for the camera, so my narrator treats her sex work as precisely that: work. As with a wedding model, if she were doing the exact same things with someone she loved it would be very different.
GG: What was it like carrying this story through a series of twelve?
GH: The regularity of writing a story a month for ’2014’ is / has been a real pick-me-up when writing lengthy and emotionally-draining non-fiction. I am very attached to my character and will miss her when the December story is done. I could easily have written all twelve in a block but I knew working with Matt and this character would be something to savor so I’m drawing it out for as long as I can.
GG: How did you feel about the sexuality in your story?
GH: I’m long past being bothered about writing sex scenes, though initially as a writer I wasn’t sure how I’d feel about my family reading them. I do tend to write them with an air of the ridiculous or macabre, not with the intention of getting a reader off or conveying great feelings of romance and eroticism, so perhaps that’s why it doesn’t bother me. Though if my dad or brothers are reading this, I should point out that I have little in common with my character but I do like her an awful lot. And although there is a lot of graphic and sometimes toe-curlingly detailed sex in her stories, I am actually very shy and easy to embarrass in real life. Writer life is a whole other ball game.
GG: You mentioned that you are writing non-fiction. Of what sort and how does it affect your fiction-writing?
GH: The Sinking of RMS Tayleur: The Lost Story of the ‘Victorian Titanic’- my first full-length book - was recently published by Pen & Sword. It tells the true story of a luxury White Star Line clipper’s shocking shipwreck, 48 hours into her maiden voyage, with the loss of almost all the women and children on board despite the ship literally being just a few feet from safety. I’m currently writing articles about the ship, emigration to the Australian Gold Rush, and women’s experiences of travel in the mid 19th century for magazines, etc. but I also enjoy writing non-fiction about writing / publishing, conducting research (or being thwarted, as detailed in Creating a Stink in Pure Slush’s Wild: a collection, where I highlight my ham-fisted attempts to smell a rotting whale), or things I want to commit to paper and memorialise or have fun with.
Writing non-fiction feeds into my fiction in a big way, and vice-versa. I love to research - writers are curious beasts - and whatever I write I like to think about the key details or phrases that tune me (and hopefully the reader) into that character’s world. What would it smell / taste / feel / sound like? Tansy Rogers is her name!, one of my favourite pieces for Pure Slush, was written for the anthology Notausgang (German for ‘emergency exit’) and is based around the sadly true story of an anonymous victim of the Hartford Circus Fire in 1944, known to the world as ‘Little Miss 1565’. If I wasn’t into mysteries and conveying the truth even while writing lies in fiction, this story would never have come to be.
GG: Your voice is very unique. Have there been any other authors who have influenced your work and in what ways?
GH: Thank you! Matt Potter has been a huge influence, through his editing and conversations, and also his brash and often hilarious work. I’m lucky to have met him and his feedback and guidance has changed my world. Other writers who have influenced my work number in the hundreds, if not thousands. If a book or story doesn’t touch me somehow, however slight, then one of us has failed.
I’ll mention a few authors here but this is in no way an exhaustive list! Len Kuntz’s stories remind me of Ray Bradbury’s less science-based work, such as The Pedestrian - both authors’ pieces sing a song to me in a key I want to explore myself. Graham Masterton’s horror writing has encouraged me in my belief that emotional reactions are often most satisfyingly wrought from the small but accurate details, and that being a bit odd or quirky can only be a good thing. Jeremy Scott, of Fast & Louche fame, showed me there is a market for thrilling non-fiction written in an evocative way, and has offered me incredible feedback and support since I first wrote to him as a fan in 2010. Shaun Tan (Tales from Outer Suburbia) and Lynley Dodd (Hairy Maclary) are regularly read at bedtime - I have a six-year-old - and I love the poetry of their prose and the wistful oddity of the subjects Shaun Tan touches upon in particular. Dick Francis is my ‘comfort author’, who I turn to when stressed or to help me stop thinking over problems when I want to sleep. Iain Banks and James Herriot definitely shaped my early work. And given the subjects covered in my ‘2014’ stories, I should probably mention that I started reading my mum’s Jilly Cooper books when I was about 10 or 11, which has had more of an influence than I perhaps realised at the time!
Gloria Garfunkel: Tell me about your experiences with the supernatural that led you to write this story and how your various mentors reacted to it?
Kimberlee Smith: I began this project while I was earning an MA in creative writing / English from the University of Sydney in Australia. It began as a two-term dissertation project. I’ve always been fascinated by life on societal fringes, and as a child my grandmother would tell me stories about gypsies and we would play with her Ouija board. She had a ghost in her house in New Jersey, and when I was very little I encountered two there myself. It might seem wacky, but the afterlife or lack thereof has always intrigued me.
I have been taking classes at Columbia and recently wrote a critical essay contrasting and comparing Dante’s Commedia with Walcott’s Omeros, both works that incorporate journeys of that sort. I’ve always found driving a plot forward with chronological sensibilities challenging, so when I was approached with this project, I thought it was a wonderful opportunity to, as the cliché goes, get my story straight, set a framework for what I expect will someday turn into a novel. The setting of my stories is in Australia, which is not where it began as a project, but since I’ve moved back to the States (in 2005), I’ve wanted to revisit my life there. Perhaps lack of closure is the prompt. So, the story has been developing and changing over the years. I worked on it this past spring with author Jim Shepard at the Sirenland Writers’ Conference in Positano and will work on refining and shaping what I take away with Jim again and Rick Moody at the New York State Writers’ Institute for a month. Issues I’ve worked on with Jim were a first person, dead narrator, which is tricky; and developing conflict and allowing the characters to be bigger than life, while crafting a story that is outrageous and simultaneously realistic / believable.
GG: This January story Twelve Days Old is about a woman who dies when her baby is that age and she narrates the story while dead. What inspired you to come up with that plot?
KS: The story began as an idea for a three-generation journey of lost love and the idea that if you can really love once in your life, truly, even if it escapes you, it may well be enough to carry you through the world. It didn’t start out with a child being born, it started with a young girl raised by her grandmother and the boy she falls in love with, an itinerant farm worker who comes from a gypsy family. Both live peripatetic lives and understand the diaspora the other suffers through. It was important to me to weave the relationships together early on, and so it begins with Etheline’s parents, Melodie and Dean, who die accidental deaths within months of each other. I never felt like I fit in when I was young, and now with teenage daughters of my own, I realize this is not a unique insecurity and to write about strong women who often also feel alone or alienated was something that stuck with me.
GG: What inspired you to make her post-partum? Why does she say so little about the baby?
KS: I suppose the reason Melodie doesn’t go into much detail about her newborn baby in the beginning is because she never did have a moment to meet her, to have a human, tactile exchange that a mother does after a child is born. Paradoxically, she only gets to really know the child as she grows and becomes close to her the longer she’s been dead. She is struggling, initially, with wrapping her head around the fact that she died. Maybe it sounds selfish, but I believe if you were aware you had just died, it might just be more important that your baby being born. She sees that, although her husband and mother are grieving, that the baby is well taken care of for the time being. And the idea of the dead narrator came about in a rewrite, when telling the story from either the child, mother, or grandmother’s perspective, or even that of an omniscient narrator, felt flat to me. So I changed the point of view to someone who could move through the story while also having quirks and problems and opinions of her own.
GG: The narrator is very specific about her experience of death, none of it cliché. Can you talk about her observations and where you got the ideas for them, especially the wonderful ending?
KS: I wanted to create a world for Melodie that allowed for the afterlife being at times as banal and frustrating as real life, taking away the romanticism and euphemistic talk about being at peace, being somewhere better, turning into an angel, all those things that people do during and after a grieving process that are really acts and thoughts to comfort themselves. How can you possibly know if and what an afterlife is like? I’ve experienced some close friends and family members dying, and my emotional reaction has never been, “Oh, I bet she’s in such a better place now.” I tend to think, perhaps the pain of a physical body is gone if that were the case, but in terms of Melodie, dying was a bummer. I wanted to explore the idea that passing on doesn’t necessarily mean going somewhere better. Thanks for your compliment on the ending. Dean and Melodie were two young people in love, they were idealistic and living a life together that you can only have once with your first love. Before heartache, before baggage, before cynicism. After she dies and learns more about what was really going on around her, she becomes reflective and acknowledges the irony of stating and believing you will love someone for infinity and having that play out literally. The idea for the tchotchke, the ash tray, came from a trip I took cross-country with an old boyfriend I was madly in love with … we stopped at Elvis Presley’s home, Graceland, in Tennessee, and bought a souvenir called ‘Sip N’ Smoke’, which was a coffee cup that had a saucer doubling as an ashtray. That tacky little souvenir reminded me of the trip we took and how in love we were. It was, however tacky, a memento that triggered a memory of a wonderful time in my life. So, the crocodile ashtray with Dean and Melodie’s names and the infinity symbol would seem tacky to everyone but the two of them because it symbolized the beginning of their life together. But regardless of what the souvenir represents, there’s an innate sadness, I think, in gift-shop tokens.
GG: It’s interesting to me that you choose to work on your novel with successive mentors. What has that experience been like and have there been highs and lows? What have you learned from each of them?
KS: I don’t know that I’ve chosen to work on this manuscript with different mentors; it’s just how things have fallen into place. Dr. David Brooks, from the University of Sydney, oversaw the first draft, but after I moved back to the States I put the manuscript down for several years. Then I bought and ran a small farm – which I still do, now – and concentrated on short stories, poetry, creative nonfiction, and essay writing. Everything but the novel. Jim Shepard is one of the best teachers you could ever hope to have. He is a brilliant close reader and I am blown away by his work and generous spirit. I decided to bring this project to his group this coming summer because he knows the piece and also knows what crutches I use and what works for me as a writer. When I saw that Rick Moody was going to be at the Writers’ Institute this summer, I emailed the director, expressing how profound an impact the novel Purple America had on me and that I’d like to learn from Rick. I wouldn’t say there are any lows regarding the mentors I’ve had. I think, as a writer, you have to be resilient in terms of criticism in order to become better at your craft but also vulnerable enough to take to heart the advice and support you’re given.
GG: Have you or someone you know had any near-death experiences?
KS: Near death, no. Real death, yes. I have lost people close to me, both when I was young and as a grown woman. As a kid, I lost a very good girlfriend who was killed by a drunk driver, and a good friend in high school who was murdered. Pretty grim, I know. I suppose everyone has awful stories of the sort, one way or another. I get stuck on the thought of, What happens next? I haven’t ever been able to reconcile those people went to a better place or were better off in an afterlife. I have a second cousin who was a mortician, and my grandmother used to call the funeral home, making prank calls. My mother said, if I remember correctly, that my grandmother used to like to go to random people’s funerals. Strangers! She was fascinated with that sort of thing, and it didn’t creep me out as a kid, but I can see how it could.
GG: Is there anything else you would like to say about the development of this unusual and captivating story?
KS: Like all escapes, this work has taken on a life of its own. It leads me more than I lead it at this point, and I often wonder what the characters will do next. The escapism and exploration, even the research that goes into writing accurately about, let’s say, wind turbines, or types of poisonous snakes and their habitats, is rewarding for me. Sitting down to write every day is hard. There are a million tedious things I make excuses to do other than writing, because it’s hard. But having the structure of a deadline and considering writing work, a job, are vital to keeping my head in it.
John Wentworth Chapin: My graduate MFA thesis was an 1100-page novel. 52|250 taught me to be spare and to think about the kernel of a story or scene; I was used to piling on detail. Tightly-limited flash fiction got me boiling it down to the most important single image or word – it’s completely changed the way I write.
GG: What do you see as the connection between 52|250 and 2014?
JWC: There’s a pretty strong tie between 52|250 and 2014 – 12 of the 31 writers in 2014 were part of the Year of Flash! The weekly push of 52|250 intensified the experience and created a strong community quickly. It started out as a commitment between Michelle Elvy and me to kickstart our writing, and it ended up being an amazing year of writing – 1600+ stories by 177 writers. A few months in, Matt Potter started submitting to 52|250, this wonderfully energetic, enthusiastic voice. As he spun off Pure Slush a few months later, he strengthened even more of the connections he formed with many of the other writers in 52|250.
Michelle and Walt and I were so happy to end the Year of Flash on such a strong note – we went out on top rather than fading from exhaustion. I think 52|250 democratized flash by providing a platform where everyone got equal billing. When it all came down to it, getting creative together en masse was transformative for many of us.
GG: John, that brings us to the first story you submitted to 2014, Carmine. It is a story of intense contrasts, the vivid anniversary cupcake, the vivid gore of the accident. How did you come to those particular images?
JWC: Charles picks the cupcake because it’s colorful and garish. He wants color, wit, fun in his life - but I have other plans for him! I was actually thinking of a comic book - a big BOOM would be bright reds and yellows and oranges, just like the cupcake. It’s essentially an orgasm when he and Maybe-Tony share it, so it needs to be explosive.
GG: Another contrast is the silence of the baker and the need for the protagonist to be recognized, for fear he might be a ghost. He needed to eat that cupcake to make that feeling go away. That, too, is so vivid and realistic, a feeling of unreality after a trauma, a need for festive color after an accident. Did you plan that or did it just come to you?
JWC: I hadn’t thought of it in these terms, but I love your read on it - the palliative cupcake! The whole year is for Charles the unreality after trauma, but it takes him a while to realize how much it has affected him. He needs something to make it go away, and in this case, it’s the contact with another person, someone who brings a wash of color into a sepia-toned life.
GG: How was the writing of Carmine different than if you hadn’t done 52|250? What did you learn about writing from the experience that you use now?
JWC: Wow. This is an interesting question, because how 52|250 changed my writing is clear to me, but not specifically Carmine. I love setting myself into a scene and just going with it. I think of writing as improv, and I see where the scene takes me. But with word-limit constraints, the purpose of a scene becomes equally important to its figurative additions to a story. I’d say the paring back that happened in the Carmine drafting is something I would not have been doing in 2009. 1500 words is not much when it comes to telling a complicated story, and splicing together scenes that tell the story rather than dumping that on a narrator’s lap - that definitely came out of 52|250 and my flash experiences. Between the end of the Year of Flash and the beginning of the 2014 project, I finished a third-ish draft of a 700 page novel. I have a LOT of cutting to do!
Gloria Garfunkel: First of all, you have taken on the heroic task of writing concise reviews of all 365 stories in the 2014 collection. What gave you the idea? What motivates you to keep going? And how does it feel now that you are a month into the project?
That made me wonder what the experience of daily reading would be like. Would it detract from momentum, or enhance anticipation? To find out, I committed myself publicly to reading a story each day in 2014. And since I would be doing that, why not also comment on the stories and, more importantly, the process of reading them in this unique fashion?
For motivation, I need look no further than my experience of trying to become a published writer. For years I struggled with output, editing and re-editing pieces until they lost all life. When my wife and I moved to New Castle for a “new start”, I determined to do better. I found flash fiction, joined a group of dedicated writers at Show Me Your Lits, and started writing almost every day. Through my involvement with that, I committed to submitting work weekly as well. And, lo and behold, 148 published stories later, I am a “real”, if imperfect, writer. Writing regularly opens the sluices. Workshopping first drafts opens the critical side of the brain. Seeing drafts become polished stories stokes the ego. These are keys to writing well. If you possess a writer’s eye and ear and mind, you will write something worthy if you write routinely and open yourself to whatever truth drives you.
Since dedication to writing and editing can improve one’s craft, it only makes sense that reading and dissecting good published fiction can improve one’s publishability. That’s my hypothesis, and I’m testing it now.
So far, I have to say the experience has been rewarding. It’s been eye opening to analyze even in a minimal way, so many approaches to openings, character, event. As I begin the second month, I do find my focus shifting a little. I’m being swept up into story lines and commenting on narrative more often than technique. This gets a little tricky, as I don’t want to provide a plot synopsis with spoilers, but a tease about what works particularly well in a given piece. Susan Tepper’s soundtracks have added a whole level of – I want to say “joy” – to this process. I look forward to learning her selection each night. January certainly kept me interested and February has been tremendous so far, but we have many months to go.
GG: In your story Compassion how did the present tense work for you?
SVR: The monthly framework is, by nature, distancing. The tendency is to want to fill in missing background, to connect these story moments in tangible ways. Writing in past tense would likely result in large passages of sense-deadening past-perfect background or endless flashback. By focusing on present tense, we pretty much have to see these stories as immediately unfolding tales, which limits our instinct to dwell on the past. I do see some of our writers struggling a bit with tense, but there has not been one yet that did not carry me forward in an active and engaging manner.
GG: There seem to be harsh contrasts in relationships in Compassion. The wife, Anne, badgers the protagonist relentlessly yet he is so paralyzed as a writer that he can’t even write a letter to the editor. Anne is not portrayed sympathetically, yet she does have a point.
SVR: Yes, she does have a point, and I’m glad that comes through. We’re seeing this from Stephen’s perspective and he is quite adept at playing the victim. And, yes, there is a compatibility issue that has festered for a long time. Anne is logical and driven to overachieve, while Stephen is a dreamer and prone to talk rather than act. And yet there is a deep connection too. Anne does what she does out of a frustrated desire to see Stephen blossom, and Stephen feels what he feels out of frustrated need for her respect.
GG. In contrast to Anne, the town witch is compassionate and encouraging, checking her cell phone for possible spells to cure Stephen’s writer’s block. She says that “people who cling to ghosts are avoiding something in their reality.” How much does the supernatural play in your story?
SVR: Rose offers a glimpse of what it will take to move these other actors off of their respective soapboxes. And, yes, the supernatural (or, rather, what we perceive as the supernatural) plays a significant part in how the narrative plays out. Supernatural impulse comes from a deep place, a place of justice and love-want, and tends to manifest in times of great need. Whether supernatural elements reflected in these stories are objectively real (which would make then not supernatural, I suppose), I’ll leave up to the reader.
GG: It turns out that the writer’s block has to do with Stephen’s father’s diagnosis on that date, January 18, something his wife didn’t know, a ghost in his life. However to Anne that was twelve years ago, too long to affect him now and no excuse.
SVR: From Stephen’s perspective his father’s death is fresh and raw and saps his emotional availability. From Anne’s viewpoint it’s another in a long line of excuses. There’s more than a little autobiography in this story, and I don’t actually come down on Stephen’s side of the argument when I read this scene, but cannot deny that this issue has power over him. He is flawed in ways that hold him back. Anne sees this as a fear of success, but Rose knows better. It’s deeper than that.
GG: How blocked are Stephen and Anne in the push and pull of this relationship and where does it seem to be headed? What impression are you trying to portray?
SVR: Well, I’m trying to portray a relationship that has grown more partisan over the years. I hope the reader comes away from this story sensing that the marriage has been stressed to the point of imminent fracture. And yet, I hope there is also a sense that what truly matters between them remains salvageable. Stephen’s comment that he loves Anne and also hates her is meant to convey that complexity (through both his words and the ease with which he delivers the line), as is his surprise that Anne is jealous when he cups Rose’s cheek.
Thanks, Gloria! And speaking of heroic tasks, how about these wonderful interviews you’ve undertaken? You do a great job, and the entire 2014 community should be grateful, readers and writers and an editor / publisher alike.
Gloria Garfunkel: Why did you decide to open the story with a voyeur spying on a woman?
Joanne Jagoda: I’ve always loved mysteries and read many thriller books. If I were to write a full length book it would be a mystery thriller. I have a curious fascination with crime shows as well, Criminal Minds and Law and Order.
GG: I do, too. I find them strangely relaxing after listening to horror stories for years as a therapist. I’ve memorized the scripts. How did you get the idea for this particular story Casting the Net, the beginning of your 2014 series?
JJ: It evolved over a period of time. I had written a short story about a mother going back to dating. I’ve always liked the idea of someone going through a make-over and having a fresh start, a variation of the Cinderella story. Anne’s predicament just happened.
GG: What is the most difficult part of the process?
JJ: I’m learning how to write in the correct voice and to keep things in the present tense. That is challenging. It is also difficult to keep a story going which has a connection to the previous month without just reviewing the whole scenario.
GG: How would you describe that voice and why did you decide on the present tense?
JJ: The voice changes according to who the main character is for the particular chapter. I’m using the present tense because that was what we were supposed to do. Each chapter represents one day in the month. In my case it is the thirtieth. It was tricky in March as I had to cover two months as there is no thirtieth in February but I had to convey that events had occurred.
GG: What would you like your readers to experience?
JJ: I would like to hold their interest from month to month and be a page turner. I would like it to sound like an authentic story which could have happened.
GG: What about the setting for your story?
JJ: I’m from San Francisco and quite familiar with the Napa Valley so I incorporated it into the story. I started writing the chapters when I was in Israel visiting my grandkids so that is probably what made me think of using the idea of the Iron Dome.
GG: How are your characters developing?
JJ: I hope that Anne Donaldson is emerging as a character who is gaining strength. She was victimized by Damon and duped by her own husband. I had fun with Damon and Eli as well.
GG: How do you feel about the whole project?
JJ: I feel honored to be a part of it. All thirty-one of us write differently and come from different places.
GG: How did you get started writing?
JJ: It wasn’t until I stopped working at age 59 … took a writing workshop in Oakland and was hooked. The workshop was given by Teresa Burns Gunther one of the other writers of 2014! Since that workshop I have taken other classes and written short stories, poetry and some non-fiction. I totally didn’t know what I was doing but started submitting pieces and had success immediately. Little did I know that that was a wonderful tease. These last four years I have continued to publish in a variety of online and print publications. I realized I loved to write. Matt Potter accepted some of my work and we developed a great working relationship. He was so generous to work with me and edit my pieces. Currently I have two poems in online magazines and a memoir piece out. I always knew I had a vivid imagination but just hadn’t put it to good use.
GG: Tell me a little about your paternal grandparents’ Holocaust experiences and whether it affects your writing? I feel my own attraction to those gory shows comes in part from my own family history. The criminals are punished on TV and mysteries and that is satisfying, when in reality the Nazis mostly got away with it.
JJ: That is an interesting question as I had never made a connection to my fascination with mysteries and criminals getting punished. My father’s parents were sent to Teresienstadt. My grandfather died there of typhus. My grandmother was sent on to Auschwitz. My husband and I visited Teresienstadt and were able to see the barracks where they were held. I have a poignant set of their last letters. Their five sons tried in vain to get them the proper papers to get out.
In my subconscious I know over the years I have had many dreams fleeing and packing. You could probably interpret this much better than me! I had a major soft spot when I was young for grandparents as I never had any. My mother’s parents got out of Germany but died shortly after coming to the United Sates. It was wonderful to see how close my three kids were to their grandparents. I’m a grandparent myself now and it is the best.
Gloria Garfunkel: The story opens with a frightening dream of pursuit by wolves and disturbance. All is not well with the protagonist. What does the dream mean to you?
Michael Webb: The professional life of an athlete is a short one. In most professions, you aren’t considered fortunate if you can ply your trade for a decade, and yet in athletics, only the fewest of the few can perform that long. The protagonist is worried about a career crippling injury or a diminishing of his skills, either of which would result in his having to exit his well remunerated occupation. He is afraid of being unable to support his family, at least not in the manner that they are accustomed to.
GG: Then there is a domestic scene of Mom getting the two kids off to school while Dad stretches his pitching arm getting ready for the professional baseball season. He expresses a sense of alienation and isolation from his family. Can you explain what that’s about, the source and its manifestation?
MW: Professional baseball players work almost every day, and travel a great deal. Even when the protagonist is home, he is often away from his house, having to arrive at the park hours before the game and not come home, if it is a night game, until the kids are in bed. He loves his children, but he doesn’t get to do a lot of the little things, like chaperoning field trips or bringing cupcakes on birthdays, that his wife does. He sees them relatively little during the season, and he feels an anxiety that they are growing apart from him. Since they depend on Mom for almost everything, he feels left out, like all he is good for is to bring a paycheck home.
GG: There’s a sense of resentment of supporting the family financially yet not being appreciated. His life seems perfect, yet he seems unhappy.
MW: That is accurate. He is ludicrously well paid, since all he does for a living is throw a ball past a man holding a stick. (He is among the best 0.0001% of people at doing this, so he deserves to be well compensated. But he is also aware of the silliness of what he does, on some level.) He also understands that his job requires the hundreds of hours of travel and some amount of macho camaraderie and nonsense, but he wonders if the trade is always worth it. At the same time, he doesn’t know of any other jobs he can do that are anywhere near as well paid, so he is determined to keep doing it.
GG: Not being a sports fan, I am not aware of great baseball stories. Enlighten me.
MW: In terms of fiction, Bernard Malamud’s The Natural is probably the most well known, because of the Robert Redford movie, as well as WP Kinsella’s short stories, one of which became the Kevin Costner film Field of Dreams. Robert Coover’s The Universal Baseball Association, about an accountant who plays a baseball game with dice that takes over his life, is a marvelous novel that has baseball woven deeply in it. Other than those, I’m not sure if a really great baseball story has been written yet.
The nonfiction world is more richly populated. Among my favorites are The New Yorker’s Roger Angell, who has a number of baseball books that rank among the best writing about anything I have ever read, along with Michael Lewis’ Moneyball, Bill James’ Historical Baseball Abstract, and Lawrence Ritter’s The Glory of Their Times.
The book that hews closest to my stories in the sense of viewing baseball players as three dimensional men is Jim Bouton’s Ball Four, a nonfiction account of the author’s experience playing professionally in the sixties and seventies, really the first one that had some of the more bacchanalian details left in.
GG: What writing has influenced this story in particular?
MW: I would be remiss to not mention editor Matt Potter, who did yeoman’s work in sharpening tone and fixing verb tense to make a world he was not familiar with come alive. But my own writing, I think, is certainly influenced by the dozens of baseball books I have read that give me what I think is a pretty good sense of what a player’s life is like. In addition, prose stylists like Hemingway and Vonnegut remind me to keep motivation in mind, and to try and prune away what is unnecessary.
GG: What was hardest about writing a twelve-part story?
MW: Initially, the ideas flowed very easily. In the later months, when I had exhausted the obvious conflicts, I found it harder to come up with concepts and ideas. It was also a constant challenge to maintain each story as a whole piece, internally consistent and having its own structure, while also having a through line, making sure the arc of the entire year also has a story to it.
GG: What is your comfort level with flash fiction?
MW: I would say I am fairly fluent. I have been writing it for some time in conjunction with various online challenges and prompts, so the form doesn’t have a lot of challenges for me.
GG: What other writing projects have you engaged in and plan?
MW: I have blogged for years at michaelwebb.us, mostly in response to prompts from other writers. Currently, I have two novels and one book of short stories at various stages of gestation.
Gloria Garfunkel: There’s no doubt about it, this is the Gothic opening of a creepy tale. How did you decide to start with the point of view of a distant narrator and then switch to that of the protagonist, Jamie.
Gay Degani: I’m not sure this was a conscious decision, but rather what occurred to me as I thought about how to sustain a group of stories that would arc over the entire year. I realized I had to create something to entice readers to come back and the stranger showed up on the screen when I first sat down to write.
When I began this project, I knew I wanted to use the creek and some 1920’s bungalows I pass by on my walks in the late afternoon. It can get rather eerie along the Arroyo and I found these elements compelling. I also knew creating a neighborhood would allow me a variety of interconnected characters, but who they would be, I didn’t know. Who was the stranger? I didn’t know that either.
GG: Do you like Gothic tales and movies and if so, what are your favorite?
GD: It’s funny that you cast this as Gothic. I hadn’t thought about this project as anything but suspense, but it makes perfect sense to me. I realize now how inevitable it is that I would write in this way. I’ve been an avid lifetime reader of Gothic romances (no vampires or werewolves, please, just brick up the wife in the wall of the manse). From my first Mary Stewart and Victoria Holt novels to the Brontes and Daphne DuMaurier, I’ve never tired of them. I even wrote my dissertation on feminism in Gothic romances of the 19th Century.
GG: What do you think are the Gothic elements in this first story and were they all intentional or did some just creep in?
GD: Although I would answer this question “they just crept in,” it is obvious years of reading these kinds of stories has had its influence on me. What could be more Gothic than angry nature? And wind! Night! A heroine who feels threatened and takes action? A dark stranger? A seemingly interested male? I just realized too, that though they live in the bungalows, there’s a deserted mansion next door! Wow.
GG: Discounting what happens later, does the hero, the stranger Mars who is the son of Mr. German, give you the creeps like he does me?
GD: I wanted Mars to be unsettling and suspicious. I want the reader to wonder about him so I made him aggressive with his attentions. Creating tension is the only way I know to get people to move on to the next story.
GG: Is the Gothic element just an opening scene or does the story proceed to a Gothic ending? Don’t tell me, but I hope Jamie’s kids are safe.
GD: My goal has always been to have mystery in this story. As I said before, I hadn’t really thought of it in terms of labels, so I hadn’t considered a “Gothic” ending. In Jane Eyre and Rebecca, fire destroys Thornfield and Manderlay respectively. Both Mr. Rochester and Maxim de Winter are ruined men, but their women are faithful. I’ll have to think about this. You’ve opened up a door here, Gloria. The ending is, as yet, unwritten.
Gloria Garfunkel is interviewed here by Guilie Castillo Oriard.
Gloria’s first story of the year, Ralph Rudinsky Here, takes place on January 4th. Ralph is a man trying to keep his bipolar disorder under control while managing statistics of efficacy and productivity for the employees of a large corporation. As the story opens, he is in a manic episode, speaking very fast with no pauses; we see him having trouble prioritizing; for instance, he’s doing his (late) New Year’s Resolutions at work.
Guilie Castillo Oriard: It seems to me Ralph’s bipolar disorder gives him extra qualification to perform his job well. I’ve known others with this disorder in positions similar to Ralph’s. Some are success stories, others not so much. What are the pros and cons for Ralph regarding his job?
Gloria Garfunkel: I think it is ironic that Ralph is in a job where he assesses others’ performance when his own is so erratic. Periods of no sleep, periods of too much sleep, hypomanic speech, hiding in his office all day doing nothing.
GCO: As a clinical psychologist, you’re in a unique position to create psychologically complex characters who ring eerily true in your fiction. Ralph Rudinsky is a great example of this, I think. How did he come into existence?
GG: When I was working, I specialized in Bipolar Disorder and so Ralph is a realistic composite to me of what someone with the illness might struggle with. Every bipolar is different. It is not so simple as manic and depressive. It’s more like a pool table of emotional balls playing having all at once to different degrees, some more serious than others. I think Bipolar Disorder is extremely stigmatized and I wanted to give a more generous portrayal of the experience.
GCO: Bipolar disorder is characterized by episodes of extreme diametrically opposed behavior, am I right? Manic episodes followed by depressive “crashes”, as Ralph calls them. Writing a bipolar character, then, presents the added challenge of capturing both of those moods (for lack of a better word). How did you manage that challenge?
GG: I made use of all my experience with hundreds of patients, which helps me to understand the complexities of what are known as “Mixed Mood Episode” where someone can be manically agitated and suicidally depressed at once. This is one of the most dangerous phases. Twenty-five to fifty percent of people with bipolar attempt suicide and 20 percent succeed. It’s far more complex than manic-depression.
GCO: What was the most challenging part of writing Ralph Rudinsky Here? What was the easiest?
GG: His voice was the easiest. Coming up with scenes was the hardest as I wanted to show insight and progress. Also, I have to be careful not to portray a real patient, ethically.
GCO: There is a rhythm to Ralph’s manic prose that manages to not just engage the reader but to put us in sync with it. That’s quite an achievement, especially taking into account the absolute lack of punctuation. Was the decision to write this piece in that way an actual decision, or did the piece, as we say, “write itself”?
GG: After 30 years of listening to that speech, it wrote it itself. Manias are both hyperverbal and hypergraphic, usually not making a lot of sense but not psychotic, just disorganized in a “flight of ideas.” They are fascinating to listen to, with great enthusiasm, euphoria and speed. I’ve seen both and heard both compared to schizophrenia for years and I can’t mistake it for anything else. Schizophrenia, for instance, involves hallucinations, delusions, paranoia, and very disorganized speech not present in bipolar. Multiple Personality Disorder, for instance, involves amnesia for the other personalities. There is no amnesia in bipolar.
GCO: What’s in store for the rest of 2014? Will we be following Ralph as he struggles with his bipolarity? Will we get a closer look at other people in his life? Or are you taking us on a completely different tack?
GG: We will get a very close look at how bipolar disorder wreaks havoc with Ralph’s life and his close relationship with his girlfriend who happens to be a psychiatric nurse and encourages him to get treatment. Other family members get involved briefly, but this story is mainly about being in Ralph’s head.
GCO: Excellent insight, Gloria. Thank you so much for sharing.
GG: Thank you for the great questions.
Gloria Garfunkel: Wingy is a well-written and beautiful magical realism story and I can’t wait to read the rest. What gave you the idea for the story?
Andrew Stancek: A popular belief states that most writers tell one story which they keep rewriting. Often writers have preoccupations. Updike continued to write about middle-class infidelity, Flannery O’Connor about white trash and grace. A lot of my stories are rooted in my hometown of Bratislava and quite a few deal with flying, some even combine the two, like my flash Bratislava in Right Hand Pointing. Flying is never too far from my thoughts.
GG: Are there magical realists you particularly like? Stories that influenced you?
AS: I reread Etgar Keret and am always inspired. I love Borges. Kafka’s The Metamorphosis is one of my favorites. But magical realism is just a label. I grew up with fairy tales. In the West the Grimms and Hans Christian Andersen are well-known but many less well-known compilers worked in other cultures. The Slovak Pavol Dobšinský is one of the greatest. His stories resonate with me: stories of love, betrayal, revenge, friendship, evil … flying. LOL. Mythology has also had a major influence. Apollo in his chariot. Shape-shifting. Magic as much a part of everyday life as breathing.
GG: Wingy’s ordinariness is so convincing in his voice. You are very good at contrasting his confident voice to his father’s insecure voice. Do you enjoy playing with voice? Are we in for more voices in this story?
AS: I love playing with voice and sometimes a character will speak to me and all I have to do is put on paper what he is whispering into my ear, to faithfully transcribe. At other times it is a trial. In the Wingy series we’ll encounter primarily the voice of Adam – Wingy – but also his father, his mother and some others. I hope we’ll end with a crescendo, not a cacophony.
GG: What do you and Wingy have in common and how are you different?
AS: In some ways Adam and I are one and have everything in common. Unfortunately in a few details we differ. I have not quite mastered flying yet though I am working on it. Great clues in the mystics, the music of the spheres, that I’m following up. I’ll let you know as soon as I’ve got it.
GG: How much time do you spend writing? What do you do when you aren’t writing?
AS: The instant response is “not enough”. I still work full-time and wear many other hats. I am frequently frustrated by how little time I have for writing, that even in available time I am too exhausted to produce. But of course most writers struggle with that. Some weeks I am able to create lots but too often not enough. A friend said recently I must trust that even in times when it is not being put down on paper, it is still unfolding in the mind and will make it onto paper later. Sometimes I even believe that.
GG: Are you working on other writing projects?
AS: In addition to Wingy, I have another short story collection in the works, starring Mirko, a teenager growing up in Bratislava in the sixties. That one is about half-completed. I’d hoped to have it done by the end of 2013, perhaps now by the end of 2014. I am also well into a YA novel, set in the Tatra Mountains in 1944. I’d love to get that one done this year, too.
Thanks, Gloria, for your interest and excellent questions. I sure hope the 2014 project goes viral.
Gloria Garfunkel: What inspired you to write this particular story for this project?
Derek Osborne: The concept of writing a group of stories around a common element has always attracted me. My process is fairly simple. I sit down and get out a first draft, then begin editing and looking for the common elements and underlying themes. My writing rarely ends up where I planned. (Just ask Matt to review my original outline). In my first novel, Gadabout, the boat ended up as much of a character as any of the people. In one of those seemingly innocent throw away lines there is mention that Gadabout was built to help seven sailors find their way home. It wasn’t until I was well into the re-write the line popped out and I saw I had laid open the possibility of a series, a kind of Yellow Rolls Royce for the sea. As of this moment Gadabout is about to go out to the agents, I’ve drafted the third and fourth books, and now with the 2014 Series I have what might be considered the fifth book, or novella. When Matt invited me into the project it seemed a perfect fit.
GG. What is the character struggling with?
DO: The main character, Max, has been diagnosed with Pancreatic Cancer. He’s had a good life, and though he lost his first wife to breast cancer a number of years before he’s watched his three daughters grow and he’s running the business he always wanted. A big part of Max is okay with dying; he understands he’s had it better than most. But The Universe has a way of filling any void. So everything’s fine? Feeling complete? Enter Rebecca Vasquez. Go on, The Universe seems to be saying, I dare you not to fall in love.
GG: How is the main character like or unlike you and your life?
DO: Let’s just say my wife is still living and my boat isn’t quite ninety feet long
GG: What do you do when you’re not writing?
DO: Give me a 2x12, a broom stick and a bed sheet and I’m happy. There is nothing – absolutely nothing – half so much worth doing as simply messing about in boats.
GG: Anything else you’d like your readers to know or not know about you?
DO: Being a solid New England WASP with an ancestor on the Mayflower we simply do not speak of such things, but I did play drums with Bruce Springsteen when we were kids and for fifteen minutes I was known to Donald Trump as “that guy Osborne.”
Gloria Garfunkel: Yours is the first story in the first of twelve volumes. How do you feel about that?
Guilie Castillo Oriard: Funny, I was just talking to Matt Potter (editor of Pure Slush and 2014 A Year in Stories) about that the other day. I don’t think I understood the responsibility that came with choosing Day 1 (until, of course, it was too late). It’s a challenge, because that first story is kind of like the whole collection’s calling card, you know? It needs to hook the reader enough that they want to continue reading - not just about Luis Villalobos, but the other stories as well. No pressure, Guilie.
GG: Yours certainly is the calling card. How did you get involved in this massive project and what do you do outside of it?
GCO: We can blame Matt Potter for my involvement. I heard about Pure Slush a couple of years ago via my writing group (thanks ,Wayne Scheer!) and submitted a couple of pieces for the online publication. Matt liked what he read, I guess, and he invited me to be a part of gorge: a novel in stories Pure Slush Vol. 4 last year. Then came 2014 A Year in Stories, which I started working on in April (2013).
What do you mean by “outside”? Is there life beyond 2014 A Year in Stories? No, I’m joking. I’m a full-time writer, so I spend my days honing the craft as best I can. I read a lot, but not as much as I’d like to. I garden (not as much as I’d like to), and I rescue dogs (not even close to as many as need it).
GG: Ah, the dog in the first story
GCO: Haha – yes, I knew there had to be a dog in there somewhere, and preferably a rescue one. I wasn’t sure about Luis when I began writing; he seemed like such a cad, so ambitious and superficial... But then the dog showed up, and Luis showed a side of himself I wasn’t sure existed, so now I’m a little more tolerant of his pompous-$$ antics
GG: Rescue dogs. That warms my heart.
GCO: There’s so many, Gloria, and so few resources, so little interest. Still, when I look at the seven that live with me, my heart does, indeed, warm.
GG: Without giving anything away, who is the main character and what is he struggling with?
GCO: His name is Luis Villalobos (a nod of sorts to excellent writer friend Silvia Villalobos), and he’s a hotshot tax lawyer originally from Mexico but living in Curaçao since the middle of December. Why Curaçao, when he’s traveled the world, worked in huge firms, and had just landed a plum position at one of Mexico’s most prestigious tax advisors? Because a company in this island offered him a fast track to Managing Director. So he thinks he’s got it made – until, on New Year’s Eve, he makes a mistake that will rule his year, and his life.
Each story has its own title, but the first one, The Miracle of Small Things, is what I’m using as an umbrella title for the whole series... Because that’s what Luis will struggle most with this year. His ability to see them, to find value in them.
GG: What aspects of your own life have affected the story?
GCO: In 2011 I made a decision. I quit my job in the financial industry (a company somewhat like Ehrlich Fiduciary, the one Luis works for, but – fortunately for me – much better organized and definitely more ethical) in order to write. Part of it was a personal Miracle of Small Things; a sort of understanding that life is, in fact, short, and comes with no guarantees, that plans more often than not mean nothing in the larger scheme. That’s a pretty regular theme in my fiction, come to think of it. But I digress. My own experience in the financial world, as well as the “epiphany” (such a grand word!) to step away, come to bear in this story.
GG: How is the character like and not like you?
GCO: Well ... He’s a he, for starters, so that pretty much drew the line as far as potential blurring of character-author identity. He’s also a lawyer, which – as much as I pretended otherwise while I was building a “career” – I’m not. He’s got self-discipline; I certainly do not. He never had pets growing up; I rescued my first dog when I was 8 (ok, Mom helped). And then there are the similarities: we’re both Mexican, we both came to Curaçao without knowing where in the world – literally – it was. It remains to be seen whether Luis will find enough to like here to make him stay. I, on the other hand, have already been here for a decade.
GG: Where do you live and where does the character live?
GCO: I’m originally from Mexico (Mexico City, then Cuernavaca, then Cancun), but I’ve been living in Curaçao for ten years (July 4th this year will make 11). Luis Villalobos is – surprise! – from Mexico, living in Curaçao. Except that he just moved here. Exactly, I think, a month ago. Still finding his way around, in awe of the locals that speak four languages like it’s nothing... Oh, and he might be convinced to learn to dive.
GG: Is there anything else you want to say about your story?
GCO: I’m so looking forward to hearing back from readers. Stephen V Ramey has done a great job of reviewing each story on his blog, and it’s been such a pleasure to see reactions. I guess one of the perils of writing fiction is that you become absorbed in the fictional world you create, and seeing it be read by others kind of makes it “real”... Does that make any sense? Probably not. In any case, I’m really enjoying connecting with both readers and the other authors involved in the project. Several of the stories keep me up at night.
Gloria, thank you so much for this interview. It’s been great fun to talk about the 2014 A Year in Stories project!
GG: It’s been an honor, especially the stuff about the dog rescuing and your compassion. Great story and I look forward to reading the rest.
GCO: Thank you, Gloria. And I’m looking forward to yours! That OCD character you built so well this month... I mean, something’s got to give, right? You’re very, very talented.