Two Questions for Anna Pembroke

We recently published Anna Pembroke’s devastating “Lovely Boys.”

Here, we ask her two questions about her story:

1) I love the narrator’s obsession with the neighbor children here — there’s something so sweet about it, yet simultaneously a bit terrifying. As we learn, the narrator has very good reason to focus on something outside of her own home life, but do you think she is romanticizing these boys and their circumstances as, perhaps, being better than they are?

At the point we encounter the narrator in the story, I think it’s fair to say her understanding of reality has morphed substantially. She has reached a stage where the actuality of their experience is inconsequential: her perception of their existence is devoid of any objective truth but is as real (to her) as the pink light of the sky. The narrator needs this utopic perception of the boys to anchor hope and innocence, however warped, into a life which has none.

2) There are so many implications with that ending! Did the narrator do something to cause this blackout, is she in danger, will those lovely boys be okay! Here’s the real question, though — do you think the narrator will be able to extract herself from this situation? Or is she trapped?

To my mind, the narrator is trapped regardless of whether or not she can remove herself
from the physical situation. The trauma of the abuse will leave a lasting impact on her
psyche, permanently shaping the way she interacts with the world. I can only hope that her passive acceptance eventually yields to something more retaliative, but, truthfully, I doubt it will.

Two Questions for Linda Niehoff

We recently published Linda Niehoff’s striking “Underneath Cathedral Bells.”

Here, we ask her two questions about her story:

1) The sensory details! These stunning sensory details! Such a perfect balance of the told and untold here, in such a tiny story. Were you ever tempted to let this piece run longer or was it always this beautiful, bite-sized micro?

What a timely question, and thanks for the nice words! This piece started and ended as a micro. It was one of those rare, lucky moments where it seemed to come out whole. And once I had the two parts and the ending, I knew it was complete as is. However, I’ve always been curious about it, and recently I’ve started wondering about those men standing around in the yellow courtyard. So I guess up until this point, I’ve loved it as a micro. But very recently I’ve been jotting down some words on my phone – just fooling around. No idea if it will go anywhere, but exploring is my favorite part of writing.

2) I adore the turn in this story, the contrast between the first section and the second, the (again) told and untold. Do you think these narrators will tell what they have learned? Or will they keep it secret, too, like it was kept from them?

I’ll admit that I’ve had to think and think on this (and probably still will be a year from now) – which makes it the very best kind of question. I almost love the asking of it more than I love any answer I could give. It makes me want to turn it back on the reader and say, “Well? Do we keep it secret or do we tell?” But if it’s up to me alone then I think that this is the very beginning of the telling. I think for now, what they’ve learned will only come out in tiny pieces. But it’s begun.

Two Questions for Melissa Llanes Brownlee

We recently published Melissa Llanes Brownlee’s stellar “Kona Boy Made Good.”

Here, we ask her two questions about her story:

1) What I love about this story is you take this event that so many people remember and remind us of how much was lost for so many people. Do you think the narrator understood that loss at the time or is this an insight that came with age, as they look back at this moment?

I am sure the narrator was impacted by the event as a child as I am sure most people who witnessed the Challenger’s explosion were but this particular narrative lens is definitely from an adult making connections a child wouldn’t necessarily make, understanding that Onizuka General Store was actually owned by Elison’s family and how they had lost their son, so publicly and so brutally, knowing that the man talking about NASA to classes full of children from his hometown would be gone in an instant and those same children would bear witness, realizing that dreams of escape and reaching for the stars could dissipate in a matter of moments.

2) I like the contrast between the hard work of picking the coffee beans and the kindness of the astronaut’s parents, giving the narrator ice cream and kettle chips. What do you think those moments of kindness meant for this child?

I think that the child would have basked in the glow of that kindness as they shovelled ice cream on kettle chip spoons into their mouth, the salt and the vanilla mingling on their tongue, teaching them that with the bitterness of having to pick coffee for their family, there can be this kind of sweetness, too.

Two Questions for Rina Palumbo

We recently published Rina Palumbo’s brilliant “Cigarette Tag.”

Here, we ask her two questions about her story:

1) When I was a kid, I remember there were all kinds of tag variations — freeze tag, TV tag, shadow tag. I don’t remember this particular brand of tag, though. Is this an invention of your own or is this a kind of tag from your childhood?

Like freeze or shadow or TV, cigarette tag is a variation.  I don’t know the provenance,  but our neighborhood group of multi-aged children would just start playing the ‘cigarette’ version every once in a while.  It came to mind when I noticed a program had a warning that included “smoking” (along with nudity, violence, and language). I thought back to seeing ads for cigarettes and remembering the jingles that went with them and, more importantly, how common (almost ubiquitous) it was in my working-class neighborhood to have fathers who were heavy smokers.  The contrast between the fantasy in the ads and the reality of smoking is something I wanted to bring forward. 

2) I love this ending, how everyone wants to be the last one in cigarette tag, how everyone wants to be the last to go home. How everyone knows the lines to all the commercials. Do you think there is something of a talisman in chanting these slogans for the kids? Something that protects them?

In the closed universe of this childhood game, there is a sense of protection and maybe even safety. There is a sort of magical thinking involved. I thought of it as almost a carve-out from reality made more poignant by the fact that the buttress of this imaginary sphere is the absolute lies spun by the advertising companies in service of a toxic industry. Of course, you only see this reality as an adult, which made me, as a writer, want to elevate the delicate nature of childhood play into an art form, like a dance or a symphony.

Two Questions for Lillian Tsay

We recently published Lillian Tsay’s evocative “When a Photographer Falls.”

Here, we ask her two questions about her story:

1) One of the things I really like about this story is that the reader is never given a location — this could be anywhere. Were you thinking of any place in particular when you wrote this? Would it matter if you weren’t?

I thought it was a little bit obvious that this piece was inspired by the recent Russia-Ukraine War, although I wish that the war had never happened. However, it is correct that I deliberately want to leave out a specific location because unfortunately, those unfortunate events in modern warfare can happen anywhere. I was also inspired by a friend’s research on documentary photography, which reminds me again of how critical photography is in shaping our empathy towards those events we normally (thankfully) don’t experience with our own bodies. 

2) I think it’s such an interesting thing, that journalists/photographers are witness to devastation like this, yet they can’t help (no matter how hard they try to stay ambivalent) but to become part of it. You demonstrate this so powerfully with the ending of this story. Do you think there is any way to witness without becoming?

I remember that there was a time when war photographers faced a lot of pressure for “not doing enough” at the site. I want to show that while the camera is a powerful tool in the war, it’s not invincible. It cannot document the smell or the sounds, and the same goes for the photographer. He or she is also another helpless person on the battlefield. As for whether there is any way to witness without becoming, I think I am hesitant to give a positive answer here. By being on-site, the photographer is already part of the war. With all the international law specifying that soldiers should not harm journalists and photographers, many of them still violated the rules, or you can say that bullets just don’t have eyes. I think the photographers knew this well, too, and yet they still made their decisions to pursue this difficult path.

Two Questions for Taylor Card

We recently published Taylor Card’s dreamy “Stochastic Prompt No. 9: (n) Sci-fi Worlds.”

Here, we ask her two questions about her story:

1) I love all the different worlds you create here! One of my favorites is L8EE27, with “the hand of Jeremy” instead of the hand of God. Oh! And BB6781, with the cold people in refrigerators. And X4S2SQ, where animals are unaffected by dreams. And…! I’m sure there are more worlds out there — how did you select these worlds for this story?

A bit of background: As the title of the piece hints, this piece was created from a prompt – one created by a writing friend, Max, in one of Adam McOmber’s workshops. The prompts were based in concepts about stochastic writing from authors Matt Bell and Édouard Levé.
Answering your question: There are many, many more worlds of course – because each one is a story-that-could-be. I contain so many story beginnings, middles, ends – but few of them are connected, and even fewer complete. It was kind of a revolutionary concept to me – the idea of a stochastic prompt – because with stochastic prompts, I’m given permission to take fragments as a whole, as done. So all these little pieces, once collected, become something greater – their connective tissue is created by the absence, and imagination does some patching between what exists on the page and what’s implied, referenced.
Most of the artistic choices in terms of including and ordering the worlds were all meant to make that connective, imaginative tissue – what is not on the page – more compelling. I spent more time ordering than adding or removing worlds.

2) Even with all these fantastic worlds, there’s still a touch of our reality here (for instance, in the flooded world U00327, the narrator thinks humans probably caused the devastation). How do you walk that boundary between the fantastical and the mundane/true?

Well, it’s all “true” in the sense that these worlds are true in my head. The flooded world is from a dream I once had. Deep melancholy and soaring joy co-existed in the dream – melancholy because of the absence of land, the implied devastation, and joy because of the presence of the giant, majestic birds and their beautiful, symbiotic relationship with the humans. I think when it comes to emotion, complexity is truer than simplicity. Rarely do we ever feel just one thing – which is why, when I’m writing, my goal is also to evoke messy emotions. Juxtaposing the strange and familiar (the fantastical and reality) is part of how I tried to do that in this piece.Here’s something I won’t say: Every tragedy has beauty in it. Imagine telling that to someone who has lost a loved one. They don’t want to hear it. But I think deep down we want to counter, somehow, the knowledge that the opposite – a perfect utopia – is impossible. How can there be pure evil, if we’ve all become so cynical to the existence of pure good? I don’t have an answer. So when it comes to the boundary between the fantastical and the mundane, I just try to write what feels true.

Two Questions for Lisa Alletson

We recently published Lisa Alletson’s heartrending “Perfect.”

Here, we ask her two questions about her story:

1) Mia’s relationship with her mother is so painful, even in the bits and pieces we readers witness. Do you think, after, her mother has any regrets?

Even as Mia spends years distancing herself from her mother, she is also turning into her. After, I think her mother is shocked, but her narcissism prevents her from having regrets. She has no idea how her own behaviour impacted her daughter’s life choices.

2) I love that moment in the second section, when Mia is ” holding [the narrator’s] body tighter with each passing city and year.” What do you think Mia is clinging to here, that she must hold on tighter and tighter?

As the years pass, Mia increasingly courts risk and danger in her life. The narrator consistently represents stability and safety. She witnessed Mia’s mother’s behaviour from an early age, and still stuck around for her friend. Mia is accustomed to others gravitating to her, and in turn, she gravitates towards the narrator; the comfortable object. Like keeping a childhood stuffy in your pocket as you age. Clinging tighter to it the more scared you get.

Two Questions for Dan Crawley

We recently published Dan Crawley’s dreamy “Bull.”

Here, we ask him two questions about his story:

1) I love the feeling of “neighborhood” in this piece, the good-natured teasing, the conversations, the wishes of sweet dreams. Do you think some of these characters might still call out their windows to each other “good night”?

What a wonderful thought. I would hope so. I know there are a few showing this kind of goodwill toward their neighbors in the present day, even with the advent of swamp coolers keeping them inside. But I don’t think many in this little town long for the days of sleeping outdoors, within calling distance of their friends and neighbors. I think this is a shame if they don’t carry on this concern for each other. These characters can do better, right? This is what I am going for in this tiny story: what is so wrong with looking out for your neighbors?

2) That line — “oblivious to what wanders the pitch black beyond” — gives us almost a sense of horror. And there’s not too many things scarier than a loose bull! What do you think might be wandering the pitch black while everyone sleeps inside?

I am so glad you bring this up! When I thought about the bull being a symbol for this sense of horror in the micro, then the story had its purpose and the drive to write it overwhelmed me for weeks. I played out a few scenarios and knew that line could elicit bad things coming, like death, or hard times, but I wanted to deal with what is going on in our global neighborhood for years now, too. I think about those who are isolated in their grief and sickness and despair because of the menace lurking out there, still. And everyone calling out to each other, “Here he comes” is how it should be, always.

Two Questions for Jessica Cavero

We recently published Jessica Cavero’s lovely “Two Arms.”

Here, we ask her two questions about her story:

1) I love how you use songs to capture each section — there’s something about hearing a certain song that can really transport you back to a moment, isn’t there! What do you think it is about these particular songs that brings the narrator back to these moments?

Thank you, Cathy! This flash was actually inspired by Kathy Fish’s prompt Three Songs, Three Decades. The first two songs, “Where’s the Love?” and “Everlong,” used to play on the radio a lot when I was younger, and with each micro I thought about the people who had shared those bands with me at the time—a childhood friend, a romantic partner or a group of teenagers at a retreat holding space for each other. Music was and still is a kind of language for me, in that it helps me feel grounded and connected to other people, especially now that I struggle to find words with long covid. And “Spring Days” is just very dear to my heart. So often I have heard people say, “Listening to this album/band saved me.” I think that’s what this narrator is looking for, too: a point of connection and gentleness in the world, and to learn how to hold themselves with such kindness.

2) That last moment is so powerful! I love the idea of shaping the rice for onigiri being a tender act for yourself (even though my onigiri is always pretty sloppy!). Do you think acts like this will help the narrator through?

I think it will. That’s one way through the messy, spiral-y shape of healing, isn’t it? With small acts of warmth and nourishment to carry you from one moment to the next. 

Two Questions for Rachel O’Cleary

We recently published Rachel O’Cleary’s stunning “The Invisible Woman.”

Here, we ask her two questions about her story:

1) I love how you play with the idea of invisibility here — is the invisible woman really invisible, or have people merely stopped seeing her? Do you think there is a specific kind of person who tends to become unseen like this?

That is a great question. I was actually thinking about this quite a lot when I was writing this story, because I wanted to write a hopeful ending, and it felt essential to me that the hope was earned, rather than feeling like a hollow, fortuitous rescue scenario. In order to do that, I had to understand why she was invisible in the first place, and I concluded that, in my opinion, there are two types of people who are more likely to become unseen. The first group includes people who are in a position of relative powerlessness, and I think society doesn’t want to see them, maybe because we feel we can’t or don’t know how to help them. The second (often closely-related) set are those who go invisible almost as a safety behavior, and become unseen even by themselves. This is how I envisioned my invisible woman. At some point in her life, she suffered a trauma, and that, along with the fear of negative, unwanted attention, would have led her to decide to make herself smaller and smaller until there was almost nothing left of her. She has to find the courage to make herself seen again, even if it feels (and might actually be) a little bit unsafe, and that is what I hope she is doing by the end of the story.

2) The idea of the invisible woman helping the flickering girl is so powerful. I love that she tells the girl all the things she wishes someone had told her. What is something you wish someone had told you?

Thank you! I’m so happy to hear that this resonated with you. I think this is a case of “write what you know,” because the things the invisible woman tells the girl in the story probably are the things I wish someone had told me. They are certainly the things I try to tell my children. Wanting to fit in is all well and good, but there is nothing lonelier than being unable to see yourself in the life you are living. I feel like, as a younger woman, I got a lot of messages that suggested I could or should find my self-worth in the approval of other people. Yes, I was given that ubiquitous vague directive to “be myself,” but I was also quietly passed a long list of rules about how I was expected to behave and which aspects of “myself” were acceptable. And I definitely underestimated how much pressure there is to become a particular type of woman. This is true in any scenario, but I think especially if you end up going down a more “traditional” route of getting married and/or having children, and therefore have a role to fulfill. I was blindsided by the pressure (not only external, but also internal) to fulfill that role perfectly. So I think keeping a strong grip on my own identity, and having the courage to hold on to it when society would suggest I should be completely selfless all the time, is something I have learned – am still learning – the hard way, and I wish I’d been more prepared, because it’s easier to hold on to something than it is to have to search for it once you’ve lost it.