Two Questions for Leonora Desar

We recently published Leonora Desar’s stunning “Woods.

Here, we ask her two questions about her story:

 

1) I love how this story parallels that experience some of us have had with pets: Our parents driving out to the middle of nowhere, dumping off an animal, saying “they’ll be better off here.” Was this parallel something you had in mind as you were writing this piece?

Yes, and thank you! It was a Sunday morning. Early. I wanted to watch cartoons but instead I was thinking about Depressing Things. One of these was a story a friend’s husband told me: his family used to “retire” his pets, not by taking them to the retirement home, but to the woods. This seemed like a raw deal—

1) no bingo

2) no mahjong

In seriousness, though, that story cuts me. He told me this over ten years ago and I still ruminate on it. I wanted to write about it but as I wrote it turned into humans, little boys. I like it when stories do that (sometimes), and often I hate it, I want the stories to obey and get in line.

In this case I hope it worked. I felt it getting away from me and instead of trying to reel it in I let it go, gave it my blessing.

 

2) The ending is so powerful, the mother saying all these wonderful things would happen in the woods, and none of it, of course, is true. Or is it?

Oh, can we pretend just a minute that it is? They’re all hanging out and posting stuff to Facebook, or maybe Insta. Maybe they’re all really into Twitter, the wolves and things—they even know how to thread.
I wanted to call this “Lies My Mother Told Us.” But it felt neat—too neat. I like trusting my reader. I like white space and silence and a little ambiguity. In the end, the reader knows.

Two Questions for Charles Rafferty

We recently published Charles Rafferty’s melodic “Six Fingers.”

Here, we ask him two questions about his story:

 

1) I love this idea of a 12-fingered pianist, especially when it comes to those octaves! When you conceived of this piece, was the musician always a pianist or did you ever consider having him play a different instrument?

It was always a piano. Probably this is because I play a little piano myself. I’m not very good though, and there have been times when I’ve struggled to form the right chords, when I’ve considered how useful an extra finger might be.

2) That ending, with the woman tired of the five-fingered world, is such a great moment. What do you think she would say to him? Or would she say anything?

Ah, that’s a tough one. I was intending that last moment to be mostly sexual. That is, the “saying the chords” bit suggests a kind of ecstasy, a once-in-a-lifetime encounter, which is really just a way of saying she’s fallen in love. What actual words would she say in this moment of flirtation or seduction? I’m not sure. I think she would probably be quiet for as long as she could get away with it — for fear of jinxing the moment. I’m like that. When things are going well, I tend to become taciturn. It’s the old fear of saying something stupid or giving offense. This is one of the reasons I’m a terrible cocktail party guest.

Two Questions for Ellen Rhudy

We recently published Ellen Rhudy’s glorious “A Writer’s Guide to Fairy Tales.”
Here, we ask her two questions about her story:

1) I love stories like this, that play with tropes, that let the reader in on what the writer is doing. What made you choose “fairy tale” for this piece?
I’ve always been interested in stories that are told and retold, and I think fairy tales are especially interesting because the people within them are so often “blanks” that readers can project themselves onto. There’s so much room for writers to retell these stories and make them totally their own, like in one of my recent favorites, “The Candy Children’s Mother” by A.A. Balaskovits. Every once in a while I get excited about retelling a fairy tale, and that was actually how this piece came — I was struggling to get started and so I started writing more to myself, thinking, “okay, what are the rules I have to be following here?” And then it got away from me.

2) You skip the third rule of storytelling and move right into the fourth — I love the cleverness of this! How many rules of storytelling do you think there are and, of course, do they deserve to be followed?
Oh gosh, there are probably endless “rules” for storytelling, and because I didn’t study writing in school I feel like I’m always stumbling over ones I wasn’t aware of. In some ways I’m interested in these rules, because it can be fun to think about what our expectations are as readers, and what rules we as writers will follow or break to meet or expand those readerly expectations. One of the things I love about flash is that writers have so much freedom to abandon or break the rules; you can trust that a reader will spend five minutes with you in a piece that’s doing something new. I write a lot of longer stories, in the 5000-7000-word range, and I’ve found that in those stories I’m almost always telling the story in a linear way that probably lines up to many of the rules (again, whatever they are!) of what a short story should be, because I’m hoping this will keep a reader with me through the strange things I’m asking them to believe. I sometimes find myself amazed by writers who are able to create their own narrative rules and logic and make it work, always wondering, “How did they do that?!” All to say, I guess I think the rules were made to be broken or at the very least stretched.

 

Two questions for Barb Ristine

We recently published Barb Ristine’s musical Boys of Summer: A Playlist.

Here, we ask her two questions about her story:

 

1) I have to admit, I’m not familiar with a couple of these songs! Are they the sort of songs your narrator hears from time to time and is taken back to these moments, these boys?

 Yes, she hears these songs and she’s transported to pivotal moments in past relationships, and once she’s on that backward journey, she recalls other songs, other details. I wanted to use songs evocative of specific times and places in her life.  You probably didn’t recognize the first song—it’s by Renaissance—which takes the narrator back to college when she listened to progressive rock (do they still call it that?)

 

2) The story title is also a song title, and implies that these relationships were fleeting. Do you think there is a song (and a boy) for the narrator that has stuck?

 Her relationships don’t seem to last, or if they do, they end badly. I think the song that stays with her is “Nick of Time” because it reminds her how narrowly she escaped staying with a man who didn’t  share her dreams but had been too much of a coward (or perhaps too selfish?) to admit that to her. The song encapsulated her life at the moment when she lost her parents, and she finally realized she wanted a family. I believe she has a very different playlist for her life now.

Two Questions for C.B. Auder

We recently published C.B. Auder’s ethereal “In the Dream Version, There Are Baby Goats.” Here, we ask them two questions about their story:

 

1) This story is all a dream, but it doesn’t feel like a cheat — the emotions and the situation are so real. Do you have really vivid dreams like this, or is this all just writer’s imagination?

Thank you! And what an interesting question. As it happens, the first draft wasn’t even about dreams–this flash began as a semi-surrealistic piece that focused on learning to drive as a metaphor for a child’s distressing state of independence after a caregiver’s premature death from lung cancer. You know, light comedy.

To be honest, I’m not normally one for dream stories–I disengage pretty quickly when a narrative starts to feel random–so it was only after several drafts that it finally occurred to me key elements could be developed if the bulk of the piece became a sort of tragic fantasy. Then your terrific editing suggestions helped me cut most of that crap back out again (stone soup!) and find the right ending note.

I’m not sure what’s “normal” for dreams, but my own are extremely detailed and 3D, and I’m present from many points of view: I’m both on the ground gnashing my teeth at a conga line of nemeses, as well as regularly popping up above the multiverse in order to keep tabs on how much farther I’ve drifted from my destination. Although I’ve had some good ones lately. Diane von Fürstenberg recently sidled up to me at a cabaret show to discreetly suggest I join her design team! Isn’t that fabulous? I mean, not being a fan of the fashion industry, I had to decline–but I was bursting with pride when that alarm went off!

Getting back to the goats. This whole setting is as vivid to me as a memory, though the story is entirely fabricated (beyond the emotional truths I was capable of tapping into). The story seed came from a photo of a vintage car chuffing through Havana. One morning, as I was opening the curtains and checking out the birdbath, I thought of that green Oldsmobile and snap. The soggy catbirds disappeared and I was in a passenger’s seat headed for rolling hills filled with adorable ungulates. It was a rare moment when a story has pulled me forward, rather than my having to plod around its moat to figure out where I put the damn drawbridge.

 

2) I love how much of the natural world you bring into this story: the baby goats, the beach, the osprey. Is nature an important part of your writing?

Holy mackerel, the natural world is the single most important part of my life–and not just because I’m fond of breathing. I have always loved muck. If I were unattached and independently wealthy, I would spend all day eating gorp and rolling around in the forest with newts. I would literally never bathe. Then I’d die alone at my keyboard of dengue fever or a staph infection….
Anyway, I’m delighted to hear that you enjoyed the nature bits! As a reader and editor, I think a lot about what elements make me thrill to the stories I thrill to. I’ve noticed lately I’m becoming less intrigued by pieces that keep a tight focus on anthropocentric conflict. So, to better answer your question: Yes, I’ve been trying to steer my own writing towards linking human dramas to their larger environmental context. I’m also keen on exploring characters’ own relationships to the natural world, while still trying to avoid sailing over the cliff of Thinly-Disguised Eco-Rants. It’s tricky (particularly with so many planetary catastrophes to choose from) but I think stories that become didactic end up shutting more people out than letting them in, and that seems to me to be a recipe for solving no sustainability problems at all. I’m hoping the slightly oblique approach might keep readers engaged enough that the natural-world context I find so compelling will also filter into their lives in some subtle but meaningful way.

 

Two questions for Jennifer Fliss

We recently published Jennifer Fliss’s haunting “Mirror, ca. 1550 – 1350 B.C.

Here, we ask her two questions about her story:

 

1) I love how this story functions in two parts — the description of the mirror and the narrator’s reaction. Was it very hard to make the description sound authentic and “official” while still maintaining your beautiful writer’s voice?
I did a fair amount of looking around on the Met’s website, where they have so many of their items inventoried. (It’s the most amazing time-suck!) I heavily based my description on this, but I wanted it to be more personal, subjective, as if my protagonist was the archivist writing up the brief histories. What would she be thinking as she followed the rote plan for archiving? An archivist (and I’m not even sure this would be the role doing this job) is meant to be objective. What does the object look like and where is its place in history, based on science and research. They are not to tell us how we are to feel, or even what the persons who used the items must have felt. I find this connection – or really an intentional lack of connection – fascinating and ripe for fiction.

2) The sense of loss in this piece is so understated and poignant, packed into this small moment where the narrator is considering a mirror. What would she do, do you think, if she could see it in person? 

As I said before, I wanted to channel what the archivist might be thinking to access a more personal approach for my protagonist. However, my protagonist is not the archivist. She is looking at this at quite a remove, several, really. I would think my character would desperately want to touch this mirror, as if touch would afford her a glimpse of the item’s owner. Her own loss, a miscarriage, is something that women have experienced all over the world and throughout history, even thousands of years ago. And yet, perhaps in her idea for the mirror, a piece of that specific history has been saved. Something did not die; it lived on. What are the fragments that survive  death (and time)? And what do they mean to those who experience those fragments later? What would my protagonist do? My character might break through the glass to hold this mirror, perhaps stow it away, blame it on a rogue thief, and run out of the museum before the security staff sees the footage. Back at home, she would be disappointed that it doesn’t, in fact, reflect her own face. It is a failed mirror. But she would stow it in a drawer of the bureau that had been in the nursery, to take it out occasionally to stare into the non-mirror. Later, when the police arrive at her door, as they’ve discovered she was the thief, she takes the mirror out the back door and throws it in the river. She pleads hysterical. She is let off the hook. The museum has an empty shelf with the description pinned beside it for two years before they change up the exhibit.

Two Questions for Anna Gates Ha

We recently published Anna Gates Ha’s otherworldly “Sky and/or Body, Unzipped.”

Here, we ask her two questions about her story:

 

1) I love how the narrator tries to make sense of her sister’s seizures, calling them “earthquakes,” hoping they might be catching like colds. She calls it her “job” to watch over her sister — she doesn’t seem to resent her duties. Do you think there are times when she does?

Children really do make the best metaphors and similes. When my son was two, he noticed the rain was like tears. I think I lost it.
As for resentment, up until this point, I don’t think the narrator has felt it. She has taken it upon herself to monitor her sister’s health, and she’s fantasized about taking on the sickness in order to save her sister, but she seems willing, almost desperate, to do it.
Now that I’m thinking of it, maybe there is a little power thing in there too, a little power in being a martyr for someone you love. There’s fear and sorrow, for sure, but there’s also this sense of duty, of purpose. In the end, Oona’s recovery (or perceived recovery) doesn’t come from the narrator; instead, it comes quite mysteriously. As a result, the narrator begins to see Oona as something otherworldly, and the power shifts, perhaps, from the narrator to Oona.
2) When the girls go out to find the meteor, the narrator says they know they should wake their mother, but they don’t. Children always seem to keep beautiful secrets like this from their parents, keep them private and precious. Do these two have other secrets from their mother?
Oh, I’m sure they do have a few other delicious, innocent secrets. But this feels like it might be bigger than the others. Perhaps they are breaking away from the conventional ways their mother has tried to treat Oona’s seizures, or perhaps they simply know their mother would never let them go see it. Either way, leaving the house alone and walking toward a fire is a big deal for them.

Two questions for Kate Finegan

We recently published Kate Finegan’s stunning “Going, All Along.”

Here, we ask her two questions about her story:

1) In high school, I used to know a boy on the swim team who had an indented chest. He loved to make up stories about how it got like that, but he had just been born concave. This narrator has her body change on her, become something different — and she accepts it so beautifully. Do you think her reactions would be different if she had been like this from the beginning?
I don’t think I can really speak to how she would feel if she had been born this way because in this piece, I was really interested in exploring a reaction to physical change. Some writer-friends and I were recently discussing Kim Fu’s brilliant story “Liddy, First to Fly” (published in Room 41.4), in which a girl reacts to the emergence of wings on her ankles as everyone else is going through “normal” puberty. What struck me is how she and her friends react so calmly to this development. My friends and I felt that this understated reaction is absolutely credible. You learn that your body is going to change, and then it does change, and all you can do is look on in wonder and confusion and try to figure out how to live in this new form, even as you realize that the changes aren’t affecting everyone in exactly the same way; it’s not quite as straightforward as your health teacher would have you believe! In a way, I wrote this for eleven-year-old me, who kept waiting to look like everyone else and didn’t always accept change (or lack thereof) with grace.
2) That moment at the end, where a bobolink builds its nest so close to her heart, is so beautiful! I love that the bird chooses to stay in the end. Did you ever consider having it leave?
Only very, very briefly. This entire story was built around the image of a bird nesting inside a girl’s chest; that was the spark for this piece. I wanted it to be a love letter to the girl I was, a way of reaching out through time and saying, “There there, you’re doing fine.” One of my writing teachers, Rachel Thompson, says that a key part of revision is to write a list of as many possible endings as you can think of, to decide which ending truly best serves your story’s theme. So often, the first ending that comes to mind is not the most interesting. So, I always consider alternate endings, but in this case, the only possible ending that would serve my purpose was to have the bird stay – although for how long, who knows? I don’t necessarily think of this ending as “happily ever after” but more like “happily right now,” which I’m learning can be good enough, in fiction and in life.

Two Questions for Erik Fuhrer

We recently published Erik Fuhrer’s magical “Spider Plant.”

Here, we ask him two questions about his story.

 

1) I love how your writing makes the unusual seem so … not mundane or commonplace, but not unexpected either. Like you’ve created this world where of course a magician removes their head and leaves it behind. How do you manage that trick of making the unreal seem so natural?

I usually start each story I write with an image that gets stuck in my head. For this story, it was the image of hair growing like a spider plant. Once I have the image, I begin to build a narrative around it. I must have also had an episode of the X-Files, in which a magician rotates his head 360 degrees as a final act, in my thoughts while writing, as I am reminded of this episode every time I reread the piece. Television shows like the X-Files often balance absurdity with reality so masterfully that I usually totally buy unrealistic premises like the one described above. I think my writing is very much influenced by this type of visual storytelling.

2) The magician’s body walks home in the rain, and there’s that great moment, “each drop feels to the magician like swallowing used to feel.” Was that always the description for that moment, or had you considered anything else?

This line was always the description there. I am very interested in the juxtaposition of sound and image when I write. This line grew from this juxtaposition. I can also feel the image viscerally in my throat when I reread the piece. It’s as if my entire body played a part in the creation of this line.

Two Questions for Lynn Mundell

We recently published Lynn Mundell’s warm “Our Bright Lights On.”

Here, we ask her two questions about her story:

 

1) I love the powerful imagery in this story — the glow that lights the way toward hope. How did you come up with this particular idea?

I was thinking about how there is so much sadness in the world right now that it can be hard to remain optimistic. But somehow people still have faith, and that having a baby is one of the most hopeful things you can do. Then I wondered if it is harder to make a family now, with so many stresses.  At the same time, I take a yoga class that can be very rigorous. I always speculated my teacher was ex-Army. (He says no.) Somehow the two were conflated and it was a paranormal prenatal yoga class!

2) The moment with Nan is so heart-wrenching, leaving the reader so worried that something is wrong, and then so relieved when her belly begins to glow too. Did you ever consider a sadder ending for Nan?

While I have written many sad things, I realized recently that too much of what I read is sad. I almost wonder if that has become our go-to as writers. It brings the drama that we want, but it also leaves the reader with a heavy load. It can be hard to write happy things without them seeming saccharine. But for these women I wanted to show that while they are losing heart with so many worries, their babies are determined to give them joy. Nan’s concerns are the greatest of all, so while even her baby may have started fading and losing hope, the others will coax them through it. This speaks to the other heroes of the story. While the babies are lighting the way, women are caring for each other. There’s a lot of sisterhood going on in this story.