Two Questions for Bill Merklee

We recently published Bill Merklee’s stunning “Grand Canyon, 1967.”

Here, we ask him two questions about his story:

1) The voice here is almost instructional, something more commonly seen in second person PoV — yet this story is in first person! What made you choose this particular style for this piece?

This story is part of a novella-in-flash I’m working on. In the novella, the MC has asked an old friend to write his life story for him, and the flashes come out of their conversations. I was struggling with this one. So I started listing the points the MC wanted to make, as if he were giving notes to his friend. When I read them back, they reminded me of those second-person stories, and I ran with it.

2) This is such a powerful, heartbreaking piece. It’s so timely now, yet there is also something timeless about it. What I love (well, one of the things I love!) is the relationship between the mother and child, the way the son-as-narrator looks back in understanding of his mother’s emotions, the son-as-character merely thinking of their journey as a road trip without dad. At what point do you think the narrator’s understanding of the situation changed?

It’s a fundamentalist household in the 1960s — there’s a lot that doesn’t get discussed, especially with a child. Even if he senses something is off, he would never dare ask about it. I think the narrator doesn’t learn the full story until he’s an adult, when he’s able to talk with his mother as more of a peer. I can see him recalling the trip while visiting her, then reading her face and asking, “What?”

Two Questions for Kathy Fish

We recently published Kathy Fish’s sharp “A Solid Contribution.”

Here, we ask her two questions about her story:

1) I love the use of the plural narrator here, the way it carries the reader from the routine to that killer ending! It’s so matter-of-fact that you almost don’t notice how devastating it is. How did you select this particular voice for this particular story?

Thanks, Cathy! I love using the first person plural point of view when I’m trying to capture a somewhat odd, collective voice. I talked about this point of view at length in my October newsletter. I’ve been reading old texts from the Project Gutenberg site. Very old instruction manuals and guide books and so forth. I think the odd voice and diction of those 19th century texts embedded themselves into my subconscious. Somewhere I came upon the “clubs, associations, societies” stuff and my brain latched on to that. It led me to this idea of in-groups and conforming that led me to this faceless, somewhat tortured, collective. 

2) The moment that really showed me where this piece was planning to take me was that line: “We need to learn the skills of judging distances.” That small turn is so powerful! Do you think there will ever be a time when skills like that aren’t necessary? Or, at least, not as necessary as they are now? 

You know, I didn’t begin the draft with that turn in mind at all. That’s how I draft all of my stories. For me, writing is an act of discovery and the things that surprise me are often the most interesting and compelling. My subconscious is by far smarter and more creative than I am. I’ve learned to trust it. As to survival skills, the kind needed to avoid being shot to death in a school, place of worship, nightclub, concert, etc., I just don’t know, Cathy. My hope is that eventually sanity will prevail in our country, but you know, these are not the most sane times. 

Two Questions for Paul Thompson

We recently published Paul Thompson’s delightful “How to Find a Prehistoric Ghost.”

Here, we ask him two questions about his story:

1) We see the world through a layer of dinosaur ghosts. We see the world through a layer of dinosaur ghosts! Omigosh, we see the world through a layer of dinosaur ghosts!! As you can tell, I’m a little bit obsessed with the concept of this story! How did you come up with this idea, this world?

I was wanting to enter a ghost story competition, and so was trying to come up with unique ideas. After eliminating everything else I was left with dinosaurs, which got me thinking about their ghosts, and why no-one ever claims to have seen one. I have no idea if the science stacks up, but I liked the idea enough to expand on it.

2) The relationship between the narrator and her ghostly brother is so lovely. Do you think he has been watching over her for a long time, or is this just a chance visit?

I think these are regular conversations. An early draft explicitly had the fog as a metaphor for her grief, and by talking to her brother he was helping her through it by finding the gaps back to the real world. I took it out and left it a bit more ambiguous – that way people can decide if it’s happy or sad or a bit of both.

Two Questions for April Yu

We recently published April Yu’s galactic “To Saturn and Back.”

Here, we ask her two questions about her story:

1) The imagery throughout this entire piece is so beautiful, but what really hits me is that ending — what a powerful last line! Did you ever envision this piece ending in a different way?

Yes! I’ve always been incredibly inspired by music, and this piece was originally meant to be in the wistful, ethereal vein of “seven” by Taylor Swift. However, as I wrote, the relationship felt more like a patina of perfection than pure love. Although the partners knew how to make each other happy, the idea of dissonance between happiness and true fulfillment began filling in the cracks of the piece.

I’ve always been fascinated by how love can manifest itself and be perceived so differently in people. With the ending, I wanted to show that this love could be a storybook romance, but it has shadows as dark as the night in which the lovers meet.

2) The love story here is so shining, but almost painful. Do you think this is a first love for the characters? Or just a first love that feels like this?

I wrote this piece with first-time high school lovers in mind. As a high schooler myself, I wanted to encapsulate how that intrinsic adolescent confusion and turmoil wedges its way into any relationship. It’s the narrator’s first love, and they’re young; after a while, their definition of romantic love is how their partner treats them, even if their heart of hearts tells them otherwise. I think that can be true for any relationship, though, so I love that this story could be interpreted in many different ways.

Two Questions for Chelsea Stickle

We recently published Chelsea Stickle’s hot “Fire Is an Open Mouth with an Empty Stomach.”

Here, we ask her two questions about her story:

1) This story is one of a series from you — the Screaming Meemies series, which is such a great name, by the way! I love the way you use detail here to give us more backstory on the psychic without requiring the reader to be familiar with the series to follow this one. How do you walk that line?

Thanks! When working with interconnected stories I pay extra attention to scope to make sure each story can stand on its own. Then I ask myself some questions. What details set the scene and establish character? What do you need to know to appreciate what the psychic is going through?

2) So … can you tell me who burnt down the psychic’s house? Or am I going to have to wait and see?

You’ll have to wait and see! That’s its own story. But I will say the psychic goes against her own interests to do the right thing and…you’ve seen the consequences.

Two Questions for Mary Grimm

We recently published Mary Grimm’s colorful “Live and Let Die.”

Here, we ask her two questions about her story:

1. These cousins! I love these cousins! I swear they are my cousins, except they are nothing like my cousins. But somehow they are still so familiar. Are these cousins based on any cousins you know?

My family was Catholic on one side and on the other long-time farmers (farmers needed lots of kids for free labor!), and so I have dozens and dozens of cousins. Quite a few of my aunts and uncles had 5, 6, 7 children (top number: 12, their own dozen). Cousins were 90% of our social life. The cousins here are kind of an essence of cousinness – but they’re closest to the cousins that my sister and I played with the most. We bossed each other around and tattled on each other and had secrets, made and broke alliances, loved each other. We had other friends from the neighborhood and from school, but we were each other’s favorite playmates.

2.  I love how you give such weight to this story with that opening sentence: “The remaining weeks were fairly quiet.” The implication being that something of importance must have happened, something unquiet. What do you think it might have been?

The honest answer is that I don’t know what it was that happened. When I started writing this, I started with that sentence as a self-imposed prompt – something to have the feeling of in medias res. But I’ve been writing a lot of what I think of as disaster fiction – the disasters are sometimes personal, sometimes more global. And I feel the unspoken disaster looming from behind that first sentence – something that made the cousins want to define themselves against it, a banding together. I imagine them looking over their figurative shoulders, but then turning away from whatever it was, turning instead toward each other. 

Two Questions for Nora Esme Wagner

We recently published Nora Esme Wagner’s fierce “Why Renaissance Artists Never Got the Babies Right.”

Here, we ask her two questions about her story:

1) I love how ferocious this story is — so many killer lines that just hit the nail right on the head! Do you think one of these muses (with their “singular bite”) would appreciate this ferocity?

Yes! I wrote this story in Italy, because, even while touring the most fantastic museums (The Uffizi in Florence, The Borghese in Rome), I felt bitter. Everywhere I went, I saw the same scene painted: Gabriel telling Mary that she’s pregnant with the son of god. In these depictions, Mary blinks placidly. Her eyebrows raise into crisp semi-circles. If we’re lucky, her mouth opens into an o.

Shouldn’t Mary have questions? Like: I’ve never had sex, wtf? Or: you have wings? Why isn’t she teary/baffled/furious?

Artists stifle their muses. They hate when they get candid, fierce. I imagine that a muse looks into their likeness and sees nothing. But maybe a muse would read my story and finally recognize their vinegar. I loved your story “Being the Murdered Muse” so much, how you capture what is violent and narcissistic about being “inspired” by the fierce woman you refuse to look at.

2) The muses here can never become anything more, for the artists, than inspiration. But at the end, the reader gets a hint that they might outgrow these artists. Do you think they will?

Absolutely. To inspire is to breathe in. The muses bloat their artists, so they’re brilliant and brimming with inventions and techniques and flourishes. But the artists are just vessels, bladders. Without a muse, their proud chests can’t puff.

But Frida Kahlo is more recognized than Diego Rivera. Scott Fitzgerald pilfered Zelda’s diaries and was still only half her genius. Muses are running, outrunning. And they don’t need to breathe into themselves. They only need to breathe.

Two Questions for Melissa Fitzpatrick

We recently published Melissa Fitzpatrick’s haunting “Light as a Feather, Stiff as a Board.”

Here, we ask her two questions about her story:

1) This story is so evocative — I love how you conjure up these grade school/junior high sleepovers! There was something so magical about these rituals (or games, even), something so powerful. Do you think these girls still feel that power even now, all these years later?
There is something singular about the energy of young girls at a sleepover, isn’t there? The surviving friends are now well into middle age. When I wrote this, I imagined these women looking back on these memories through a lens of loss. They’ve lost one of their childhood friends to cancer. They’ve lost the youthful exuberance they once had. I imagine most of them are dealing or have dealt with other losses: health issues, divorce, estrangements, caring for aging parents, regrets and disappointments of all kinds. They are at a time of life when many women feel overextended and unseen. It might be hard for them to connect to the magic and power they once felt. But I do think that power is there, just waiting to be rediscovered. 

2) Such a powerful opening line! “By now, we have learned the real story of one of our deaths.” Do you think these girls have stayed in close touch with each other? Or was this first death something they learned of secondhand, through the grapevine?
I like to think this group of friends has been there for each other through it all. Through first loves and breakups, weddings, divorces, remarriages, abortions, miscarriages, young motherhood, career changes, health scares, death, all of it. I think there must be something amazing about friends who have known each other through all the stages of their lives. People who can see all the different “yous” you have been over time. I think these women visited and brought meals and found ways help when their friend was battling cancer. And they grieved together when she died. I like to think of them as older women. They meet for brunch each week. They are loud and raucous and laugh and laugh. And they lift each other up.

Two Questions for Dilinna Ugochukwu

We recently published Dilinna Ugochukwu’s fluttering “An Injured Brown Towhee.”

Here, we ask him two questions about his story:

1) The opening is so heartbreaking — the injured bird, the way the girls compare themselves to the girls on TV and that devastating line about their eyes: “But they looked beautiful on Leila.” Do you think these girls will ever realize that they don’t have to be like the girls on TV to be beautiful?

I think the girls will eventually recognize their own beauty, but it’s going to take them a long time. For a lot of reasons, but mainly because the world around them doesn’t tell them they’re beautiful. The main character struggles to see her brown eyes as anything more than dirty, although she does recognize that brown eyes are beautiful on Leila, and I think her inability to see her own beauty is a sadly very common thing. 

2) Do you think — or, at least, like I do, hope — that the towhee will live?

Part of me wants the towhee to live, only to give the girls some hope, however I know when I wrote the story I thought of the towhee as doomed to die. During the summer, one of my friends tried to nurture a bird back to health, they did everything they could, but it eventually died anyways, and that was the catalyst to me writing this story. So in my mind the bird’s fate is already decided.

Two Questions for Beth Hahn

We recently published Beth Hahn’s gorgeous “I Made a Hologram.” Here, we ask her two questions about her story:

1) I love how this plays with the idea of memory — especially that brilliant line about moving the hotel parking lot fight “behind the dumpsters so if you don’t want to watch it, you don’t have to.” Clearly the narrator is manipulating some of these moments, but do you think there are times they are doing it unintentionally as well?

In “I Made a Hologram,” I was playing with the idea that the narrator might be making holograms as much for herself as she is for the “you” character. She wants to remember but needs the excuse of the holograms to begin. In the scene where she moves the fight, she puts it back in, but in a place where no one has to see it—including herself.
She definitely avoids certain spaces, like the space across the river, which of course is a metaphor for the end of life. She senses it but doesn’t come at it head-on. She knows it’s time for some honest reflection—like admitting that she can still hear the barn door clapping—and often starts with her flaw—as in “there are mistakes” or “you did all the driving”—but ends by changing the subject or distracting with a new hologram.
I moved the glass paperweight paragraph around a lot. I wanted the object to feel like the weight of loss on the heart, and at the same time, a celebration of the fragile beauty of memory. This is the only hologram she really makes as a gift, but by the next paragraph—the Paris paragraph—she is able to illustrate love. I was pleased that the expected word at the end might be “disappear” but she makes them “appear,” which feels like acceptance.
“I Made a Hologram” is really so much about the writing process and vulnerability. I’m often thinking, “I’d rather not write this,” when I know a difficult passage is coming. I tend to take those passages out and put them back in. Copy, cut, paste, cut. When that happens, my writer urge is to obscure by honing images until they feel just the way the difficult idea feels. It reminds me of a stage set, or here, a hologram. It’s artifice, and I am left wondering if I’m avoiding the truth or illustrating it. Sometimes, putting the work away and coming back to it later (I remembered. I forgot. Years passed. I remembered) is the only way to know. I wanted this narrator to waver around the truth in the same way.

2) So. What 
does a tree look like in summertime?

An oak tree in July, but so small it can fit in the hand; a tree in summertime is fully alive. It looks like youth. It feels like first love.