Two Questions for Lyndsie Manusos

We recently published Lyndsie Manusos’s enigmatic “The Following.”

Here, we ask her two questions about her story:

1) “Because maybe the darkness could give back after taking.” This is such a great story, I love it, but that line is so powerful and hopeful — it is my favorite moment in a story full of amazing moments. So. If you could get something back from the darkness (any kind of darkness), what would it be?

I wrote this piece right around when my second daughter was born. Darkness was familiar during those long witching hours, those sleepless nights (still a few sleepless nights lately). If you asked me after such a night, I would ask for the darkness to give me back a sense of being well-rested and awake. Energy! Long-lasting and without the crash of coffee. 
In terms of items, something that I might find on the lip of a mysterious hole, I think it’d be the first journal I ever wrote in. My parents bought it for me when I was very young. I wrote my first stories in there, one about a whale, another about a sloth. I read each story aloud to anyone who’d listen. And I honestly don’t recall what happened to it. So if the darkness gave it back to me, it’d be a confirmation of sorts, like writing came full circle. Who doesn’t want affirmation for their passions?

2) I love how the narrator in this story gives us the facts, the realistic details, but still thinks things like maybe their grandparents are on Saturn. That combination of acceptance and hope is such a powerful one — do you think people like the narrator will be better able to deal with what is happening in this world than someone who leans more to either side?

I sure hope so, because I cope with the unknown and any kind of grief in a similar way to the narrator. Meshing logic with a bit of the fantastical, or at least the possibility of the fantastical. That’s why I love speculative fiction so much, with writers like Amber Sparks, Helen Oyeyemi, Karen Russell, Ted Chiang etc. I love the breadth that genres like science fiction, fantasy, and horror provide to navigate emotions, such as immense loss. Especially now, with *waves hand at the world,* genre provides both a lens and a cushion to explore these types of events that a year or two ago would seem absolutely inexplicable or otherworldly. 

Two Questions for Beth Moulton

We recently published Beth Moulton’s beautiful “Blasted.”

Here, we ask her two questions about her story:

1) I like how this story is told only in pieces, how we readers know what is going on in the white spaces without having to be told. Did you ever consider showing more of the story here, or had you always thought of it as these moments with the car, the tree and the long, long road?

All stories are a marriage of what is said and what is unsaid. Though this story is fictional, the tree is real, and she is close to a road. I hold my breath every spring, waiting for her leaves to appear. I’ve been wanting to honor her with a story, but a longer story didn’t seem quite right. A spare story, just the bones of the thing, seemed most appropriate. I finally decided to have my protagonist mirror the tree, with her physical and emotional blasting, and a loss that seems unsurvivable. There are things we can deduce without them being spoken–the unnamed place, the way in which the tree was injured, the great silent, spaces in a relationship. 

2) Speaking of the tree — what a beautiful, powerful moment at the end! Do you think this is a moment of recovery, of peace, for the tree and the narrator? A chance for them to both take a breath before continuing? Or is it something else?

In one way, I like to think of it as a bonding, the way survivors somehow recognize each other in the wild, and then hold on to each other. But in another way, the tree is maternal, and she’s nurturing the woman like a mother would cradle a baby. Giving her a resting spot until she’s able to move on.

Two Questions for L.P. Melling

We recently published L.P. Melling’s tender “The Caretaker’s Confession.”

Here, we ask him two questions about his story.

1) I love the continuing imagery of the confetti in this piece, how it brings color into the caretaker’s life — and beyond. Do you think it is really the sweeping up of the confetti he likes, or do you think he is happier knowing he has missed a piece here and there?

The motif of the confetti came to me when I found a stray piece of confetti in an old suit, bringing back a happy memory. I love the idea of something disposable coming back to life for another occasion, whether a wedding or a funeral, as it slips from a lapel. Yes, I can certainly imagine the caretaker leaving the odd piece here and there for this exact reason, so even the coldest of days has specks of vivid colour, so bright memories are reawakened.  

2) This caretaker feels like such a kind, thoughtful person to me — how he cares for the forgotten things so tenderly. Do you think the church could possibly replace him, or is he one of a kind?

I like to imagine how people are drawn to unique jobs, and I imagine all the workers who give care in the world and how they want to tend to the needs of what they look after, whether it is a person or the graveyard of a church for those lost. The tender but slightly mischievous dimensions to the character drew me to him, and I imagined what he would do when they work for so long in such an environment. The things we might want to do ourselves if we were alone in a church. I can’t imagine any caretaker quite like him when he is replaced but I hope the new caretaker shows as much care and love in his job.

Two Questions for L Mari Harris

We recently published L Mari Harris’s heartbreaking “Girl as Music Box Ballerina.”

Here, we ask her two questions about her story:

1) The girl, in this story, is so realistic — she clearly is crying out for help, but at the same time she is trying to pretend everything is normal. Do you think she will ever be able to admit, yes, I need help, yes, someone please? 

She will keep trying. This piece stems from my own younger years, when I was seriously depressed for several of those years on and off. I learned a hard truth that many people can’t handle sadness and depression in others, so I was one of those people who learned to smile when eyes were on me. I’d tried to verbalize what I was feeling, why I wanted to be alone all the time. No one knew what to do with me, so everyone tended to avoid the situation of my “moodiness”. We have a lot of work to do to drastically improve how we respond to those we suspect or know are hurting. We tend to pull away, or we get mad—“Get it together”, “It’s not that bad”, “You have everything, so what do you have to be depressed about?”— when we should be wrapping our arms around our hurting brothers and sisters and truly, actively listening without judgment. And I don’t want this to sound like no one cares—so many people do care and can help. Pretending everything’s ok is a heavy burden to carry alone, and that’s what I hope I expressed in this piece. It’s so hard to open up, to keep reaching out, because each time someone doesn’t give you the response you need, it makes it that much harder to try again. But please please please keep reaching out. I found someone who would truly listen after many attempts. It’s ultimately so worth it. 

2) When I think of music box ballerinas, they are always dancing to a song my mother loved — “Love Story.” What song is the girl dancing to in her music box? 

It’s distant, faint, unnamable. I was obsessed with my music box when I was a little girl, but to this day, I cannot tell you what it played—probably something from The Nutcracker or Swan Lake. But what consumed me was how I could make her dance any time I wanted, simply by opening the lid, just as I could let her go back to sleep by closing it. I’d stick my face right up to it and gently lift the lid an inch, because I wanted to peer into that dark space, to see her folded up, and yet I knew by inching that lid up she’d eventually spring up and dance for me. Thinking about it all these years later, what is forefront in my mind is what a strange sense of power I held over that ballerina—I could make her perform at my will. The melody meant nothing to me; it was all about my eyes on her, about making her dance. And that’s so sad for me to think about now, that I only cared about how she performed for me. 

Two Questions for Stella Lei

We recently published Stella Lei’s stellar “Space-Time.”

Here, we ask her two questions about her story:

1) One of the moments that really jumped out for me in this lovely story is when the astronaut (as a girl) tries to lay her father’s hands over her own, ” like fresh cobwebs, like tattered gloves.” There is something so familiar and poignant in this moment — is this something purely from your imagination or is it based on an experience of yours?

While this moment is not drawn from any one memory, I have had experiences sitting with old and sickly relatives, holding their hand, and treasuring the time I have left with them. I built upon that feeling while writing this piece and did my best to convey it through my character’s actions and the way she interacts with the world around her.

2) The description of the astronaut’s environment in the opening is so perfect — are you someone who is interested in space travel? Or are you more of a homebody (with home, of course, being Earth)?

I do find space travel interesting and I am, as many writers are, in love with the moon. That said, I would consider myself more of a homebody and will likely stay on Earth all my life. However, one of my favorite parts of writing is creating an environment for the story to explore. I often turn to Google and YouTube to do so, and the sounds and images in videos are helpful in crafting imagery and further enhancing the setting. For this piece, I looked up how astronauts on the International Space Station spend their days: their schedules, habits, and any fun facts. I came away with a lot of interesting information and built the setting from there.

Two Questions for Todd Clay Stuart

We recently published Todd Clay Stuart’s mournful “Nebraska.”

Here, we ask him two questions about his story:

1) What struck me about this story was the way you bring beauty into such a horrible moment — the sister’s “brown lossless eyes,” that just sings to me. Do you think that beauty can still be found, even in something awful like this?

I go along with Baudelaire, who said, “I can barely conceive of a type of beauty in which there is no melancholy.” Of course, we don’t think about the beautiful sunset while our heart is breaking or the lovely relationship we have with someone while that person’s sliced off fingers are lost in the grass. But once the horror burns off a little, then maybe—just maybe—we can find something of beauty there: a selfless gesture, a brave act, a meaningful contrast to the awfulness of it all.

2) There are moments like this that are so hard for someone to let go. We see that the narrator, at the end, when he goes home, continues to search for his sister’s missing fingers. Why do you think that this, what is basically his sister’s loss, has stuck with him for so long?

Recurring images are something we all experience to some degree. Dreams, nightmares, replayed sequences and stills of people and events in our lives. Our mind’s own unreliable, never-ending streaming service. Some of these events may not even seem significant enough to warrant recurrence. But the reality is that we have little control over the process. Recurring images suggest that they are somehow meaningful to us, though we may not understand why. As for the narrator of “Nebraska,” maybe he never got over that day when he was ten, felt guilt over the incident his whole life, but I like to think there was more to it than that, that maybe those missing fingers brought he and sister closer, deeply and forever connecting them in ways nothing else ever could.

Two Questions for Alexandra M. Matthews

We recently published Alexandra M. Matthew’s soaring “The Balloon Retriever.”

Here, we ask her two questions about her story:

1) So. A balloon park! A balloon park! What would it be like, do you think, to visit a balloon park?

To me a balloon park sounds magical, but also a bit absurd. It would have to be much smaller than your average theme park, since I expect it would be difficult to keep so many balloons inflated for days at a time. Though with a little imagination, it might feel like you were floating through the exhibits. And I think visitors of all ages would have the overwhelming urge to pop the balloons. I know I would.

2) I like the connection here between the balloon girl and the lost baby from the Balloon Retriever’s high school pregnancy — do you think the Balloon Retriever sees the parallel herself? Or is she only looking ahead?

I do think the Balloon Retriever sees that parallel in the end. I’m not sure she’s able to unpack it just yet, but I believe the process of building—and maybe rescuing—the Balloon Girl pushed her a good deal closer.

Two Questions for Patricia Q. Bidar

We recently published Patricia Q. Bidar’s dizzying “Before the Election.”

Here, we ask her two questions about her story:

1) I love how seamlessly you blend the story with my favorite Hitchcock movie here! Do you see the main character as a Judy type — more to the point, do you think she sees herself that way?

I absolutely think she sees herself that way. She is older and has a longer history of being used fetishistically by men than poor Judy did. She drives to San Juan Bautista as a kind of pilgrimage. But in a time of pandemic and in year four of a truly horrifying presidential regime that wrung hope from so many, her annual visit to a puppet show at a restaurant she likes and visit to the Mission have been replaced by an empty town. 

2) The meeting between these two characters is such a powerful moment — they’re both in this place for such different reasons, but they feel somehow alike. Where do you think they go, after this moment?

I think that for both, a hopeful future has been dashed. The older gentleman has lost everything. He doesn’t even have fingernails! In the main character’s case, a place she knows and which has provided her with comfort has become strange and possibly dangerous. They come together in this location where a tragic scene in a Hitchcock film took place. Looming much larger over Mission San Juan Bautista are the ghosts of the Amah Mutsun people, who were forcibly removed from their villages, separated from their children, and enslaved. I don’t think these two will leave together, although she may very well end up staying.

Two Questions for Derek Heckman

We recently published Derek Heckman’s charming “Hibernation.”

Here, we ask him two questions about his story:

1) I love, love, love that this story starts with a meme, a joke, and then suddenly everyone realizes: Hey, this wouldn’t be so bad! and they just go for it. To me, that kind of makes me think of your writing process — you’ve said a lot of your stories start off as jokes. Do you think there are more jokes we should, perhaps, take seriously?

Could be! Humor is a great release for anger or frustration or the feeling that you’re losing your mind. It can be a way to cope with a lot of unpleasant emotions, especially when the things causing those emotions are out of your control. We laugh to keep from screaming, but who knows? Especially in these times, maybe we should all be screaming more.

2) There’s so many great moments in this piece, but I especially love that line, as everyone is falling into sleep: “We listened to the creaking of the universe.” There’s something so peaceful and ancient about this imagery. Was it something that just came to you? Or did you have to go looking for the right image to take this story into its end?

That image sort of came from the same place the story did. I read a lot about depression and other mood disorders, and there’s a theory out there that these diseases can come from a lack of connection with the rhythms of the natural world. Long ago, it may have been biologically useful for us to have periods where we didn’t actually do that much, where we slept more and moved slower. Now, we have electric lights. We have heating systems. We don’t have to stop working because it’s too cold or too dark, but (the theory goes) maybe that’s what we’re supposed to do. I’m not really sure what I think of that one way or the other, but I do think about it, and in part I wrote this story because of it.

Two Questions for Ashley Hutson

We recently published Ashley Hutson’s sharp “How to Become Fictional.”

Here, we ask her two questions about her story:

1) This story starts with such a simple thing, a gurgling drain, and ends with the reader doubting the reality this woman’s husband has created for her. I love that you just went all out with that ending — did you ever consider stopping sooner? Or did this story always need to go to this extreme?

Oh, it needed to go that far. No other ending was possible. This piece speaks to the escalating absurdity of marriage when the bullshit is neck deep and no one has a shovel. I gotta say, the whole thing gives me a chuckle. It’s so bitter. I love it.

2) There is so much going on with the relationship here. On the one hand, we have a husband who refuses to accept his wife’s truth (that the drain is gurgling). On the other, we have a wife wanting to believe she lives in a palace “filled with sunlight and love and clean corners.” Could this pair ever come together in a way where they have both the gurgling drain and the sunlight and love? Or is the wife always doomed to end up senseless, on the moon?

The sunlight and love part isn’t her wish, though, it’s the lie the husband tells her to shut her up. He needs to exile her from reality so he can avoid anything that requires his effort or his concession that things aren’t peachy keen. And she knows it’s a lie, and he knows she knows it’s a lie, but he’s committed to the lie because it works. It’s attrition warfare. Consider the movie cliché where the newly dead scream at the living to try and get their attention, and when no one sees them, no one hears them, or when they are met with dismissal, with disbelief, the ghosts finally realize their predicament. Not being seen or heard or acknowledged is tantamount to not existing.

As long as she’s with him, she’s doomed. It’s the moon for her.