Two Questions for M.J. Iuppa

We recently published M.J. Iuppa’s haunting “Nearly, Magnolia.”

Here, we ask her two questions about her story:

 

1) What drew me to this piece was the personal nature of it, how this situation affects the narrator right here, right now. Did you ever consider writing this piece with a broader scope, or was it always meant to be this small moment?

Yes, “Nearly, Magnolia” is extremely personal in its nature. I wrote this in mid- March, at the start of “Shelter in Place.” I am from western NY, but two of my adult children are living in Brooklyn, NY, and were facing the rigors of staying safe while living in small city apartments. Unfortunately, isolation became part of the pandemic, making it difficult for people to find relief from the over-whelming hours of waiting for something to happen. Springtime in NYC happens overnight, and the flowering trees, especially the Magnolias, make me heady. To see these blossoms candled by sunlight is breath-taking, but this year, people went to parks to walk, or stroll, or run from their loneliness, from their uncertainty— they were worried inside and outside about what they could and couldn’t see. I think it would be interesting to write this as a longer story. As it is now, it feels like a “knot-hole” view of having no safe place.

 

2) I love that line, “Where is home?” It really speaks to this sense of loss and disconnection that people have been feeling. So. This is a tough one! Where is home?

Yes, Where is home? Is that internal thought that keeps the narrator engaged in memory her desire to be out of harm’s way. When she takes the photograph of the Magnolia tree in Prospect Park, she’s making the “invisible” visible. She is documenting the sudden rash of beauty, which is ephemeral in nature, like any place that makes you long for home.

Two Questions for Melissa Saggerer

We recently published Melissa Saggerer’s lovely “Begin with an Ice Cream Cone.”

Here, we ask her two questions about her story:

 

1) I love how this story opens with such a specific moment and then goes broader, drawing us into the narrator’s life, and then circles back to the beginning. What made you choose to “begin with an ice cream cone”?

A: Thank you! I wanted to start with a small loss, something that was easy to recover from, something from childhood that could feel universal. I thought of King Kone, the soft serve place where I grew up. Although I don’t remember ever dropping my cone, I could picture it as if I had. This little piece was born in a Kathy Fish Fast Flash workshop, and it was originally titled “How To Cope With Loss,” but Myna Chang suggested I title it “Begin With An Ice Cream Cone.” I liked how that reflected the circular nature of the story, and was a little less on-the-nose for pointing out the driving meaning of the piece.

 

2) Though there is a lot of heartbreak in this story, there is also a lot of hope, of going back, of finding your way. Do you consider this to be a hopeful story?

A: Yes, I do. It’s impossible to avoid sadness and heartache, but they aren’t always isolated. I used to be better at shifting my focus to the positive. I remember taking a very sad friend to my favorite abandoned barn and walking through the dangerously undulating second story, trying to share every strange happiness, trying to fill him up with enough joy to crowd out the pain. It didn’t work, I used to be overly (annoyingly?) optimistic. I think some things get easier, but not everything. Now feels like a strange dark time, so I inspect shards of memories looking for small ways back to feeling good.

 

Two Questions for R.A. Matteson

We recently published R.A. Matteson’s shimmering “Galatea.”

Here, we ask her two questions about her story:

 

1) This is a myth that has always bothered me — no real woman is good enough for this man and he falls in “love” with a statue, which is then made real for him. There’s something so uncomfortable about the whole story for me. How do you interpret the source material? 

Pygmalion doesn’t seem to know how to deal with someone who has agency. And I don’t think he’ll be happy with Galatea for long, now that she’s a living woman with opinions and pimples. Maybe the authors of the myth intended for Galatea to still be a mindless statue, just made out of skin this time. Maybe it never occurred to them that she might grow a personality, or that she might think or want anything. But if we assume that Galatea turns into a woman with a mind and a voice, either Pygmalion is going to get tired of living with someone who can speak up, or Galatea is going to learn to hide her heart. Unfortunately, I feel like a lot of women (and people in general) discover that it’s just easier to pretend they’re not people or to let someone else dictate their humanity to them. In this piece, I wanted to explore the pressure that our relationships (romantic, platonic, and parental) can put on us to play roles. People do this to each other all the time without even noticing. For Galatea, this pressure must be even stronger. She only has one person, and he knows exactly what he wants her to be. It’s the kind of “love” that can crush a person.

 

2) I love that the narrator here dreams of being rock again, disappearing into the ocean to someday become “some finger gem.” Do you think there is any escape for her other than this?

When I wrote the ending, I imagined the process of becoming a “finer gem” in two different ways. One was figurative and hopeful, the other literal and darker.
The biggest trouble Galatea faces is that she has already been told who and what she is. She’s never been separate from this one man. I can’t help but wonder if Galatea can even hear her own voice in her head, or if Pygmalion has shaped that part of her as well. So, yes, I think there are other options for her, but I don’t think any of those options involve Pygmalion. As long as he’s around, it’ll be too easy to slip back into performing the personality he expects of her. She’ll need to find some way to shape herself, to become “self made.” And she’ll need people to support her while she’s figuring these things out. And maybe she’ll become something more, something “finer,” than Pygmalion imagined.
On the other hand, this type of growth is difficult and complicated, so I can’t really blame her for getting overwhelmed. She might sometimes wish it would all go away, or that she wouldn’t have to notice the way people think about her. As long as she doesn’t have the ability to shape herself, being conscious probably wouldn’t feel worth it.
I can only hope she learns to see herself through her own eyes, because without that change from within, she’ll carry Pygmalion with her no matter where she goes.

Two Questions for Derek Heckman

We recently published Derek Heckman’s gorgeous “Revelations.”

Here, we ask him two questions about his story:

 

1) I noticed on Twitter, you were kind of spitballing this story as”a ‘Left Behind’-style story where the good Christians all get raptured and the End Times begin on earth and everyone just kind of makes it work.” Do you often think of your stories like this, or was this an exception?

Of the stories that I’ve written, the ones I’ve wound up liking the best, and the ones I’ve had the most fun writing, all kind of started as jokes. I don’t necessarily mean that as like ba-doom-tss, laugh out loud kind of jokes, but just that there was something sort of odd or offbeat about an idea, and it made me kind of smirk. It’s a little like when you’re hanging out with your friends and you all start riffing and doing a bit. Somebody says something and someone else expands on it or adds something new, and each new little joke just keeps the momentum going. That’s a lot of how I write. The story itself doesn’t usually turn out funny. I have a story in The Collapsar called “Accidents,” and while the finished thing is really pretty heavy, the germ of it was this kind of jokey thought of “a cheerleader has an existential crisis,” and I just sort of riffed it into a longer, more serious piece. The same thing happened with this one. I made a silly, early-morning tweet, but then saw all the ways it could keep going and, well, kept it going.

 

2) I love your take on Death — he seems like such a nice fellow! Actually, I just love your take on the apocalypse and that beautiful, beautiful imagery at the end. Do you think, with all this, that the people who got raptured might be envious of those left behind?

I’d say probably yes and no. The conceit of the story is that there is no cosmic trick or anything: The people who thought they would get capital-s Saved end up being right and they get to go to Heaven and be with their creator. On the one hand, I’m sure they were pretty happy about that, but on the other hand, can you imagine having to spend eternity with those people??? Even if you were one of them??? I think there’s a spinoff story to this one with Heaven as this kind of bitchy suburban lane where everyone’s trying to undermine and backstab each other all the time, because that’s what I think it would be like. The flip-side of that is that, back on Earth, the End Times are serious stuff. The rivers are full of blood and there’s all this disease and death. But I think if you got all the nay-sayers out of the way, there are people who could do some really amazing things, who really could figure out how to clean up all water and put an end to all the pestilence. I think more than anything that the people who would be left would also be the people who could see each other through all that. It’s all those people in Italy singing out of their windows during a lock down, you know? I think that that community aspect is something we have in us and is really something to strive for, apocalypse or no.

Two Questions for Tayler Karinen

We recently published Tayler Karinen’s stunning “Frank Sinatra Didn’t Know What He Was Asking For.”

Here, we ask her two questions about her story:

 

1) This is such a great love story — going from the first sparkling blush of new love to the heartbreaking end of a relationship. Do you think there would be any way it could work out between the narrator and luck? Or was this relationship doomed from the get-go?

When writing this piece, I felt from the beginning that the relationship would be doomed from the get-go. I wanted to explore the idea of falling in love with the idea of love, companionship, and commitment, rather than being in love with your partner. For the narrator and luck, it was very much that. The idea of wanting to fall in love, wanting commitment and companionship. The narrator knows very little about luck other than what’s on the surface, but is so desperate for love, and is unwilling to let her go. Luck, on the other hand, realizes that she wanted the same companionship, but not with the narrator.

 

2) At the end, the narrator offers trinkets and gems to luck to convince her to stay, to prove their love. Of course, it doesn’t work. What would be the best gift for luck?

In the end, I don’t think there would be a gift for luck that ever would have convinced her to stay. I think the best gift for luck would have been the narrator accepting the end of the relationship, that it served its purpose for the both of them, but that it was time to let it go.

Two Questions for Kathryn Kulpa

We recently published Kathryn Kulpa’s poetic “After Wings of Desire.”

Here, we ask her two questions about her story:

 

1) This story is based on a German film that I was unfamiliar with until now — even without the background of the film, I still found it so compelling and beautiful. How did the movie inspire you to write this piece?

I saw Wings of Desire at the Avon Cinema, a beautiful old art house theatre in the Thayer Street neighborhood of Providence. It was such a stunningly visual movie. I don’t remember much of the dialogue or plot; it almost felt like it could have been a silent film, with all these somber, black-and-white images of angels looking down on humans, and this towering, Germanic architecture. My friend and I saw it and came out of the theater completely under its spell. Even the real world seemed unreal.

So the film itself inspired me, but also the place where I saw it, and the time. It feels very much a part of my youth. The day I wrote it, Bruno Ganz, who played the angel Damiel, had just died. My writing group was meeting, and we had three prompt words: past, future, silence. That took me back to the movie and a mood of melancholy reflection.

 

2) One of my favorite moments in this piece is the paragraph that begins “You belong to the past…”. That list of particular items is so striking! Did you cut anything out of this list, change anything around?

Yes, the original draft had the cedar chest of old records but not the nips of peppermint schnapps at the vampire girl’s grave. It had placeholder images: “You belong to the past, like Kettle Pond, like Bannock Hill…” place names that didn’t yet evoke what I wanted them to evoke, these secret places in nature that feel so heavy with mystery—and desire is part of that mystery—when we visit them as teenagers. The vampire girl’s grave came in a later draft, and it felt perfect. And also a perfect little Easter egg for anyone who grew up in Rhode Island, because there really was a vampire girl, her name was Mercy Brown, and people still go looking for her ghost, and that’s so much of what this story’s about. How it feels like ghosts are always with us, yet so hard to find.

Two Questions for Meg Pokrass

We recently published Meg Pokrass’s stellar “Maternal.”

Here, we ask her two questions about her story:

1) I like the subtleties in the relationship between mother and daughter here — you learn so much about the characters from this one interaction. Is it hard to choose what to showcase in a piece this small?

Yes, it was hard. I tried to focus on the daughter’s sad awareness that her mother has been unable nurture her all these years since her father left, but here (in this situation) is finally able to do so. There has been a rift between these two for some time, a lack of closeness, a rupture that never healed.
Unfortunately, it took something as dramatic as being attacked for the mother’s maternal instincts to resurface and for the daughter’s empathy for her mother to resurface as well.

2) The mother makes a “dangerous chili” for the daughter. I’m curious — what makes the chili dangerous?

I’m afraid this was a bit of dark humor thrown in. My mother would make chili occasionally, and she’d always make it so hot nobody could really enjoy it. I referred to it as “dangerous chili” when she’d make it. I thought: if there is ever a story for dangerous chili to make an appearance, this is it. The chilli is a metaphor for the mother’s inability to offer sustenance her daughter can digest. 

Two Questions for Tom Weller

We recently published Tom Weller’s searing “Rangers.”
Here, we ask him two questions about his story:

 

1) I love the Scrap Boys — in this story and all their stories. Do you have any particular boys in mind when you write these stories, or are they more “everyman” archetypes?
In the mid 1990s, I spent two years serving as a Peace Corps volunteer in Chad. Occasionally, all the Peace Corps volunteers would be invited to social events at the American Embassy in Chad. Omnipresent at these events were a group of boys. They probably ranged in age between, maybe, eight and twelve. They had to have been brothers because they looked exactly alike, just some were slightly bigger and some were slightly smaller. There might have been three of them, or there could have been four. I could never keep track because they were always swirling through these events and popping up in weird places–leaping from behind couches, scurrying out from under pool tables and on and on. These kids picked up the nickname the Rat Boys.
Fast forward to about 2016. I was drafting a story about an old man who was mourning the loss of his lover. This heartbreak was complicated by the fact that the old man had lived next door to his lover, and now, his deceased lover’s house had been sold and the backyard was suddenly always full of this group of rowdy boys. I wanted the boys to operate more like a force of nature, rather than a number of secondary characters. I wanted them to be this weird whirling dervish of boyhood. When playing with this image, I remembered the Rat Boys from the Chadian embassy. Rats Boys became Scrap Boys, and soon the Scrap Boys took on a life of their own and  became protagonists in their own series of flash stories.
In their current evolved state, I think of the Scrap Boys as every group of low-income kids left to their own devices during a long hot summer. The kids wrestling in the dirt in vacant lots, the kids always hanging out in the Dollar General and being way too loud, the kids riding three to a bike, that’s who the Scrap Boys are.
2) The ritual in this piece is almost destructive. Do you see it as a kind of deconstruction of masculinity? Or are the Scrap Boys just having a good time?
I think the Scrap Boys are having a good time in this story, but I also think they are confronting some things. I think they are experimenting with masculinity, trying on different elements they associate with masculinity and trying to imagine manhood. And while this is fun, it’s also scary. The Scrap Boys are reaching the age where they are starting to recognize how their current economic and social standing stands to impact their future possibilities. So building the fire is fun, but, at the same time, that fire may be illuminating some things that the Scrap Boys would be more comfortable ignoring.

Two Questions for Lori Sambol Brody

We recently published Lori Sambol Brody’s searing “All the Stars.”

Here, we ask her two questions about her story:

 

1) That first line is such a killer: ” The mountains were burning in Southern California, as they do….” It gives the reader such an immediate feeling for the narrator, those three little words, “as they do.” She seems so accepting of every circumstance she comes across in this story — is this a narrator you think would ever be really surprised?

 I agree with you — I don’t think anything could ever surprise this narrator.  She takes the circumstances all in stride – up to narrowly escaping a fire.  I think something horrible has happened to her – something that has made her empty – and she’s seeking to fill that emptiness by drifting into experiences.  I do hope, however, that at the end, having seen all the elements of the universe, that her emptiness has been filled.

 

2) I love how much is in this story: Fires, elements, celebrity sightings, desire… And yet it doesn’t seem overfull, like some stories with so many pieces might do. Was it hard for you to find that balance of just enough for this story

 I had a really hard time answering this question.  I don’t feel very purposeful in how I write a story — or even, most of the time, when I edit a story.  I don’t have any degrees in writing, so I feel like I mostly flail around in how I approach a story, or maybe it’s just flailing in how I talk about a story.

 “All the Stars” started out in a workshop as a word prompt story, one of those prompts where you need to use all of words given.  Those stories do tend to be overstuffed, as the writer tries to put every word in that she was given.  I recall that one of the words in the prompt was “peaches,” and that made it to the final edit.

 I wrote this soon after the Woolsey Fire, when my family was displaced for a week.  Right before that fire, the house of my husband’s friend burned down in a wildfire.  He had actually had a Periodic Table of Elements like the one in the story and the fire turned weird colors!  My aim here was to show the dreamlike liminal space that someone lives in when they are under evacuation during a fire, but perhaps instead evoked that horrible X-Files episode, season 2 episode 1, where Mulder tracks down vampires in a burning LA?

 All I know is that even after a fire, there’s always life bursting out.  Last spring, we hiked through one of the burn areas in Malibu Creek State Park.  Although the oak trees were blackened, the hillsides were purple with lupine.  It was an excellent year for wildflowers.

Two Questions for Sarah Priscus

We recently published Sarah Priscus’s powerful “Mary-Ann Shoemaker.”

Here, we ask her two questions about her story:

 

1) This story reads so real to me — that the girls see Mary-Ann Shoemaker and focus on her eccentric behaviors instead of feeling sympathy for her. Do you think they will ever come to an understanding of Mary-Ann, or are these the kind of girls that all their lives will say “remember that weird girl from high school?”
To me, Mary-Ann Shoemaker represents the “weird other,” a person we fixate on in an attempt to make ourselves feel more normal by comparison. Because of that, the girls view her as an inside joke, a thing to gossip about, a freak to gawk at — never as a real person. The girls might grow more empathetic as they get older, just maybe not necessarily to Mary-Ann.  I imagine it would be easier emotionally for them to keep her dissociated from “realness” within their minds. That way, they never have to think about what harm they might have done by othering her.
Still, I tend to think that the girls do have some sort of sympathy for Mary-Ann, especially in the last scene. I just don’t think they’re capable of making the leap of actually reaching out to her. Parts of them want to reach out to Mary-Ann and ask if she’s okay, but her volatility and eccentricity makes them afraid of what might happen if they do.
2) And Mary-Ann herself, she’s such an interesting character. Her behavior seems both a cry for help and a warning to stay away, both at once. Do you think she might ever be able to reach out to someone without simultaneously pushing them away?
I want to believe that if Mary-Ann were in a better environment, she might find healthier, less destructive ways of expressing her pained internality. Maybe by the time she leaves school and moves away from home, she’ll feel safe and unthreatened enough to open up. I don’t imagine she’d ever be as “normal” as the girls who watch her, but maybe she could become less self-destructive.