Two Questions for Katie DePasquale

We recently published Katie DePasquale’s wonderful “Scheherazade Tells the Tale of the Northern Shrike.” Here, we ask her two questions about her story:

1) This is a story unlike any other that Scheherazade has told King Shahryar, and there seems to be a bit of a parallel between her story and theirs: “It can wait for as long as it takes.” When in their marriage do you imagine she is sharing this tale with him?

I picture her sharing this story shortly after their marriage. When I wrote this, I’d randomly read an article about the Northern Shrike, and I’d been thinking of writing something inspired by the 1,001 Nights and was in the middle of rereading them. And I found that I’d forgotten that the reason the king spares Scheherazade’s life is that he fell in love with her, but there was no mention of how Scheherazade felt. Of course in the larger context of that story, it didn’t matter; she had to marry him, just like she had to entertain him, to escape being put to death. But that didn’t mean she loved him. I thought, what if she just married him to bide her time until she could make a more final escape? The tale spun out from there.

2) Northern Shrike are sometimes called “butcher birds” (I love that!) for their habit of killing more prey than they need at once and storing it for later. After sharing this detail, Scheherazade warns Shahryar not to confuse power and beauty. What do you think makes the Northern Shrike a beautiful bird (or, perhaps, a powerful one)?

I think the Northern Shrike is more ordinary-looking than beautiful, but that doesn’t affect its power, which is obvious since it’s such a fearful predator. And there’s not necessarily any connection between looks and capability, but people love to say that beauty is power, which really isn’t often true for women. Beautiful women are frequently in vulnerable positions where the powerful take advantage of them: their beauty doesn’t equate to much in those situations, right? That’s why the shrike and Scheherazade felt like a natural fit for each other. The shrike is more powerful than beautiful, and in this piece, in the end Scheherazade is, too.

Two Questions for Sarah R. Clayville

We recently published Sarah R. Clayville’s lovely “Blank Page.”

Here, we ask her two questions about her story:

1) I love how you hook the reader with this powerful opening sentence: “The girl’s mother named her Cousin, so people would love her from the start.”How important, do you think, is a name for something like that?

I think our names are both a blessing and a curse. At times they can define us, identify us to others, and even reveal backgrounds we might have chosen instead to reveal in our own time. Our names can make us vulnerable. I also think a name can be something we feel bound to live up to, particularly if the name belongs to family tradition or there is a ‘story’ behind it.

2) At the end, Cousin reclaims her name for herself, by writing it “in a space neither her mother or the man owned.” Such a great moment, realizing you don’t
have to be what others think you are. And then the girl realizes it is time for a new name. Do you think she will someday outgrow the name she has chosen for herself? Or do you think she will choose a name that grows with her?

I believe that for Cousin, this is only the first step in understanding who she is and slowly untying the expectations her mother wrapped around her with the name. In early drafts I kept choosing a name for her to use at the end but realized I didn’t want to set anything in stone, either. I wrote this story as a nod to the cool new reality we are experiencing where identity is no longer something set in stone for us in childhood but instead can be flexible and allow us to authentically grow as humans.

Two Questions for Jack Bedell

We recently published Jack Bedell’s lush “Swamp Thing Watches a Whale Make a Life Decision.”

Here, we ask him two questions about his story:

1) This is part of a Swamp Thing series of poems and micros that you’ve been working on (and which I adore!). What drew you to Swamp Thing for this series instead of, say, The Atom?

I fell for Swamp Thing the first time I read the comic in junior high. I loved that it was set in Louisiana and that all the frames looked like home. It was also my introduction to environmentalism, really. Alex Olsen/Alec Holland’s goal to invent a growth formula to bring vegetation to barren areas seemed like a noble goal to me, still does actually! And even after the scientist’s transformation into the Swamp Thing, he continued to defend the environment against corporations and the military’s industrial complex. The character just really epitomizes the concern I’d like my poems to have for south Louisiana’s wetlands. I’m active in my state’s efforts to restore our coast and preserve our wetlands, and I have a real feeling Swamp Thing would be on the front lines of this struggle if he could be.

2) What really drew me to this piece was the feeling of atmosphere, of place. The way Swamp Thing and the whale are both taking their time here, watching the world go by, as it were. Do you feel this kind of connection to the land, especially in the Swamp Thing’s realm?

I was born and raised in south Louisiana, surrounded by marshes and swamps in the Atchafalaya Basin. My home parish, Terrebonne, is on the Gulf coast and has suffered from coastal erosion and land loss caused by storms and other man-made disasters for well over a century. It’s the only home I’ve known, and I can’t imagine being anywhere else than here. Most of my writing celebrates the people, places, and culture of south Louisiana. I owe a tremendous debt to this place, and could not be more connected to it than I am.

Two Questions for Joy Guo

We recently published Joy Guo’s wrenching “Heart / Beat / Run.”

Here, we ask her two questions about her story:

1) This whole piece is so powerful, so evocative. But the moment for me that just gives me the shivers is at the end, when the instructor reveals to the girl why she ran, why she ran, ran, ran. This is such an amazing detail to include, I just love it. There’s so many small things like that we sometimes ignore or overlook or pretend not to see. Do you think the girl in this story will be watching out for things like that more from now on?

No question. I’ve always felt conditioned to be polite, keep my head down, and ignore what’s right in front of you in order to not rock the boat. I included the instructor’s example of the businessman as a situation where you need to listen to your gut and sprint for the hills, politeness be damned. Now that the girl knows (at least a little) what to look out for, the next step is to trust that internal voice when it detects danger. 

2) And of course, a man interrupts the self-defense class! While it gives the instructor a good opportunity to demonstrate some subtler tactics, it really speaks to what these (all) women are facing. Do you think they will find any comfort in the fact that, yes, the man did, finally, leave? Or do you think they will focus on the fact that he felt emboldened to just step in and interrupt them?

This actually happened during a self-defense class I took with a friend, when a man just stood there and watched us for a few minutes. It was incredibly creepy and on-the-nose; the whole time, we kept asking ourselves, did the teacher hire an actor to do some real-time roleplaying? When he finally left, my initial reaction was one of overwhelming relief. It was only until much later, as I was writing the story, that I processed anger at the audacity of him just stepping in like that. Unfortunately, that sort of reaction is likely all too common – our first response is to thank our lucky stars that we came out of a situation unscathed, when really, that situation should not have been imposed on us in the first place. 

Two Questions for Phebe Jewell

We recently published Phebe Jewell’s gorgeous “Fence Jumpers.” Here, we ask her two questions about her story:

1) I love the sparkling, here-and-there details in this story — one of my favorites is Mr. Li’s bag of lychees. It gives him so much personality in this small glimpse of his life. What made you choose lychees for Mr. Li to be carrying to his niece?

“Fence Jumpers” was one of those stories that took on a life of its own. It started with a free write about the scene in the church, but then somehow Mr. Li rode his bike across the page. I could see him quite clearly (probably because he’s modelled on a man I often see biking by my house, usually carrying a bag of groceries on his handlebars), so I followed him as he made his way up an extremely steep hill. I could see Mr. Li ride with purpose, a man on a mission to comfort someone with something that had weight and could be shared. That’s when I knew he was bringing his niece lychees.When I lived in Vancouver, B.C. I would go to Chinatown to get lychees for special occasions. There is something comforting in peeling their rough skin to reveal the perfumy fruit. Mr. Li wanted his niece to taste this unexpected sweetness. I wanted to make sure Mr. Li made it safely to the top of the hill, and that’s when the truck came in, allowing me to connect Mr. Li with the narrator.

2) The way this story addresses the loneliness of not quite fitting in, the way the narrator wants to be part of things — it’s so powerful and longing and, here especially, tinged with sadness. Do you think the narrator will blame themself for what happened? That they will feel that, by sneaking the communion wine, they have somehow caused George’s death?

I think so. Like many children, the narrator makes sense of the adult world by connecting details and events that may or may not be related. The narrator, for all their bravado about sneaking the wine and being a badass, carries the weight of new knowledge that not everyone survives breaking the rules. 

Two Questions for Tom Weller

We recently published Tom Weller’s shattering “Bottles.”

Here, we ask him two questions about his story:

1) I think all of us, if we haven’t done it ourselves, know some boys who have gone out breaking bottles for kicks. I remember my brother and his friends used to love throwing them out their car windows as they drove along the highway; they thought it was such great fun. What I love about this story, and about the Scrap Boys series in general, is what this represents — it’s more than just mindless destruction. There is purpose, for them, reason. So my question (after this long winded opening!) is: Do you think the Scrap Boys understand fully what this moment means for them now? Or is this an awareness they will come to later?

I think at this point, the Scrap Boys are largely id driven. There is some joy in the quest to gather the bottles, but that joy is mostly derived from anticipating the forthcoming destruction. There is probably some sense of loss as the pile of bottles diminishes, but that mostly comes from recognizing the impending end of the destruction and is quickly tamped down in favor of living in the moment of the destruction. I think, for now, this moment for the Scrap Boys is about the thrill of feeling transgressive, the visceral rush of destruction, and also about control, though they wouldn’t be able recognize or articulate the control element. They are alone in their environment and building and destroying as they please, almost godlike, and I don’t think the Scrap Boys have to many other outlets where they get a chance to feel godlike.

2) I love this description of the Scrap Boys: ” Scrap Boy 1, Scrap Boy 2, Scrap Boy 3, three backyard haircuts, three necks slick with grime and sweat….” My dad still gives himself his own backyard haircuts! How do you picture this kind of haircut on the Scrap Boys?

The Scrap Boys haircuts are ¼ inch buzz cuts, clippers bought at Walmart and a heavy-duty orange extension cord running out the backdoor into the backyard. I imagine at first a parent did the barbering, and the Scrap Boys felt some embarrassment about their hair, so over the years they have overcompensated for that embarrassment and now wear those haircuts like some kind of hypermasculine crown. They are also old enough now that parents our out of the picture. They buzz each other’s hair now, something to do on lazy weekend afternoons. I anticipate a mohawk phase coming up pretty soon.  

Two Questions for Didi Wood

We recently published Didi Wood’s charming “The Child Catcher in Retirement.”

Here, we ask her two questions about her story:

1) This story is inspired by Chitty Chitty Bang Bang, a movie I’ve never seen! Yet you don’t need the background of the movie to fall in love with this lovely piece. What was it like, imagining this character in his (how do they say it?) twilight years?

I don’t think you’re missing much … it’s rather a mess, with one good song (“Doll on a Music Box”) and one fascinating character. The Child Catcher, played by Australian ballet dancer Sir Robert Helpmann, is simultaneously tantalizing and terrifying, graceful and grotesque. He turns up regularly on lists of the scariest characters in children’s films. I wrote another story about him first but, concerned with his possibly problematic provenance (reportedly he was created for the screenplay by Roald Dahl and can be viewed as anti-Semitic, although director Ken Hughes claimed it was he and not Dahl who created the character), put it aside. He was still on my mind, though, and when the first phrases of this story came to me, I jumped at the chance to give him a properly ignoble ending.

2) I love the joy in this piece — there are so many moments that made me smile: the imagery, the use of language, the dialogue. Did you have a lot of fun writing this story?

Thank you! I had a blast writing this, and I’m so glad that comes through. I wanted it to be both playful and grim, like the Child Catcher himself. My writing style tends towards the spare and quiet and subtle. This story is deliberately ornate and lyrical, perhaps even over the top, which seems right for this larger-than-life character.

Two Questions for Christina Pan

We recently published Christina Pan’s brilliant “Dead Writer’s Desk.” Here, we ask her two questions about her story:

1) Is there a significance to the “forty-six pages” found on the writer’s desk — not in the pages themselves, of course, but in the number of them?

When I first started building the writer’s desk, I thought I would start with something quantifiable, so I chose page numbers as an analog version of word count. I think word count is something writers check on as a guarantee of some sort, since it’s one of the only objective measures in a process that is so subjective. As for the number forty-six, I included a specific number just to have a clear quantifiable amount in a way that feels like the writer is trying to stay in total control, and yet at the same time is precariously leaning on the edge of letting loose to new discoveries.

2) That imagery at the end! Oh, it gives me the shivers: “the body floating upwards, the words floating upwards, trails into the air, wisps of cigarette smoke, barely there, nothing really, and the rain falling, and the soft jacket.” Do you think the writer had a sense of what was coming for her? Or is this all just a remarkable coincidence?

I originally started this story in a much more direct manner where the first sentence involves a newspaper headline announcing the death of a well-known crime novelist. Later I adjusted the premise of the story to make the mystery unfold a little more gradually. I have to say that I’ve always been interested in the lives of writers, especially those of mystery writers where it feels like they could always disappear one day, appear dead to the world, then come back in all their glory a couple months later. So, yes, I think the writer in this story followed a certain plan systematically, much like how a detective in a mystery novel would solve a case. What’s left on her desk, then, is all her readers have to go off of. 

Two Questions for Audrey Hawkes

We recently published Audrey Hawkes’ haunting “A Beginner’s Guide to Summoning Bloody Mary.”

Here, we ask her two questions about her story:

1) I love that line about belief — ” You don’t think a magazine can make you love a boy and you don’t think a chant will make a ghost appear in a mirror.” It had me holding my breath for the narrator as they hold Tara’s hand. They are so young here — do you think they will ever be able to tell Tara how they feel?

Thank you, that’s one of my favorite moments as well! A lot of the emotions the narrator is processing were based on my own experience of being a tween and trying to understand all the strong, new emotions and those first inklings of romantic feelings… it can feel very overwhelming and scary when you’re 12! Especially when you think you’re not feeling them the “right” way. But I’d like to imagine that someday when they’re both a little older, things will work out for them, and they will tell Tara how they feel.

2) Bloody Mary has been around forever, it seems, but the way to summon her seems to change from generation to generation. Except, of course, that triple repetition of her name: “Bloody Mary. Bloody Mary. Bloody Mary.” Have you ever tried to summon her?

I’ve definitely been coerced into trying to summon Bloody Mary by friends and family when I was younger, but it always terrified me! Even now as an adult, I rationally know it’s not real, but there’s still that tiny part of me that gets nervous about it. That’s the feeling I wanted to capture with this story, as well — walking that line between what you know to be real and what you hope (or fear) might be real. 

Two Questions for Jessie Lovett Allen

We recently published Jessie Lovett Allen’s sparkling “Sports Moms at the End of the World.”

Here, we ask her two questions about her story:

1) I really love how the sports moms try to rebuild their worlds — in particular, the swim mom’s attempt sounded very authentic to this former swimmer! Of course, there is no recreating what is gone. Do you think the sports moms will accept this?

I’m hopeful they will. These bizarre compensatory activities are a bit sad, and I’d like to imagine these moms will reinvent their identities, post-apocalypse.

2) And of course the title lets us know, it’s not just the children’s sports that will be gone — soon it will be everything. What was the impetus to create an apocalypse from this perspective for you?

I observed that for some parents, it felt apocalyptic when the pandemic resulted in canceled sports seasons or even spectator restrictions. And it can feel apocalyptic to parents when their child-athlete graduates high school and leaves the home. Some parents’ identities are enmeshed with their children’s sports, and it’s a dynamic that can be loving and supportive, but also absurd. However it’s not just sports moms; we will all grieve various lost identities during our life cycle, and we will all find idiosyncratic ways to cope within the ruins of these personal apocalypses.