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Ruben Quesada Talks Poetry, Translation, and Neck Tattoos

by Blake Z. Rong

Ruben Quesada & Miciah Bay Gault in Cafe Anna

On the right side of his neck, just below his ear, poet and professor Ruben Quesada has a tattoo of the Chinese character 晨, set within a thick black circle, which he tells me means, “early light.” Quesada was born on an early morning in a late summer day, in August in the 1970s. “I feel that idea of light embodies who I am, and my personality,” he said. Getting that tattoo “seemed like the right thing to do.”

Quesada (MFA, PhD) grew up in Bell, an oft-overlooked city tangled within Los Angeles’ grid-like boulevards, five miles southeast from downtown, close to where the 5 and 710 Freeways converge. His mother immigrated from Costa Rica just before he was born. With the help of relatives she left Quesada’s father and an abusive relationship to move to Southern California, where she worked to raise Quesada and his two sisters. Next door was a Chinese family that had come from Nicaragua. They had six children, five of them daughters. The son was just a month older than Quesada.

“We became best friends,” said Quesada. “From kindergarten to high school we were practically inseparable. I was at their house daily. I learned so many things I would have never learned within my own family. I learned about pop culture, about computers, about nature—I would go camping with them, to Sequoia National Park, Yosemite, Joshua Tree. Because my mother had to work, she couldn’t take any time off to take us on vacations. I learned about their culture, their daily way of life. This family took me in.”

When Quesada completed his MFA, he sought a reminder of the past. In many ways, he said, earning graduate degrees in the arts severs you from this personal history: you either have to let go of it, or find a way to integrate it into your work. “I knew there was a lot that I had to let go,” he said. “But growing up with that family was something I wanted to hang on to, and to be physically a part of me.”

Quesada’s debut poetry collection, Next Extinct Mammal, was published by Greenhouse Review Press in 2011. He is the translator of Spanish poet Luis Cernuda’s work, Exiled from the Throne of Night. When he is not teaching, he serves as Contributing Editor to the Chicago Review of Books, Senior Editor at the UK-based Queen Mob’s Tea House, and the moderator of the AWP Conference’s annual Latino Caucus, which he founded. He earned his MFA at the University of California Riverside, then a PhD at Texas Tech University in Lubbock, Texas, a town he recently immortalized in verse.

On the cusp of debuting his second collection of poetry, Quesada sat down with me at the Vermont College of Fine Arts, where he’s teaching a course on poetry and translation. We spoke in Café Anna, on the ground floor of College Hall, named after the ghost that still haunts the building.

 

Do you still talk to your friend?

Not regularly. After high school, he did what many people you grow up with do—people move, people get married…we lost touch just after graduate school. Almost 30 years after we met.

 

So he doesn’t know about the tattoo.

No.

 

But he’d probably be pretty excited.

I think his whole family would be! I think of them often.

 

Were you able to find a unique identity as a Central American in California, within the Hispanic and largely Mexican community?

That’s a good question. In the Los Angeles area there are predominantly Mexican people, and in the city of Bell, there were a few other Central Americans. I remember knowing a handful of El Salvadorian people, maybe one or two from Nicaragua. Early on, I knew that Latino culture was quite diverse, that there were others who spoke Spanish like me, but maybe not held the same ideas about food, or ritual, or tradition. The unifying factor was language. We understood that our way of life was different. But we all could speak to each other in Spanish.

 

How did you come to poetry growing up?

My mother encouraged me to read early on, read widely and broadly. She gave me a book of poems by Pablo Neruda that she had brought with her from Costa Rica. That was my first exposure to poems. But I didn’t really think I could make a life with it.

It wasn’t until I was a teenager that I started writing letters, which was cathartic. I didn’t understand that writing letters could be a form of poetic expression until high school. My school offered college guidance, but the resources were minimal: I didn’t know that I could go to college and study poetry. I was very good at math and science, and I was going to major in physics, but at the very last minute I discovered that if I majored in English, I could still have access to poetry.

Ultimately, I ended up going to a community college and taking classes in poetry writing before transferring to Riverside, because it had a department of creative writing that was separate from English. It was then that I knew that I could major and focus in poetry, and I learned that I could make a living teaching poetry.

 

When you graduated, you said: “I knew that I wanted to lead a life in the arts.” Did you ever have any doubts?

I had doubts because I heard that it was difficult to get a full-time job teaching poetry with just an MFA. Even now, with a PhD, it’s still quite difficult. I wanted to do it full-time. So it was a really interesting psychological change—but also, the tattoo was a bodily change, right? Having changed my appearance in this way immediately limited the kind of work that I’d get. In many ways, it forced my hand.

I doubted whether I could make a living mostly because I didn’t have any models. I didn’t know anyone who did it except for the professors that I had. And none of them looked like me. None of them had the same background that I had. It became critically important to me that I ensure that the visibility and presence of people of color, and queer people were in the literary community in the arts. And so that is one of my passions: not only to create space, but to feature their work.

 

Ruben Quesada smiles at podium in front of abstract posters at Cafe Anna

Ruben Quesada reading at Cafe Anna

Translation must have been inevitable from the study of poetry.

I believe that any time we speak, it’s a form of translation. Any time we’re trying to convey the ideas that we have in our own head, and we put those ideas into language, it’s a form of translation. But what really draws me to poetry is that initial interaction I had with it when my mother gave me that Neruda book as a child. While I grew up speaking Spanish and learning to read Spanish, it always felt like something that I wanted to share with others in my life who didn’t speak Spanish. I knew that the best way to do that is to interpret those words into a language that was familiar to those I knew.

 

If you could convey one thing to our translation class you’re teaching this semester, what would it be?

Over time, the concept of translation has changed for me. In recent years, I started putting words to images, to sound. There’s an interesting take on a biblical passage from Genesis that is on my Soundcloud page. I translated Genesis into the sound of gunfire and also into the sound of a harp. Like language, it’s a really interesting performative aspect to translation. I continue to challenge my own notions of translation. Now that I have a chance to teach it, I have a really interesting, challenging thing to do. But my hope is to show others how translation can live in these multiple forms.

I think there’s certainly an academic notion that translation is a lexical exercise where you’re translating something word for word, or sentence to sentence, but what I believe is important is being able to convey an idea or an emotion that might bridge or transgress language or culture.

 

An alum from this program recently founded their own journal, and you’ve had your hand in two: Codex Journal and Stories & Queer. It seems to be something that a lot of us might pursue.

I started Codex in 2011, during my final years at Texas Tech University. I wanted to find a way to integrate tech and also create a space for people who weren’t visible, including an annual queer people of color issue that ran once a year.

Stories & Queer is a traveling reading series that my partner and I started in 2013. Its aim is to travel to rural areas where there’s a lack of visibility of LGBT people—we find a space and we create a literary event, so people there have an opportunity to tell their stories. In Montpelier I’m currently organizing a literary event with a Vermont group called Outright.

 

What are some things that surprised you when you launched a journal?

Codex has been on hiatus for some time. But toward the end, I found guest editors. It takes a lot of time to curate an issue—this was a quarterly journal, and even four times a year, it was a lot of time to try to either solicit or go through submissions and create a cohesive idea for each issue. Even though I found guest editors, trying to find a guest editor who was passionate about a particular idea also took a lot of time. It’s a digital journal, and that also takes some financial backing. To ensure that all the work I publish lives online, I have to continue hosting that URL. There are so many small journals I see disappear in a year, mostly because people don’t have the time and money to ensure that it’s gonna be around. The long game is important. If you’re going to feature people’s work, you owe them the space to ensure them that their work will survive.

Maybe it didn’t necessarily surprise me, but I don’t know if surprise is the right word—it renewed my respect for literary institutions that have been around for decades.

 

What drew you toward Luis Cernuda and his work?

I was drawn to Spanish language poetry because of my background. The most recognizable poets of Spain might be those of the late 19th or early 20th century, a group known as the Generation of ‘27. That includes another recognizable name: Federico García Lorca. Cernuda was a contemporary. They were the only two gay poets of that group—Lorca was not out, but Cernuda was. In many ways, his openness with his sexuality may have hindered his success. I started studying Cernuda during my MFA program, and began to translate my work then. There are three American poets who have translated most of his work—Reginald Gibbons, Derek Harris, and Stephen Kessler who’s won many awards for his translation of Cernuda.

 

But there is one collection by him that has not been completely translated. When I was in graduate school I reached out to his family and acquired rights to translate his work. It’s his collection called Las Nubes, or “The Clouds”, that I’m currently working on. As I finish my second collection of poems, I’m slowly returning to Cernuda.

 

How does Las Nubes fit into his overall body of work?

This collection was written in exile. Cernuda self-exiled in 1937 and he never returned. So these poems were written during his time outside of Spain. He taught at Columbia University and at UCLA, and it’s during his time at UCLA that he died. So it’s interesting to translate these poems that were written in his native language, while he was outside of his home country.

The poems align themselves with most of his other work, which is spare, influenced by surrealism, and focused on love and desire. Throughout his body of work, he’s wrestled with his homosexual desires and how that fit into his world. He does that through the implication of the body and nature.

 

Tell me about your second collection of poetry.

The second collection is a departure from my first. My first collection is focused on my time in LA, my childhood, and my family. I think place and family play a prominent role in that collection. If someone was to examine many first collections of poetry by Latino writers, they might find that those are pretty common themes.

The current manuscript is focused on desire and religion. The book is organized by different Catholic sacraments—there’s a section on communion, there’s a section on confession, and the poems are organized in parts. One section might have a title, but poems in that section are numbered. What’s different about the way they look is that they’re laid out in blocks of text with no punctuation, so they appear to look as tablets.

The idea for that really came to me when I was reading at the Art Institute of Chicago. There was a Mayan stone in the shape of a square. The stone itself tells a story in hieroglyphs. Those glyphs reminded me of contemporary use of images to convey ideas, emojis, and I began to think of my use of imagery in a similar fashion.

 

You said you live in Chicago. How do you like the city?

I love Chicago. I’ve been in the Midwest five years, but I’ve lived in Chicago just over two. There’s many things I like about it. Its public transit, the skyline, the lake, the weather. The way the city is laid out reminds me of Los Angeles in many ways: the city spreads out into little neighborhoods just the way Los Angeles does. So in many ways it feels like home.

I’ve considered living in cities like New York City and I still think about it sometimes, but the pace of New York makes me a bit nauseous. There’s just too much happening at once. Los Angeles is in retrospect too spread out. Chicago is busy enough and there’s enough culture that it feels like a middle ground.

 

How do you write? Do you write at home, in a coffee shop, etc?

I write anywhere I can, at any moment. Revision is a different story. When I revise, most of the time I’ll revise at a desk, at a table.

I love revising, I think I do it too much sometimes. You know, I’m reminded of Walt Whitman’s incessant revisions of Leaves of Grass and I have to remind myself to step away and not labor so much over an idea or a moment in a poem. I try to step away from something as often as I can.

Night of the Spiders

Sheldon Bellegarde

It’s almost midnight but I have got to clean out my bedroom closet. It’s packed with junk and has, like, the most vicious spider problem this side of a radioactive-arachno movie. I’m delving into terror. At least I don’t have a big shoe collection, since spiders like to hide in shoes. For a girl who’s supposed to be at her most fashion-conscious age, style is not my middle name.

I haul out blouses, skirts and jeans in armfuls, hangers clinking, dropping, hooking to my cardinal-red wool sweater. Sweater and I are in the middle of a three-day hug. I change underclothes—I’m not a dirtbag. It’s just cold in here.

Shoes next. Shoeboxes would be great. I find a dusty stack beside the Payless-style shelves, behind a spiderweb with no visible owner. I tuck my fist into my bloated sweater and split the icky threads and open the top box.

Oh. Yippee. Pictures.

Here’s a Cortland family photo, from before my parents became zombies. The three of us over-cheesing—you know, when someone goes, “Say cheese” and then takes too long to get the picture, and you’re saying “cheese” for, like, 15 years, and finally it’s not a real smile anymore, if it ever was. Over-cheesing.  This was at Niagara Falls, and Mom’s all swollen because it’s right before Miller burst out.

“Katy?”

Speak of the devil.

“Be in bed, Miller.”

“I have to go to the bathroom,” he says through my door.

Miller is nine years old.

“Then go, twerp.”

Silence. It’s golden. I like that everything I say has been said forever, so everyone knows what I’m talking about. A spider is trying to creep-show skitter up my sleeve, but it’s tangled in the frazzled fabric. I tug the cuff of my other sleeve over the heel of my hand and I don’t scream and I squash the clingy insect.

“Could you take me?” Miller says.

“It’s five feet away. Take yourself.”

“The light’s off.”

He wants a freaking escort to the freaking bathroom.

He looks like a pale-bellied animal in his Boston Celtics warm-up peejays, frozen in the hallway with big, dark eyes. He’s experiencing a thumbsucking revival. He grabs my hand—unnecessary—and I tote him the five steps to the bathroom he’s used by himself a thousand times and I hit the lights.

“Happy peeing.”

“Wait right here til I’m done, okay?”

He doesn’t close the door.

The light’s on in his bedroom. It slices the floor at a diagonal, so it looks like…I don’t know. A slasher-fest poster? On one bill, tonight only! Witness the horror of Child’s Play—fear being Alone in the Dark—thrill that I Know What You Did Last Tuesday—all leading up to A Nightmare on Taylor Court.

“To have (a fight) and to hold (a grudge).” Some B-movie tagline.

“Spiderweb on your shirt!” Miller shrieks, actually shrieks, and his face peels back like a Samara victim’s until I gather up the strands and roll them in my palms, way over-cheesing.

“Happy?” I say.

I slam my door in his face. He’s always right on my heels, latching on like an insect. I refuse to coddle him, but he’ll go downstairs and tell my mom blahblahblah the boogieman, and she’ll let him lie on the couch and watch R-rated movies. Then she’ll wonder what his problem is.

I boxtop the photos. Shoes next. I like thick soles. Some of them could do damage. I’m totally pacifist, though. If Gandhi was a chick, he’d be me.

I used to collect comic books. I had tons of boy friends (not boyfriends). They were in it for the spandexed mutant hotties, though—I read romance, mostly. My box ofYoung Romance and True Stories of Romance and Kiss Me Quickly is of course webified. I coil the demon silk around my sweater sleeve and slip it off like a bracelet.

Spider! I flutter my hand like the stupid thing’s on fire. The little demon flips off my thumb to the floor and I grab a sneaker and rain down a fistful of hot rubber. It’s clobberin time, insect.

Mom and Dad’s first Young Romance moment—high school, separate classes, opposite sides of a courtyard. Window seats. Band practice, Mom doesn’t even know what song, but the music was serene and dulcet and stuff and it wafted up through the courtyard, and Mom and Dad spotted each other. Years of pent-up desire blossomed. They raced downstairs and met in the courtyard on springtime grass and they danced a perfect slowdance, while grades nine through twelve tossed torn bits of loose-leaf paper confetti. And they lived happily ever—

“Katy?”

“I swear to God and the fiery pits of hell, Miller.”

“My wall’s making scratchy sounds.”

No mood. I’m in no mood for this. My closet’s too hot and I’ll never kill all the spiders, they’ve probably laid eggs. It’s Aliens in there. The young’uns are ready to crack.

“Tell Mom,” I tell Miller.

“She said go to bed.”

“Ditto.”

“Katy?”

“Miller?”

“Mom is crying.”

“No, she isn’t.”

“Katy?”

What?

“I think I’m having a nightmare.”

Ew. I don’t need a kid telling me that. That’s how Freddy movies start.

I kick the brass plate of my bedroom door.

“Miller Cortland! Bed!”

One, two, Freddy’s coming for you

I can’t walk a mile in anyone else’s shoes right now. I think I might break up with my boyfriend, who’s not exactly my boyfriend, but we’re kind of going sort of out. We see other people. Well, I don’t.

I have some heavy-duty shoes.

I don’t want to be a freakin cliché. I don’t want to be sad forever.

I have a music box somewhere in here, a gift from Dad. There’s this ballerina pirouetting or whatever and she’s holding…I forget. Not shoes.

Out, CDs! Out, ratty sweaters! Out, out, soccer cleats! If kicks could kill, if the shoe fits. But they never did.

No end to the webs. I’ll probably find cracks in the walls way in back. Spiders pouring out. I once picked up an orchard apple and turned it over and it was crawling with spiders. I freaked. Mom said spiders don’t eat apples since they’re carnivores so they weren’t spiders. I believe that spiders are carnivores. I hate apples.

I think it was an apple the ballerina was holding. An apple of discord? Does discord have to do with music? It was a pretty tune, though. Here’s what I learned in school, when I was supposed to be dancing in courtyards—a bunch of gods were at a wedding but the goddess of discord, Eros, wasn’t invited, so she crashed with a bad apple.

Wedding’s ruined, everybody’s fighting, Linda’s swallowing the groom’s soul, bride’s swinging heels—how pissed off do you have to be? Never mind. Our garage is Dad’s hotel. Mancave. I bet when he sleeps spiders crawl all over his face.

At my age you don’t say things are like nightmares. Nothing’s safer than sleep, when you can do it.

“Katy?”

“Miller, if you aren’t in bed in ten seconds, I’m gonna squash you flat.”

His footsteps shake the whole house. When Miller was born, my dad told me I would always be loved very much. “We both love you very much.” They feed me that cliché like pizza. Amy, my best friend, when it happened to her she withered like a bad apple, she rotted from the inside. She was afraid of her own shadow. “We’ll always love each other,” my parents promised back then. But, I mean, come on: love, war, same thing—passion. They also said that if I ate my apple-a-day—to keep the doctor away—that I could stay up late, but late was only eight o’clock. But I kept believing them.

Forget the music box. Sweat’s squishing in my armpits. It rains, it pours.

She was the apple of his eye.  Dad’s. Now I am. This is all word-for-word. Miller was never the apple because Miller practically is Dad—a chip off the old block. In those shoeboxes, I have a picture of Miller age three and one of my dad age three, framed together, and the only way you can tell the difference is the Nintendo DS. They both looked like Damien from The Omen.

All of it’s for you, Damien.

I think that if you can prove your parents are rotten self-infested hypocrites you should be allowed by law to skip school and sleep around and get plastered at fifteen. That’s your reward. Because you’re fucked.

I’ll need a broom for these ceiling webs. Broom’s in the garage. I’ll need shoes. I pick the suede Skechers with the full-inch soles that I haven’t worn in a year, even though they look adorable with flared jeans. They look like hell with my gray sweatpants.

I’m not going out to the garage.

Let them move and I’ll stay, they can pay my bills. I won’t feel guilty. I’m a babe in the woods. Not with these gray sweatpants, though.

I hated Linda right away, I knew something was up, right there in the woods on my dad’s company picnic. Linda. Think Exorcist, pea soup, though she brought egg salad. She shook Mom’s hand and then later, I’m serious, she braided Mom’s hair. At a picnic table.

We used to do family things.

Usually I don’t mind spiders in the woods, that’s where they belong. Not in closets or on apples.

Forget them moving out. I have my sweater which is practically an RV and my shoes which are practically boots, which are made for walking. More hypocrisy—they eloped. I guess Gramp and Pop-pop didn’t buy into courtyard slowdances and plus they didn’t know Mom was seeded. My mom almost had that fruit plucked before it got ripe. She told me this. She said I’m her little redemption.

“Katy?”

“Miller, if I open this door, you’re a goner.”

“Can I sleep in your room?”

It’s the dead of night. I can’t figure out if that’s cliché.

“It’s not bedtime for me, Miller.”

“Something’s in the wall.”

“I’m cleaning my closet. Go back to bed.”

“I don’t believe you. You’re lying. Everyone’s lying.”

His bellyaching is making my belly ache. I’ve covered too many miles on too many guilt trips, and I need a broom, or a walk, or maybe I’ll call my boyfriend and have him come get me, so I can dump him. Either way, I’m not my brother’s keeper.

I open the door and he jumps five feet in the air. If I coddle him like they do, everyone in this house will be waking me up in the middle of the night.

“See, twerp? Closet. Disemboweled.”

Miller scoots in. He’s nosy. He has my dad’s nose. People tell me I look like my dad—do they realize I’m a girl? I don’t look like either of my parents.

“You have a big closet,” Miller says.

“You have a big problem.”

“I can hear them fighting.”

Both of their faces ripened-red. Shoes can be a weapon, those heels I’m not allowed to wear or cute sneaker-boots or anything, if you’re angry enough. If you want to hurt somebody.

“I can’t hear anything, Miller.”

“You could build great forts in here. No one would be able to get you. Is this for the light?”

He flips the switch, which is outside the closet. The switch glows in the OFF position, to find it in the dark. Like a closet’s the first place you go when the lights are out. He flips it again and again, click-click-click.

Miller has rocks in his head. Miller’s afraid of his own shadow. Mom says that. We all say stuff like that.

“Go to bed go to bed go to bed, Miller.”

“I can help.”

“I’m not your mommy, kiddo. Take it like a man.”

“But I don’t wanna,” he whines. His face ripens, his lips and cheeks and brow swell. “The boogieman’s in my wall.”

See? I knew he’d play that card. The boogieman exactly.

I shove him into the closet and slam the door and I wedge my big sole against the bottom. He pushes, pounds, but the door is made of whatever, some strong wood, and he’s trapped.

“Katy! Katy, let me out! Please!”

Hysterical already. He goes straight below the belt for the jugular, he’s a squeaky wheel and a bad seed.

I shut the light off.

“Katy Katy Katy KATY!”

You can get bored with the wicked teen getting gored by the movie monster, you can say and see that so many times that it doesn’t matter anymore. After a while, you just expect it to happen, monsters killing kids with whatever’s lying around. After a while, you look forward to it.

“Katy, quick, the boogieman Katy quick!”

“Know why I was cleaning my closet, Miller? It’s full of spiders. They’re everywhere, Miller, with skittery legs and razor-sharp pincers, thousands of them. They’re all around you, Miller.”

He gasps the oh-god-a-spider gasp, like he’s about to leap onto a chair and squeal, but there’s nowhere to leap except down a peg, no one to squeal to. The shoe is on the other sibling.

He pounds on the door. It shakes my sweater.

Please Katy let me out, please I’ll go to bed just please let me out Katy they’re on me Katy please!

What does it mean that it’s normal to feel things that aren’t there? That’s the kind of stuff you should be able to wake up from.

Miller screams. He screams like a thousand spiders have leapt into his warm-up peejays and torn his skin and filled his ears and eaten his eyes. Now they’re spinning him up in sticky webs, weaving him into a neat little wad, fruit for a carnivore.

Katy please let me out, let me out I’ll go to bed!

Mom and Dad will find him shriveled up, crawling with boogiemen. They’ll wonder what our problem was. Then they’ll hold each other tight and cry their eyes out. How’s that for a horror image.

Cliché.

A spider skitters out past my foot and I jump. I forgot I was wearing shoes. I crush it.

The screaming stops.

Art by Kerri Augenstein

Sheldon Bellegarde is not a teenage girl, which is a sure sign that NIGHT OF THE SPIDERS is about him. He lives and works in upstate New York, where he is actually very kind toward spiders who lurk in his home. He thinks webs are, like, the coolest thing nature ever produced, not to mention they’re a great metaphor for, among other things, intrigue.

Last Dog

Claire Burgess

Joel was worried about the dead dog in his trunk. Heat rose off the road in front of him, rippling the air like a photograph warping over a flame—he was beginning to regret his decision to pack the ice inside the trash bag with the dog. In this heat, he knew, the ice would be melting, soaking the fur, and if there’s a smell worse than dead dog, it’s wet dead dog. What he should have done was put the dog inside its own bag, put that bag inside another bag filled with ice, and then put that bag in the suitcase. That way, the dog would have stayed dry. Every time he hit a pothole or made a sharp turn, he could hear the suitcase with the dog in it thump and slide. He thought he could hear sloshing water too, but he couldn’t be sure.

The dead dog belonged to Joel’s dying father. He had lung disease, and when he called Joel and said that the dog, a coonhound named Hound, had beat him to the grave and he was going to follow him soon, Joel had checked out of the motel he had been staying in since his wife said she needed some “time,” and had flown straight down to Forte, a town where the waters of the Gulf seeped up through the ground to form marshes, undermine the foundation of houses, and breed enough mosquitoes to outnumber the humans. When he arrived, he found his father skinny and stooped, but with joints swollen and huge, as if they belonged to a larger animal. Skin hung off his bones like a turkey’s wattle, and his eyes seemed to have a translucent film over them, like a second set of eyelids constantly closed. Joel hadn’t been born until his father was thirty-six, which Joel had thought was too old to be having your first child. But then here he was, two years past that age and childless. And jobless. And possibly soon to be wifeless.

Upon the dog’s death, Joel’s father had gotten the boy down the street, in exchange for a silver dollar, to carry it to the garage for him and store it in the large freezer that formerly held venison from his successful hunting trips. Joel had tried to transfer the dog into his father’s biggest cooler for transport, but the animal was frozen solid, or maybe stiff from rigor mortis, or both. Either way, it wouldn’t fit, and Joel had to improvise with the trash bags and ice and his big rolling suitcase. He had dumped all his clothes onto the blue-carpeted floor of his childhood bedroom, where they formed a pitiful, odorous pile, and he had reflected on the meaning of that pile, which contained everything he had brought with him to the motel after leaving the house he had shared with his wife but now did not. The pile meant this—failure, regret, defeat. And then he dragged the empty suitcase to the garage and stuffed a frozen dog into it.

But it probably didn’t matter about the ice, Joel thought, since the dog itself was probably thawing by now. He had been lost for the last twenty minutes, cursing his unhelpful GPS and weaving through roads that should have been familiar, but now were not. Nothing looked the same, or maybe everything looked the same as everything else. He drove past live oaks trailing Spanish moss, past brightly painted Victorians, past rusted-out trucks and tilting sheds and jungle-like vegetation that swallowed fences and spilled onto the road, as dense and unsurpassable as steel wool. It was stranger than Philadelphia had been, or Chicago, or Louisville, Joel decided, because it was familiar and strange at the same time.

Joel squinted at the passing landscape, hunched over the steering wheel like his father used to do before his eyesight got too bad to drive, hoping for something to trigger a memory. He used to know these roads like he knew his own face in the mirror, but then again, he didn’t really know his face anymore. Like his face, Forte had become strange over the years, had changed while he wasn’t looking.

Joel had left when he was eighteen. He had only returned for Thanksgivings (they had done Christmas with his in-laws), his mother’s funeral, and for the occasional visit to his father after he got sick, but on those visits he seldom drove anywhere except to pick up groceries from the Piggly Wiggly down the street or to take his father to the hospital in Mobile. He hadn’t ventured onto these roads since the weekends in high school when he and his friends took six packs into the swamp and shot bottle rockets at each other. And now here he was again, bouncing through the beat-up back roads of his youth in his father’s Buick, but this time he had no friends or beer or bottle rockets, just a thawing dog in the trunk.

When he finally found the taxidermist’s, he came upon it by accident. He rounded a curve in the road and there it was in front of him, sprung like a bobcat out of the swampy underbrush to stare him in the face, unexpected and startling and sadly obvious, like everything else in his life.

The shop was on the ground floor of a squat house the color of dried moss, right next to a partially abandoned strip of shops which included a tanning salon, a Chinese buffet, and a hunting gear store. “Herbert Taxidermy” said the sign out front. Joel pulled into the gravel driveway and then wondered if he should roll the whole suitcase in, take the dog out first, or walk in and ask. They might not even do dogs, after all. Mounting a pet seemed morbid to Joel, but then again, mounting anything seemed morbid to Joel. For a period of time when he was young, he had refused to go into the den unless his mother covered his father’s trophy animals with sheets and pillowcases. When he wasn’t looking directly at them, he swore he could see them move.

Joel decided to go in and ask first.

Inside, heads clustered the walls—deer, bucks, boars, even a moose. The front room had been converted into a showroom dominated by a standing and dusty black bear. A random assortment of tables and shelves held exhibits of small game and fowl, and a large desk blocked the doorway to another room shielded with a camo-print curtain. The desk looked like it would be better suited to a smoky study, not a taxidermy shop. On one corner of the desk, a small white bunny was mounted on a shiny disk of wood. The room was so packed with animals that at first Joel didn’t notice that he was the only human in it.

“Hello?” he said. His voice sounded very loud. In the corners of his vision, glass eyes rolled towards him.

The camo curtain moved to reveal the head of a girl peering at him. The head had red hair the color of a candy apple, which in some places would be a statement color, but here was just the color people dyed their hair when they went red.

“Oh, I’m sorry,” said the head. “I was so caught up I didn’t hear you come in.”

“It’s okay,” said Joel. “Are you Herbert? Sorry, do you pronounce the ‘H’ or not?”

The candy-headed girl emerged the rest of the way from the curtain and tugged it closed behind her. She was wearing a sundress and cowboy boots, and on her upper back, where it wasn’t covered by her hair or the straps of the dress, part of a large tattoo was visible.

“The Cajun way: ‘A-bear,’” said the girl. “And yes, I’m Abear.”

“Oh,” said Joel. The girl, Abear, was young, mid-twenties, Joel guessed, with a nose like a smooshed muffin and a large purple birthmark that spread like an ink stain from her left jaw under her ear up to her cheekbone, nearly covering the whole cheek. Joel strained to not stare and to look at her eyes instead, eyes that were a brown so dark that the irises were barely distinguishable from the pupils. They reminded him of the eyes of an animal—not the glass ones in the mounts, but live, blinking animal eyes.

“Can I help you with something?” she said.

“Yes,” said Joel. “It’s, uh, it’s kind of embarrassing, actually. And please don’t hesitate to say no if you’re uncomfortable with it—”

“What, you want to mount your wife?” said Abear with a smirk, the left edge of her lip drawing towards the birthmark.

Joel was silent for a moment, and then expelled a nervous laugh that sounded more like choking. “No, uh, it’s a dog,” he said.

Abear’s smirk disappeared. “A pet?”

“Yes.”

“Are you sure your want to mount it?” she said. “Mounting it won’t give you your dog back. It’ll give you a statue of your dog. Have you considered cremation?” It sounded like she had given this speech before.

“I’m sure,” he said.

The edge of her bra was visible under the sundress. It was the flesh-colored kind his wife wore, which she called “sensible.”

“Most shops won’t do this kind of work, you know,” said Abear. “Too much buyer’s remorse.”

Joel knew. That’s why he had come here, because the ad in the phone book said they did “unusual animals,” which he assumed to mean exotic animals, but he was hoping the choice of the word “unusual” would mean they’d make an exception for this one dog. He thought of his father sitting on his cigarette-burned armchair in the wood-paneled den with the animal heads, his oxygen tank at his side, and said, “Please. It’s important.”

Abear eyed him for a moment, her eyes squinting as if trying to see him better, and then shrugged and offered her hand.

“Okay,” she said, “I’ll do it.” When they shook on it, she gave his hand a reassuring double-squeeze at the end.

“It’s in my trunk,” he said, pulling his hand away.

When he opened his trunk, Joel was embarrassed to see one plastic-covered paw protruding beyond the zipper of the suitcase as if the dog was trying to escape. He glanced at the girl to see her reaction, but she only raised one finely plucked eyebrow.

The dog was thankfully still frozen solid, but some of the ice had melted and wet the red-brown fur. It had also escaped the trash bag and soaked the bottom of his suitcase and some of the trunk upholstery. He was sure he would never get the smell out.

“It wouldn’t fit in the cooler,” Joel explained as he stooped to remove the dog from the trash bag, but he was so busy watching Abear’s two-toned face that the trash bag slipped and the dog water and remaining ice slushed onto the parking lot and into his shoes.

“Goddamnit!” he said, almost dropping the dog. He could feel his cheeks going red, and then redder when he realized they were going red. For a moment, he had an out-of-body experience. He could see himself from the girl’s point of view—a middle-aged man with rings of sweat under his armpits, holding a dripping, frozen dog in his arms, standing in wet shoes, blushing. He saw his receding hairline at the temples, the expanding, pit-like pores on his nose, the growing water spot on the front of his shirt where he held the dog against his softening belly, the gap of his mouth slightly open with embarrassment, his eyes dull and a bit out of focus with humiliation.

And then he was back in his body. The water in his shoes was freezing.

“It’s only water,” said the girl. And then she reached out and touched the dog. She stroked the matted fur on the top of its head as if it were alive.

“He looks like a nice dog,” she said.

Joel couldn’t meet her eyes, so he stared at the edge of her bra and said, “He was.”

~

On the way back to his father’s house, Joel called his wife. He knew she wouldn’t answer, but he did this anyway, every day. She always sent him to voice mail, but she never outright rejected the call, which meant something. It meant he had a foothold. It meant he was still present in her life in the form of his messages. It meant she couldn’t cut him out completely.

Joel had a plan. He would get back in through her voicemail, convince her to take him back through persistence and eloquence. Every message was carefully pondered and planned out before he left it, and he often pressed four to replay the message and then two to erase and record it again until it was perfect. He would listen to her voice on the recorded greeting, the brisk alto of it, shiny and full and cold like brass, and every time he could feel longing and hope swell in him and then get cut down by the sharp muscle spasm of remembered heartbreak.

The whole thing seemed terribly romantic to Joel. His carefully crafted messages were love letters, hand written, corked inside a bottle, set into the outgoing tide of a grey sea. He imagined her listening to them while standing in the kitchen, the scene of their break, possibly while eating a solitary meal at the new granite island they had just installed six months ago, before he lost his job, on which Joel had broken two plates and three wine glasses (granite is notorious for breaking things—you have to be very careful, and Joel was never careful enough). He imagined that she would imagine him across from her as she replayed his messages, imagine him sharing her meal. He could see her face—her upper lip with the dip over it the shape of a dew drop would tremble slightly—her huge blue eyes that protruded from her face in a way that stopped just short of buggish and landed on startling would be closed—she would run one hand through her blond hair from front to back, the way she did when she was stressed or upset. She would save the message. She saved all his messages. He imagined.

“You’ve reached Danielle Riggs,” the greeting said. “I’m away from my phone right now, but please leave a message and I’ll call you back as soon as possible. Thank you. Bye.”

Riggs. That was his last name. Riggs. He cherished it, her name joined with his. It was his favorite part of the message. His second favorite part was when she said “Bye.” So polite, automatic, and completely unnecessary.

“Hi, honey,” he said after the beep. “I just wanted to let you know that I’m in Forte now. My flight was good, clear skies the whole way. I wish you were here. Dad would love to see you. He doesn’t have much time left. I would take you to that seafood restaurant you like, the one with the fresh oysters from the Gulf. Do you remember the first night we went there? And what we did when we went back to Dad’s? Good thing he’s hard of hearing. Ha-ha. I haven’t heard back about that interview at AmeriBank, but I’m going to follow up in a couple days. Oh, and Hound died. It’s very sad. Dad says he has nothing to live for anymore and he’s going to go soon. I wish you were here. I love you. Bye.”

He pressed four to listen to his message, and his voice held the perfect mix of sadness and intimacy. That one might bring a tear to her eye. She liked Hound, even though she had animal allergies. She had always wanted a dog but could never have one, and sometimes she would look at Hound longingly from across the room and sneeze.

~

“She said it will take a month at the least,” Joel told his father when he found his way back to his house. “Probably more.”

“Not good enough!” his father wheezed at him as he dragged his narrow green oxygen tank to the recliner beneath the 8-point buck. “I might be dead by then.”

“Don’t talk like that, Dad. The doctor said you could have years left,” said Joel.

“The doctor doesn’t know shit,” his father said. “He’s a third my age. He doesn’t know what dying feels like, but I do. I can feel it all over my body. I predict I have three weeks.”

“Dad.”

“Don’t ‘Dad’ me. You don’t know what it feels like either.” He paused to have a coughing fit and hack something from his lungs into his palm. He held it out to Joel, cupped in his wrinkled hand in a way that seemed tender and careful. It reminded Joel of how his father used to scoop tadpoles out of the swamp ponds that were everywhere around here and show them to Joel, pointing out the ones with legs, the ones with legs and arms, the ones with nothing. He would press his fingers together to try to hold on to the water, but it would always seep out, leaving the tadpoles squirming on his bare palm.

Joel looked into his father’s cupped hand. In it was something dark and viscous, like black snot.

“See?” his father said. “That’s what death looks like. It comes from inside you and fills up your lungs and chokes you.” Then he flapped his hand over the trash can beside his chair until it flew into the plastic lining with a thwack, the wet sound of finality. Joel imagined he could feel his own skin getting loose, his joints starting to compact, his eyes starting to blur.

“Tell that girl to hurry it up,” he said, pointing a yellow-nailed finger at Joel. “Tell her it’s a matter of life and death.”

It was too late to call the taxidermy shop, so Joel decided to call the next day. Or maybe he would go there in person, just to get out of the house, get away from the wheezing and the talk of phlegm and death. When he thought of seeing Abear again he felt nervous. He didn’t know what he would say. “My father is dying soon and wants the dog ASAP,” didn’t seem right, especially since Joel had lied and claimed the dog was his. Well, he didn’t say that, exactly, but he didn’t correct her, either. Why had he done that? he wondered.

She’s so young to be in such a grisly trade, Joel thought while he was lying in his old bed in his old room that night. It was a twin bead, and his feet hung off the end, vulnerable, cold. He wondered what Abear’s first name was. He wondered if she hated that birthmark. He wondered about the tattoo on her back, what was behind the curtain in her shop, if all her bras were flesh-colored, or if she had some that were colorful, or black, or lacy even.

And then he thought of his wife, and he had a feeling like he was collapsing onto his knees, even though he was lying in bed.

Danielle needed to take some time for herself, she had said a month ago in the kitchen. It had been ten o’clock at night, and she hadn’t called, and Joel had been waiting on a stool at the island for her to get back. She needed to get some perspective on things, she had said. Joel had stared at her lips, the insides of which were stained purple with the wine she had just been drinking wherever she had been, with whoever she had been with. He had wanted to rub his thumb across them, rub away the stain.

She needed to re-evaluate her life, she said. She had turned into a person she never wanted to be, she said. Her life was not the life she dreamed of in high school, she said. It was maybe his fault. He had asked what he did to ruin her life.

“You asked me to marry you.”

He thought about his knees tucked into the backs of her knees, her hair tickling his nose.

“I fell in love with a different man,” Danielle said. “You were exciting and fun and did things. You had beliefs. And then you became a bank manager. And I became whatever it is I am now, and I hate this person.”

“Well, I’m not a bank manager anymore,” Joel said, joking.

It was the wrong answer. She had thrown up her hands, spun around, and slammed the kitchen door behind her. Joel heard her car start up and pull out of the driveway. He had sat at the island for another half hour, stunned. The kitchen seemed suddenly foreign, a kitchen in someone else’s house that he had accidentally walked into, thinking it was his. He watched the door, waiting for her to return, teary-eyed, and take everything back. She didn’t.

The next morning, Joel packed the rolling suitcase and took it to the Residence Inn by the interstate, which had rooms with kitchens and rented by the week. He left a message on Danielle’s phone saying that he had left so she could have the space she needed, and she should stay in the house. Then he called back and left another message saying that when she was ready, he would make everything up to her, and to please call him back.

When he got to the motel, he slept for a long time. Then he went to the grocery store and bought potato chips, bagels, and a box of wine. He put the wine on the nightstand by his bed and the bagels and chips on the side of the double bed that he wasn’t sleeping on, and for most of the next week he stayed in bed and watched the hotel’s cable TV, drank wine from a Dixie cup, ate the potato chips and bagels for meals, once creating a potato-chip bagel sandwich, and slept in his crumbs, only getting up to use the bathroom. When he ran out of food and wine, he went to the store by their house and hoped to see his wife there. But then he realized what he looked like—unwashed, stubbly, orange Doritos stains on his sweat pants—and left quickly, darting furtively down the aisles. In the third week, he got a call from AmeriBank, one of the many banks he had submitted job applications to after he lost his job during a merger due to “redundancies.” He bathed and shaved, and he put on his work suit for the first time in three months. He clipped his nails and shook hands and answered questions about his strategy for leading a team and situations in which a problem arose and he had solved it. After the interview, he went back to the grocery store, confident this time, and hoped to see his wife. He walked up and down the aisles but couldn’t find her. The next day, he started leaving the messages. And then a few days ago, his father called. And so here he was.

Joel hung up and thought about the taxidermy girl and what she would be doing to Hound right then. Would she be taking off his skin, he wondered. Would she be letting his fur dry before she took off his skin? Would she be petting him behind the ears?

~

The next day, he avoided calling the taxidermist. He thought about it frequently, but for some reason it made him nervous, and he found reasons to put it off. He got a roast from the Pig, which was one of his father’s favorite dinners, and which would take all day to cook. He cut the grass in the yard and took off his shirt when he started to sweat through it and felt manly and vital and only a little self-conscious about his gut, which wasn’t nearly as flat as it used to be. He dusted the mounts in the den and avoided looking them in the eyes. And all the while, his father watched TV and breathed loudly and spouted bits of wisdom during commercial breaks, like—“Women have no heads for numbers. They always bid too high. The one that says One Dollar—almost always a man.” And, “Religion is a defense mechanism to deal with death. But don’t tell God I said that.”

At 4 o’clock, Joel’s cell phone rang. Something like electricity or nausea shot through his body as he dug it out of his pocket, almost dropping it in his haste, his hands suddenly damp. It was an unknown number.

Not Danielle.

All feeling vacated his body—he was a limp sack of flesh. And then he realized it could be AmeriBank, and he mustered the will to answer.

“Hi Mr. Riggs,” said the voice on the other end. “It’s Susanna Abear from Abear Taxidermy?”

Susanna. Her name was Susanna. Oh, Susanna, he sang in his head.

“Of course. I was actually about to call you,” he said. He glanced at his father in his recliner and snuck out of the room.

“Have you changed your mind about your pet? People often change their minds, so I always wait a few days before starting.”

“No, no. I haven’t changed my mind,” said Joel. “I was actually going to ask if there was any way you could get it done sooner than a month, so I would prefer if you go ahead and start.”

“That’ll be difficult,” said Susanna. “It’s a whole process, you know. It’s hard to speed it up. It takes time to tan the skin, sculpt the form, let everything dry out.”

“There are extenuating circumstances. If you get it done early, I can pay you extra.”

Susanna was quiet on the other end of the phone.

“But what were you calling me about?” said Joel.

“I was going to ask for a photograph. Of your dog. It helps to get the expression right. Pets have a way of looking at their master that’s impossible to duplicate from the lifeless form. It’s actually really hard even with a photograph. The eyes are the hardest part.”

“Oh,” said Joel. “Of course. I’ll see if I can find one.”

“Thanks, Mr. Riggs. And I’ll do my best to get your dog mounted sooner.”

“I appreciate that.”

“Oh, and one more thing. What’s his name, your dog?”

“Hound,” said Joel.

On the other end of the line, Susanna laughed. “Perfect,” she said.

~

Joel’s father had a whole shoebox of photos of Hound. When he relayed Susanna’s request, Joel’s father directed him to the hall closet to retrieve the box, nearly packed to the brim with glossy four-by-sixes. Joel brought it to the kitchen table, and his father wheeled his tank over and pointed at pictures and told their stories—here’s Hound as a puppy in your mother’s lap, before he got too big to sit in laps. He used to pee everywhere, his father said—we had to get the carpets cleaned professionally three different times. There’s Hound and me on a hunting trip, the time Hound tracked down the bobcat on the mantle. Hound in a pile of leaves. Hound and me sitting on the porch. Hound and me shaking hands. Hound and me hanging our heads out the windows of the Buick.

Joel wondered if there was a shoebox somewhere full of photos of him.

Joel rifled through the photos, looking for one of him and Hound. He didn’t know if such a picture existed. Hound had never been his pet. His father had bought him years after Joel left, after Hound’s predecessor, a dog named Dawg, got into a neighbor’s garage and ate the poison left out for rats. Joel didn’t know why he wanted to give Susanna a picture with him in it, preferably one of a younger, more attractive him, but he did. He wanted her to study the picture for Hound’s expression and find that her eyes kept straying to the side, to Joel’s face. She was too young for him, of course. It wasn’t a sexual thing, he told himself. He just wanted someone to see him, that’s all. And maybe to make up for the moment yesterday with the ice water, when he was sure he looked so old and pitiful.

Then he found it. Joel was sitting on the front steps with one arm around Hound, smiling into the camera. He was wearing jeans and an undershirt, and his hair was longer than it was now and artfully mussed, as if he and Hound had just been rolling on the ground together. His jaw was shadowed with stubble, and his teeth looked incredibly white in comparison. On his wrist was a watch with a brown leather band that his wife had given him on their first anniversary, a watch that he lost two years later when they went on a vacation to Florida and he took it off beside the pool and someone walked away with it. That made him between thirty and thirty-two in this picture, then. He looked like a different man. He looked happy and exciting and fun. He looked like he had beliefs. This was the man his wife fell in love with, he realized. This was who he thought he had been all along, but wasn’t. It might have been his wife behind the camera, taking the picture. He slipped the photo off the table and into his back pocket.

Beside him, his father leaned back in his chair and sighed. “He was a good dog,” he said. “May he rest in peace.”

“How will they do it?” said Joel.

“Do what?”

“Mount him.”

“Ah,” said his father. He sat up again and leaned towards Joel over the table. “Why the interest now? Want to start hunting? Maybe I’ll let you have my mounts when I die.”

“I’m just curious, Dad.”

“Well, it’s a whole process. I don’t know much about it, really. They skin them first. I’ve done it before with bucks. It’s surprisingly easy. A few cuts here and there, and the whole thing just peels right off like a banana. And then they tan the skin and do some other stuff, and then they add the original teeth and some glass eyes, and then you’ve got yourself a pretty mount.”

“And you’re okay with doing that to Hound?” said Joel.

“Darn right I am,” said his father. “Don’t give me that face. It’s a gesture of respect. It’s an art form, boy, an act of reverence. Why would I have this bobcat and that deer and that bass and not want my dog?”

“But why only Hound? Why not any of the other dogs?”

Joel’s father was silent for a moment. His breath rattled in his chest and he adjusted the oxygen tube over his ears.

“‘Cause he’s my last dog,” he said.

~

That night, Joel called Danielle’s answering machine—“Hi, honey. I’m still in Forte. My father is having Hound mounted. How messed up is that? I think he’s just lonely and doesn’t want to die that way. Of course he doesn’t. No one wants to die alone. I’m just hoping that he’s not going to ask me to get him mounted next. Ha-ha. I found a photo of me from a little after we were married. I can be that man again, just with less hair. Ha-ha. But really, we can be happy. I can make you happy. I love you. Bye.”

~

The next morning, Joel was planning on taking the photo to Susanna, but as his father was eating his oatmeal in his recliner and Joel was doing sit-ups on the floor in front of the TV (he had decided to fight back against the advance of his gut, reclaim that flat stomach, be the man his wife loved), his father started having chest pains. He tried to set the bowl on the coffee table, but he missed the edge and oatmeal spilled across the carpet. Joel heard the clink of the bowl and spoon knock together as they hit the floor and turned around to find his father bent forward, bunching his shirt-front in a gnarled fist and struggling to breathe. His breaths were shallow and gasping and loud with phlegm. The skin around his mouth and eyes was going blue.

Joel knelt in front of his father and turned up the oxygen. His hands fluttered around the edges of his father’s form, not touching him, not knowing where to land. He settled on his hand, the one that wasn’t grabbing his shirt, and his father’s burled fingers closed around his and squeezed. Joel could feel the bones through his father’s skin, narrow and light, but still strong. His grip was actually causing Joel pain. “It’s okay, Dad,” he said. “Try to breathe slowly. Try not to hyperventilate. Just breathe.”

After a few minutes, his breathing got better, but the pain in his chest was still there, and he couldn’t draw breaths deeply. Joel helped his father to the car and drove the forty minutes to the hospital in Mobile, against his father’s protests. In the passenger seat, with the oxygen tank between his knees, Joel’s father wouldn’t look at him. He stared out the window the whole drive, and Joel watched him out of the corner of his eye. He watched the hunch of his upper back and shoulders, curved so far forward they didn’t touch the seat. He watched the skin that hung from his neck sway with the movement of the car, looking thin as a cobweb, able to be brushed away with the swipe of a hand. He watched his father’s hands, curled and inert in his lap like broken game traps.

In the ER, Joel’s father didn’t want him in the room when he was called back, which didn’t take too long since they used the magic words “chest pains,” so Joel sat in the scooped plastic chairs of the waiting room by himself and called his wife. But this time, instead of sending him to voice mail, she rejected him.

“The caller you have dialed cannot be reached. Please try again later,” said an automated female voice that wasn’t his wife’s. Joel’s lungs felt suddenly filled with blackish fluid, rising from the inside, choking him.

~

Joel’s father was checked into the hospital to stay overnight. They took another chest x-ray and were running more tests. It was probably an infection that was exacerbating his condition, the twenty-something-year-old doctor said. He asked Joel how long his father had been coughing up blood, and Joel remembered the black fluid in his father’s palm two days before, and said, “I don’t know.”

“Your father knows that he should come in at the first sign of hemoptysis,” said the doctor, and Joel assumed that ‘hemoptysis’ meant coughing up blood. “The fact that he didn’t does not bode well for his mental state. Many patients his age with conditions like this stop caring about their lives. It’s a good thing you’re with him.”

Joel tried to sleep on the chair in his father’s room, but his father wouldn’t let him. His nasal tubes had been replaced by a full oxygen mask, and his voice sounded muffled and far away when he talked. Joel wondered if this was one of those things you hear about where an elderly wife dies and the husband follows the day after the funeral, except Hound was a dog and Joel’s father outlived his wife by ten years. Joel asked his father why he didn’t go to the hospital days ago, asked him what he was thinking.

“Do you want to die?” he said.

“Don’t be a sensitive ninny,” his father replied, and then told him to go home and not to come back tomorrow unless he brought the stack of National Geographics from the coffee table with him.

Joel drove back to Forte alone and did not get lost on the way. But he did drive for fifteen minutes with his headlights off, not noticing how dark it was, not noticing the cars flashing their lights at him, until he got to the back roads and realized he couldn’t see a thing. He tried to call his wife again and was rejected. He imagined her in their house in Philadelphia, seeing his name on her cell phone, pressing reject. But he didn’t know what he would have said, anyway. He felt as if his insides were hollowed out by a grapefruit spoon, his outsides scrubbed pink with bleach.

~

His father stayed in the hospital the next night, and the next. It was, as the doctor suspected, an infection that had set into his lungs and was inflaming them and causing the chest pain and making his breathing even more difficult than usual. It doesn’t look good, the doctor said, but they were doing everything they could, and he might pull out of it. He should have come in sooner.

Joel wanted to talk to his wife, to someone, but the only person he knew anymore in Forte was Susanna the taxidermist. He found himself thinking of her often when he was in his father’s trophy room. He thought about her making precise slits on Hound’s body and removing his skin as easily as unzipping a jacket. He imagined her sculpting Hound’s form, paying special care to the place behind his ears. On the umpteenth time he thought about this, he started imagining Susanna gently pulling off Hound’s skin while wearing nothing but her sensible, flesh-colored underwear. He considered that these thoughts might be perverse, but he didn’t care enough to stop them. So he let himself think of her skinning Hound in a nude underwear set, the birthmark vibrant on her cheek, completing her back tattoo with his imagination, a different tattoo every time—a tree, some flowers, a dragon, a moose head, a house. Then he imagined her holding up Hound’s skin and giving it a shake like airing out a sheet, and then swinging it around her own shoulders, draping herself in it, shaking her nail-polish-red hair down her back over Hound’s brown-red fur. He imagined that the skin would still be warm, but not bloody. In his imagination, he removed the blood. He imagined her in a Hound sundress. A sundress of fur.

On the third night, when Joel was having trouble sleeping, he decided to try his wife again. It was the middle of the night, and she would have her phone on silent so it wouldn’t wake her up, and it would go to voicemail, and he’d be able to leave a message. The blue screen of his phone when he opened it was so bright in the dark room that he had to close his eyes for a second. He squinted at the photo of his house he used as a background, and it felt like looking into the sun. He pressed her speed dial.

“Hello, you’ve reached Danielle. I can’t come to the phone right now, but please leave a message, and I’ll call you back as soon as possible. Thanks. Bye.”

Joel’s whole body went numb. His muscles felt like well-baked chicken, ready to fall off the bone.

Riggs. There was no Riggs.

He was so shocked that he forgot what he was going to say in the message, and when it beeped, he fumbled the phone trying to end the call and dropped it off the bed, chasing it onto the floor before hanging up.

On the floor, he could feel his heart pumping madly, spurting adrenaline into his veins. What a stupid muscle it seemed, with its dumb, reflexive pump, its instinctual clench-clench-clench, moving his passive blood all over his body. He was amazed that it hadn’t given up, hadn’t got tired after these thirty-eight years of him wandering just as stupidly and reflexively through his life, hadn’t just called it quits and relaxed, loosened, gone still. He was amazed that things like this could happen—separations, divorces, deaths of parents—things that end your life, or what had been your life, over and over and over again, and in the dark inside your chest your heart just keeps blindly pumping, pumping, pumping, unaware that your life is over.

Joel stayed on the floor, the soft blue light of his phone beside him, and stared forward into the dark, seeing nothing and thinking of everything, until it all became nothing, too. Joel felt as if his skin had been peeled off and tugged over a fiberglass him-shaped mannequin, but also like what was left over, the living red meat of him exposed, white veins of fat glistening, lipless teeth bared, lidless eyes wide open.

~

The next day, Joel thought about calling AmeriBank to follow up on his interview, but he didn’t. He thought about calling his wife, but he didn’t. He took his wedding ring off and put it back on again. Took it off and put it back on again. He took the photo of him and Hound out of his wallet and looked at it. His youthful smiling face, Hound’s pink lolling tongue. He still hadn’t taken it to Susanna. It was bent now.

In the hospital, a purple bruise spread on the inside of his father’s arm around the IV needle, and he coughed up blood, and he breathed behind his mask.

“See?” he said. “T minus two weeks. You’ll see.”

Joel drove straight from the hospital to the taxidermist’s, and this time, he didn’t get lost.

~

“I was beginning to think you forgot,” Susanna Abear said when Joel walked in, his thumb worrying the bare skin on his ring finger like a bad tooth.

Joel stopped in front of the desk and looked at her. Her hair was pulled back from the temples with bobby pins, and her skin was bright and firm and flawless except for the dark bruise of her birthmark. This was only the second time he’d seen her. She looked different than he made her in his imagination, her nose and her figure a little less shapely, but close enough. She was wearing jeans and a t-shirt this time. He remembered the fur sundress of his imagination and blushed.

Her line-less brow knitted, possibly in response to the sudden reddening of his face, and she said, “You okay, Mr. Riggs? Do you miss him?”

Joel looked at her concerned face, and her youth suddenly seemed tragic to him. Nothing is how you expect it to be, he wanted to tell her. You have no control. The most formative events in your life will not be your wedding, your first child, your promotion—they will be the things that rear up and punch you in the face, the things you don’t see coming that knock you down and you can’t get up for a long time and when you do eventually get up—which you will always do, you’ll always get up and get up and get up—all you can do is just wait for the next thing, knowing it’s out there, knowing you’re always travelling towards it, knowing it’s crouching somewhere, waiting, and there’s nothing you can do but walk right up to it.

“He’s not dead yet,” said Joel, and then he realized she was asking about Hound’s death, that she didn’t know about his father, that Hound wasn’t even his. Susanna looked at him, confused.

“Oh, Hound,” said Joel. “I thought you meant my father. My father’s dying.”

The look on Susanna’s face was like wings opening.

“I’m so sorry,” she said.

“It’s his dog. That’s why I need it sooner.”

Susanna nodded. “Okay.”

“I brought the photo,” Joel said, pulling it out of his wallet and handing it to her. “It’s from six years ago. I hope that’s okay.”

“Good picture,” she said, looking from him to the photo. “You look exactly the same.”

Joel watched the part in her hair, incredibly white next to the red.

“Hound lived a good life,” she said, looking up at him with seriousness. “I can tell.”

“He was a dog,” said Joel.

“I know, but I mean it.”

“Well, what makes you think that?”

She shook her head. “You’d think I’m crazy.”

“No I won’t.”

Susanna looked at him, her eyes narrowing as if trying to squint enough to see through Joel’s pupils and into his head. Her face settled into some sort of resolution and she said, “Okay, follow me.”

She held the camo curtain open for him and he stepped into a dim room. He could make out the forms of more mounts, but there was too little light to see what they were. Behind him, Susanna turned on a lamp.

The room was filled with mounts, but of animals he’d never seen. On the table in front of him was a creature with the head and wings of a hawk and the body of a cat. To the left of it was a hare with the curled horns of a ram, then a baby crocodile with the wings of a bird of prey.  There was a lamb with a unicorn horn, a bobcat with a lion’s mane, a rainbow trout with small out-spread wings. On the wall were a two-headed deer with red plumage on its throats and a boar with antlers. Joel stood frozen, staring, his eyes wide as the eyes of the mounts.

“This is my private collection,” said Susanna, walking up to a large squirrel with a fox tail and stroking its head. “I make the animals into what they want to be.”

Joel wanted to look at her but couldn’t stop looking at the animals. The shift from fur to feathers to scales was perfect, seamless, organic. They looked so real. So whole. So this is what the ad meant by “unusual.”

“What do you mean, ‘what they want to be?’” he asked.

“Our outsides rarely fit our insides,” she said, casually, with a shrug. But one hand rose unconsciously to the dark spot on her cheek.

“And how do you know what they want to be?” he asked. He found he was whispering and didn’t know why.

“I just get a feeling when I touch them. I look at them, and I can see it. Sometimes I’ll get a warthog and think ‘turtle,’ or a mallard and think ‘goat.’ It’s weird, I know. Some people can write music, just like that. I make animals.”

This is crazy, Joel thought. But he also wondered what he would be. What would she make him into? Would she slide fish scales under his skin, growing from his flesh like fingernails? Would she crown him with the curled horns of a ram, the fuzzed nubs of a fawn, the rack of a buck? Would he have a tail, a fin, claws, hoofs, a shell? Would he have wings? Would his face still be his face, or would he have the face of an animal, furred and snouted and wet-nosed? What would he be?

“Are you going to do this to Hound?” he asked.

“No,” said Susanna. “Hound was exactly what he wanted to be. Hound was Hound, through and through.”

Joel was silent for a moment, and then asked, “And what about me?”

Susanna smiled at him and shook her head. “Doesn’t work with humans,” she said. “Too complex. All I know is myself.”

“So what are you, then?”

“Would you like to see?”

Joel nodded.

Susanna turned around and pulled up the back of her t-shirt to expose the rest of her tattoo, bisected by the strap of her bra. It was wings. Dark, mottled wings, like an owl or a grouse. Of course, he thought. Of course she would be a bird. Everyone thinks they’re a bird.

“Did it hurt?” he asked.

“Not as much as you’d think,” Susanna replied, her back still to him, her shirt still up. Then she said, “Do you want to touch them?”

Joel did. He really did. He reached out one hand slowly and touched the tip of her left wing, lightly. He ran the tips of his fingers over the ink, expecting it to be raised and scar-like, but it was all smooth, deep in her skin. His hands ran over the strap of her bra, nude like it was in his imagination, and he wanted to take it off, to remove it so he could see her wings free and unobstructed. Nothing is permanent, he wanted to tell her. You think you’ll have these forever, but they’ll fade and blur and sag with the rest of you. You will look behind you one day and find them changed, unrecognizable. You will wonder what happened. But he said nothing, because, for now, they were perfect. They held so much hope, those lame, flightless wings. He wanted to bend down and put his lips on those wings, trace the feathers with his tongue. He felt bold, strong, reckless. He could feel the animals watching them with their glass eyes, and he didn’t care. He felt as if he was on the edge of something, and he was going to throw himself off, goddamnit, and see what happened. He thought maybe he was a bird, too.

And then he did it.

Art by Kerri Augenstein

Claire Burgess (they/she) is a writer, teacher, metaphysical practitioner, and ever-shifting human being. Their short fiction has received a 2014 Pushcart Prize Special Mention, been listed as notable in Best American Short Stories 2012 and Best American Nonrequired Reading 2012, and been anthologized in New Stories from the Midwest 2016. You can find their stories in JoylandThird CoastAnnalemmaPANK, and elsewhere. Claire received their MFA in Creative Writing from Vanderbilt University and was a founding editor of Nashville Review. They wrote the weekly blog column “This Week in Short Fiction” for The Rumpus from 2015-2017, where they covered one newly published short story a week, with an intentional emphasis on LGBTQIA+ writers, female-identifying writers, works in translation, and writers of color.

Pain is Not the Only Thing

J.C. Lillis

Is a book that makes you ugly-cry worth more than a book that makes you belly-laugh?

Can a book’s worth be measured in milliliters of tears produced?

Does a book that feels like a punch in the gut mean more than one that feels like a hug?

I’ve seen some great Twitter threads lately that tackled these questions with passion and smarts. And though I probably can’t add many blazing new insights to the conversation, I want to say something anyway. Because that’s what writers do when they aren’t mid-book, and have way too much time to think about the Art and Theory of Writing instead of the Sweat and Tears and Agony of Writing.

The connection between pain and artistic merit is something I think about a lot, especially when I’m between book projects, pondering my next move. My last YA novel, A&B, was an f/f (female/female) romantic comedy of the rainbows, pop-songs, and cute-dorky-banter variety.  It was fun to write and hopefully fun to read. But now, while I’m letting new story ideas marinate, the Gremlin of Insecure Rumination has come back to squat in my brain and pass a stinky cloud of judgment.

Gremlin: Whatcha got, kid?

Me: Two ideas. One’s kind of heavy, one’s light and weird and fun.

Gremlin: Which one are you leaning toward… OH, NO. WAIT. DON’T TELL ME!

Me: The light funny one. Okay? Because the world is a trash fire right now, and dear God, do I need to entangle myself in a story that makes me smile. I bet other people do, too.

Gremlin: Okay, but…

Me: People like rainbows! People like unicorns! People like nerdy banter about pop music, and why goats are terrible creatures!

Gremlin: Yeah, but like, when are you going to write–

Me: DON’T SAY IT!

Gremlin: —Something that actually matters?

We have this conversation a lot, the Gremlin and I. Maybe she visits you, too. Sometimes, she comes in the guise of true concern for your career, but then she hunkers down and puts a pot of poison on the stove to simmer. Before you know it, you catch yourself stirring up all kinds of bullshit.

I’ve caught myself thinking the heavier story is automatically more legitimate. More artistically respectable. More “real.”

I’ve caught myself thinking that if I don’t write books people call brutal and important and a searing indictment of such-and-such, or an uncompromising look at the way we live today, I’m not a real writer.

I’ve caught myself thinking that peddling joy is an endeavor that serious writers grow out of.

Judging by the stream of tweets I’ve favorited lately, other writerly folks wrestle with these thoughts, too. So, what’s behind this? Why do we lionize stories that devastate us and trivialize stories that comfort and restore us?

I think the core of it is, we tend to believe painful stories tell the truth and happy stories sell sweet lies.

It’s easy to jump on this train of thought in 2017 United States of America where we’re all basically Podlings held hostage by gluttonous Skeksis in moldering robes, their craggy beaks picking off hunks of our democracy (please stop reading this and go watch The Dark Crystal if that didn’t make sense to you). Every day, there’s so much to fight, so much to cry and rage about, so many mountains to drill through on our dark uncertain path to a future we can live with.

But in the valleys between mountains, the sun still shows its face.

Great pain, sadness, and injustices swarm the world, but people still fall in love, overcome odds, pitch their battered tents in valleys of happy. Those stories are as true as the tragedies. It’s as essential a part of the human experience.

Gremlin: Yeah. Yeah, cool. But the purpose of real art is to challenge, right? Not to placate.

Here’s what you say, when the Gremlin tries this line: Joyful stories are a direct and powerful challenge to a world that routinely conspires against our happiness. While downbeat stories brilliantly challenge and expose human shortcomings—our complacency, our prejudices, our basest instincts and dearly held illusions—upbeat stories challenge our frequent inability to see past these shortcomings.

Love is absurdly flawed and transient, the downbeat story whispers.

But love still exists, says the upbeat story, and the happiness it brings should be celebrated, even if it sometimes doesn’t endure.

People are shits, the downbeat story grumbles, with an endless capacity for selfishness, greed, and hypocrisy.

But sometimes people are good shits, says the upbeat story, who balance their flaws with extraordinary acts of kindness and defiant acts of love.

Pain is an ever-present thing, the downbeat story cries!

True, says the upbeat story, but pain is not the only thing.

If a key role of fiction is to mirror life, then our bookshelves need a balance of dark and light.

We should value both types of stories equally, as two sides of the same human experience. Because when we devalue stories that bring joy, it implies that we think pain is the only truth. All we can hope for. All we deserve.

In 2017 United States, that’s a tempting thought. But it’s one I can’t bear to submit to.

So, writers, I’m gonna say this to you now, in the hope that we both believe it: If you write funny books with kissing and banter, funny misunderstandings, obstacles overcome, and happy or happy-for-now endings, you are needed. YOUR BOOKS MATTER. Now more than ever.

If you catch yourself thinking your evolution as a writer depends on an obligatory descent into darkness, then stop that shit, ‘cause that’s the Gremlin talking.

If you don’t have it in you to write a searing indictment of anything, and if your rage is real but doesn’t fuel your writerly engine, try to see that as a feature, not a bug. Recognize the particular gift you have to contribute, and don’t try to be anyone else but you. You’re enough. Your books are enough.

Readers and bloggers, you can help too. Actively confront and dismantle the notion that painful stories have the market on depth and quality cornered. Review rom-coms and lift up light reads. Talk up the merits of the books that make you laugh out loud when you thought you’d forgotten how. Take joy seriously. It takes a lot of voices to challenge a myth, so raise yours whenever you can.

And if you-know-who comes with her pot of poison, then send her my way. I’ve got Gremlin spray in my office, and I’m not afraid to use it.

A Loaded Gun: Hunting My Elusive Book

Jennifer Kathleen Gibbons

A few nights ago I dreamed a tray arrived with my lunch: a bowl of bullets. They weren’t the only offering on the tray, just the only one I cared to eat. Stale pita smeared with hummus by a parsimonious hand, a slice of supermarket peach pie that looked like someone had stomped on it…hell, no.

The bullets clinked and gleamed as I rolled them in the palm of my hand. They looked like no other bullets, black with silver tips, daring me to consume them. They could only be mine, these beauties. Or was it the other way around? I put the first one on my tongue and let it rest there, biding my time until it seemed I’d always known how to make a meal of bullets. Lead bloomed in my mouth, then all the way down as I swallowed the sucker. Who knew this could feel so good? I woke up both exalted and nourished, the back of my throat still tingling.

In the real world, bullets are not exactly my thing. I’ve never seen one, never touched a firearm, and never lived among people who hunt and shoot. From time to time, I wonder what it’s like to fire a lethal weapon: hear the bang, absorb the force of the recoil. I’m afraid to find out. But as of that morning, I knew how it felt to be a loaded gun.

Writing is a Thicket of Frustrations

For a couple of months I’d been lost in the metaphorical woods with my writing. The prize, my second book, circled out of my view like a fleet-footed creature of the night. I became so busy checking my mental GPS, I forgot to check my instincts. Every day I bashed and prodded the previous day’s work, until it looked like the crushed pie in my dream. Turns of phrase that had once looked perfectly fine revealed themselves to be as meager and dry as stale pita. A frenzy of disgust overtook me—at my work for falling short of the captivating notion in my head and at myself for ever thinking I was equal to the challenge.

But when it comes to dreaming, I’m still on my game. My bullet dream has the power, the boldness that my woebegone manuscript doesn’t. The dream proves I still have my creative mojo. Even better, I have an inner coach.

Emily Dickinson Lights the Way

I can’t credit my unconscious for my dream’s central image: The woman artist as firearm. I borrowed it from a genius, Emily Dickinson. For close to 40 years, a thrillingly subversive poem of hers has knocked around in my head like a lucky charm inside a pocket. I still don’t fully understand it. Yet no poem has ever made more sense to me than this one does today. Dickinson is grappling with her own creative powers—what they demand of her and where they take her. She begins:

My Life had stood—a Loaded Gun—

In Corners—till a Day

The Owner passed—identified—

And carried Me away—

And now We roam in Sovereign Woods—

And now We hunt the Doe—

And every time I speak for Him—

The Mountains straight reply—

I know the wild landscape of this poem; I just haven’t found my way back. Still, Dickinson points me in the right direction. Step one is admitting I’m not in control of this adventure. No use being fully loaded if I’m stuck in a corner, invisible to my creative self. I have to forsake the confining and familiar for the vast and unknown. Let myself be carried away and go after the doe, following Dickinson’s lead.

Only a woman could’ve written this poem. It packs an unmistakable sexual punch (male hunter, female prey, creative work as ravishment). If I were still an English major trying to ace a term paper, I might ramble on about sex and gender.

But I’m a blocked writer seeking hope that the mountains will reply to me again. Dickinson’s take on power and submission is exactly the tonic I’m after. As I read the poem, both the hunter and the prey are aspects of the poet (the former being her inner badass, the latter her vision).

Writing is Bigger and Wilder than the Writer

I’ve always liked power and control. Submission? Not so much. I was perfectly cast for my previous career as editor-in-chief of a successful women’s magazine. For ten years I sharpened prose for other writers. Cut here, expand there, we need a word picture. My team and I had targets to meet. Words took us there. Now, I write alone without rules, targets or readers waiting for my work to land in their mailbox. After years of telling others what to do, I can barely see my way forward. I don’t miss my corporate masters, but Dickinson’s woods are not for softies.

Writing will have its way with the writer, she tells me in her cryptic fashion. I’ll not only meet my killer instinct, I might be shocked by how much I enjoy it. She says of the partnership between gun and hunter:

To foe of His—I’m deadly foe—

None stir the second time—

On whom I lay a Yellow Eye—

Or an emphatic Thumb—

I stand in the cold at the edge of the woods, listening for a rustle in the underbrush. I could be in for a lonely vigil but my prey is out there. I’m not turning back. We’ll find each other soon enough. As much as I’m hunting this book, it is hunting me. I know that as surely as I know the taste of bullets. I submit to the inevitable.

Scratch That Curiosity Itch

Tierney Ray

I have never committed murder. Nor have I ever been at a murder scene with police, forensics, and medical examiners gathering evidence. But I know how to write that scene. So do you. Chances are high that you have, at some point in your life, watched a movie or television show that had a murder in it. Use that. Don’t think about blood spatter patterns. Don’t think about the effects of air conditioning on a decomposing body. Just write the scene.

Write about the murder. Write about the process of solving it, and the conclusion when the culprit is, or isn’t, caught. A few important things you will discover by the end of the book include: the name of the murderer, the name of the victim, the murder weapon, and the motive. With this new information, it becomes easier to figure out what to research, how far down the rabbit hole you need to go, and how to shape the murder scene in revision. This way, you have much more control over the breadcrumbs you leave for your audience.

I heard the idiom “write what you know” before I knew I wanted to be a writer. The problem with this line of thinking is that you will inevitably reach a point where you have to write about something you don’t know, because no one knows everything.

The first step in writing what you don’t know is to get the scene down on paper any way you can. There are already so many excuses writers use to psych themselves out of writing and the fear of getting details wrong should never be one of them.

If you’re female, you will likely need to write from the perspective of a male character at some point in your career, even if you have never been a man. As a woman, you can only imagine the maddening sensation of itchy balls in the middle of a two hour briefing that you are giving to a boardroom full of Generals and Colonels deciding the fate of a highly dangerous mission based on your briefing. If you are male, you can only dream about the terrible pain of underwire digging into your skin as you low crawl through sand dunes surrounding an enemy encampment while on a covert mission to save a group of soldiers captured during a convoy.

That doesn’t mean you shouldn’t write these stories. I worry about getting the process of investigation wrong, but I am still going to write that process as best I can.

The Scene:

           “Neat as a pin. Not a stitch out of place. The J. Crew store on the South end of the local mall looked as it always did, with neatly stocked racks of shirts, pants, and sweaters in color coordinated groups. Cold air blasted from overhead fans, keeping the store a chilly sixty degrees. Time of death would be difficult to determine. Perfect, Detective Curio thought with a heavy sigh.

            As Curio trudged down the center aisle, skirting around the check-out station, he noted that nothing looked disturbed. Either there hadn’t been a struggle, or the killer knew how to put things back where they belonged. Glass lay scattered in large chunks on the floor of the dressing room, and the mirror sported a large blank section with sharp shards clinging to the edges of the frame. Someone hit the mirror hard enough for the glass to not only shatter, but to fall from the frame. The backing showed very little dried glue, so it was possible the mirror had simply been cheap.

            Blood pooled on the floor, already congealed and drying at the edges, but not on the bench. His shirt was cut, not torn. More blood soaked into the fabric, turning the bright cherry red to a gory brick shade. The victim’s hands showed numerous cuts and punctures and his eyes were still open, staring at the ceiling in absolute horror. Odd. As Detective Curio picked over the scene carefully, he noted each of these facts.” Pause.

Consider the scene above wherein a young man is found in the fitting room of the J. Crew at the local mall. The sales clerk who found the gruesome sight hurried to call the police and they sent in your character. He has noted the condition of the shop, the victim’s clothing, age, and the mess in the fitting room.

You have written to the end of the story. You know that the man was stabbed to death by his mother’s new boyfriend. The motive was to keep the victim from telling his mother about the boyfriend’s pedophilia conviction. This information can now color the scene. Despite having written the piece, you still need to flesh it out with enough breadcrumbs to give your readers the chance to solve the crime. For example, what does the glass on the floor mean? What do the victim’s wounds look like? Why isn’t the body covered or hidden? There are a vast array of platforms for research sources these days.  Let’s look at the three most popular – internet, media, and people.

The Internet:

If you know, specifically, what information to look for, then the Internet is a great resource. Let’s say the mirror cracked when the victim’s head connected with the glass as he struggled to gain possession of the knife. I go back and add Detective Curio or the M.E. commenting on the bump on the victim’s head so that the connection is suggested without telling the reader exactly what happened. This doesn’t answer the question about the cuts. I will need to clarify whether the cuts are jagged or smooth based on my research – wounds from a serrated blade versus a piece of glass. Let’s say the killer attacked with the serrated knife, but the victim knocked it away. The killer picked up a shard of broken mirror to finish the job. From my internet search, I know that the serrated knife would have left ragged edges in the shirt and skin. Because of this, I add in a scene where Curio is peering at photos of the crime scene and notices the difference in cuts.

The Media:

If the diagrams from the Internet aren’t for you and there are no videos on YouTube, then it may be time to consider another source – television, books, and movies. A lot of what I already know regarding murder is from detective novels, movies, and shows like Forensic Files. From the last source on this list, I learned that temperature can slow or speed up decomposition and make learning time of death difficult, which is why Curio notes the cold air.

The stab wounds on the victim can tell us more than just the weapon. The victim above shows a large number of stab wounds, indicating anger and hatred. A crime of passion. But the face was uncovered. From an episode of Forensic Files, I know that if the killer knew the victim well, the killer likely would have covered the face with something. The victim was a casual acquaintance, then.

The People:

The last source is all about connections. In my current acquaintance are a number of police officers, detectives, medical examiners, doctors, and just plain morbid people. If Wednesday Adams was a real person, she would be an excellent source. These are the people you ask if you don’t know the gaps in your story or how to leave a crumb to lead the reader in a specific direction. One of my friends is a glass expert. She blows glass professionally and has broken her fair share of mirrors. She tells me that not all mirrors are created equal. The mirror in your local Walmart is not the same quality as the mirror in your local J. Crew store, or even the same shape (see this article on Vice for proof). Assuming J. Crew uses moderately nice mirrors in their dressing rooms, I know the glue would hold the fractured glass in place pretty well, unless something pulled the glass free – like a particularly hard blow, snagged clothing, or a person looking for a new weapon. Now I can add a scene of Curio inspecting the shards of glass on the floor of the dressing room. Research moves the subject from the unknown to the known, helping you to write from a place of authority.

Writing what you don’t know takes a blend of curiosity, bravery, and research. You want to know what it would be like to investigate a murder, give a top secret briefing to government officials while suffering from a terrible case of jock itch, or explain to your date that the questionable stain is clearly wine and that the red pattern was always on your skirt. Summoning your courage, you ignore the fact that you have no experience with your subject and just let the scene play out on the page. The research conducted online, through interviews, or by watching television shows, helps you correct previous assumptions and flesh out the story. A competent, realistic Detective Curio strolls into a crime scene and solves a murder. A woman uses the underwire to pick the lock on the cell door to help her fellow soldiers escape. A presenter sighs in relief as he disappears into his office to finally scratch that itch.

Giving In

Rebecca Lawton

American Robin

When someone raps at my kitchen window, I jump out of my chair. It’s before dawn, in the hour when the horizon emerges as a gray line on the ephemeral lake before me. I’m staying in the Oregon Outback, at a retreat center as remote as Neverland, where the prospect of a face at the glass spooks me. I peek around. It’s a robin tapping, pausing, and tapping again. My pulse settles. I can consult avian specialist Noah, also a writer in residence at Playa Fellowship Program, about whether the robin is mentally ill.

When I ask Noah, he tells me that the robin’s failing the “mirror test” – he doesn’t recognize the face in the glass. Instead, he sees a possible mate or a territorial rival. His disregard for data is normal, Noah says, and won’t stop until I close my curtains.

I loathe shutting out some of the most dazzling light on the planet, though, on the parched edge of the Great Basin. During my first stay at Playa, I labored as an ant does from sunrise to sundown despite the light. This second residency, however, comes when the batteries in my brain are flatter than those in a mislaid flashlight. The idea of working would amuse me if I had the energy to laugh.

Somehow, I’ll rally. I’ll strive again through the hours. I’ll barely leave the cabin for breaks. I’ll do as Jack London said he would do (and did): “I shall use my time.”

But now, there’s this robin. Out beyond his little head, fields flash with the scarlet and yellow of finches and goldfinches attacking dandelions for their seeds. An oriole hops branch to branch in a pine, his orange and black matching the sunrise. People and birds come here for pretty much the same reason: to stop over for long or short stays in a basin with a wide, blue sky and sweet, seasonal water. Some migrators pass through in minutes. Some linger for days or a season. A lucky few stay for years or a lifetime.

I draw the curtains. An inner voice warns that I need rest, but I push it aside. When else will I have such an opportunity to work? The planet needs every voice it can get now that climate deniers have been voted into major public offices.

The robin moves to a bedroom window. I put on a pair of noise-cancelling headphones that I thought I’d never need out here. The tap-tapping continues, but farther away. Something could be learned from the robin, I’m certain, but lessons be damned. I labor on.

Thirteen more days to go.

 

Common Poorwill

The next days of my residency mimic the first. Rise, go to the desk, and put new words on paper. When I stop, it’s not for long. At night I seldom sleep, tired but wired. I persevere, despite knowing that the Latin roots are per, meaning thoroughly, and severus, meaning severe. Thoroughly severe, implying, to continue with little prospect of success.

On the fourth morning, when I review what I’ve written, my heart falls. The sentences lack life. There are no original ideas. It’s dull and overblown. In short, it’s utter crap. Discouraged, I step out to my deck as a flock of white-faced ibises, long necks outstretched, pass over the lake’s shimmering surface. Noisy pairs of Canada geese bark like small dogs in tall grasses. Each day more migratory birds arrive in hordes.

Returning inside I look in the bathroom mirror. Fatigued eyes in a drooping face stare back. That can’t be me.

I almost never drink, and never alone. After all, didn’t Rhett Butler say, “Never drink alone, Scarlett?” Nonetheless, I open a bottle of Grenache I’ve brought from home and down a glass before taking the rest to dinner in the Commons. Conversation is the last thing I want, but around the big communal table, I find instant rapport with the other residents. The residency has opened up their creativity in unforeseen ways. Noah and another passionate birder, the poet Farnaz, are planning to drive up Highway 31 after dark to look for common poorwills. My curiosity stirs, but I push it down, knowing I plan to rise at dawn to write.

Across the table a printmaker, Barbara, describes the arc of her nearly completed six-week residency. Her work shifted partway through her stay, after a visit to the archeological caves south of Summer Lake. In those ragged holes in an ochre cliff, some of America’s oldest fossil human feces have been found alongside the bones of waterfowl, fish, and extinct camels and horses.

Once Barbara’s curiosity was ignited about the ancient landscape, she developed a process of collecting images directly from the ground. She strapped wooden blocks to her feet before hiking nearby trails and Forest Service roads. After the treks, she removed the worn and roughened blocks and inked them for printing. The results are both coarse and fluid depictions of geologic textures.

“I gave in,” Barbara says. “When I opened to this place and the people, and let the surroundings transform my work, it made all the difference.”

Immediately, I decide to go into the night with Noah and Farnaz. We drive to Picture Rock Pass, our windows open to the scent of new things growing. Parking by the side of the road on a pullout covered with volcanic cinders, we tread with care to lessen crunching noisy rock. At the end of the pullout, overlooking the stunted piñon-juniper forest, Noah pulls up a sound recording on his phone – the call of a common poorwill. The bird is known to answer to a whistled poor-will.

Poor-will, poor-will, goes Noah’s phone. Silence, silence, goes the night. In a minute we hear the steady advertising call of a northern saw-whet owl. A few ring-billed gulls above us mew like loud kittens. Miles away in the valley, cattle moan, their ghost voices carrying above farm and forest.

The nagging advice I’d disregarded sinks in – this is what I need. This valley, this night, this basin, these people. Otherwise, my well is too dry to sustain writing about water or climate or anything else. I could no more write a new book than walk five miles into this night on printmaker’s blocks.

The poorwills remain silent, not hearing or believing the silicon voice of Noah’s phone. On the drive back to Playa, he and Farnaz tell me about the Punchbowl. It’s an open dish of land set among ridges above Summer Lake. One resident saw five black bears, all at once, on a hike there last week. I vow to go, too, alone. It will be just one day off from the ten more days of residency, in this dry valley where robins attack windows and sleep stays a stranger.

 

Mountain Bluebird

At dawn, after four hours of actual slumber, I set out with my writing notebook, binoculars, bird book, and a canister of bear spray. I’ll return to Playa by late afternoon, before large carnivores start their dusk feeding. Following the Forest Service trail, I find early wildflowers bursting forth in crimson, gold, and lilac every few feet. Meadowlarks burble and flee as I approach. A thin cloud cover rests on a jagged row of ridges in the distance. The only large trees still standing are white skeletal snags, stripped of their foliage and bark by a past forest fire.

Soon I come to a broad basin that must be the Punchbowl. The trail continues, though, and so do I, despite new growth crowding the trail and fallen trees blocking the road like log gates guarding Oz. Climbing up and over them, I’m careful not to twist an ankle or blow out a knee with each landing. Somehow, I manage to scrape both shins through my hiking pants, drawing blood.

After hours of thrashing, I reach a patch of live woods. The air is chilly and full of mosquitoes. Busy swatting insects, I nearly miss a bird perched just yards away. It’s the bluest bird in the history of the world, a mountain bluebird, poised to fly. It’s many shades deeper than the sky. Remembering that a story’s told in the details, I catch some in my notebook, quick, like floating dandelion seeds.

On my way down the trail, the pull of gravity makes the return trip easier. Midway back, I flush a poorwill from a clump of manzanita in the overgrown trail. The bird escapes on a rush of wings. If only Noah and Farnaz were here.

Back in the cabin, after eight hours away, I barely have energy to clean up and eat while standing in my kitchen. I fall on the bed and sleep until morning.

Nine days of residency to go. It may not be enough.

 

 Franklin’s Gull

At dawn, I drive ten miles to the Summer Lake Wildlife Refuge. An introductory kiosk notes that hundreds of species of mammals and birds live on nineteen thousand acres watered by an elaborate system of pipes and canals. I enter on a dirt road at the breakneck speed of ten miles an hour, seeing only a few ducks and geese. I hit the brakes at the eastern edge of the property. Thousands of ducks, geese, terns, gulls, sandpipers, phalaropes, and other shorebirds browse a shining pond. Some are in flight. Some stroll beaches. Some dive and dabble. Some face beaks-first into the wind. A small gull wings past, a species with a black head and thick white crescents above and below its eyes. A newbie for me, it’s a Franklin’s gull, which breeds and summers farther north.

I gaze until I’m satiated, then find another kiosk sign that tells me aridity is increasing, as are nearby human populations. I pull out my notebook and write.

Water in refuge = life. Climate change = drier refuge. Alfalfa shipped elsewhere = broken local water cycle.

When I leave the refuge hours later and return to my cabin, I type up notes on wildlife and its dependence on the same water depleted by growing irrigation demands. I work without effort until dark. I don’t count the days left in residency.

I’ve started writing about things that I came here to write about.

 

 Calliope Hummingbird

On my last full day, I take a Forest Service road to Winter Ridge. The well-groomed gravel surface would allow me to drive fast if I felt like it. Instead, I go as slowly as the (nonexistent) traffic will allow, about eight miles an hour. Maybe I’ll see a Williamson’s sapsucker, a life bird for me, up in the high forests. Reaching a wet meadow with a small stream, I hear wood-pecking all around. None resembles the start-and-stop, Morse-code tapping of sapsuckers, so I continue on.

I drive with my windows open, pulling over often, stopping near patches of old-growth forest among the new growth recovering from logging. The woods are full of life. A red-tail hawk masquerades as a broken pine branch until he lifts wings and flies. A golden eagle dwarfs the telephone cross-pole she’s hunkered on. A brilliantly colored lazuli bunting, more turquoise than lapis blue, hangs out on a log.

The last bird of the day is a stunner, a calliope hummingbird feeding in a burned-over patch of woods. The smallest bird in North America, dragonfly-sized, arrives with a flash of violet throat and soft buzz of wings. The bird hovers only a moment before zooming off.

So it goes with writing and birding.

You try to find a sapsucker, but stumble up on a tiny jewel of a hummingbird. You persist and strive despite a robin showing you the insanity of ignoring results. You go out calling for a poorwill, only to flush one out the next day after discovering another bird more blue than the sky. Or you think you’ll uncover a labyrinthine waterworks, but  spend hours immersed in sanctuary and the surprise of a new species. Near the roof of a basin that holds light and sky in the same grip as alfalfa and cattle, you open to it.

Somehow, you do not fail the mirror test. You find a way, as Barbara did with her printer’s blocks, as Noah and Farnaz do with their birding, as the birds do with their migrations. You crunch the data, no matter how it comes to you.

You return to the world again and again and pour it out in your own voice.

When Prose Turns to Horses, Remember the Humans

Lisa Romeo

Since I was 15, I have been publishing articles, essays, and nonfiction narratives about horses – or, more precisely, about horses and the humans they interact with, depend upon, perform with, live among, are trained by and cared for. Never – even when I wrote about the spontaneous, unexpected delivery of rare twin foals on a remote and rugged Central New York farm – is it a story about only equines. This interesting arrangement of horses and humans intimately intertwined, makes a demand of the writer who seeks to include horses in literature.

Perhaps it is the same when writing of dogs, or cats, or other animals who step into a show ring with their human handlers. But in no other situation are humans so integral – in dozens of sports and recreational pursuits, the only acceptably entry is a horse and human pairing. Horse racing, horse shows, rodeo, Pony Club, three-day event and dressage, endurance riding: they only exist when a human is mounted upon, or walking beside a horse.

As a writer, this both expands the possibilities for narrative, reporting, lyricism, and metaphor, and makes a demand. We are forced to consider when one part of the partnership ends, the other begins; where the two overlap; what each brings and takes from the interaction; how to understand the horse as not separate from the humans surrounding it.

I spent ten years as an equestrian journalist, earning a living (sometimes full time, sometimes supplemental) writing about equestrian sports and the athletic duos that dominate them. Mostly, this involved the English-style horse show circuit and competitions – jumpers (from amateur up to Olympic and international caliber), hunters, dressage, three-day eventing, equitation horses, endurance, and racing. But, occasionally, I also wrote about breeding, stable and show management, and equine health and veterinary care.

I was a horse owner, rider, and show ring competitor while writing about horses, so my stance was always one of partnership. Any horse I observed and made notes about, any horse for which I gathered stats and records, or any horse I got close to so as to describe him or her, was always seen in context of its human counterparts.

Who “owns” this horse? Who trains her? Who rides him? Who cares for this horse – feeding and cleaning its stall, exercising and grooming it, noticing when he’s a bit lame, or if she’s off her feed?

Often, I’d remark how lucky this horse was to have such a caring lot worrying, doing, and doting over him. Thankfully, less often, I’d make a silent note about how I’d love to, if only I could, do something about the callous, uncaring louts who seemed to treat the horses entrusted to their care as bricks, or worse, as cash machines in need only of occasional oiling. On the “A” level horse show circuit where, even in the 1980s, top jumpers were bought and sold for the high six figures, one of the most reassuring relationships I witnessed was between these high-priced performers and their minimum-wage earning grooms. The grooms were often illegal Mexicans who ran for cover when, in Southern California, the show announcer intoned the code: “Adam Jones please report to the office.”

A fiery Thoroughbred ex-racehorse could be snorting, galloping might in the ring, but transform, once handed by the professional rider to his groom, into a cuddly, frolicking pony. This transformation may take place during the quarter-mile walk back to the stabling area, under the practiced hand of his groom, stroking his face, rubbing his flank, whispering loving praise into his ears. I’d watch as the horse’s strident, jerky vertical stance relaxed, his head dropping, and the two walked along in the most visible amiable companionship.

My advice to those who want to write about modern horses at work or play in America: find them with their caretakers. The ones who love them whether they’ve had the fastest jump-off round that day, or if they spooked at the stray plastic bag at the side of the ring, tossing a rider on his duff. That is when you will see the real horse, the one who knows he’s safe and seems to understand when nothing is expected of her except that she exist.

Horses can be celebrities in the rarefied environs of top-level competition. High-achieving trainers and riders can be celebrities in that world, too. Sometimes, they match up. Many times, I’d glimpse an Olympic medalist rider rubbing down their horse’s forelegs in the quiet early morning after a strenuous workout, talking quietly to their mount, with nowhere more important to be at the moment.

Often I’d arrive earlier than expected for an interview appointment, as I wanted to see what was happening when the reporter wasn’t there. I’d observe a rider or trainer for days or weeks before even letting him or her know a magazine cover story was brewing. I’d ask around, talking to farriers, show ring judges, former students or trainers or grooms, trying to get a bead on what transpired between rider and mount. I wanted to see if there was a real relationship between human and equine, or if, as was sometimes the case, the name brand human equestrian star breezed in at the last moment, barked at the groom, barely acknowledged the horse at all before going about what was clearly only the business, and not the partnership, of the day’s work.

Nobody wants to have to write about a churlish, egomaniacal trainer or rider who treats his or her horses like baggage. I wrote for the sake of the four-legged animals. Usually, I found myself looking for a fresh angle on the story. Instead of focusing narrowly on Joe Schmoe, the ace rider, and Buddy, his constant champion jumper, I’d tilt the lens to the unique relationship between Buddy and the night watchman at his stable who sang the blues that kept Buddy calm.

         Love was what I was looking for, always.

Even when writing about a shoestring horse orphanage that cared for the neglected horses, the main story was about the bond between caregiver and scared, sacred horse.

To be inquisitive about a horse’s “home life” is to begin to understand the horse. What does he eat, and how much? Who feeds her? Is a horse an “easy keeper,” or a finicky eater who’d rather starve than accept a sub-par bucket of oats over the custom-blended mix a well-meaning groom once got him used to? Does a mare enjoy her stall or weave front legs side to side, wearing a rut in the floorboards from boredom? When turned out in a field, is a gelding content to graze and gallop, or does he worry at the gate, snorting at passers-by until returned to his stall?

And, whatever the behavior when a horse is unmounted, whatever aspects of personality emerge, charming or curmudgeonly, what happens then? Are a horse’s humans tolerant or tough? Indulgent or incapable of folly? The answers to these questions, which can only be attained by patient observation, round-about questioning behind the scenes, or following from afar, are an important ingredient in the mix of what one might write about that horse.

This is all about writing nonfiction, of course: writing about real horses in the real world.

 

What happens when a writer invents horses on the page?

Unfortunately, writers without equine background often either neglect to take into account the human factor. Or they create an idealized, uninformed portrait of a horse that more closely resembles a domesticated pet with attributes, qualities, and behaviors that make horse people laugh or grimace at the unrealistic portrayal. Sometimes the uneducated fiction writer forgets that modern horses subdue their clearly superior physical strength, and tamp down their fight or flight instinct for the sake of steady food, shelter, and care. They ask modern readers to believe that instead of an aberration, the norm is that stabled horses regularly and purposefully kick, buck, rear, thrash out, bite, ram, or otherwise intentionally hurt or mangle their humans.

Fiction writers tend to not write horses well because they either spend very little time in the actual equine environments of which they write and prefer, instead, an idealized or overly hyped version that serves some sensational plot requirement. Or, they tend to believe (and assume their readers will also accept) what little and repeatedly incorrect information they’ve gleaned about horses from badly researched and poorly written films and television programs.

With few exceptions, screenwriters get it wrong, but prose writers don’t know that and build on ridiculous tropes. The race horse that behaves like Lassie, summoning help with a whinny. The show ring newcomer who suddenly, with no training, negotiates a complicated grand prix course, carrying his neophyte young rider to victory in the Olympic trials. Or the seemingly docile mare who, in a pique of remembered wildness, bashes her way out of her stall, gallops miles across the Moors for three days, and makes her way back to her wild herd on the craggy rocks of the Scottish coast.

All satisfying cinema perhaps, but rubbish.

I say that if you’re going to write about horses in the twenty-first century, first, be sure you write about real horses and the humans that make their lives into whatever pattern it takes. A key element is to – and apparently this isn’t as obvious as it may seem – spend time with horses and horse people. Even in cities today, it’s possible to find stables and riders, trainers and grooms, working with horses or competing in horse sports. Hang around. Ask questions. Get the terminology right. Learn that what is true for one breed, for one equestrian sport, for one style of riding, isn’t true for others. Ride, if you can. Clean out a stall, hoist a grain bucket, run a brush across a quivering flank. Or just discover, closely and with the understanding that you probably know nothing, that what you think you know regarding horse writing is probably wrong. Then, when you do write about horses, take what you’ve written and ask a horse person to read it. Be ready to change it.

And while you’re doing the field research you must do, remember to look not just to the horses, but to the two-legged folks who are always around them. Watch what transpires between them and their charges.

Watch for the love, always.

 

Above photo is of Lisa reporting from the National Horse Show in 1983.

What Being “Willing to Fail” Really Means

by Hillary Rettig

These days, many people know it’s okay to fail.*

They understand that failure is an essential part of any ambitious path, and also a fantastic learning opportunity. They also know that if you’re not failing at least some of the time, you’re probably not taking enough risks.

This failure-is-okay viewpoint is reinforced by many inspiring quotes by brilliant people, including:

“He who has never failed somewhere, that man can not be great.” — Herman Melville
“Go on failing. Go on. Only next time, try to fail better.” — Samuel Beckett
“Success consists of going from failure to failure without loss of enthusiasm.” — Winston Churchill
(There are zillions more.)

So, to repeat: these days, many people realize it’s okay to fail.

Or do they?

It turns out that many who think they’re prepared to fail, really aren’t. Underneath, they still crave success.

It’s a good bet that they’ve defined success perfectionistically — meaning, that any outcome short of “fabulous” is unacceptable.

And that they’re counting on someone’s good opinion of their result and/or a monetary or other yield from it. That’s always a dicey situation. (Far better to derive your validation and rewards internally from the pleasures of doing the work.)

And, finally, that they have no “Plan B”: meaning that if they don’t succeed to the desired extent, they have no idea how they’ll cope or what they’ll do next. Having no backup, especially to an unrealistic plan, is also dicey.

Let’s be clear:

  • Hoping (a bit, not too much) for success is fine.
  • Needing success, especially when it’s defined perfectionistically, isn’t.

So, if you’re stuck or slowing down on a project, ask yourself if you’re really, truly prepared to fail — or if you just think you are. If the latter, you are probably experiencing a terror of failure that is inhibiting your creativity and productivity.

Here’s what being prepared to fail really looks like:

  • You’re focused mostly on your process, and not thinking too much about either the outcome of your efforts or its reception by others. Put another way, you’re working mostly in the moment, and not focusing much on either the past or future.
  • You are prepared to fail utterly — to embarrass yourself, even. Although even in the worst case, you probably won’t be that embarrassed because you are not so personally invested in your product, and not craving outside validation.
  • You understand that this project, no matter how important it seems, is merely a “way station” along the arc of your work and life. (This is true even for seemingly very important projects! No project is do-or-die, and there are always alternative paths.)
  • You have a Plan B that, while not optimal, you would actually be okay with.

There are probably plenty of “unimportant” things you do where you are perfectly willing to fail, and so you can use those as a guide on how to handle the “important” ones. (Also, think of a kid building sand castles.)

It might seem paradoxical or even impossible to embrace a low-stakes mindset about your important work, but it is very doable, and gets easier with practice. Moreover, like all productivity work, it is hugely liberating and can create a lot of peace and joy around your work. So go for it!

*Asterisk to remind us that there is no such thing as a complete and total “failure,” since most failures contain elements of success, and all failures are terrific learning opportunities.

This post originally appeared April 30th, 2014, at HillaryRettig.com. Reproduced with permission.

Julianna Baggott Whispers Urgently Into Our Ears

by Breanne Cunningham and M. Brianna Stallings

Photo Credit: Carlos Alejandro

Critically acclaimed bestselling author Julianna Baggott—who also writes under the pen names Bridget Asher (The Provence Cure for the Brokenhearted) and N.E. Bode (The Anybodies)—has published more than twenty books, including novels for adults, younger readers, and collections of poetry. Her latest novel, Harriet Wolf’s Seventh Book of Wonders, was published in August 2015. Her novel, Pure, the first of a trilogy, was a New York Times Notable Book of 2012, and received the ALA’s Alex Award. Baggott’s most recent poetry collection, Instructions, Abject & Fuming, will be released later this year by Southern Illinois University Press.

Her work has appeared in the New York Times, Washington Post, Boston Globe, Best American Poetry, Best Creative Nonfiction, Real Simple, on NPR.org and more, She’s a professor in the College of Motion Picture Arts at Florida State University and holds the Jenks Chair at The College of the Holy Cross. The mother of four children, Baggott and her husband co-founded a nonprofit called Kids in Need—Books in Deed, which gets books to underprivileged kids in Florida. For more, visit juliannabaggott.com.

The quick-witted Baggott visited Vermont College of Fine Arts on February 2, 2017 for a discussion about breaking into the world of freelance journalism through op-ed columns and essays, as well as a student Q&A session. Below are highlights from her presentation.

Julianna BaggottI want to be of use to you all, so I’m mainly going to focus on op-eds and essays. I don’t have a book of nonfiction. It’s not mainly what I do. I don’t think of myself as an essayist or an op-ed writer, but I’ve written a number of them.

Part of it is built into the roots of my relationship with my husband and the practical aspects of writing for us. One of the things that we figured out early was how to freelance, and how to make money here and there. There were a few things we learned really quickly, because our food relied on it at this point.

The number one thing is that you do the editors’ job for them.

Editors constantly have to come up with ideas for copy. If you can come up with ideas, and pitch them things that are smart and good, that makes them like you very much. So, it was just like a constant stream of not being passive, but really being active in trying to find the stories that you want to write and then turning around and saying to the editor, “Here’s what I’d like to do.”

Being omnipresent is also important for a freelancer.

If there’s any way to physically be present, be present. Right now, I’m teaching a pitching class on how to pitch your stuff in LA to graduate screenwriters, and we actually culminate in going out to LA. But a lot of it is also about staying in touch with people naturally, engaging them even when you don’t have something to pitch, then having those relationships build over time. There’s an old saying: you have to be two of three things: on time, likeable, or brilliant.

Especially in the freelance world, being likeable, being on time, being brilliant… if you can be all three, try to be all three.

One of the things that helped me a lot, mainly as an essayist, but also as a novelist, is to write a long answer to a question. A lot of times, in the essay in particular, you have a question and you’re going to show yourself on the page finding that answer. Usually with the op-ed you have more of a point of view, and you have more of something that you want to say that’s specific. So, the question is a really smart thing to think about.

The only advice that I actually believe in, that I give, that I really think actually holds up, is that a novel or any piece is much easier to write if you imagine whispering your story urgently into one person’s ear.

One person’s ear is important because you know exactly who your audience is. So one person’s ear is incredibly important. When you think about the op-ed, a lot of times you’re thinking about a wide readership; that’s gonna muddy your op-ed. You actually still have to think of that one person that you’re wanting to whisper your story to. It works for all those things, everything that I write. And I say ‘whisper it urgently’ because if you’re not urgent, then it’s probably not a story that needs to be told. That’s another way to check it, to create that lens: the one ear and the question.

The nice thing is to answer the question, you have to believe in what you have to say, and you have to believe that you’re an expert in some way.

Every single one of you is already an expert in one thing, and that is your own experience in the world.

Only you know that, and that point of view is crucial to the op-ed or the essay. This is where you have to mine your material. What is your material? What are you attracted to write about? What is your terrain? Going after a market is really important: becoming the expert in what they are looking for. Getting to know certain markets, study them.

The first category you should think about is the evergreen essay.

As somebody who writes op-eds and looks for moments and opinions, I’m putting them in categories automatically. It’s horrible when an editor tells you that your essay is evergreen because it means she’s gonna put off running it until a slow news day. But it means that it doesn’t really have to hit in any specific news cycle.

The opposite of the evergreen essay is hitting the news cycle.

It’s really hard for a young writer because, a lot of times you’re thinking reactively, and so it’s hard for you to suddenly have a full cogent thought reactively. It’s hard for me to have a full cogent thought reactively. The thing about the news cycle though is that it’s a cycle. That’s the bad part about it. So, it’s really about you honing a piece: a point of view, a perspective, your take on something, and then being prepared for it. It’s not really hitting the news cycle and it’s not being reactive, because you’re preparing for it in advance.

Sometimes you have to be waiting for the accident. 

Somebody asks you for something and you just have to be ready to say yes. Sometimes you judge your failures too quickly, and you just hear rejection, and you don’t listen to the other part of it, which is you’re onto something.

Especially the rejection of, ‘We’ve got something like this.’ That’s a great rejection. It means you’re onto something.

It means you understand the market. Make sure that you’re not taking rejection as a closing of the door. Sometimes it’s just the beginning of a relationship. Editors get so much that they can’t publish everything that they love, but they actually are interested in hearing your voice again. A lot of times there’s something there that they want more of. That’s something to think about.

Two websites I want to point out:

The Op Ed Project has a submissions page where I get a ton of information. You want to look at different markets so you’re hitting the people you want to speak to. Looking also at how to submit, how to pitch, who to reach out to, word count—it’s a great source of information on their submissions page.

For essays, I would look at the back of Best American Essays, just as a place to see what magazines they’re looking at, that they think would be good enough to have the best.

 

Q & A with VCFA students

Tierney Ray: How do you balance building a world in exposition, versus trusting the readers to build it as they read?

The most I did for world building in the strictest sense was Pure, because I had to create a post-apocalyptic dystopian world. There was a ton, and it really weighed down the first book. For people who love world building, in some ways you’re feeding that audience. In other ways, you are giving a great exposition. In anything in Sci-Fi, it’s incredibly speculative.

But after writing Pure, I realized how much world building is in every single book. You are always doing world building and it does weigh things down. So, writing the second book of the Pure Trilogy was great because I’d established world building and I could tear into the plot.

I would also say listen to the screenwriter, John August. He has a podcast called Script Notes and has one on world building, which is great. One of the lines I loved from that podcast was “remember that Harry Potter’s world exists to tell Harry Potter’s story.”

Remember, your world building works as service to the story.

My landscapes have to, in some way, exist and bow down to the story and the characters.

 

Breanne Cunningham: How do you balance being an artist and a mother, and still get the work done?

I actually have a six-week course on this topic. (Laughs) I have a very long answer for this. I have a talk on efficient creativity that I’ve given to a hedge fund in New York, but there’s a million different ways: Eat. Take snacks.

Writers are snackers. Glucose does go down when you use mental energy, it works as physical energy in your body, so have chocolate at your desk.

The one thing that I would say that is not just for people with kids, but for any other type of job or life that you have to balance, is that those jobs put you on these hamster wheel thoughts where you’re going, Did I pack the diaper bag? Do I have Cheerios? What was that weird rash? Should I call somebody about that? All of these things that weren’t getting me anywhere, but I was obsessively caught on them. So, one of the surprises having kids wasn’t that I lost my writing time, but that I was going to lose my ‘muse’ time. My best ideas and things I wanted to work on came when I was driving, taking a shower, chopping vegetables, or reading and phasing out while watching TV. So, that is what I lost and I had to be very aggressive about getting it back.

 

What happened in losing my muse time and having to be pressured to go after it,I learned this process of visualization I call “writing while not writing.”

My most important writing is done when I am not writing. I was never going to get my ten thousand hours Malcolm Gladwell popularized; I was never going to get that at a desk. I had to find it in other ways. So, there are many great things about the visualization process and writing in your head. Number one, I don’t write first drafts; I write fourth drafts.

You never really have to look at the blank page at all because by the time you’re free to write and can actually get to a computer, you already know what you’re going to write.

It’s already starting to run in your head. It was the pressure on not having time to write and having to find time to write that really made a difference. There is something to be said about pressure and being desirous and hungry.

Jennifer Kathleen Gibbons: You had an essay in Bustle about ‘suffering fools gladly’ in a workshop. Can you go into more detail about it?

Yes, suffer fools gladly. I see a certain type of person who comes to workshop and you can tell they respect two people in that workshop and they don’t respect anyone else… Sometimes it’s one… Sometimes it’s zero. (Laughs) So, the problem is that they’re not getting the best out of everybody. You have to be able to listen with a screen to every single person in that room, especially the person who doesn’t understand you and doesn’t get your work.

A lot of times, the one who says, “I don’t understand it, it doesn’t work,” the answer to [their] question isn’t ‘cut it out’. It’s, “Bring it! Do more of it!” You have to suffer fools gladly.

What more could I ask of a workshop but to have someone that is dedicated to writing and reading?  What I look for is a good reader—make friends with people who are not writers, so you can create relationships with people who are not protective of their stories. I’ve gotten the best advice from people whose work I don’t like, and [with whom] I don’t get along, but we’re trying very different things and they’ve said something to me that has altered the course of the way I write for the better.

Gina Tron: Because you’ve written so many novels, did you ever find a formula for laying out the book you want to write?

Have you? Please, God, send it to me! (Laughs) In this way, it is like having children. Each child teaches you how to raise it. I wish there were one book that teaches you how to raise children. The problem is they’re all individuals. They’re unique with their own specific, weird shit. So, no, each book teaches me how to write it.

There is a confidence that comes with having written a novel before, having physically made it through one. And I can write with blind spots now. I can write not knowing what is in the box hidden in the wall. It’s going to be okay. So, there are certain things that I have gained confidence and gotten better at, mainly decision making. I’m a much faster decision maker in the middle of a novel because I’ve had to make more decisions.

I still write novels that fail; I write the whole thing and realize it failed, but I’m not done with it [because] I also have incredible confidence in my junkyard.

So there is the feeling that nothing is ever really wasted because I know I’m going to use those characters. So, there is confidence that comes with it, but no [formula].

 

For more information on Julianna Baggott, visit her website at juliannabaggott.com

Why I Have Hemingway Tattooed on My Forearm

David G. Pratt

“Why do you have tattoos?” I often hear.

“Because I like tattoos,” I say.

Some people understand. Some don’t. And some don’t like it. Regardless, all of my tattoos have meaning to me, but there is no way to thoroughly explain that meaning in twenty-second sound bites.

However, I can usually relate salient points quickly: “Most of the sleeve on this arm has a nautical theme. I love being on the ocean. Moby Dick is my favorite book—he and the Pequod are there. ‘The Rime of the Ancient Mariner’ is my favorite poem—some of my favorite verses are scrolled around my arm. And Einstein sticking out his tongue is there to remind me that if one of the smartest men that ever lived didn’t take himself too seriously, why should I?”

“What about Hemingway?” they ask. “What’s the story there?”

The short answer, “He’s one of my favorite authors,” just isn’t enough. If that were the sole qualification, I would have more than two authors tattooed on my arms. (The other author, on my other arm, is Vonnegut. His is a story for another time.) No, Hemingway means more to me than that, and I never have the time or the on-demand eloquence to properly explain it. It has to do with a big, two-hearted river.

When I look at Ernest Hemingway, I see Nick Adams. Nick’s exploits in Hemingway’s short stories echo Hemingway’s childhood, his fishing trips, his war experiences. Because Hemingway based Nick on himself, there is cohesiveness to Nick’s character. Over many years and many short stories, Hemingway developed Nick as a reflective man who would at times ruminate on his past and present.

For example, in one short story, “Now I Lay Me,” Nick is in Italy recovering from wounds suffered in the First World War. Nick is trying to think about fishing trips, family, and anything else that will distract him because he doesn’t want to close his eyes—he is afraid he will die if he does. The story opens with this:

That night we lay on the floor in the room and I listened to the silk-worms eating. The silk-worms fed in racks of mulberry leaves and all night you could hear them eating and a dropping sound in the leaves. I myself did not want to sleep because I had been living for a long time with the knowledge that if I ever shut my eyes in the dark and let myself go, my soul would go out of my body. I had been that way for a long time, ever since I had been blown up at night and felt it go out of me and go off and then come back. I tried never to think about it, but it had started to go since, in the nights, just at the moment of going off to sleep, and I could only stop it by a very great effort. So while now I am fairly sure that it would not really have gone out, yet then, that summer, I was unwilling to make the experiment.

In another short story, “A Way You’ll Never Be,” Nick, still in the First World War, is again having trouble sleeping because his mind is racing and he cannot stop it. In one paragraph, a full page and a half long, Nick’s thoughts during an attempt to nap string out in a rambling series of flashbacks that may or may not stick to the truth. When awake, he babbles, and he knows it. In one scene he rambles to bewildered Italian soldiers, on and on, about American grasshoppers: which ones are good for fishing, how best to capture them, etc.

What Nick saw and experienced during the war is important, and how Nick dealt with these experiences is important. Nick ruminates. Nick rambles. Nick’s mind moves.

I suffer from bipolar disorder. I ruminate. I ramble. My mind moves. And one thing I struggle to do is peacefully enjoy my surroundings. This rarely happens, and it definitely does not happen after something traumatic. Was Nick suffering from Post-Traumatic Stress Disorder? Was Hemingway bipolar, as is often presumed? I don’t know—but I am seeing unmistakable traits to which I can relate.

Big Two-Hearted River” is considered by many to be one of the best post-war stories there is. The short story (two actually, Part I and Part II) follows Nick as he heads into the wilderness after returning home from his traumatic wartime experiences. Some reviewers have said that Nick is at peace there in the wilderness because he finds strength in connecting with the natural world. I have a different view.

In “Big Two-Hearted River,” Nick gets off a train in a deserted town. The town and surrounding countryside have been burned to the ground. Nick walks through the town, observing the destruction, not saying a word, and, important to me, Hemingway reveals no thoughts that Nick may have of it—especially how it must certainly compare to the war he just left behind. Nick then walks out of town and across charred land. He stops to notice that the grasshoppers are black from the soot.

As I mentioned, in “A Way You’ll Never Be,” Nick, for no particular reason, describes with fondness and expertise the American grasshoppers to the Italian soldiers. In “Big Two-Hearted River,” Nick observes the grasshoppers in the burned-out fields without mention of those he encountered in Europe during the war. When he was in Italy, grasshoppers were a connection to his life back in America. Back home, he finds them charred and black, and he says the only real dialogue in the story: “Go on, hopper. Fly away somewhere.”

Eventually, Nick finds the fire line. Once beyond that, he is finally in pristine land. The comparison between living in a burned-out war zone and returning home is undeniable, yet Nick makes no connection that we are privy to. Instead, Nick thinks about setting up camp. Nick thinks about scouting fishing locations. Nick thinks about fishing, even as he’s fishing. Nick thinks about what the next day’s fishing will bring.

Nick never, ever thinks about the war.

Nick, in “Big Two-Hearted River,” is not ruminating, as would the character developed in other Hemingway short stories. He does not reflect on the war even once.

He was blown up. He had nightmares. He couldn’t sleep. He had scars, physical and mental. He saw horrors. He killed. He feared he would die if he simply closed his eyes. Yet here he is, walking in the most serene of environments, quietly observing, thinking simple thoughts. How he should fish. Where to set up the proper camp. The best way to gather bait.

And here I sit—waiting for him to explode.

This is going to hit him. This wouldn’t be much of a story if it was solely following a well adjusted soldier on a fishing trip back home.

No, it will hit him. When? I wait. And wait. But it doesn’t come.

The tension is agonizing.

When will he suddenly look at the grasshoppers and say, “I missed you! You’re all black! How did the war follow us here?” When will he throw down his rod and put his head in his hands and sob?

Nick smokes a cigarette and surveys the scene. No thoughts of the war or the trauma or the horror or the death. But the thoughts are coming. They must be coming. When will they come?

They don’t come.

Yet.

And I know what this is. I know what Nick is doing. It is not denial. It is an attempt to free himself from the ceaseless thinking. It is the never-ending quest to quiet the mind and enjoy the here and now without letting disturbing thoughts intrude and control. And it only lasts so long.

Until the crash.

And he will crash.

Why do I have Hemingway tattooed on my forearm?

I like to look down once in a while and see Nick.

I like to see that I’m not alone.

Someone understands me.

Writing the 30th Gate

Caitlyn Renee Miller

This past summer my husband, Derek, and I spent seven weeks in Mexico, where he took immersive Spanish classes, and I holed up in our rented apartment finalizing some contracted writing projects. I also spent my days trying to learn to prepare food at regular intervals and attempting to convince myself I have the discipline to complete my own writing projects.[i] This probably comes as a surprise to no one. My friends, family, coworkers, dentist, and that lady at the mall kiosk are all equally familiar with my tenuous commitment to the craft of writing (and also my Kraft Mac ‘n Cheese lifestyle, for that matter).

I think every writer grapples with discipline.[ii] To that end, I conducted my previous writing experiment—talking about writing without writing much—for around five years post-MFA. Despite repeated trials, my results were always indistinguishable from the control. I swore Mexico would be different. I would be as prolific as Malcolm Lowry, minus the mescal, plus a stable, loving relationship. Everything would be different this time!

Except that it wasn’t. I sprawled on our rattan couch, ate a bunch of avocados, watched any show on television that was broadcast in English, and waited for Derek to come home from class. Comfortably slunk into nihilism with Will & Grace as background noise, I had some kind of revelation. Perhaps it was the altitude sickness (Guanajuato has an elevation of over 6,500 ft.) or the near-vertical walks up the infernal hill that led from the grocery store back to my apartment, but I decided I would try an endurance exercise that would, ideally, show me what improvement looks like.

Since it’s difficult for me to gauge the effect of discipline on my writing, I would paint. I would paint the same scene every week day for the remainder of our summer, allowing me to see creative growth in a new way.[iii] It was a mad endeavor, one that made my grandmother say, “My god, Caitlyn,” when I explained it over the phone, and one that taught me everything I now know about progress.

~

Guanajuato is a city at the bottom of a bowl, and mountains make up the bowl’s sides. Our apartment was perched above the city center and provided an unfettered view of La Bufa, the city’s most famous rock face. The rooms of my apartment were simultaneously small and spacious—as if we lived in Mary Poppins’ handbag.

The gate to the apartment complex required two separate keys, a strong push, and occasionally some swearing before it would swing open into our courtyard. “My” chair on the balcony faced the gate, so naturally I painted 29 representations of it over the course of 40 days.[iv]

Here’s what happened when I, a non-painter, painted for the first time as an adult: I felt clumsy, tried to use the brush like a pencil, and used paint that was much too dry. I scraped that pigment over the paper until the paper pilled. I felt proud of myself.

Gate #1

Gate #1

On day two, I was shocked at how much better I’d done. Shocked enough to feel ashamed of my painting from day one. Was this how I’d been as a beginning writer?[v] But the biggest difference was my attitude. I was experimenting. I had guesses about what I could do differently from the previous day, so I was coming at this painting thing with an attitude of genuine curiosity. I was experimenting. I was having fun.

Like all heady times, the feeling did not last long. I’d say I got about five days in before I felt like I’d made a huge mistake. So why didn’t I quit this time?

~

Prior to leaving for Mexico, my parents (who live conveniently close to an international airport and thus hosted us in the days preceding our trip) voiced some concerns about what might befall us in Guanajuato. When my mother hugged me goodbye, I couldn’t tell if her extra-strong grip was in case this was the last goodbye she’d ever be afforded—or if I was imagining it.[vi]

After I painted my second gate, I emailed them photos of the first two paintings with the subject line “A Marked Improvement in My Painting Skills.” They each responded that they could really see the progress. I decided that day that I’d email them every painting. The Gate of the Day newsletter would remain capped at two subscribers. I saw Gate of the Day as the conscription of my parents. They certainly were not given the luxury of the “unsubscribe” option of other newsletters. Each evening I took a photo of myself holding the painting in front of my face and sent it off to my mom and dad in America. It was my version of holding up a newspaper. I’m fine, it said. Each day both of my parents picked out one element of the painting to praise.[vii]

My weird forced newsletter is a key element of this story because it gave me accountability. I worried that if I didn’t send a painting, my parents would imagine I’d fallen into the hands of Chapo Guzmán himself.[viii] I obsessed that my parents could be living in fear until my return, and this obsession proved to be an effective motivator. It turns out I am also a huge fan of being praised.

~

I started to see patterns in the way I was improving, though my improvement was slow. I thought about my progress as though I were viewing myself as an avatar in a video game: I’d run forward, then have to take a step back before I could vault myself to the next level. Often my biggest leaps came after what felt like insurmountable backslides. Many of my paintings are hideously ugly.[ix]

I rated each painting on an arbitrary 10-point scale

I rated each painting on an arbitrary 10-point scale

~

Of course, these peaks and valleys inspired a lot of frustration. I’d devise new ways to make that same gate image seem new: setting a 10-minute time limit for a painting, using a single color of paint, or zooming in to paint small details instead of the full image. I would also procrastinate. Arms laden with groceries, I’d catch my breath on a bench at the mid-way point of that devil hill after my daily trek to the store. The back of the bench featured the words BAD BITCH. I’d intentionally sit next to the graffiti—I didn’t want to obscure any of the sloppy blue letters. I would nod to myself. I would think, yes. Bad bitch. Then I’d walk home with a little more surety to paint in the twenty minutes before Derek got home.

~

One day, just like that, it was over. I found myself on an airplane watching Mexico recede from view. For a while we hovered next to a mountain with a flat top before gaining altitude until nothing was in clear view except for the clouds. My 29 paintings were neatly wrapped in a plastic bag and tucked into the front pocket of my carry-on bag. My husband held my hand.[x] The final painting had felt important, so I gave myself over to it. Before sitting down to paint for the last time in our perfect apartment in a perfect city, I thought of the art we’d seen in a museum in Querétaro. I had noticed that the painters used unreal colors that somehow imbued every person or building with weight and reality. But I hadn’t been thinking at all while I painted the 29th gate—I was immersed. I leapt.

~

I fell short.

~

Gate #29

Gate #29

 And I know I’ll continue to fall short. As a writer and especially as a painter. The other thing I know is that I’ll keep showing up, keep progressing.[xi] Because for me, writing is not about writing. It’s about becoming the kind of person who is willing to leap.

~

[i] Note that there’s no way to say, “I spent seven weeks in Mexico [more or less fucking around]” without giving the impression that you’re kind of a douche. I’ve tried phrasing it different ways to no avail. Please accept my assurances that I’m mostly not a douche.

[ii] If you were expecting a statistic here about writers and commitment, you’d be wrong! I’d prefer not to complete any (potentially disheartening) research in favor of repeating comforting platitudes. Are you struggling to sit down and write? You’re not alone.

[iii] I gave myself weekends off because I’m not a monster.

[iv] It could be tempting to ascribe some kind of meaning to this choice. Something like, the gate signifies how close I am to achieving my goals, or a V. for Vendetta-esque The gate was open the whole time! Alas, I just thought the gate looked kind of cool and was visible from my vantage point of choice.

[v] Because I teach, I know the answer to this question.

[vi] My parents are lovely and open-minded people who often take my travel plans in stride. I’m not surprised they were worried about Mexico, considering the media paints it as a dystopian wasteland.

[vii] Even the shittiest paintings! My parents have a knack for finding the positive.

[viii] My husband has been following Guzmán’s exploits for some time, so it was particularly surprising that Guzmán tunneled to freedom while we were in Guanajuato.

[ix] Making ugly things can be exciting, too.

[x] Sometimes Derek would paint with me out on the balcony. I love that man.

[xi] “This is practice: if we feel like doing it, we do it, and if we don’t feel like doing it, we do it just the same. We just keep doing it.” –Ajahn Chah

Visiting with Claire Burgess

by Jericho Parms

What inspired “Last Dog”?

Well, I went on a dead dog kick for a little while in my writing. Our family dog, a black lab named Pepper who we got when I was nine, was very old and on death’s door when I was writing “Last Dog.” She was almost blind and entirely deaf and had bad arthritis at this point, and it was tearing my mom up inside. There were some difficult things going on in my family at the time—illnesses of the physical and mental variety—which my mom was managing with strength and grace and a remarkable amount of composure, but when it came to our dog, she just broke down. I think she perhaps subconsciously tied up all the hard things she was dealing with in the dog; it became a tangible, visual representation of our family, as it had once been, ending. I, too, became mildly obsessed with dead or lost pets as cataclysmic events in my fiction for that year before Pepper died, and from that idea, this story emerged. This story was actually very important for me. The events that happen to Joel are very different from the ones that were occurring in my family at the time, but through the experience of writing the story, I was able, to a certain extent, to work through my own grappling with this reality that I had found myself in and never saw coming.

Also, a while before writing this, I had discovered fantasy taxidermy, which actually exists, and became totally fascinated with it. It seemed like a practice that was so full of symbolism and meaning, and I had always wanted to use it in a story. I tend to collect strange things in my writing notebook and use them for inspiration. Speaking of, somewhere in Britain, there’s a company that makes wallets and shoes and belts from HUMAN LEATHER. Yeah, I said human leather. I haven’t figured out how to use that in a story yet, but I want to. Don’t steal it.

Tell us about your writing process—either generally or specifically with regard to the birth and development of this story.

I don’t really have a process. I try to have a process, but it doesn’t work very well. When I try to have a process, it goes like this:

  1. Make coffee.
  2. Open Word document containing story-in-progress.
  3. Read daily blogs, check own blog, check email, check Facebook.
  4. Return to Word doc, type a few sentences, delete a few sentences.
  5. Stare at wall.
  6. Read favorite online lit mags to force creative part of brain into action.
  7. Call Mom to see how she’s doing.
  8. Check email, check Facebook.
  9. Stare at Word doc with empty feeling of failure, force out a paragraph or two.
  10. Stare at wall.
  11. Want to check email, DO NOT CHECK EMAIL.
  12. Re-read entire draft so far, disdain new paragraphs, delete them.
  13. Regret deleting new paragraphs.
  14. Give up and watch Hulu.

So that’s all by way of saying that I’m trying to establish a daily writing regimen, but obviously it needs some work. I have almost never been able to write a story by trying to force myself to write a story. Sometimes, if I sit down and start making myself write, something will click and I’ll get something good going. But mostly, the mysterious event we like to call “inspiration” will hit me at unexpected times, often while reading (which is why I read when everything else is failing), and then I’ll write like a madwoman for hours—literally like a madwoman, crouching like a gargoyle in my chair, bouncing up and down, exclaiming things to the air that make no sense to anyone in earshot, pacing around, standing on the furniture, forgoing meals and sleep and personal hygiene—until I have a first draft written. That’s how I wrote the first draft of “Last Dog,” and then the later drafts and editing happened during my painstaking aforementioned process. I don’t know why my best writing happens like that, but it can be very inconvenient. It’s like, Oh, you’re at work? TOO BAD YOU ARE INSPIRED IGNORE IT AT YOUR PERIL. So I’m trying to figure out something so I can produce writing more regularly instead of just waiting around for it. And, you know, so I can hold down a job.

Name your favorite living writer and tell us why.

Aimee Bender. She’s brilliant and so creative and unfettered by the traditional boundaries of what a short story “should” be. Her writing is often weird, usually unexpected, and always saturated with such empathy for the beautiful, ungainly, cruel, messy humanity of her characters. She writes characters like a boy who has keys for fingers, a man with a prosthetic hunchback, or a woman who plants potatoes that turn out to be living potato-babies that she keeps trying to kill but they keep coming back. And somehow, by writing these skewed and fantastic worlds, she pulls the skin back on our reality and shows us the muscles and bones, says, Look, This Is What We’re Made Of. Her work reminds me of touching the exposed nerves in a friction burn. It’s just buzzing with feeling.

I read her collection Willful Creatures for the first time at a pivotal point in my writing life, right after I entered my MFA program and really started figuring this writing stuff out, and it opened up my eyes in a way that the more realist authors I’d been reading hadn’t. Aimee Bender made me realize for the first time that the boundaries of fiction, well, that they don’t exist. I had been trying to force my stories into the established model of the stories I had been taught in school, instead of following my own intuition and exploring whatever weird or unexpected or risky direction the story wanted to take me. Bender taught me that you can do absolutely anything in a story, as long as you make it work. And that’s such a freeing and glorious thing, isn’t it?

I also had the pleasure of interviewing her for the literary journal we started at Vanderbilt, Nashville Review, and she is one of the sweetest and most genuine people I’ve ever met. I may or may not have an altar to her in my closet.

What’s the hardest thing to get right in a short story?

Well, beginnings and endings, obviously. The stuff in the middle is easy(er), but finding the right way to begin a story and the right way to end it—that’s where the pressure is. I often find myself writing my way into a story for two pages or more before the story really begins, and then I have to go back and dig the beginning out and cut away the excess. I find endings a little easier than beginnings. By the time I get to the end, I usually know how it’s supposed to happen. Sometimes I fiddle around with it too much trying to make it perfect—for instance, “Last Dog” went through three or four other endings before I finally landed on this one, which was the second one. But beginnings, that’s where you set the tone, the pacing, the characters, the expectations. That’s where you hook your reader or lose them forever. No pressure.


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