“Like Composing a Still Life”: An Interview with Heather Wells Peterson
Heather Wells Peterson is reading blind this week (November 23-29). All submissions with identifying materials on the story won’t be considered.
One of the things I really admired about the three stories you had in The Collagist is that in each of them there was a sense of realistic horror: things are simultaneously fine (the son may be alive, the daughter may be only learning, it might just be an empty room), but underneath is the anxiety of truth (the son will die, may die, be already dead, the ghost is real and probably not friendly, the mother is leaving the daughter alone in darkness). Maybe I’m reading too much into this. But how do you think anxiety can influence or shape flash fiction?
Well, in my case, anxiety shapes it a lot. I have (like, I suspect, many writers) a mild buzz of anxiety under my skin at all times. And I think you’re right that these stories come from that place inside of me where things are uncertain and surreal and subtly threatening. I think writing often comes from anxiety because it gives us a sense of control when we put the human experience down on paper. Anthropologists have wondered for a long time why cave paintings are often in dark, difficult-to-reach places—we’re so used to art being for display, communication. One theory is that they painted the things in life that they depended on for survival—herds of animals, successful hunts, etc. In depicting these things accurately, the artists gave the community a sense of order. If you can create an image of something—reproduce it faithfully—you have power over it.
You recently finished a novel. What was it like to go from working and thinking about compression to writing in a longer form?
The two processes use completely different parts of my brain. I wrote the flash pieces that were in The Collagist right after I finished writing my novel. I think I had been squeezing the juice out of one set of characters, one setting, for so long, that I needed to write flash as a kind of palette cleanser. There were all these little things that were floating around in my head while I wrote the novel, but I just made a note on my phone and put them to the back of my mind because I didn’t want to get distracted from the task at hand. Then, when I was done with my book, I could finally return to them, and they came out fully formed. Writing the flash was like composing a still life—placing each element in just the right position, the right lighting, so that it was beautiful on its own and created a greater conversation with the other elements in the piece. This was a very different feeling than writing a novel, which felt more like knitting a sweater that constantly threatened to unravel and become a pile of yarn instead of a wearable piece of clothing.
More and more, I find that a story loses me when it makes the choice to favor something shocking over character. Is there a particular craft element when not done well that just destroys a story for you?
I know what you mean. I’m definitely fatigued with the quirky and shocking. Both can be good, but they’re so often not earned. Flash is difficult because you can’t get into the deeper motivations of every character—you have to find a way to make the reader feel they understand without showing them everything. So if you make a decision of plot or character that doesn’t feel real or organic (not that it has to be realistic to the world we live in—it only needs to be realistic to the world of the story) then it immediately takes me out of it.
Let’s say a very wealthy person gave you a bunch of money to do with whatever you wanted, as long as it benefited writers? What kind of thing would you do (a prize, a residency, something else?) with the funding?
The economic climate of the writing community is difficult right now. Fellowships that used to go to writers without books now go to writers with two books because publishing a book doesn’t necessarily make you any better off than you were before. I’m very interested in creating spaces for writers who are underrepresented in literature. The VIDA count has made it clear that a lot of work remains to be done to increase publication and exposure for female-identified people and people of color. I think this is important for reasons of justice, but it is equally important for the improvement of literature. If fiction is going to survive, it has to continue to evolve, and it just doesn’t cut it to consider the middle-class, white, straight male experience the default anymore. I’m very tired of hearing worries that the black experience or the female experience or the queer experience isn’t “relatable” enough—relatable to whom?
This is all a long way of saying that I would establish a fellowship for writers without a first book who are part of an underrepresented group, whether due to gender, sexuality, color, economic class, etc. This fellowship would last a year, and it would give the writer a place to live as well as a stipend to cover food and other expenses. During that year, the writer would teach creative writing in the community once a week—any more, and it would take up too much time. This would keep them thinking about writing and interacting with different types of people. And then, at the end of the year, the writer would get some larger amount of money—$10,000, maybe—to go away with, so they could continue to make time for their writing as they reenter the world.
About the Reader:
Heather Wells Peterson earned her MFA in Fiction from the University of Florida in 2014. Her work has appeared in The Collagist, SmokeLong Quarterly, and Columbia: A Journal of Literature and Art, among others. She is currently living in Vermont with her father, her dog, and five sheep, while she and her agent search for a home for her first novel.
About the Interviewer:
Megan Giddings was a former executive editor at SmokeLong Quarterly and a winner of the Kathy Fish Fellowship. Her chapbooks, Arcade Seventeen (TAR) and The Most Dangerous Game (The Lettered Streets Press) will be released Fall 2016. She has been anthologized in Best of the Net 2014 and in Best Small Fictions 2016. Her stories are forthcoming or have been recently published in Arts & Letters, Passages North, The Offing, Pleiades, and Black Warrior Review. You can learn more about her at www.megangiddings.com.