Smoking With Bess Winter
by Nancy Stebbins Read the Story September 24, 2012
Though we basically see the old bachelor through Agnes’ eyes, I feel that the reader has a very different take on him, perhaps more sympathy? Was that intentional?
I think so. At least, partly. It’s hard to side one hundred percent with any one person in a dating situation, and there’s nothing categorically wrong with the bachelor (although, technically, egg hoarding is considered illegal in some places). He is sort of a sweet old guy. He’s got a cat. He has a deep fondness for his collection. We don’t see as much of Agnes: just her reaction to him, which maybe puts us more on his side.
How do you imagine the man’s collection began—his first egg—and what did it mean to him at the time?
He would have had to have stolen the eggs out of nests. So, he probably stole his first egg with a bit of apprehension. Would the mother bird attack? Was it right to steal an egg? It’s kind of like stealing someone’s baby. Or their aspiration for one. I imagine he did this as an adolescent. As in most morally questionable actions, egg theft probably got easier for him with time.
What was the genesis of the story?
The story came out of two things. One was a section of the novel I’m attempting, that deals with Victorian egg collecting. There was a period where a lot of “naturalists,” which was kind of a gentleman scientist/rich dabbler with the exception of a few, would go snatching eggs out of all sorts of nests to study and keep them. The practice went unregulated for a long time, until the conservation movement really took hold. So, I was doing research on Victorian egg collecting, and came across the modern phenomenon of “egg hoarders,” who are middle-class folk who illegally snatch eggs out of nests. These are usually hobbyists who have a lot of knowledge but use it for selfish purposes rather than for preservation. The other factor was my attempting to go on dates after a recent breakup, and how odd and difficult and otherworldly that process is.
One of your pieces was produced as a musical number. What was that like?
Surreal. It was a poem published in the lit journal at my alma mater, Mount Allison University. A guy in the drama program there adapted a clutch of poetry from the journal into song, and it ended up sounding sort of like a Cole Porter number, sung by a chorus. Unfortunately, this was after I graduated and I’ve only seen it on video. That fellow’s at NYU’s Musical Theatre program and actually has a musical playing off-Broadway right now, I’ve heard, so he’s doing fairly well.
Can you say anything about your collection? And will this story be in it?
The collection morphs daily. One day (hopefully soon) it will be finished and I’ll start sending it out. It used to be longer, and then I realized that some of the longer pieces in it were really…wanting, for lack of a better word, and cut out a good 75 pages. So there are one or two long pieces in it, and the majority of it is short pieces like this one. As to whether this story will be in it, it will if it fits the flow of the book. Every now and then I get out the .doc file and my stories and an imaginary pair of scissors and imaginary UHU Stick and try to paste the thing together. Thematically, its thread is probably “confused people thrust into a world of new technology, talking animals, and difficult math tests.”
About the Author:
Bess Winter's work has been awarded a Pushcart Prize, illustrated in pen and ink, and adapted into musical numbers. She is finishing a short fiction collection and writing a novel.
About the Interviewer:
Nancy Stebbins is a former editor at SmokeLong Quarterly.