Smoking With Debra A. Daniel
Read the Story December 15, 2008
Fantastic, beautiful story. Where did the idea for this piece come from?
When I taught school, one of my students suffered from trichotillomania, the irresistible urge to pull out one’s hair. During that year when she was in my class, I remember talking to a psychiatrist friend who said, “It comes from nowhere; it comes from everything.” Around the same time I started noticing the little girl’s thinning hair, she arrived at school one morning with a box very much like the one in the story only hers held an entire house. I’ve never forgotten standing behind her desk and looking down on her balding scalp. I coupled that memory with another one from my own school days, a seventh grade home economics assignment which involved designing a bedroom in a box. Those two elements formed the foundation of this piece.
I think stories come from nowhere and come from everything, too. Maybe, as writers, we have our own mania, a frenzied desire to fashion words into sentences and paragraphs in order to fascinate and infatuate our readers and as well as ourselves. Sometimes I’m sure everything that’s ever happened to me links together into a story, into a poem. Everything in my past connects to something else and they’re all knitted into a complicated web. There’s no detail so insignificant that it doesn’t find a fit with some other seemingly incongruous item of the past. What you think you’ve forgotten, even things you’ve tried to forget about; you haven’t. They’re all still inside you, or at least, an impression of them is still inside you just waiting for the right story or poem to come along. Then there they are, like little kids in a class waving their hands and saying, “Pick me, pick me. I know the answer to this story.”
End lines aren’t easy. But you’ve written a great ending to this story—”There,” she says. “That’s better. That’s perfect. I hate, hate when everything goes all slanted.” Tell us how you got to that ending.
The dotted girl in this story is trying, oh, so hard to make her life perfect. She wants order and precision. She longs for it. She’s literally pulling her hair out from the frustration of not being able to achieve the perfection. Just look at her: the fringe of bangs hanging just so, her bedspread fringe barely touching the floor, her sad little self on the fringe of sanity trying to balance herself and keep her ever more slanting world straight. And she just can’t do it. She can’t even manage her tiny make-believe bedroom box, much less the real world. We all know how many times you have to straighten that darnn picture on the wall that keeps angling itself into a lopsided tilt. You’ll never get it straight for very long. I wanted the reader’s last image of her to be the valiant attempt of that never-ending task to straighten her picture, to straighten her life.
This is one moment that sticks with me: “My mother doesn’t exactly remember the hero’s name. It was something very ordinary, not a hero’s name at all, but finally, finally, in the happy ending he does come. And that’s the important part, don’t you think.” Which moment in this story sticks with you?
The moment that won’t let go of me is when the teacher asks what will happen when the girl’s mother finds out that she has cut up the bedspread. The girl says that there is plenty of time for her mother not to notice. That, to me, is such a sad revelation about the longing the girl has for her mother to pay attention.
You realize that there’s so much more going on and so much more not going on in that little girl’s home. The teacher knows, and the reader knows, but not really. You’ll never really know the whole truth about what drives a ten-year-old girl to pull out her hair?
I didn’t want everything to be spelled out about the girl’s background. When you teach, you never know what’s happening with your students and their families. Much of the time, you only have an intuition, an impression of the true story. You’re just an observer. Most of it is out of your control. At the end of the year, those students move on and you’re left with no idea of their ending, happy or otherwise.
“Dots make me happy” the little girl in your story says. “When I grow up, my house will be full of dots.” What makes you happy?
Well, the obvious answer would be acceptances for my poems and stories. I love that. It’s hugely fulfilling. I’m so excited to see my work in print. I say, “See those words. I wrote those.”
I’ll have to say, these days, I’m happy most of the time. I’m like some mushy Hallmark commercial. I fell in love and got married about a year and half ago. I retired from teaching so now I’m living this dreamy life: time to write and travel, singing in a band with my husband who’s an amazing guitar player. I laugh a lot. That makes me happy.
You’re also a poet. Tell us about your poetry.
Thanks for asking about poetry. It just so happens that my chapbook, AS IS, will be published in February 2009 from Main Street Rag. It’s already available online for advance sales at mainstreetrag.com. I know that’s a shameless plug, but I’m really proud of those poems.
Much of my poetry is narrative. Some of it, I’d say is sensuous. A lot of it is witty, I think, or wry or just plain quirky. Lately, I love writing flash fiction. I’ve realized that some pieces I tried to place as poems really fit better as flash.
When I’m writing fiction, I’m the chauffeur for a bunch of characters in the backseat telling me where we’re going. With poetry, I’m the only one in the car. I’m the driver. Not even a GPS. It’s just me. Now, there may be some poetic license with a detail or so now and then, but basically, it’s pretty much the naked truth. I do write a lot of persona pieces though, sort of me as a cartoon or a Grecian goddess. Okay, me as any kind of goddess is a stretch, but you get the idea. Now, fiction is just that. It’s made up. There’s truth in it, but it’s truth in costume. The best thing I can say is that my poetry makes me be a better fiction writer and vice versa.
About the Author:
Debra A. Daniel was the SC Arts Commission Poetry Fellow (2006, 1994) and won the 2002 Guy Owen Prize. Her poetry chapbook, As Is, is forthcoming from Main Street Rag. Her work has appeared in online and print journals including: Kakalak, Emrys Journal, darkskymagazine.com, Pequin.org, Inkwell, Southern Poetry Review, Tar River Poetry, and Gargoyle. She sings and plays mandolin and cardboard box in an acoustic band with her husband, Jack McGregor.