Smoking With Rebecca Podos

by Josh Denslow Read the Story September 23, 2013

At what point in the process did you decide that your story was going to be one sentence long?

Once the story was down to 500 words or so, every period became a pause in the tension, a breather that I really didn’t want to give anyone reading. It wasn’t too difficult to make it one sentence after that—I have a bad habit of winding sentences anyways, so I gave in to it.

What’s not said is even more powerful than what appears on the page. I would have to make a ton of cuts to get one of my stories down to something so distilled. How much restraint do you show in your first draft?

No restraint whatsoever. It was actually part of a (not very interesting) sixteen page story of the bitterness between two grown sisters. The content of “Yellowjackets” was a brief, illuminating memory that came after I’d built this whole relationship, this set of lives. But it sort of felt like I’d spent sixteen pages staring at a (not very interesting) rock, only to turn it over and expose the grub underneath at the very end. So as unpleasant as it was, I figured the grub was the story, and stripped the rest away, and then it was just word-wrestling.

Your word choices amplify the escalating sense of dread. Do you think your decision to capitalize the Pest Man made him even scarier?

I didn’t start with that in mind, though it does make him sound like the Boogie Man. But it was just an attempt to capture that kid-habit of defining a person by his role in your life. The Math Teacher could be a poker player, a grandmother, a BDSM porn connoisseur, a stamp collector… but none of those infinite versions of her cross the orbit of your little life, so they don’t exist. I don’t like to imagine what the Pest Man does off the job, but I do think he’s scarier in this one terrible incarnation then he would be as, I don’t know, Bob Leibowitz, fumigator and amateur entomologist.

There is a certain trust we extend people when we let them into our homes. Do you think the father could never fathom that he would allow something evil through their front door?

I think that if someone were to suggest the next day that the Pest Man was evil, the father would absolutely insist otherwise. He’d say “Of course he wasn’t, or I wouldn’t have let him in.” He never would’ve opened the door to the quiet man in Aviators who lurks by playgrounds and public pools. But this was the Pest Man; he was there to gas the bugs out of the wall, and the father couldn’t imagine him as anything else. It’s that little-kid blindness to the multitudes inside another person, and not having learned the same terrible lesson as his daughters, he probably won’t change.

The story begs to be read over and over. The rhythm is perfect and it is full of beautiful images: the girls pressing their ears to the wall, the yellowjacket nest the size of a lettuce head, the sister in the surgical mask. Do you think this level of detail makes the ending even more horrific?

I hope it does. I mean I do and don’t feel good about these details which—when the story ran sixteen pages long—were the spores of rot in the sisters’ relationship. I kind of wanted to protect these girls, or at least let them forget about the masks, the sprinklers, and the sounds in the walls. But that probably wouldn’t have been a story. So it’s important to me that readers not forget the details either.

About the Author:

Rebecca Podos is a graduate of the MFA Writing, Literature and Publishing program at Emerson College where she recently won the Graduate Program Award for Best Thesis. Her fiction has appeared in literary publications such as Glimmer Train, Glyph, CAJE, Bellows American Review, and Paper Darts. She is hard at work on her first novel.

About the Interviewer:

Josh Denslow’s stories have appeared in Barrelhouse, Third Coast, CutBank, Wigleaf, and Black Clock, among others. His collection, Not Everyone Is Special, is forthcoming from 7.13 Books.