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“I don’t want safe”: An Interview with Julia Strayer

Interview by Megan Giddings September 7, 2015

In your essay at Glimmer Train, you said, “For me, I decided writing that elevates itself to art has at least three elements—language, crazy, and resonance.” I thought this statement was really engaging (and endearing), but I also wanted you to further define crazy in fiction. So, what is crazy in fiction to you? And depending on your answer, how would you advise someone trying to do it, but not alienate their readers?

I’m so grateful to the Glimmer Train editors for allowing me to use the word “crazy” as a noun in that essay because, to me, “crazy” is different from “craziness.” “Craziness” is simply zany antics; “crazy” is wow, I never saw that coming.

What I hope to find in a story, when I read and when I write, is a character pushed to the edge of something or somewhere. I don’t want safe. I don’t want normal or average or forgettable. I want no fear from the writer.

I learned from Jim Shepard that sometimes our characters hijack us, prevent us from going where they don’t want us to go, but that’s exactly where we as writers need to go. We need to poke and push our characters into uncomfortable corners, down unpredictable laundry chutes, out doors into an unsafe world, and into emotionally scary traffic. Use whatever it takes – hostile environment, unsavory circumstance, questioning secondary character – to push protagonists into revealing who they really are.

Good examples of crazy: “Fatso” by Etgar Keret and “Why We Never Talk About Sugar” by Aubrey Hirsch. Good example of pushing your character: “Proto-Scorpions of the Silurian” by Jim Shepard.

Let’s say a witch curses (or blesses depending on how you feel about interactions with strangers) you with having to spend the rest of your life handing out copies of just one story to strangers. What story do you pick? Why?

That’s a painfully difficult question so I’m going to pretend you said flash fiction story to narrow my choices. Then I’m going to pretend you said one on the short side and one on the long side of the flash fiction definition because people like choice and I like to make people happy. That way, when people pass by, I can ask, “Short or shorter?” And each stranger would only get one story based on their answer, per instruction. But maybe they would share.

Short: “We Were Our Age” by Dawn Raffel

Shorter: “It Doesn’t” by Randall Brown

What does a story beginning have to have to hook you as a reader?

Voice or language or crazy.

I know we’ve already had someone interview you about “Let’s Say.” But something that’s interested me about the story is how you chose the particular moment and setting. It’s so slippery and purposeful about pushing readers away from the gory, true crime details. Was it always away from the moment? How did you choose the moment and setting while writing this?

That story began as a self inflicted exercise to practice crazy. I chose a quiet everyday setting, almost peaceful, as a contradiction to the crime. And a time of year when the wind stirs things up.

I wasn’t interested in the crime. I wanted to see how far I could push the character in that moment of distress – what she would think about beyond the usual. I wanted her to feel unique to a reader, like only she would think those things in that way in that order, and I tried to include the specificity that would make her feel real.


About the Interviewer

Megan Giddings will be attending Indiana University’s MFA in the fall. She has most recently been published in the Doctor TJ Eckleburg Review and Knee-Jerk.


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