How did this story come about? Where did it start, and how did you shepherd it along? Is it an old piece, oft rejected and revised? Is this the first draft and it’s a one-and-done? In other words, what’s the story of the story?
Like many flashes, this story was written in a Kathy Fish class. But let me go back in time a bit. My commute to and from work is along the Pacific Coast Highway, this gorgeous drive with the ocean rolling to sand on one side and stark cliffs and yucca on the other. Near the Getty Villa, the shoulder widens under the cliffs. Primo’s lunch truck always parks there. But over the years, more campers have parked there overnight, until sometimes the shoulder is full of campers. There’s such a huge homeless problem in Los Angeles, and the contrast between the neighborhoods close by—all very wealthy—and what I called “Camperland” in the story is striking. I wondered if children were growing up there. The father’s dialogue in the first paragraph came to me first, this guy that reminded me so much of Pa from the Little House series.
I can’t remember which exercise this was in response to—I think the one where we had to slip in a “significant object.” I didn’t revise it too much—just rearranged the different paragraphs into an order I liked— and included it in my (unpublished) chapbook manuscript. (In the first draft, the Lladró figurine may not have broken.) And then sent it to SmokeLong, thinking it would be rejected like the previous seven stories I’d submitted!
So many times with fiction writing, readers assume that it’s thinly veiled memoir. Can we talk about why people make that assumption and how best to combat it? Fiction writers certainly borrow details from their life often, but straight memoir isn’t really our bag. I think I’m sort of asking you delve into the psychology of readers.
Well, I can tell you that I’ve never been homeless but there’s always that fear—that we all live close to the edge of losing our jobs, becoming ill, having piles of bills, all because of occurrences that are beyond our control (and without an adequate safety net and universal healthcare). I used that fear to write the story. Perhaps that people make the assumption that a story is true is actually a compliment, that we’ve hooked into the proper emotional resonance in a story and made the story come alive for that reader, and how could we have done that if the story is not something we lived?
I love fiction that has highly specific—but still universal—details. This might be a personal thing, but without some kind of specifics, I feel like I’m reading an exercise. In this story, Lladró figurines take a minor, but important place. Now, I have no idea what Lladró figurines are, but it really doesn’t matter, because I get it. How did you choose what details to include in this story?
I agree with you that a story needs to have some kind of universal details. That’s what gives a story emotional resonance. I don’t collect Lladró figurines (or even like them), but one of my mother’s friends did, and I remember my grandmother having the woman with the goose. I don’t actually know how I picked the figurines; they just squirmed their way into the story. I do know how I picked some of the other objects: I was thinking of the afghan my grandmother knitted, I made origami with one daughter, and my other daughter has the jacket Britt desires. There’s something I remember from reading Vladimir Nabokov’s memoir, Speak, Memory: that once he included his real pen in a novel he wrote, it was no longer his alone. (I don’t know if my memory is faulty, but if I made it up, then that’s really the most Nabokovian thing I could ever say.)
I really dug the empathy engendered in “The Sky Is Just Another Neighborhood.” The narrator isn’t really making a big deal of anything, just being a narrator and a kid. But even so, there are waves of pathos and humor coming from the words. Do you intend to hit your readers in the feelsies?
If I don’t make readers feel something, then the piece is a failure because they can’t make an emotional investment in the story. We get back to the idea of emotional resonance. But I don’t want to manipulate the reader into feeling something. The main character is just telling us how it is.
How is this similar or dissimilar to the rest of your writing? Do you write flash often? Do you use younger protagonists a lot?
In a way, this piece is an aberration. I don’t usually use narrators this young, because the voice is so hard; I prefer teenagers or adults. I write a lot about teenage girls. Nor do I usually write something so overtly political. But this story is similar to my other work in that it uses setting as a character. And ever since I had kids, I write flash more than traditional-length short stories—it takes me ages to write a full short story, but I can write a rough (rough) draft of flash in a couple of hours, between chauffeuring or other parental duties.