Your story “Cravat” seems to be about two things: one, the aging and impending loss of a parent, and two, the many sides of the person behind the parent that is intentionally hidden from the child. Were you drawing from personal experience at all in the writing of the story?
Not consciously, no. Although I have indeed lost my mother, “Cravat” is the result of a simple assignment that I gave myself: to start with a given first sentence, go for no more than a thousand words, and in that space tell something with as much truth and with as much of the shape and arc of a story as I could manage.
The passage that I found especially visceral and moving was the one where the narrator tries to make herself a sandwich that she doesn’t end up eating. The moment struck me as very true to how guilty feelings manifest themselves in everyday actions as well as a metaphor for the conjured illusions we have of our parents. How did you come to choose that particular action?
I didn’t choose but simply watched as the narrator, in the act of making a sandwich, wrestled with despair over inevitable loss and the guilt associated with missed opportunities. Not to elevate the making of sandwiches, but this did put me in mind a bit of Jacob in Genesis wrestling with the angel, though this thought occurred only after the story was written. Like Jacob, I do think that the narrator, at last blessed with better understanding, will eventually prevail, though her struggle is likely to be just as long and arduous.
The mother’s mystery boyfriend wears a cravat, which struck me as quite humorous and evocative of a man of a certain age and social class he’s trying to project. Why did you choose the cravat?
Again, I didn’t chose. In my mind’s eye, as I watched the story, Edward simply appeared wearing one. He is indeed of a certain age and class, and as neckwear goes a cravat is de rigueur. Now I’m old enough to have actually seen men in cravats, but I didn’t believe it myself at first. I had to look it up to be sure I’d gotten it right. And, yep, cravat it is.
I love bold choices related to character names, and you made it so that your narrator didn’t even really know her mother’s preferred and most intimate name. How did that choice come about?
The narrator, who herself goes oddly unnamed, seems to me simply guilty of the same failure of imagination that plagues so many of us, namely the unwillingness or inability to envision what life must be like for another. This envisioning, of course, is the business of fiction. To quote a line from an essay of yours, Leland: “What is the act of living if not the day-by-day, minute-by-minute act of storytelling?” At last able to envision, even if only partially, her mother’s story, I believe the narrator may finally be willing and able to embark more fully on her own life, engage her own story. This may be what is known as grace.
Tell us a little about your writing and what you’re working on now?
Short stories, both flash and fuller length, are what I love best to read and write. So much happens in so few words!