Something that makes “Starlings” such a success is the ending. We arrive at an unexpected place and the surprise of it is what makes it so poignant. How did you come to this ending? Is this where you initially landed the piece, or did you have to revise to find it?
The ending arrived after several drafts—and I came to it, I think, by just sort of hanging in there, waiting for the right idea. Which is one of the wonderful tensions of writing. You want to be done, to have the story be brilliant, to have every word be perfect, to break the reader’s heart … but no matter how badly you try, you can’t force it. You can’t will a story into existence. You can’t tame a story (and even if you could, who would want to read a story that’s been broken?). So you have to sit and wait and try not to hate yourself too much.
One of my tricks is to read aloud until I come to the place where there are no more words. Then I listen into the silence for what comes next, as though my mind operates on some organic auto-fill application. This is not an efficient approach, and I don’t recommend it for anything other than honing in on a detail. To draft this way, for example, would be disastrous. Ask the novel I spent seven years on before abandoning it.
But for something like an ending, when the story has to somehow coalesce around an image or an idea, entering that deep listening space is what for me yields the magic. I mean, I was as surprised as anyone by the narrator’s sudden tears. It was an utterly intuitive leap. After the fact, I could say, “Oh, yeah … he cried because he finally acknowledged his hurt, and as ugly and scary as his hurt was to him, it was ultimately a relief and so he wept.” That, of course, would be a fictionalization. The reality was that I got quiet and waited with my full attention for some glimmer of interest. And when the image of the guy in the canoe paddling himself out of the scene appeared—that moment of self-recognition—I wanted to cry. That was the narrator seeing himself, but it was me seeing myself, too. In writing and life, I’m forever trying to paddle myself out of the tough scenes. But I’m also—maybe because of that flight impulse—desperate to be acknowledged, to be seen, even if it’s only fleetingly. The gratitude is incomparable. You’re not alone. You’re never alone. And since I had teared up at the canoe guy’s appearance, it only seemed right to hand that emotional reaction over to the narrator. And that’s when the story was done.
I admire the fact that, even though this piece is a short work of flash, you achieve a kind of slow reveal when it comes to the narrator’s body, turmoil, relationships, and psyche—and the stakes also slowly raised. Did you make conscious decisions about how to reveal who the narrator is and where he is at this particular moment in his life? Did you achieve this through the revision process?
Once I found that ending, I went back and cut all the details that didn’t contribute to the overall effect—which involved a series of exceedingly conscious choices. The remaining details then got shuffled around and re-ordered. Ultimately, the way the narrator revealed information (in terms of his observations, obsessions, descriptions, asides, reflections, etc.) had to carry all the story’s water. I mean, nothing really happens here. He’s just talking! Consequently, the way he talked had to create the tension. This meant that I had to stay true to his voice and rhythms of speech while being ultra-selective about when and where and why he said what he revealed. That kind of double-vision can only happen (for me, at least) in revision. And I know it seems contradictory after answering the last question by saying, “I had to listen deeply, blah-blah-blah … I had to be receptive to whatever idea glimmered”—but, yeah, once I had intuited and been gifted the ending, I had to get cold as ice to edit the MF-er. And it’s a supremely delicate thing: trying to retain the original spark of the story—trying to keep everything feeling organic—while making calculated editorial decisions. But that’s the nature of this form and what it demands. It’s what I love about flash: the challenge of stitching together a wound so cleanly that when it heals there’s no scar.
If you were to write a Part Two for “Starlings,” where do you think we might find this narrator? What happens to him?
I think maybe Part Two finds him rehabbing his hip after the surgery. Because the cartilage tear is in his right hip, he isn’t allowed to drive for six weeks. He takes medical leave from work, spends his days watching daytime TV and reading trashy novels. He reconnects with an old flame on Facebook but it fizzles. He learns a secret his wife’s been keeping from him for years, but instead of angering him it endears her to him all the more. He falls in love with his wife again. He struggles with his rehab exercises. His elderly mother dies and he awkwardly eulogizes her. He goes back to see his therapist Leo and tells him he’s happier than he’s ever been. Which is a lie. But maybe it’s also true. As the six weeks of medical leave come to an end, he feels … what? Nothing. Changed, though, too, as though he’s traveled to some distant country but can’t remember anything about the trip.
From whom do you take inspiration in terms of flash fiction? Are there practitioners you particularly admire?
I love Yasunari Kawabata’s “Palm of the Hand Stories”—the little painterly details he injects. The lyricism of his images. Fingernail parings. Mosquitoes. Cherry blossoms. The way his stories illuminate the poetry of a moment.
I’m a big fan of Grace Paley, too—the way she drops right into a human voice with all its urgency and self-doubt and heart.
“Starlings,” I think, is an homage to the both of them—to Paley’s chatty characters who wear their hearts on their sleeves, and to Kawabata’s gentle but striking revelations. I remember when I was first introduced to their works as an undergrad, I gobbled them up insatiably. In a just few breaths, they evinced worlds. I had to know how they did it. And I spent the next twenty years trying to figure it out.