Natalie, first of all, congratulations on being a finalist for the Grand Micro Competition! It’s such a great story. Funny thing—as I’m writing this, I’m listening (unplanned) to “Poultry Slam” on the podcast This American Life and someone just said, “I’d heard of a chicken who could play tic-tac-toe.” Talk about synchronicity! Have you really heard of genius chickens? What’s your experience with chickens?
Ha! How perfect. I don’t know how it came across my desk, but at some point, I saw a chicken playing “America the Beautiful” on the piano on America’s Got Talent. The chicken just banged the keyboard with its head, and America was taken by it. Charmed, even. Before this I had no idea chickens possessed any amount of intelligence or humanlike ability, so I did some Googling, and was shocked to find out what they’re capable of (everything listed in the story is true! At least, according to the internet.) My experience with chickens is somewhat limited, except that I went to boarding school as a teenager, and my advisor had chickens at his house on campus. He used to have to replace them every once in a while when the coyotes would get them, and he had to act quickly so his young children didn’t learn the truth about what had happened to them. There’s a sinisterness to that that may have been the guiding inspiration for the tone of this story, and that house was definitely in my mind as the setting.
I love the way the idea of the taunt “Chicken!” is flipped. Can you talk about the statement the narrator makes: “’Chicken’ is the wrong word to describe someone who is afraid?”
To me, the dichotomy between how we talk about chickens (and use them as a representation of weakness and fear) and what they’re actually capable of, or what this narrator fears they’re capable of, is what gave the story a hook. On the playground, the worst thing you can be called is “chicken,” and yet, here are these intelligent birds playing the piano and learning tic-tac-toe. The piece sort of hinges on that tension. It reminds me of the cultural response to AI: Any time you learn that something can do something you didn’t know it could do, your relationship to it changes, and a threat emerges.
This piece moves fast but carries so much weight (which makes it amazing). Did you have to revise several times to whittle it down to its current sharpness?
Yes, there were many rounds of revisions, but it has always been a micro piece. I didn’t want to sacrifice simplicity, but I also knew I couldn’t just propose the idea that chickens are smart. Something had to happen. So, introduce a narrator, a few subtle plot points, and let the oddity of that observation carry the weight. In a way, I felt maintaining its brevity actually contributed to the haunting feel of the piece. It doesn’t drag on, but it lingers, just like a terrible thought.
That ending is chilling. What do you imagine the chickens’ revenge will be?
The final word “subtracting” is what pulls the whole piece together for me. The story is so short that it needed that: a callback, an unexpected word, something that wasn’t exactly happening, but was believable as a fear. There were many words there before it; “fighting” was in there for weeks, but it just didn’t click the story into place. Of course, the chicken’s revenge will be nothing, they’re chickens, but the narrator’s fear of what they might be capable of remains in the air. And that, I think, is what makes it chilling.
What are you reading? Anything you’d recommend?
I’ve just finished Anne Patchett’s Tom Lake, which I devoured, and a collection of John Cheever stories. Both are (at least partially) narrated by Meryl Streep if you’re an audiobook listener, and might I say, she is the most captivating reader I’ve ever listened to. It seems obvious now that I know, but I was surprised how much life she breathed into the prose. The John Cheever audio collection also includes two stories from the archives read by Cheever himself, which, of course, are perfect.