The afterlife you depict is replete with lunchrooms and cliques and trash talking. Kind of like high school! Which, of course, makes it all the more real. How much of this world had you thought out before starting the story?
I don’t know that I ever mapped out this kind of after-life formally, but I think all of my years in youth groups and Christian college subconsciously gave me this idea of heaven-as-a-high-school. I have a poem that also features heaven’s cafeteria, and I have a chapbook forthcoming from H_NGM_N press that also plays with the idea of God as kind of a principal or maybe mid-level manager who is begrudgingly dealing with the day-to-day operations when he’d like to be focusing on more important things.
The story hinges on the narrator’s choice of the new girl to accompany her home for the weekend. Why do you think the narrator was drawn to her?
I like to think maybe God knew enough about what the narrator was up to that he wouldn’t let her go alone, so she chose the susceptible new girl. I’m not sure the narrator knew that she’d be burning down the apartment complex when the trip began, but she definitely was preying upon the new girl’s vulnerability—if nothing else the narrator is using the new girl for companionship. She certainly has no intentions of making friends in heaven—at least not yet. She’s still too mad about whatever went down in her apartment to engage much with her new reality.
The saddest moment comes when the neighbors are leading Wally around on a piece of twine, but it’s followed by the wonderful juxtaposition of the narrator lighting the match. In a story this short, much of it has to be told between the lines. How do you make the determination of what to include and what to leave to the reader?
I’d like to say I have a formula for it, but I think it’s really just the way I am. I’ve always been a very quiet person, and I find that one of my biggest weaknesses is the fact that when I do speak, I don’t say enough. I’m always relying on people to make inferences. In fact a student called me out on it once and told me I “should stop assuming things.” I think because I make a lot of assumptions, I assume other people will and can, as well, and don’t need to be told everything. But I like the way it works in this piece because I get to hope that people will figure out some things about the narrator’s past. I hope it makes the story more intriguing to not know exactly what happened to her but to get a sense about the world she left.
I love how much happens, and how much we learn, in such a short time. Did you always know that this particular story would be so compact?
I’ve actually had this story sitting around for a couple of years and was never sure what to do with it. It was originally a bit shorter than it appears in SmokeLong, but I’m much better at leaving things out than putting things in. In fact, I had to be prodded to add a few of the details the story contains now.
An eternity without some drama would surely get boring, don’t you think?
Definitely! And I’ve watched enough GhostHunters to get the impression that the after-life is full of troublemakers!