This past month, SmokeLong‘s associate content editor, Annie Bilancini, had the pleasure of talking form and inspiration with Mary Rickert, whose newest short story collection You Have Never Been Here debuts November 24th from Small Beer Press. The stories in Rickert’s collection are hued by the uncanny, but there is never a question that the chiefest concern of Rickert’s prose is to convey and explore a deeply felt sense of humanity. These are stories that will stick with you for quite some time.
SmokeLong Quarterly is dedicated to publishing flash fiction. We’re especially attuned to form when we sit down to read submissions. To borrow a phrase from our Executive Editor, Megan Giddings: “Flash forces people to innovate and consider the different ways a story can be told.” And it’s clear in You Have Never Been Here that your stories often engage with innovation, both in form and in content. For example, in your collection there are stories within stories (“Cold Fires”) and stories are framed as memoirs (“Memoir of a Deer Woman”). How does form figure into your own writing and writing process?
I began my writing life in poetry where “form” can be as large as the shape of the poem, or as small as the words; even as infinitesimal as the relationship between the sounds of words and the sounds within words. In poetry, even space carries matter that informs the shape of the thing and the experience of its reading. While I eventually came to the conclusion that I am not a poet, I never lost my deep appreciation for the beauty inherent in a close engagement with form and its opportunities. Sometimes I will give myself an “assignment” of sorts, which is what I did with “Cold Fires,” setting out to write a story within a story. Other times, the form arrives through the content, as it did in “Memoir of a Deer Woman.”
I’d love to hear about some other assignments or constraints you’ve set up for a project.
When I was writing “The Chambered Fruit,” which is a retelling of the myth of Persephone and therefore imbued with its own constraints, I decided I wanted to write a horror story, basically, with no gore. Much later, when I wrote my novel, The Memory Garden, I decided to see how much light I could shed on darkness, therefore hiding it in plain sight, which was meant to be reflective of the way the elderly women, who populate that story, might be looked at by the general population as simple, or “cute.” “The Corpse Painter’s Masterpiece” was also a similar study in bringing beauty to a form usually considered devoid of it.
I love these answers because they’re all concerned with exploring oppositions (whether explicit or implicit) in story. I’m so interested in hearing more about this. Where does that impulse come from? Can you talk about what models you’ve learned from or your own writerly origin story?
I suspect that my cross-eyed childhood, composed of a world I saw that others did not see, was an important factor in the development of my fascination with doubles. As an American, I have plenty of material for this obsession since polarity is so integral to our culture; built into our subject/predicate sentence structure, our political system, and our ideas of good and evil. My personal query, formulated in a childhood where I learned not everything that appears to exist does, is how to develop a way of being human that is not severed by division, but expanded by the possibilities that exist in that space between opposites. This, it turns out, defines the reach of the Gothic sensibilities I write within. Gothic literature, diluted, over time, into its architecture of moors and castles, is actually an exploration of the human experience as cohesion of the beast and the divine.
This idea of the cohesion of the beast and the divine makes me think of your story, “Holiday” in the collection, which deals with the dynamic between a writer who is the son of a pedophile and the ghost of a murdered child beauty queen (possibly JonBenét Ramsey). The story explores the complications of innocence and family legacy. Did you set out to write this story with those Gothic themes in mind?
I never approach writing a story with an agenda beyond trying to find the fiction there. In other words, I do have ideas, and I do approach my work with intelligence, but the story is formed from a different source — hopefully a more organic source –than what I believe, desire, know or want. Once I have a draft, I basically take notes on my own story, highlighting recurring elements or themes. Then I sort of squint at all that and try to get a sense of what that particular story is saying both consciously, and sub-consciously. Once that’s done, I delete and amend to support what I believe are the elements that create a whole I might not have known was there. Only after doing this for years did I begin to recognize the Gothic arc that exists between, and within, most of my work.
Can you talk a bit more about the organic sources you draw your work from? You’ve already mentioned your interest in polarities. I’m so fascinated with the concept of inspiration and the genesis of creative ideas. I’d love to year your take.
I’ve always thought of my creative process as photosynthesis; whatever I observe, partake and intake becomes material for production. Years ago, I regularly “walked the stacks’ of non-fiction in the library, assembling big piles of books I enjoyed and read arbitrarily; butterflies, mythology, the history of opera all became sources of inspiration for my work. While I live a fairly quiet, sedentary lifestyle, it has been important for me to cultivate a wild mind. I have never felt I needed to have a big life in order to find stories but that I did need to know how to pay attention. I find screens tedious which, yes, is probably partly reflective of my age, but even as a young woman writer, well before the computer age, I spent years living without a television because I felt it was important for me to cultivate a heightened awareness of language. Within the genre community we have the saying, “Find your weird.” Unfortunately, this is a lot more difficult than it might seem to be. Even weird has standards within which weirdness is assessed. The writing community, in general, is disappointingly elitist. I try to remember that in every culture, in every age, there were things believed as universally true that later were proven false. We are all victims of the illusion of our time. I try to look beyond the veil, and I’m sure I fail. I try to remember the veil exists. When I sit down to write, I try to see what I’ve written and not just what I think I’ve written. Everything is inspiration, even my own ignorance, which is one of the beautiful aspects of a writing life; nothing is wasted.
Mary Rickert has published numerous short stories and two collections: Map of Dreams and Holiday. Her first novel, The Memory Garden was published in 2014, and won the Locus award for best first novel, which made her very happy. Her novella, The Mothers of Voorhisville, was also published in 2014. She now lives in Cedarburg, Wisconsin, a small city of candy shops and beautiful gardens.