Interview with Darci Schummer, author of “The Interloper” published in Necessary Fiction

Darci Schummer’s “The Interloper” is a timely, troubling piece about the ways in which evil and/or outside disturbances might manifest itself/themselves in our personal lives. Read the story here. And check out our interview below.

Keith Lesmeister: First of all, big congratulations on publishing three stories this month. That’s outstanding! It’s difficult enough to find a home for one story, let alone three. Do you have a magical formula for placing stories that you might share with us??

Darci Schummer: I wish I did! These latest publications came after a long dry spell, but I have found a couple things that help. As most writers know, it’s important to understand the type of writing—thematically and stylistically—that a particular journal is looking for. The majority of the stories I write (unlike “The Interloper”) are realist and pretty traditionally structured. That helps dictate where I choose to submit.

I also carefully keep track of all my submissions and how journals respond to my work in a spreadsheet. (Total nerd, I know.) If I get a personal rejection or an invitation to resubmit, I follow up as soon as I have something else ready to send. I grew up as a Jehovah’s Witness, so I’ve had the door slammed in my face enough times to be able to handle rejections from editors and publishers and to have the wherewithal to keep going.

Aside from all that, I think of the term “kairos,” which I talk about when I teach rhetoric. “Kairos” means choosing the opportune time to launch an argument. The same thing can be said about sending out work. “The Interloper” was picked up quickly because of the inauguration last week. Another story of mine “The Parade” was published quickly because it is a winter story, and the editor wanted it up before the seasons changed. He told me that people like reading about the season they’re currently living in. So thinking about the content of a story or a poem in conjunction with what’s going on in the outside world is important, too.

KL: While reading your work this month, and previous stories in your collection, it’s very clear that setting plays a significant role in your work. Whether it’s the streets of Minneapolis or a seemingly cozy living room, you find just the right details to enhance your work. Could you talk about setting and its role in your work?

DS: Everything happens somewhere, and what happens is shaped by where it happens. People are influenced by their environment, and they constantly interact with their environment. The characters and the setting in a particular story must work together to create a unified whole for the reader. If I’m fully submerged in the world of the story, if my concentration is good and I’m there with the characters, I see everything they see. I hear and touch and feel everything they do. I know what places and what things around them hold the most significance and why. The details seem to flow naturally when I’m connected with my characters.

KL: I was drawn into this story for several reasons, one of which was the use of the first person plural, which I don’t come across often. I like it though, especially in your story — it feels natural and adds an element of “this is happening to all of us.” Anyhow, I’m curious: did this POV emerge naturally or was it something planned from the start of the story? Also, curious, are there other first person plural stories that you might recommend?

DS: The way this story was written was kind of funny. I woke up on Thanksgiving day in a hotel in my hometown, my two older sisters sleeping in the room with me. I was thinking about politics and then had this image pop into my mind of a stranger showing up in someone’s family photographs. The thought chilled me, and I couldn’t get rid of it. So I got up, went down to the little exercise room in the hotel, and wrote the story on my phone while walking on the treadmill. To be honest, I didn’t think much about the point of view choice; it just came out that way. I just heard it my head that way. I wanted the story to have a universal quality, and I think the first person plural, which has both a warmth and a kind of anonymity to it, does that.

I haven’t read many first person plural stories either, so I don’t have one in particular that comes to mind to recommend.

KL: There’s a sense of increasing danger in this story, but it sneaks up on us in a strategic way — with how the photographs evolve from beginning to end. I hesitate to point out the obvious parallels, but instead, let me ask this: was this story written in the last couple of months?

DS: Yes, it was. I read a lot of news, and I try to keep up with current political and social issues. Sometimes—not always—writing becomes an outlet for how I feel about being human in 21st century America.

KL: Do you normally work at such a fevered pitch? I mean, from story beginning to publication in just two months is a quick turnaround. The other part of this question is, if I may ask something personal: do you find solace in constructing narratives during troubling moments in your life or others?

DS: I actually consider myself to be a slow writer. I take a long time with revision, and sometimes I take a long time waiting for responses before submitting to a new set of journals. This story was an exception. It came out quickly and did not require a lot of revision. I was pretty diligent about submitting it right away because of the timing, as I mentioned earlier on.

I absolutely take solace in constructing narratives. Writing is a place of safety and freedom for me and has been since I was a little kid. How else can you make anything you want to happen actually happen? How else can you finally defeat your enemies? How else can you find the courage to say something that’s been stuck in your throat?

KL: Let me pivot here and ask about your work at community colleges, because I too work at one, and I know you’ve taught at a couple, at least. I’m wondering how teaching, specifically at a community college, has influenced your work as a writer.

DS: Since most of my students aren’t rushing off to become English majors at universities (although some are), I’m often trying to convince people of the power and beauty of good writing. Essentially, I’m like a salesperson. I have to create a strong pitch to get people to listen to me, which takes creativity, research, and planning. The downside to this is that it eats up a lot of time. The upside to it is that I’m always learning new angles from which to approach writing or new ways in which to understand how the texts we study in class were created. Constantly learning and constantly being surrounded by texts feeds my creative process.

Another thing of note that comes to mind is the different people I come in contact with by teaching at this level. I have taught students from all over the world—Liberia, Somalia, Thailand, Moldova. I have taught old students, young students, parents, teachers, lawyers, and civil war survivors. I have heard some of the most heartbreaking and some of the most inspiring stories imaginable, and I have met some of the most resilient, talented, and interesting people I could ever hope to meet. I carry these people and their stories with me as I work.

KL: Let me now return to the first question, which mentions your wonderful month of publications. Are you working on another collection of stories? If so, what’s been different about working on this one versus your first?

DS: I finished a novel awhile back and have been working on publishing that. I started another collection of stories, one that was set in a fictional rural Wisconsin town, but I have put that on hold while I work on a second novel. Working on a longer project has actually fit into my busy schedule better because I can chip away at it day after day. It’s harder for me to put down a story and then come back where I left off. But the short story is my first love, and I never go too long without writing one. Even these novels I’ve worked on have chapters that really are structured like short stories.

KL: Last question: how do you prefer your potatoes: mashed? baked? au gratin? deep fried? other?

DS: It’s a tie between mashed potatoes and French fries!

KL: And check out Darci’s other stories published this month here in Midway and here in Rare Earth!

Darci Schummer, a Wisconsin girl, is the author of Six Months in the Midwest (Unsolicited Press, 2014) and the co-author of Hinge (broadcraft press, 2015). Her work has appeared in Midwestern Gothic, Midway Journal, Necessary Fiction, and Revolver, among other places. She splits her time between Minneapolis and Duluth, Minnesota, and teaches writing at Fond du Lac Tribal and Community College.

Interview with Denton Loving, author of “How the Mammoth’s Blood Flows” published in Prime Number Magazine

This week’s story by Denton Loving includes Mammoth hunters, the vast and dangerous arctic setting, and a protagonist who is trying to better understand himself against the memory of his deceased father. This is a story with complicated relational dynamics, an evocative setting, and evident, but not over done, research. Read the story here. And check out my interview with Denton below.

Keith Lesmeister: There’s so much going on in this story — very complicated relational dynamics — that I hardly know where to start. But with all that is going on, it’s written in a very calm meditative way, almost tranquil, which is in stark contrast to the abusive and constant threats of weather, polar bears, and other dangers in the Arctic, where this story takes place. Can you speak to this contrast in voice and setting. Was this an intentional move? Or did it emerge naturally as the story progressed and took shape?

Denton Loving: You’re absolutely right about the Arctic being a place where the weather is forever threatening and there are a lot of dangers. But when I was writing the story, I also thought about how there must be moments of absolute stillness, which is when it might seem the most cold to me. In some way, I hoped the tone of the story would mirror that idea, but I admit that the story and that tone mostly came to me in that voice without my having a lot of conscious input.

KL: One of the complicated relational dynamics in this story is the father-son relationship. It’s so delicately explored, yet we know without question the son’s motivation as he tries to show himself (and the memory of his father) that he can live a much different life than the one his father had intended for him or cautioned him against (which I won’t reveal here). My question is this: were the son’s opinions of his father the same throughout the writing process, or did they change through revision and discovery and getting to know the characters on a deeper level?

DL: I would like to say that the narrator’s feelings changed and progressed as the story was written, but that’s kind of a hard question for me to answer. I never write a story with a strict plan. My process is to find and collect pieces that I hope will eventually fit together and then fill in the blank spaces. My hope is that the characters and the story will reveal themselves as I go, and I think that’s what happened with this story.

KL: The story of the father and son is set against the backdrop of the Arctic, where these Mammoth hunters and researchers search for frozen, well-preserved Mammoth’s. Where did the idea for this story come from?

DL: The idea for the story came from a true-event I read about where a mammoth carcass was found that actually did bleed. I had never imagined something like that could be true. I started researching everything I could find about that mammoth, which led me to so much great material. Even the ideas in the story about cloning mammoths are based on truth. A lot of scientists are all working on this idea, which I find endlessly fascinating.

KL: The depth of knowledge regarding Mammoths and history of the region (Arctic) is evident. How much research was involved in writing this story? Do you incorporate research in most/all of your stories?

DL: My stories don’t all require research because I’m often interested in the dynamics of simple human relationships. But I admire writers like Margaret Atwood and Jim Shepard who use research in so much of their work. When I was writing “How the Mammoth’s Blood Flows,” I had so much fun researching, and there was a lot of great material to read. I wound up with a lot of information that didn’t belong in the story, which seems to always be the danger with research. It can just go on and on, and you never get to the writing part.

KL: At the heart of this story is a man, the protagonist, who is trying to better understand himself while trying to make his mark on society through his Mammoth hunting/research, and we see this understanding of himself through the interactions with Benedick, the young research assistant. Specifically, when the protagonist acknowledges, “…I began to understand the fatherly feelings that had grown in me for the boy.” I don’t really have a question here, but Benedick’s importance is no small part of the story, as it allows the narrator to, in some way, better empathize with his father, perhaps. Can you discuss the narrator’s relationship with Benedick?

DL: I think you’ve nailed it exactly that the narrator’s relationship with Benedick allows him to identify with his father a little more. That relationship between the narrator and his father is at the heart, I think, of what I was investigating with this story. The relationship is different from the relationship I had with my own dad, but I gave the father character some exaggerated characteristics of my dad. My dad was a celebrated dare devil in his youth, but he worried excessively about everyone else getting hurt in some way. My feeling is that, in fiction, you have to sometimes walk your characters through their realizations, and Benedick helped me move the narrator closer toward the ending action of the story.

KL: I know these are really long questions, so let me end with this one: favorite winter drink, coffee or tea?

DL: Tea. Always tea. I actually don’t drink coffee, but I drink iced, sweet tea year round — a product, I suppose, of being from the South.

Denton Loving lives on a farm near the historic Cumberland Gap, where Tennessee, Kentucky and Virginia come together. He is the author of the poetry collection Crimes Against Birds (Main Street Rag, 2015) and editor of Seeking Its Own Level, an anthology of writings about water (MotesBooks, 2014). His fiction, poetry, essays and reviews have recently appeared in River Styx, Prime Number Magazine, Southeast Review and The Chattahoochee Review. Follow him on twitter @DentonLoving.

Interview with Susan Pagani, author of “The Fledgling” published in Rappahannock Review

This week we feature a heart-wrenching story, THE FLEDGLING, by Susan Pagani. The story features a woman who can’t quite make the human connections she so desperately wants, and her struggling efforts to do. It also features a mail carrier, caged birds, and a secret object revealed halfway through, which guides the rest of the narrative.  Read the story here. And check out an interview with the author below.

Keith Lesmeister: The story starts out with this horrific, nightmarish scenario, which draws readers in immediately. And while I had thought initially that the story would be about the parents who lost the child, it wasn’t about that at all. Did you know, upon starting this piece, that that would be the case? Was this always going to be about Mary Beth?

Susan Pagani: Yes, it was always Mary Beth’s story. There was a draft where I began with Mary Beth and the finches, thinking that would help the reader understand it was her story and create more of a build to the actual accident. It didn’t work as well for me. I felt the accident needed to be first, and for the reader and Mary Beth to travel away from it, in order for things to go awry as they do.

KL: The piece takes place in Minneapolis, which endures intense, relentless amounts of snow, similar to what I’m staring at right now out my kitchen window, these huge heavy snowflakes. The snow and cold in your story plays a central role throughout. I love these lines: “She liked the quiet of snow, how you could hear the scrape of a leafless branch against a house or the thin whistle of a chickadee, and then the distant sounds of freight trains and industry. She was attentive to the light, so soft and yellow on a day like today, so far down into the trees and full on the houses, giving everything the look of paper, two-dimensional and flimsy.” Can you speak to setting and how, generally, it plays a role in this piece and your work overall?

SP: A lot of my stuff starts with setting — not setting alone, but it’s a part of that first image. Winter in Minneapolis is so intense: snowy, sub-zero, interminable. It can be isolating if you’re not careful. Mary Beth is lonely to begin with, but because the story takes place in winter — when everyone is inside, rather than out working in their yards — she is even more separate from her neighbors, even more alone with her sadness about the girl. But this scene is also about her comfort with the cold and isolation. I think she likes that all her neighbors are inside and the wintery street is her own.

KL: The caged birds. Where did they come from?

SP: Confession: The birds are mine. The rest of the story, the people, the neighborhood, the houses, all fiction — but the three birds are real. I’m down to one now: one was murdered, another died of her own meanness. I wrote this story at Bennington, and I remember telling Bret Anthony Johnston about the viciousness of my finches. He said, “If you don’t use them in a story, I will.” I did take that as a challenge, but I think they belong here.

KL: The details in this piece, and the mood they create, such as the quote from question two, feel perfectly put together. Did this story take a while to finish? Or did it come together in a short amount of time?

SP: I write very slowly, sometimes just a paragraph a day, and my first drafts are always pages too long, so it did take a lot of time and many drafts. That said there were parts that seem to just come right out — the first paragraphs were like that.

KL: The protagonist, Mary Beth, seems unable to connect with people in a significant way. Her efforts are there, but she seems to fall short with everyone, including her husband. This aspect of her character seems so perfectly and subtly wrought. Did this characteristic emerge from numerous drafts? Or was this part of who she was all along?

SP: That was her character from the beginning, and so it felt like the scenes, the story itself, took shape around her efforts to connect.

KL: The object, which I hesitate to mention here because of its significance, is introduced at just the right time, and its influence on the story and its characters is without question. Can you speak to your use of objects in your fiction, and, if you want, this object in particular.

SP: I may like objects too much. Like food and birds, they might be a crutch in my writing. I’ve moved a lot — more than 30 houses — and all the art and doodads I’ve collected along the way, the stuff I value enough to pack and repack, feels really important to my sense of self in a new place. Sometimes objects in my stories are just that: defining the character. In this case, the object was the origin of the story, the first thing I saw — a mitten, half buried in the snow — and then the story evolved from how it got there and what happened to it. It’s hard to talk about what a useful tool it was, what an important driver it was, without spoiling the end of the story for folks. Can I say that Mary Beth steals not only the mitten but it’s imbued meaning as an object?

KL: What are you currently working on? And currently reading?

SP:I’m slowly working on a collection of nonfiction of essays about birds. I’m also writing a historic novel about an island in Lake Superior that is cut off from the mainland of Minnesota — food, supplies, income — by a maritime strike. At the moment, I’m reading Annie Proulx’s Barkskins and John Edge’s Potlikker Papers: A Food History of the Modern South — both are fantastic.

KL: What was your favorite holiday activity?

SP: Can I have two? Walking around the hills of Ashland, Oregon, with my family and putting together a small but super challenging wooden puzzle.