Interview: Writer Sara Kay Rupnik discusses the gun in “An Act of Mercy”

SKRupnikL&L: How did “An Act of Mercy” evolve?

SKR: Anger triggered the story. I knew of a woman whose husband had left her; she was in the back of my mind, a friend of a friend; there had been no violence but she was convinced that he would come back. I lived in a very small town and everybody knew he had moved in with someone else. I was also angry at my own husband.  We have a good marriage, but you have to explore the limits of anger. I think the anger was there, when I wrote it. It was based on someone being so angry they thought they might kill someone, so I gave her that fantasy, and that fantasy. In the story, that gave her hope that of course he’d come back, she wouldn’t kill him, just make him suffer a little.

L&L: What else does this gun come to mean for her?

SKR:  When the character shops for the gun she’s already begged and pleaded. After such hurt, you can’t function. That anger at the beginning, that sense of justice at the beginning, violence, softens as the story goes on, but the gun was an extreme measure. She’s nervous about buying the gun and filling out the forms because she is still angry. The gun becomes a comfort to her, a security blanket.

L&L: The story counters the stereotype of men intimidating women with guns.

SKR:I didn’t think about that when I wrote it. When I started the story, I thought they were going to have a confrontation. And then, I thought, why would her husband come back? What occasion would cause him to come back? And I liked the way it went.

L&L: Where did you place the story?

SKR: Pennsylvania. A lot of people travel to the western Pennsylvania area to hunt. That worked out well, with the hunter, who appears later in the story. Initially, I knew nothing about the regulations, but I talked with a game warden, about the laws, and checked on gun regulations. At that time, [buyers] did need to fill out a form.

L&L: What do you think happened to the gun, after the story ends? I would imagine she’d still keep carrying it around—she wouldn’t carry it as a good luck charm to bring her husband back, she’d give up on that—but I think she’d still carry that gun around—something about the weight of it “weighed” her back to reality—until she felt even more grounded. She still would need that gun for awhile, she’d just automatically put it in her pocket. At the end, there’s hope she’s turned a corner, but I think she would have to have that gun for awhile; she’d  automatically put it in her pocket, there’s hope she’s turned a corner now.

Sara Kay Rupnik’s most recent short story, “When Lucinda Holloway Met J.W. Booth, April 1865,” appears in the September issue of The Write Launch.  Other stories have appeared in The Chautauqua Literary Journal, Persimmon Tree, and The American Literary Review. A collection of her work, Women Longing to Fly, was released in 2015 by Mayapple Press.  Rupnik received an MFA in Writing from Vermont College, and co-founded the Around the Block Writers Collaborative. She teaches creative writing for the Jekyll Island Arts Association.

 

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Joann Smith: “It came to me, in an ironic way, that America’s favorite activities are shopping and shooting.”

L&L: How difficult was “Tuesday Night at the Shop and  Shoot” to write? The story stayed in draft form for at least five years. I knew I’d be using someone who worked at the store to tell the story, but it took many drafts to reach a place where I could see Zed in the store and hear him in the store and know how he would react in certain situations. I wanted him to have a gentle side; that was partly about trying to make sense of this attraction to guns that people have, and not wanting him to be a “cartoon” character.

Joann Smith

Joann Smith

L&L: How did this story even occur to you? JS: My husband and I had been on a trip out of the country, and we came back to news of one of these terrible shootings. I can’t remember whether this happened around the holidays, or what, but I thought of consumerism and materialism. It came to me, in an ironic way, that America’s favorite activities are shopping and shooting. I had a vision of a huge store where you could buy anything you wanted, but there was also a shooting range.

L&L: What was your biggest challenge? JS: I had to see that world so I had to create it, and that became interesting to me. I needed to know Zed’s job and who was around him. I wanted him to be ambitious, without necessarily being violent.  He wants to prove himself, he wants to do well. He’s going in at minimum wage, wants to excel, and this feels like an opportunity to him. Zed’s trying to be good at his job, being as compassionate as he is capable of. Trying to be a good buddy. I really needed to know how this place operated. As I detailed that, I thought, that’s really part of the story, since this place doesn’t exist, I can’t assume that everybody knows how this place operates. I wanted the story focused on that world. I didn’t want to limit it to a specific location. I could’ve imagined it anywhere.

L&L: How did you arrive at that surprise ending? JS:Once I knew that Luke was going to kill himself, I knew what Zed would do. It was more difficult to know what Luke was going to do than what Zed was going to do. I didn’t want him to be flat—he’s not really going to grow as a person, he’s going to grow as a buddy, and as a worker.

L&L: What about the “age three and over” rule? JS: There’s a real inappropriateness to introducing young kids to guns. OK, you come into this world of the Shop and Shoot, and nothing extraordinary happens here, but, at the same time, I wanted a shock factor. I put the kids in. People do introduce their kids to guns at very young ages.

L&L: What was the hardest thing for you about writing this story? JS: Creating the targets and not being afraid to put certain targets out there. Putting in race and misogyny was hard. If you give people that opportunity in this kind of setting, who would they shoot? And then, answering that, trying not to shy away from that. It didn’t get published for a long time, but when it did, the story didn’t get blowback.

L&L: What insights did you gain through writing the story? JS: In the story, we learn Luke kills himself, and the suicide target is going to be one of the prime targets. It wasn’t until after the story was published in Lock & Load that it came to me that we are really killing ourselves with all this gun violence, killing each other and killing ourselves. There’s something suicidal about us. Even though the story’s finished, it continues to evolve in my mind. The idea that we’re all killing ourselves–it was Luke individually, but after another shooting and another shooting and another shooting, it’s not about an individual, it’s about the whole society.

 Joann Smith’s stories have appeared widely in print and online, including Adelaide Literary Magazine, Emerald Coast Review, The Examined Life Journal, Whitefish Journal, Blockhouse Journal; Serving House Journal; Chagrin River Review, New York Stories, Literal Latte, Best of Writers at Work, Alternate Bridges, Image: A Journal of Art and Religion, So To Speak: A Feminist Journal of Language and Art, The Roanoke Review, The Greensboro Review, and The Texas Journal of Women and the LawBest American Short Stories chose her work as one of its 100 Distinguished Stories. Her collection “A Heaven of Their Choosing and Other Stories” is forthcoming from 7.13 Books in 2021.

 

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A Portuguese bolt-action rifle intensifies \ drama in E. G. Willy’s “Não Faz Mal”

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E.G. Willy

E. G. Willy’s “Nao Faz Mal” simmers with tensions, rife in towns where few have day jobs except the older adult males. “Places like that are always going to tend to explode very quickly and emotionally,” Willy says. He should know.  He once lived in that town. [The interview has been edited for clarity and space.]

L&L: How and when did this story about Portugese gang members come to you?

EGW: The story had been percolating in my head for years. It’s fairly autobiographical; in the story, I’m Paul. I lived in Hayward, California, where the story is set, in the late 1980s and early 1990s—that’s when the piece took place. I went to school there so I knew it. I’m still a San Francisco/East Bay resident. You could drive through a town and you’d know by the paint color who was occupying it; it was easy to immerse myself in that tale.

It was a tough neighborhood. It’s in transition now, but back then, it was definitely as I described in the story. Pretty much any weekend, you could see the kind of activity I describe in the story. Half those guys ended up being killed or dying [some other way]; it’s a story that takes place everywhere in the U.S. I was never part of that crew, but I watched, as these dramas took place. You’re always on the stoop watching what takes place on the other side of the street.

Years later, I was traveling in Mexico with my wife and we took a cab from Pátzcuaro to Morelia in Michoacan, during a time of strife. The driver, an ex-policeman, told a story about being shot by a crime gang. Though I started out by writing his story, I decided to strip it down to this story I remembered [from my time in Hayward.] For immediacy, I placed it in the present.

L&L: Why did you use the second-person point of view?

EGW:  I wanted to separate the narrator from Paul, the main character. Second person was the only way I could get the inner voice of Paul, who is the narrator. With first person, I couldn’t get the depth of character I wanted. I was trying to experiment, with that immediate voice pouring in.

L&L: How about the Vergueiro, an unusual gun used in World War I and the Spanish Civil War, once a service rifle of the Portuguese Army? You use it so effectively, especially at the end.

EGW: It was a really a Ruger, but I wanted to use the Vergueiro rifle because it’s more antiquated, and I’d briefly gone to Portugal when I was 19 or 20, and often ran into men carrying guns. Portugal had just turned communist and there was this tumultuous period after the dictator died.

L&L: How long did it take you to write Não Faz Mal after you lived it? 

EGW: About fifteen years, and it was a battle to get that piece finished. I’d say it took at least three years; some of those scenes are very difficult to write even though you have it in your head. That curtain image, for example–that curtain image was guiding me. The curtain is the lie, that open window sucks you in. I realized that I was going use the curtain in the turning of the story.

Nao Faz Mal originally appeared in Zyzzyva Magazine.

E.G. Willy’s story “Wagli Yelo,” a Lakota story based on his grandfather’s life, was included in This Side of the Divide: Stories of the American West. (Baobab Press 2019) His work has also appeared in Conjunctions, J Journal, Zyzzyva, Sand, The Berkeley Review, Oyez Review, and The Redwood Coast Review; those in Spanish have appeared in Azahares and Accents. Willy’s work has also been anthologized in Stories From Where We Live, and others. His fiction won the Laine Cunningham Novel Award, and the Trajectory Journal’s WildBilly Short Story Contest.

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Six Cents: Depression-era lesson marked Mary D. Edwards

 

Mary D Edwards contributor

L&L: How did “Six Cents” take shape?

MDE: I think about my teenage years a lot—I relive various events in my head, and when I write, my memories flow from brain to pad of paper largely intact. The gun closet was right by my bedroom. I can feel the weight of the gun. During the Depression, my grandfather had 200 acres outside Oklahoma City. My father’s house was built in the Depression, when labor was cheap. They excavated the stone on the property itself. the material was there free. before I was born they added a wing, and the gun closet was there. So I remember that incident, the chamois cloth, the rifles and shotguns on their butts. I don’t think I ever shot [the pistol] after that. I wasn’t fully grown, and it was too heavy. I don’t know what ever happened to it; I thought a nephew of mine inherited it but he said no.

L&L: So, it’s definitely autobiographical.

MDE: For the most part. I grew up outside of Oklahoma City. I pulled up the memory of our place as I wrote Six Cents, to recreate in words the gate and the horse path, the embankment and the barn, the woods between our house and my grandmother’s house. The father in the story is based on my own:  his suspenders, his concern with safety about firearms and his comments about Hollywood cowboys in snap-closure shirts of plaidpolyester, which he knew were not authentic. The one exception was Jack Palance’s shirt in the movie “Shane” (a filmhe adored): Thatshirt was genuine cowboy attire – white cotton with simple black stripes and buttons. And yes, acousin of mine did indeed urinate in the hole at the base of a tree near where the lesson on how to shoot occurred. I used to think of that incident wherever I passed that tree.

L&L: How often did you shoot after the time described in the story?

MDE: I don’t have another memory of shooting the pistol with my father, but when I was sixteen I got a shotgun for Christmas, a 20 gauge Parker, which is a really good shotgun. We used to go out the first of every September and shoot mourning doves. The first day of the season was a lively sporting event. We would take positions at different points around a pond on a family farm in Western Oklahoma. We would help each other out, pointing wildly and shouting out to each other, “Dove, dove, dove!” when a bird came within range of someone else. After sundown, would bring the birds home, he’d pluck them, he’d pop the breast up, and my mother braisedthem in wine and herbs, I guess sage. I also boughta rifle with money I earned selling milk from my goat and hunted once with it in the pasture whereI shot a rabbit. A man who worked for us skinned it before my very eyes, just made a few cuts with a knife and pulled the skin and fur off in one piece like a sweater. The whole thing revolted me so much I neverhunted rabbits again, but I shot doves for several years running.I even came back home after I was grown for dove season whenever I could.

L&L: The sensation you record in the story, though you only shot that particular pistol once, bring the gun to life.

MDE: I can smell the oil on the gun right now. I can feel the weight of the grip, the cylinder and the barrelin my hand. When my father was in college, my grandfather acquired over 200 acres northof Oklahoma City. My father’s house was built there during the Depression, when labor was cheap. They excavated the stone on the property itself, so the material was free. Before I was born, they added a wing, where my bedroom wasand the gun closet was right next to it. So I remember the opening incident very well, the chamois cloth, the rifles and shotguns on their butts. I never shot the pistol again because I was not fully grown when I first used it, so in my memory, it was just too heavy in my hand.

L&L: The protagonist, Sarah, is angry because they can’t shoot more bullets. They’re expensive, six cents apiece, and she finally works up courage and asks him why.

MDE: Both my brother and I were really annoyed. But I’m not sure if the last part of the story really happened the way I wrote it. Somehow it just fell from the sky into the story at the end. It is based on facts, however. My father used to nap with a bandanna over his eyes. And he did tell me more than once about his fears about my grandpa possibly jumping out the window during the Depression. One thing I am thankful for – he never told me what a cousin of mine shared with me after I published the story: This cousin’s father was on a business trip in New York with my grandfather during the Depression when, somewhere in the financial district, a man landed on the sidewalk right in front of them.

L&L: Sarah finally tries to touch her father, after his story about the Depression. Tell me about that.

MDE: The hand that reaches but does not touch; that part makes me cry. When my father was 90, we were waiting in the living room for the brother who is in the story to come go with us to a meeting about selling the property. My father was in his overcoat and hat, standing in the middle of the rug with me nearby.  My brother, a procrastinator, was not arriving. Exasperated, my father burst into tears. I reached out and patted him gently on the back. When I was back in New York he wrote in a letter thanking me for that. So in the story I made the girl reach out but then pause. She senses her father has gotten it all off his chest. And also she pauses because she finally understands why he was stingy with the bullets.

And there was another hand in my mind as I wrote that part – one that also reaches but does not touch: It is the hand of Darius in the Roman mosaic of the Battle of Issus. I teach that mosaic to my freshmen at Pratt andI comment on that hand. It is very different, in that it is helpless, for Darius realizes he has lost his realm to Alexander who is bearing down on him. Nonetheless, like the hand of the girl in the story, it hangs in mid-air.

 

Mary D. Edwards has published short stories, including “Relativity”and “Instructions,” in The Paterson Literary Review, and produced her one-act plays in The Samuel French Off-Off Broadway Short Play Festival.A professor of Art History at Pratt Institute, she also publishes articles on art and architecture. With Elizabeth Bailey, she was co-editor of Gravity in Art: Essays on Weight and Weightlessness in Painting, Sculpture and Photography.

 

 

 

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John P. Loonam: Writing outside of your ethnic group in “Action Adventure”

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John P. Loonam’s  “Action Adventure,” in L&L

L&L: How did “Action Adventure” come about?

JPL: The story started as two writing experiments. I’d written a bunch of stories where protagonists were 50-year-old white guys. I was in a rut, looking for another kind  of narrator, and I was reading an Elmore Leonard novel that opens with a shooting in a video store. Being Elmore Leonard, he follows the criminals, but I wished we’d stayed in the video store with the victims. In the first draft, Kimmy was the only narrator, but, as the draft progressed, I realized that the story needed an element to balance Kimmy’s story. Bay Ridge was an old Irish-Italian neighborhood, and about half the residents are still third, fourth, or fifth generation, but there’s been an influx of people from all over the world. There’s a large Chinatown, for instance, and so I recognized that this gave me a chance to have Kimmy, who is Korean, representing this new population.

L&L: The victim’s infidelity and abandonment of his family—what’s the story behind that? JPL: I was close to Kimmy, who was close to the shooting, but not close to the character who got killed off. I thought about how he had a family. And I just didn’t want to write the typical grieving widow character. So I thought, OK, what if I had another kind of widow? I was intrigued by the notion that this second character was already grieving him [because he was planning to move out] and she thought, “Now I don’t have to live in the same neighborhood and see him all the time.” Some of her motivations weren’t all that noble. That made her more complex.

L&L: The story has multiple narrators. How did you decide to write a point of view outside your ethnic group? JPL: This idea of writing outside your ethnic group comes up in my classes.  We talk about the boundaries of cultural appropriation.  I think it’s important—the issue comes down to cultural power. If the Kimmys of the world had the right to tell their own stories, then having someone outside the ethnic group write from that point of view comes as an unalloyed good: It lends more power to them. I am not convinced that my telling Kimmy’s story is the issue – it is more whether the Korean American community gets to also tell its own story.  That’s one of the points I like about writing: I can examine my own consciousness and relationship to the world, but I can also get out of my consciousness and imagine what someone else’s world is like. Kimmy is partly me in that she comes out of my admittedly limited experience. And, of course, my imagination has been enormously helped by Chang Rae Lee, Young Jean Lee, Han Kang and others. There’s a way in which  I’m trying to bridge the gap [between cultures.]  To be able to do that without stealing someone else’s experience is really important. Certainly, in the course of my reading and coming to love literature, there were books from other perspectives that spoke to me.  Many books by African American authors have spoken to me.  I wouldn’t necessarily claim that those books are about me, but recognizing that connection [between humans] is important.

“The issue comes down to cultural power. If the Kimmys of the world had the right to tell their own stories, then having someone outside the ethnic group write from that point of view comes as an unalloyed good: It lends more power to them. I am not convinced that my telling Kimmy’s story is the issue – it is more whether the Korean American community gets to also tell its own story.”

L&L: How do you introduce a gun in a story? JPLI can’t think of another story I’ve written with a gun in it or even a story with the level of violence in “Action Adventure.” I have a story that ends with a brutal punch, but it’s two middle school kids, not murder. When I stumbled into the story, I was influenced by teaching: When you’re bringing a story to students, they’ve got to like the first page. If you’re bringing it to a group of 15- year-olds, the gun has to go off in the beginning.

L&L: How familiar are you with guns? Did you grow up hunting or handling guns? JPL: I grew up with a close friend whose father was a New York City police officer and avid hunter. I grew up on Long island. We used to go up to his hunting cabin in the summer. My father was not remotely interested in guns or hunting. But I’d go up to this friend’s father’s hunting cabin, and when my friend was twelve, his father bought him a .22 caliber rifle. We’d go into the woods and shoot cans. Sometimes his father let us shoot  his police revolver. I was just re-reading Mary Edwards’s story “The New Pistol” (in Lock & Load.) It reminded me of this police officer taking us shooting. We each got to fire six bullets. I had become a really good shot with the .22 rifle. But a .38 pistol is a whole ’nother animal and it terrified me. I was 12 feet away from this can and after I shot, I knew I’d missed the can, but I had no idea where the bullet went. I was immediately terrified. The father did what he thought was the right thing, which was to encourage me to keep going. I shot and shot but with no idea where the bullets were going and the kickback was so strong. After that, I never wanted to fire a gun again.

John P. Loonam’s fiction has appeared in The Madison Review, Modern Shorts (an anthology from Fiction Attic), The Santa Fe Writers Project and many other publications.  His short plays have been featured in The Mottola Theater Project’s Cherry Picking Festival and appear in their anthology Cherry Picking.   A teacher in New York’s public schools for over thirty years, Loonam received an MA in Creative Writing from City College, CUNY, and a doctorate in American Literature from The Graduate Center, CUNY. He has lived in Brooklyn with Maria, John James, and Joe long enough to be considered a native by anyone but his neighbors.

 

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Pinckney Benedict: the .30-06, his Lock & Load story, “Mercy,” and the future of Immersive Narrative Technologies

 

Pinckney Benedict author photo 2017

Pinckney Benedict

L&L: How did “Mercy” come to you? “Mercy” started life as a short film. I was playing around with video editing and I’d taken a whole bunch of footage of my daughter and dog playing in the snow on the farm [which is actually a miniature horse farm] just to the south of my family’s farm in West Virginia. I had footage of the ponies, and she’d have been about the age of the kid in the story. The father’s attitude in “Mercy” was my father’s attitude when the miniature horses went in near my place. That line—Can’t work them, can’t ride them, can’t eat them. Useless.—those were about my father’s exact words. Every time I hear that line, I hear my daughter’s voice. The film was just an experiment in video editing and voice over. I got a call from a National Public Radio show [Living on Earth]; they wanted a Christmas episode, with readings of stories, and they asked if I had a winter story. I didn’t have one done, but clearly the stuff from the film was a winter story. I sat down and wrote the story then, to be read aloud on that show. I already had chunks of it. I knew what I wanted the story to be. There were some surprises, like what happens with the fence, but I didn’t really know where that scene was going. (The broadcast of “Mercy” can be found here.)

L&L: Mercy’s been out 12 years. Did you expect that it would be so well and widely received? I had no idea. That’s one thing I tell my students now—when you finish a story you have no idea which stories, out of all that you’ve written, will have the most life to them.

L&L: Tell me about the Remington .30-06—how’d that influence the story or did it evolve organically, that boy’s “old man” would threaten to shoot a pony? One thing about a character with a gun: That character in some way is a figure of death, the grim reaper with his scythe. That’s the image I tried to make of the father. He’s hidden behind the cowl of his hood, and he’s carrying the instrumentality of death. For me, the .30-06 —just saying the word is evocative. It’s a very particular round, a very heavy .30 caliber round [patented in 1906.] I wanted a rifle that resonated when you said its name, effectively, its caliber. To me, there’s something old fashioned and really powerful about a .30-06. That’s the reason I used a rifle at the end of the story; they are totemic items. They don’t seem weirder to me than a hammer or an automobile.

L&L: Do you shoot? I was a hunter as a boy and a young man. I still do a fair amount of shooting. There are a lot of deer around here in Southern Illinois, and they file past, big and fat, but mostly I’ve got a big hill behind house, and I shoot into that.

L&L: What are you working on now?  I’m doing a lot of research and stuff in Virtual Reality, and I’m trying to put together a virtual reality narrative lab at SIU. One program I’ve used is an accurate gun simulator that models real-world weapons very accurately; if my students want to write about shooting I can take them to my office. In terms of handling, appearance, what the magazine is and how it works, how the slide works, and so forth, VR is good for giving people experiences they couldn’t otherwise have. Or, I could put you in a race car or I could put you in a blimp; it’s not exactly like being there but it’s close. Technological narratives are the future of narrative, in the same way that the novel was the great narrative form of the 19thcentury, and cinema, of the 20thcentury, and, later, television. Some version of immersive narrative will be the novel of the last two-thirds of the 21st century. It’s not really my field, but, at the same time, I’m teaching young people because this is where their narrative lives are going to be lived, and I need to give them as much of a taste of that as I can while they’re in school.

L&L: What’s compelling about VR for writers? It’s an amazing narrative technology that makes two-dimensional cinema or television look silly by comparison. You can make different sorts of VR experiences. They can be like stage plays that you watch in 3-D, but you’re not watching it, you’re physically present and that’s substantially different. There are lots of studies now that talk about the power of empathy with VR. To actually be present with physical “others” is a powerful engine for empathy.

You might think you’re a short story writer, novelist, or playwright, but it’s broader and more powerful than that: If you’re good at this stuff, you’re good at more than you think or imagine you are. I’ve watched my students move into whole new areas effortlessly. People who write good short stories can compose good VR experiences.

Nobody knows what VR narrative is, so it’s a great time to be involved with an art form where nobody knows what the rules are, and there are no gatekeepers, no editors or agents for these new narrative technologies. For somebody like me who’s reasonably established, that doesn’t matter so much, but for students finding the frontier, finding a place where there aren’t established gatekeepers is pretty important. I just did a dramatic podcast with grad students this summer—a  6-episode dramatic podcast. We put it on iTunes and Stitcher. Anybody around the world can find it, download it, and listen and nobody gets to say yay or nay. It’ll either be good or bad. It’ll rise or fall on its own, but it doesn’t have to appeal to establishment gatekeepers.

Pinckney Benedict grew up on his family’s dairy farm in the mountains of southern West Virginia. His stories have appeared in Esquire, Zoetrope, StoryQuarterly, and Ontario Review; the O. Henry Award and Pushcart Prize series, and New Stories from the South. His work has been anthologized in The Oxford Book of American Short Stories and The Ecco Anthology of Contemporary American Short Fiction. He has received a Michener Fellowship from the Iowa Writers Workshop, an NEA fellowship, a Literary Fellowship from the West Virginia Commission on the Arts, the Chicago Tribune’s Nelson Algren Award, an Individual Artist grant from the Illinois Arts Council, and Great Britain’s Steinbeck Award. He is a professor in the English Department at Southern Illinois University in Carbondale, Illinois.

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Gun story seems “dystopian,” but everyday violence can be all too real

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Mari Alschuler

Mari Alschuler’s story, “Revealed,” imagines a New York City in which every taxpaying citizen openly carries a 9mm Beretta.

L&L: When and how did “Revealed” come to you?

M.A.: I’m not sure. I may have dreamed it! Toward the end of the 1980s, I was living in New York City. At that time, the city was crime-ridden. There was a crack epidemic—you could hardly walk down the street without stepping on syringes and crack pipes. The story was triggered by that environment. I wrote the first draft after finishing my MFA in poetry at Columbia. During those years, I was surrounded by a “dangerous-city” feeling. I don’t think of myself as a dystopian writer—this was a one-off, yet this idea came to me that people needed to be armed to live in this city. I didn’t feel safe. By the end of the 1980s, I’d gone back to school, earned two master’s degrees in psychology, and gotten a job in a methadone clinic in the worst part of town—Alphabet City, which is the East Village. That was right around the time that HIV infections were moving into the IV drug-abusing population.  My clients started dropping like flies, even though they may not have shared needles. About 70 percent of my methadone clients died of HIV/AIDS. I lost half my gay male friends. And at a certain point, I thought, “I can’t do another funeral.”

L&L: Once the idea hatched, how did the story take shape?

MA: The first idea was the policy—a new policy that everyone in the city must carry a gun. The bureaucratic, aloof voice came easily to me—I’ve been a supervisor and middle manager for about twenty years. Then, of course, I realized I needed to tell the story through a character, and I came up with Sydney, the protagonist. She is not like me at all, although Matt, Syd’s boyfriend, is sort of like an old boyfriend I used to have. Once I’d chosen a protagonist, I imagined what it would be like to leave your apartment, go to work, and get on the subway under these conditions. Imagine what those travails would be like! Just getting to and from work—you never knew when you were going to use your bullet. Or, when someone was going to use their bullet on you.

I asked myself, “Why is Syd who she is today?” I concluded Syd is a stand in, an “everywoman” for those who would be in the same boat, in the same city, during the same time frame, one person’s story living under these deplorable conditions. The city residents of the story have become inured to violence—there’s no value on life anymore. Though the story seems “dystopian,” there are people in the world for whom the constant threat of violence is real—people who live in war zones or crime-ridden neighborhoods.

Mari Alschuler has been writing poetry since she was eight years old. Today she not only writes, but is also a social work professor at Youngstown State University and a psychotherapist in private practice specializing in LGBT issues. She earned her MFA in poetry from Columbia University in 1982, and, later, two master’s degrees in psychology, a master’s in social work, and a doctorate in leadership and education. She will discuss, and read from the story, at Lit Youngstown’s Fall Literary Festival at Youngstown State University, Saturday, Sept. 22, 2 p.m.-2:50 p.m.

 

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