Interview with Michelle Brafman

Michelle Brafman has received numerous awards for her fiction, including a Special Mention in the 2010 Pushcart Prize Anthology, the F. Scott Fitzgerald Short Story prize, and first place in the Lilith Magazine Fiction contest. Her stories have appeared in The Minnesota Review, Blackbird, and Fifth Wednesday Journal, among other places. She teaches fiction writing at George Washington University and the Johns Hopkins University MA in Writing Program. Michelle is also an award-winning filmmaker and lives in Glen Echo, Maryland with her husband and two children. For more information: www.michellebrafman.com

Superstition Review: Early on in your story “In Flight,” the protagonist says, “…I’m his crazy big sister. I lost too much oxygen at birth. People always want to label me ‘tard’ or PDD or high-functioning this or that, but I’m just Rosie.” The reader later gets a sense of Rosie’s disability through some of the observations she makes, and we, as the reader, understand that she doesn’t understand her surroundings the way her mother and brother do. What was the effect you were aiming for in including the Rosie’s awareness of how people saw her?

Michelle Brafman: I suppose my initial intention was to provide the reader with a sense of Rosie’s disability, but as she emerged as a character, I grew interested in exploring the tension between her uncanny perceptiveness and her inability to interpret social cues. I’d initially written the story from the point of view of Marcus, the more reliable narrator, but it lacked verity. It is Rosie who implores Marcus to jump, to confront his mother’s mortality and the impending reality of his sister’s care, and it is Rosie who intuits that Marcus will need the trampoline, as Esther did, as a release from the weight of his new responsibilities.

SR: In “January” and “Would you Rather?” both of the protagonists suspect that their spouses might be cheating on them. Please discuss the notion of fidelity as a theme in contemporary writing. What makes it popular and interesting?

MB: I don’t know that I’m equipped to speak for an entire genre, but what makes infidelity interesting to me is the way in which it exacerbates a character’s trouble. Writing about “the how” of an affair grows tedious quickly. I’m more interested in why a character seeks such an all-consuming escape and the ripples that form after hurling such an enormous boulder into his or her psychic pond.

SR: I noticed that the character Annabel from “Ripe” reappears in “January,” although as an absent character. If these two stories were to appear together in a collection, which one would come first, and to what effect?

MB: Actually, “Ripe” and “January” belong to a triptych that starts with “The 42,” the first story I published. I wrote “The 42” in response to a variation of an exercise featured in John Gardner’s The Art of Fiction. I’ve further modified this prompt for my students, but it goes something like this: A man gets off a bus, trips, looks around in embarrassment, and sees a woman smiling. Describe this event using three different points of view.

The story cycle begins when a pregnant Annabel takes “The 42” to her old neighborhood for an acupuncturist appointment. Eager to take a break from her husband Leon’s hovering, she declines his ride offer and spends the bus trip reflecting on a less fettered period in her life. “Ripe” picks up after her ex-boyfriend Phil watches her stumble off the bus, and the final story “January” begins after Leon has tracked down Annabel to deliver her misplaced wallet and spots her and Phil walking down the street, sharing an intimate moment of laughter.

SR: I enjoy how your stories are structured and especially how they end. There is no apparent resolution of conflict at the closing of your stories. What is your opinion on what the end of a story should do for a reader?

MB: I appreciate your observation. When I first began writing fiction, I tied up my stories in pretty little bows, often tagging on what I now call the “nudge, nudge, wink, wink: did you get it?” closing line. Bob Bausch, one of my first writing instructors, once said to me that a good ending should resolve the story but not the conflict. His words resonated with me. I like the idea of leaving a story somewhat open for the reader to impose his or her own ideas on what might happen to the characters.

SR: What are you writing now? What are you reading?

MB: I’m working on a new novel. It took me months to find a pathway into this project, but my characters are starting to develop minds of their own and are surprising me in all sorts of fun ways.

I’ve enrolled in a course on the unreliable narrator, and I’ve been engrossed in the assigned texts: True Confections by Katharine Weber, the class instructor, Nabokov’s Lolita and What Was She Thinking? (Notes On A Scandal) by Zoe Heller. My daughter and I have also been reading some wonderful YA fiction for a mother-daughter book club. My favorite pick so far has been Claire Vanderpool’s beautifully crafted Moon over Manifest.

Interview with Matthew Healy

Matthew Scott Healy lives in Scottsdale, Arizona with his wife and daughter. He teaches English and Creative Writing at Scottsdale Community College. His work has appeared in Blackbird and Cutbank. His is the recipient of the Finnely Award for Humorous Short Fiction, and his story “Always the Obvious Places” was nominated for storySouth as the most notable story of 2010.

Superstition Review: I’m drawn to the character Emmett in “Always the Obvious Places.” Can you please describe how you came up with a character that would “throw a cactus” just to get away from the police?

Matthew Healy: I like the idea of characters without shame, who hold nothing back. Here is Emmett, a guy with the thumb of law enforcement upon him, yet he maintains this defiant posture of bluster. So many characters are governed by the consequences of their actions, and I wanted to have a character who is the exact opposite. He’s a guy without any permanence in his life, so his refusal to change is his anchor point. He’s also the character the other characters want most to change, but Emmett is so obdurate that by necessity others must do the changing around him.

SR: How did you imagine the life situation for Emmett and family? Where did it come from?

MH: Emmett’s life is about resiliency in a place where nothing is permanent. His job, his living situation, his girlfriend, what kids are around—all of it fluctuates wildly. I’ve known people like Emmett, and what amazes me is their ability to survive in such flux. In the story, Emmett has a somewhat stable living situation, but I imagine him living somewhere else a month before the story begins and somewhere else a month after the story ends. I worked briefly as a probation officer, and so many defendants exist this way, living as nomads. One of my defendants moved from jail to a halfway house. Within a week, he was living with a new girlfriend and her kids (who were already calling him “Dad”). A week later, he moved in with his parents, and then into some apartment with a different girlfriend and her kids. This wasn’t uncommon. I watched people join a family for only a week or two before joining another. The men and women became temporary fathers and mothers—an entire migrating community of interchangeable family members. I think that’s why Emmett can be so lighthearted about Officer Jay and Sgt. Falco’s visit, because their presence is temporary. Eventually, they will go home to other, better parts of the city, away from this vortex of instability, and Emmett will keep moving inside of it.

SR: The location of “Always the Obvious Places” is very vivid. How does place inform your writing?

MH: I grew up next to families who were not far away from Emmett’s circumstances. Actually, they may have been worse. My two best friends living on either side have spent their lives in and out of prison. I still remember the sights and sounds and smells of their houses: dark hallways, navigating through heaps of clothes and trash, looking for a space to play. Blackish-brown carpet that was harder than tile from all the abandoned spills. As a little kid, I was too young to understand or be bothered by such conditions. It just seemed strange and different. Later, when I became a probation officer, my reaction was much different. One of pity and disgust and anger (especially when I found babies and toddlers living in conditions that were squalid, but not enough to warrant intervention by CPS). I felt very much like a tourist lost in a bad part of a foreign city, standing in the living rooms of people and making recommendations on how they should improve their lives.

In “Obvious Places,” the setting influences how the characters behave and what they value. I wanted Emmett’s home to seem tangible and constrictive, yet ephemeral—a place that could be razed to the ground without anyone paying it much mind.

SR: In almost each line of “Always the Obvious Places,” there is a trace of humor. What are some of the difficulties of writing humor? What are the joys? Who are some of your favorite authors who use humor?

MH: I think one of the dangers of humor is becoming seduced by it and sacrificing the story for a few laughs. I didn’t necessary begin “Obvious Places” intending for it to be funny. Instead, the humor was a necessary counterbalance to the very bleak reality of Emmett’s life, which in so many ways is simply tragic. I just realized that one of the worst things anyone can do is analyze humor, so I’ll resist the temptation to dissect it.

Instead, I’ll answer the last part of your question, and mention a few funny writers I admire. I favor wry and subdued humor that’s attached to something much larger and darker, something that’s lurking after the punch-line to shake things up. Along those lines, Sherman Alexie has a wonderfully deadpan humor, and so does Denis Johnson. One of my favorites, though, is Richard Russo. When writing “Obvious Places,” I was actually thinking about Russo’s very funny novel Straight Man. In a strange twist, Russo’s agent contacted me out of the blue after reading “Obvious Places” to tell me he had enjoyed it. I’m still trying to figure out if that means I unintentionally channeled Russo’s voice too much in the story. As I tell my intro creative writing students, after reading someone you love, wait at least an hour before starting to write. What works for eating and swimming might work for reading and writing.

SR: What are you writing now? What are you reading?

MH: I just finished revising two short stories as part of a collection, but I’m also about halfway through writing a novel, which has turned out to be the most difficult undertaking of my life. I’m used to writing short stories, which is primarily what I like to read. Right now I’m reading the sizeable collection edited by Joyce Carol Oates, and most of the stories so far are pretty engaging.

I’m not reading any novels right now, though not for lack of trying. Unless they’re really good, my attention in most novels tends to sputter out after a hundred pages or so—an awful admission for someone who is trying to write one, but it’s true. When I was in Ohio State’s MFA program, we got to meet Michael Chabon, and we discussed the differences in short and long forms. He believes most writers fall into one category or the other, so perhaps I’m just a short form type of guy. (By the way, he admitted to being a long form guy.) This is fine with me, even though there’s no money in writing short stories, but it’s a shame since short fiction is so pristine and every word is so deliberate. I love the necessary ambiguity of short stories—there simply isn’t time to render every detail, so much of the story that orbits the literal prose must happen in the reader’s imagination. Who knows, maybe the dwindling attention spans means a lucrative future for short story writers.

 


Intern Favorites: Literary Journals

There has been a surge in the number of literary journals that request, review, and publish works online. Many of these have long existed in print form before moving onto the web, but some are recent organizations that take a modern approach to the representation of literature and artwork. We asked our interns for their favorite literary journals. This is the list we compiled, in no particular order.

Front Porch – “Front Porch just feels classy. I love the layout with the stationary background image with the scrolling text box.”

failbetter.com – “This magazine felt really well-suited to the online medium. Every story has a link to social networking sites like Twitter and Facebook, where you can ‘like’ what you’ve read. They have a mobile site, which I think will be increasingly important, and their forward thinking seems to be a strong point.”

Coal Hill Review – “This site has a very professional, sophisticated feel about it and features contests and contest winners in different genres.”

The Adirondack Review – “[This is] a beautiful online site, which is easy to navigate and chock full of great literature.”

The Cafe Irreal – “What I enjoy the most from this simple website is definitely the content. It has many issues and the simple design sets a good aura to the whole website.”

Exquisite Corpse – “I like that the website is not used as a prop to enhance the work – the work is simply good on its own and often in spite of its unprofessional presentation.”

Restless: An Arts Anthology – “They do incredible work formatting the ‘zine for the internet. They work art into the pages so that it’s not a large wall of text, which makes reading both easier and more interesting.”

Electric Literature – “I like that this site is using different media to get literature across to a wider audience than print alone can. The site is visually stimulating and you can read it on any medium – computer, smartphone, tablet.”

Blackbird“I enjoy that Blackbird is so academic. There are a great many reviews and academic essays published in every issue that hardly ever fail to be interesting and educational.”