The Truth About Me
Q: Where do the germ of your stories start. Are they sparked by something seen or overheard? Drawn from real-life? Entirely conjured?
My stories are never drawn entirely from real-life, though certain details often are. Usually they spring from something visual and occasionally from something heard. And a few in this collection are entirely conjured, such as “Anything Can Happen” and “Myrna Athena.” Sometimes, if I’m out of ideas, I will ask another writer for a prompt. “The Truth About Me” started with a random off-the-cuff paragraph I wrote for a friend as well as for myself, which she also used to great advantage in a completely different way.
Q: You are a master of the first sentence. For example, in “Anything Can Happen,” you open with, “On the morning Ivan Humphrey lost his mind, I was standing at my kitchen window, which has a partial view of Ivan’s backyard.” I knew, upon reading that opener, that I
was all in, and that the author had good control of the narrative. What is it that you hope to establish in the openings of your stories?
LM: I like the reader to know exactly where she is right up front. I think it’s unnecessary to keep anyone in the dark, and I particularly take exception to stories that use hints to pull the reader along. Remember the detective series Colombo? The crime is committed in the first few minutes, the viewer knows who did it, and the rest of the show is about how it’s solved. Not that I’m doing that in my stories, but I loved that series for that reason—you knew right away what was what.
Q: Many of these stories were previously published in acclaimed literary journals. Collected here, I feel that they are in conversation with each other. I’m wondering how the act of putting the book together affected your ideas about these stories, as well as the characters within?
LM: When I put the collection together I described it as a collection of completely disparate stories, their only commonality being that I wrote them all. I did not link them in my mind, and of course they are all quite different in subject, location, etc. Now that the collection is a book I’ve come to realize they are stories about characters with the same central issue: they are all simply trying to get a toehold in life.
Q: As writers, we fall in love with our characters, particularly those with the most trouble. Bret Anthony Johnston said something (I’m paraphrasing with abandon) about writers must always assume our characters are smarter and inherently better people than we are. Name a few heartbreakers.
LM: I love my characters, even the really bad ones, but my true love is Harry in “The Truth About Me,” because he is trying so hard and he is basically very sweet. I love Mrs. Temple for her tenacity, and the narrator in “Anything Can Happen” for her courage and wisdom and matter-of-fact view on life. But I don’t need a reason to love my characters anymore than a parent needs a reason to love her children. They’re mine.
Q: Talk a bit about how you get to know your characters, and then how you let them go. By “go” I mean allowing them to drive the story, and how you part ways with them.
LM: If I don’t let my characters go almost immediately—usually after the first scene, which is when I semi-create them—I know the story is in trouble. I write very unconsciously, and am often surprised by what my characters do, and ultimately who they become. So, I have no trouble letting them go, in fact I love it: that’s the moment, for me, when the story begins.
Q: You do a wonderful job embodying your characters, getting into their heads and hearts. I never question your reports on how they think or what they are feeling. I’m thinking of the first story, "The Truth About Me," in which you convincingly write a mentally disturbed male first-person narrator. Then, Helen in "Mrs. Temple" is a character whose behavior feels a little foreign, but entirely accurate. Tell us a bit about what it takes to create such a range, but also how to let the reader know who your characters are by way of their actions.
LM: I often liken what I do to acting. An actor can inhabit many characters. I think because I have known so many different “types” of people I have a lot to draw on. I watch, I listen, I eavesdrop; I depend on my intuition. And I think it’s also a matter of always having sympathy for one’s fellow man.
Q: In “The Three Stages of Fat,” you write this great line: “Not only do I feel like I haven’t spoken, I feel like I’m not here.” You nail this specific shade of loneliness, the moment one realizes they aren’t in sync with the world. This resonated, despite that the reason that character felt that way (illness) isn’t why I “got” this. Until that line, I wasn’t having so much empathy for the narrator, but when she dropped that line, I felt the gravity of her life. As in, it broke me. When you write, are you working toward the reader’s emotional response or is that just something that a writer trusts will fall into place?
LM: I don’t think about the reader when I write, and I do trust that everything will fall into place—and I mean everything! As I said, I write unconsciously, intuitively; I am completely inside the story.
Q: So, after all that sadness and burden, let’s talk about humor. It’s sneaky, because you use the kind of sly jokes that the reader needs to work a few brain cells to get. “The Other Rachel Hersch” is an example, where most of the humor is derived from the oddness of the character. Talk a bit about using humor and sarcasm in these stories, particularly where your characters are in crisis, as Rachel is in her story.
LM: Honestly, I can’t help using humor because outside of things like death and illness, I pretty much think everything has a funny side. I laugh all the time; I’m very
very ironic. So, I suppose the strange thing is that I write about affliction and sadness, but I am as cognizant of sadness as I am of humor. I inject humor into sadness the way people laugh at a funeral: I just can’t help it.
Q: Which story in the collection surprised you the most?
LM: Hands down, “Anything Can Happen.” I have no idea where that came from.
Q: Your endings are terrific: open-ended, but not. How do you find the balance of keeping possibility open, but not making it feel like you just stopped typing?
LM: I find endings very difficult, so thank you for the compliment. I don’t care for stories or novels or even movies that wrap things up at the end, and I consciously try to avoid doing that. I’ve often been told my endings are abrupt, and perhaps they are, but I think the poetic, wrapped-up ending is false—life isn’t like that, is it? I’m not trying to find a balance necessarily; I just end the story where it seems most natural.
Q: Do you ever imagine (or maybe even write) about your characters further in the future? For example, in “Vacationland,” where a brother and sister, both adults, tacitly acknowledge that neither of them has it together. This meeting of the minds is a perfect way to end, but it’s hard not to fantasize further into the story, some vengeance against the other characters. But then, you’d lose that openness that works so well. But still, what if?
LM: Your question makes me think of a time when I went to a screening of a movie in the company of a friend who was its producer/creator. The movie was quite good and I didn’t want it to end, so I asked my friend what would happen next, and he said, “Nothing, it’s over.” At the time (I was very young), I didn’t get that at all—surely he had some idea of the ultimate fate of the characters! But I get it now. No, I don’t think beyond the story, or at least not far beyond. As my friend said, it’s over.
Linda Michel-Cassidy’s writing has appeared in Jabberwock, Harpur Palate, Electric Literature, The Rumpus, and others. She podcasts for the Mill Valley library, interviewing guests on the eight books that made them, and teaches flash fiction, experimental prose, and memoir. She also works for the literary reading series Why There Are Words, is a contributing editor at Entropy Magazine, and is a co-editor of the Trumpwatch newsfeed. She holds an MFA from the Bennington Writing Seminars and another, in visual arts, from the California College of the Arts. She recently served a decade of voluntary exile in rural Northern NM, and now lives on a houseboat in California.