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"The Brittle, Desperate, Suffocating Love": An Interview with Heather Wells Peterson

Heather Wells Peterson earned her MFA from the University of Florida in 2014. Her work has appeared in SmokeLong Quarterly and Columbia: A Journal of Literature and Art. She lives in Gainesville, Florida, where she writes dialogue for virtual patients and recently finished writing her first novel.

Her three short-shorts, "Spit It Out," "A Ghost," and "Echolalia," appeared in Issue Seventy-One of The Collagist.  

Here, Heather Wells Peterson talks with interviewer William Hoffacker about family, brevity, and a narrator's tone.

Each of your three short-shorts consists of only one paragraph. Is it a challenge to reach this level of concision, or does such brevity come naturally in your writing process? How much revision was required to achieve such an economy of language?

I find this kind of concision incredibly difficult. I think for some people, this length comes naturally—they think this way, I suppose. I’ve always envied that. Most of the time, keeping a story this length is virtually impossible for me.

That said, these stories took very little revision. I was reading an excellent, excellent book called Abbott Awaits, by Chris Bachelder. It’s a novel divided into bite-size vignettes. Reading the book just put me in this very short zone. For a few weeks, stories fell out of me in bite-sized chunks. Then, the trance left as quickly as it had come. I spent some time tweaking sentences, but for the most part, this was one of those rare occasions when something leaves my brain fully formed.

In “Spit It Out,” the man does not spit it out, and we never quite learn what “it” is. The woman becomes increasingly desperate, crying “goddammit” and “Please, please,” while oblivious to the narrative ticking clock that is the tide inching ever closer to her and her son, increasing the suspense, unresolved by the story. In your mind, what are the advantages of ending this piece before the next event happens (e.g., the man spits it out, or the woman digs it up, or the man suffocates, or the ocean gets them both wet)? Why this moment and not the one that follows?

Families are fragile. I think that knowledge was most on my mind as I wrote this. The image of this poor mother almost accosting her adult son, begging him to spit out something that could choke him, while surrounded by other families who are enjoying their day at the beach is, to me, a representation of the brittle, desperate, suffocating love that can bind a family together. The encroaching tide is ominous, and it’s creeping closer, and it’s nearer to this woman and her son than it is to all of the families who are not, at least so obviously, subject to the same brittle, desperate, suffocating love. To me, this approaching darkness isn’t anything specific—any certain event, for instance—so much as it is the mother’s panic and solitude, the looming knowledge that she is alone and responsible for her son, who can’t reasonably be expected to be responsible for himself.

In “A Ghost,” you again withhold information and choose ambiguity, as seen here: “She does not know that the very piece of wood on which she sits is stained with blood. The blood is over one hundred years old. It could be from a small cut, from a birth, from a murder—this information is unavailable—nonetheless, it must be there somewhere, deep in the pitted, knotted slab of wood.” The narrator tells us something Carrie doesn’t know, so we’re not limited to her perspective, but some information is still unavailable, so the narrator must not be omniscient. What type of point of view did you imagine for this narrator? (If you weren’t consciously thinking about imposed limitations or liberties taken in the narrative perspective, what sort of tone or style did you hope to conjure with this narrator’s voice?)

In all three of these pieces, without realizing it as I wrote them, I was using a clinical tone combined with very specific, personal details to create a kind of taxonomy of living grief. In “Spit It Out,” the grief is a mother’s for her son, who is alive, but who will always depend on her, as well as for herself and the burden she has necessarily taken on, while in “A Ghost,” we are dissecting Carrie’s grief for her parents’ marriage, and by extension, her childhood. The scientific, detached tone creates a distance while, at the same time, making the narrator seem impartial, as though the voice is staring at these small tragedies under a microscope and recording every significant piece of evidence with detailed precision.

From this clinical impartiality comes the knowledge of the blood in the wood beneath Carrie. When I was small, I also worried about ghosts in the old furniture in the old house I grew up in. I knew that many people had lived there since long ago, and, therefore, had likely suffered, been ill, given birth, screamed at each other, and even bled and died in almost every room. Extrapolating from this knowledge, then, Carrie must be sitting on blood—it is just statistically probable. However, she doesn’t know that. What she knows is that her parents are fighting, and will probably split up, so she distracts herself by listening for the ghost.

In “Echolalia,” we return to the subject of disability, which we saw in a different form in the adult son of the first short-short. Also, as before, the central character here is the mother of the disabled person in question. What is it about these relationships and difficult positions that draw you to create such characters? What are the complexities of their inner and outer lives that contribute to narrative richness and interest from outsiders?

I think this relationship is, in itself, a conflict—not between the people in the relationship, but within the parent who is raising a child she knows will have a rough time of it. There is a peculiar and combustible mixture of love, devotion, guilt, and resentment there. The mother worries for her daughter, but mostly obliquely—much of her time is spent worrying about worrying (or not worrying) about her daughter. She is caught in a cycle of guilt, resentment, further guilt, further resentment, which is why she can’t exit the emotional vortex and achieve any kind of relief or peace.

What writing projects are you working on now?

I just finished a novel in January, and I’m at work on another one now. It deals with some of these themes—the fragility of families, and the consequences both of breaking those brittle bonds and of not doing so. At the beginning of the novel, the narrator is on her deathbed. She has studied death all her life, and she knows what awaits her. But she is alone, so she returns to her past, reliving old failures and relationships, excavating for any source of comfort she can find. That sounds like a real downer, and sometimes it is, but it’s also about learning to accept one’s fate, and the grace that can be found in humanity’s will to continue to live despite knowing that one day we all die.

What have you read recently that you’d like to recommend?

As I mentioned above, Abbott Awaits by Chris Bachelder is beyond amazing. I also just finished two great memoirs—Sally Mann’s Hold Still and Helen Macdonald’s H is for Hawk. And I’m reading Our Man in Havana by Graham Greene now because the novel I’m writing is centered around a mystery, and Greene was a master at that.

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