Interviewed by: Krystal Kahele
“Summerhouse” Published in Silk Road No. 12
Ellen Winter’s short stories have appeared in a number of magazines including Fiction, New Letters, The Antioch Review, and Cosmopolitan. Her first collection, The Price You Pay: Stories, was published by Southern Methodist University Press. A second collection is nearing completion, and a novel is in the works. Awards include fellowships from the Arizona Commission on the Arts and Bread Loaf. She lives with her husband and three children in Livingston, MT.
You created such a visceral reaction to the plot and ending of this piece. What was your thought process while writing to create that?
I don’t know if I’d call it a thought process—for me, it’s more like an invocation. I get up very early in the morning—before the sun rises—so I’m as close to the dream state as I can get. I drink some coffee, I listen to music that I hope will set the mood, and I wait for the next scene in the story I’m working on to “occur.” It has to just come to me. If I’m thinking too much, the writing takes on a logical aspect that feels false to me. Of course there are times when a story’s next move arrives when I’m not at my computer. I end up with lots of scribbled notes in my pockets.
I try not to worry too much about what readers’ reactions might be while I’m writing. There would be too many people in the room if I did that.
How did you develop the form/style of the piece to showcase the speaker’s perspective of what may or may not be an actual memory?
Again, I don’t know if there’s anything conscious about it—at least not while I’m drafting a story. I write in an exploratory way. Later, in revision, I pay attention to things like structure, point of view, the balance between flashback and current action, verb tense, etc.
There is a strong dynamic between Paul and Annabel on a personal level. How did you go about creating their respective characters and the connection between them?
This story started when spring came along and I found myself filled with a familiar, giddy hope. On a glorious spring day, just about anything seems possible to me. I know better than to trust that feeling. That odd combination of hope and distrust brought to mind another now-you-see-it now-you-don’t trickster: desire. Desire convinces us that what we want is one another—right here, right now. But sometimes, lurking in the wings, is what Kahlil Gibran calls “life’s longing for itself.” So, I had a beautiful spring day, I had desire, I had hope and distrust and inchoate longing. I needed some characters to throw these things at. Paul is based on an actual person—someone I see often around town (always with camera in hand) but have never been introduced to. I created Annabel from scratch, but many of her thoughts and feelings are—or at some point have been—mine. I put the two of them in a vehicle together, and they did the rest.
The setting of Summerhouse is exquisite. Does the summerhouse, in addition to Annabel’s house in the beginning of the story, exist somewhere in reality?
The summerhouse is a creation. I did a fair amount of research on building with stone, and I worked really hard to see that little structure in my mind’s eye. When I’m not writing, I work as a housekeeper for some extraordinarily wealthy folks. A couple of the houses I clean are summer places. For me, there’s something sad about a house that seldom has its lights on at night. All of the beds are made up: waiting. These houses are painstakingly built but used very little. It seemed to me that a property like that could shed light on Paul and Annabel’s relationship.
The other house, which at the end of the story belongs to Annabel and her son, is one that I visited during a realtor’s open house. It’s pretty cool: a vintage log cabin surrounded by trees right at the edge of the city limits. Though it’s very private, the sounds of civilization come sneaking in. I love open houses; they allow me to sneak a peek at the way other people live. I go to them so often that some of the local realtors recognize me.
Where did your inspiration come from to write a piece packed with action while doing everyday tasks such as driving, reflecting, and making decisions?
Experience has taught me that life-changing moments tend to come when you’re in the middle of something mundane. I met my husband while I was walking the dog. And my own children, much as I love them, were not especially well-planned. It seems that they just showed up one day—without suitcases, of course. As you can probably tell by my comments on the writing process, I don’t put a lot of stock in planning. Life seems intent on startling me. And the biggest surprise of all has been motherhood. I’d been adamantly and contentedly single for a very long time. Becoming a mother altered my life’s course more abruptly than anything that’s happened to me so far. Like an object that ricochets: one minute I was headed a particular way, and the next I was going off in another. I wanted to distill that transition, which is both wonderful and daunting. I hope that Summerhouse does that.