Interview by Gina Warren.
Steve Edwards’ story “A Writer’s Story” took first place in Silk Road’s recent Flash Fiction Contest. Edwards lives in Fitchburg, Massachusetts. His memoir, Breaking into the Backcountry, is the story of his seven months of “unparalleled solitude” as the caretaker of a wilderness homestead along the Rogue National Wild and Scenic River in southern Oregon. He is now at work on a nonfiction book about his grandfather’s appearance on the cover of Life in 1942.
Read “A Writer’s Story“, winner of Silk Road’s Flash Fiction Contest.
GW: What was your inspiration for writing Twelve Hour Shift? Was there a particular moment or image that catalyzed the rest of the piece?
Steve Edwards: This story originated from an NPR 3-minute fiction contest writing prompt: “Begin a story with the phrase: ‘The nurse left work at five o’clock.’” And because I love short short stories that gain momentum through repetition, as well as stories that subvert traditional narratives (stories like “Girl” by Jamaica Kincaid or “The School” by Donald Barthelme), I started thinking about other people who might be leaving places at specific times. The movement from hour to hour, and image to image, became the driving force of the piece. As far as a particular moment, I don’t know. I remember composing some of it—the lists of different people—in my mind as my wife and I drove to the supermarket one day. By the time we got home it was almost finished.
GW: There is a sense of circularity to Twelve Hour Shift, which begins and ends with a nurse and her son. To get to that point this piece shifts through various other characters (the mayor, the Kawasaki workers, the rabbi, the writer stopping time). How did you choose to define and select these other characters?
SE: Once I had the idea for the piece, the only thing I really knew was that each character had to be different from the last, and that the story would have to be packed to the gills with images, emotional tones, banal things, wondrous things, tiny details and broad generalizations. The circularity you mention—I think that a story like this one benefits from some kind of simple structural integrity. If I’m going to skip around from person to person, image to image, then I’m at least going to give a reader something to hang on to. For this story, that meant going through the hours. Five o’clock. Six o’clock. Seven o’clock. Until finally we arrived back where it had all started, with the nurse. Ultimately I think I was looking to achieve a kind of a balance, and a kind of fullness, and a sense that the story mimicked the strangeness and randomness of daily life.
GW: What authors do you read? How has the literature you expose yourself to affected your own writing?
SE: I can point to two main sources of inspiration for my short short stories. As an undergrad, I used to love to read surrealist poems, especially those of James Tate and Charles Simic. I loved the way they played with language. I loved the way they twisted meaning and made me see the world differently. And I spent a lot of time—back when I first began to write seriously—studying how they used images to create tonal shifts, those subtle shifts in emotion that when taken together added up to something much larger, something revelatory.
The other source I should probably mention is teaching. When I first started teaching, I used to like to read students short short stories from the Sudden Fiction series. I wanted students to really hear the stories, their pacing and voices, their rhythms. As the years went by, after reading the stories out loud so many times, I began to internalize all that. So by the time I saw down to write stories like “Twelve Hour Shift” and “A Writer’s Story,” all I really had to do was sit before my computer and listen to the story suggest itself.
GW: In A Writer’s Story the narrator admits that he would write down every word of a memory that threatened to slip away, “not to remember but to imagine how it might have been different if words could have helped us.” Where does the capacity of words to “help us” begin and end? Can words be a reprieve?
SE: This is a wonderful question, and I want to be careful with my response. I think what that line gets at is that though the events of the past cannot be changed, how we think about and understand the past is always changing. Memory evolves, perspectives shift. Something could happen today or tomorrow that completely revises how you think about yesterday. For the narrator of this story, his past might be painful and he can’t escape that. He can’t escape the fact that, as a writer, even his fictions are informed by his personal pain. But through the honest contemplation of his characters and their lives—and through the meaning he makes between their lives and his own—he is somehow able to transcend the stories of his past in order to tell a new story. In that respect, words are very much a reprieve. They can lead to forgiveness, understanding, compassion. At the same time, however, no matter how enlightened he becomes he still can’t go back and change the things that hurt him. He can’t fix the past. So there are limits to what words can do to help, and of course words can also do great harm (despite the claims of the old nursery rhyme about sticks and stones). I think this narrator, in the end, is trying to figure out how to be hopeful in the face of this dynamic. Or maybe it’s more accurate to say that this narrator, because by his nature he can’t help but be hopeful, is trying to figure out how to respond to the very question you have posed. Where does the capacity for words to “help us” begin and end? Sometimes what helps and what hurts can feel so similar.
GW: A Writer’s Story intertwines the stories of a mother, a daughter, and a father with the narrator’s own mother and father, then ends addressing the reader. “Perhaps this is why in all the stories I write—and maybe in all of yours—there is a mother and a father, and pain, silence, and yet also a word or two that makes a difference, an unlikely tenderness of heart, because despite every hurt you or I endure, some part of us holds out hope.” How did you decide to bring in these multiple narratives of the mother, daughter, father, of the narrator’s family, and of the audience that endures hurt? What is the importance of all the stories we tell ourselves and others?
SE: Like a lot of my stories, “A Writer’s Story” began with that first simple sentence: “In this story there is a mother and a father.” I heard it in my head over breakfast, and I returned to it later that afternoon when I sat down to write. I had no idea where it was going to take me, if anywhere, but I liked its quiet authority and the way the present tense worked to create a sense of something happening in the moment. And as I wrote along, I just kept listening and writing things down. Not that it was easy, of course. I think it’s taken me years of struggle and failure—years of writing sentences and scratching them out—to learn how to be receptive to my own voice, to trust it.
The whole story came together in a little over two hours, and by the end I was completely surprised by its shape, and by the turns it took. I secretly suspect that much of what I write, like the writer in the story, is an attempt to somehow fix the past, or to comfort myself through trying to understand the random things that have hurt me. Like the struggle I had with math in middle school. Like the young girl my wife and I met a few years back, whose father had died in a helicopter crash in California. I mean, what do you do with details that have for some reason lodged themselves into your memory? What do you do with unresolved pain? And I guess I wanted to really invite the reader into the depths of those questions, so toward the end of the story I leaned a little on the second-person. After all, it’s not just writers who tell stories. We all do. And those stories we tell—that’s who we are. We live those stories. We’re at their mercy.
GW: How vital do you think this “part of us [that] holds out hope” is to people as human beings? What about to individuals as writers?
SE: I think Faulkner speaks to what I want to say better than I could ever hope to. So here’s a slightly edited excerpt from his Nobel Prize acceptance speech.
“I believe that [humanity] will not merely endure: [we] will prevail. [We are] immortal, not because [we] alone among creatures [have] an inexhaustible voice, but because [we have] a soul, a spirit capable of compassion and sacrifice and endurance. The poet’s, the writer’s, duty is to write about these things. It is [our] privilege to help [humanity] endure by lifting [its] heart, by reminding [it] of the courage and honor and hope and pride and compassion and pity and sacrifice which have been the glory of [its] past. The poet’s voice need not merely be the record of [humanity], it can be one of the props, the pillars to help [us] endure and prevail.”