Karin Lin-Greenberg grows seedlings on her own balcony.
Interview By Valerie Horres.
Karin Lin-Greenberg’s short story “Weight” can be found on page 119 of Vol. 6.1.
VH: After reading just the first sentence of your story, I was immediately curious about how you came about creating this piece. What was the inspiration for it? Did it start off as a story about one subject and then morph into something else? If so, what was the process by which it transformed?
Karin Lin-Greenberg: This story started out with the narrator’s voice. I lived in Missouri for two years and taught there. Sometimes my students would tell me that I had an accent, and they’d ask me where I was from. I grew up in New Jersey, and I don’t think I have that stereotypical accent that people associate with New Jersey (think MTV’s Jersey Shore), but my students let me know that I definitely sounded like I wasn’t from Missouri. So my goal with this piece was to try to capture a particular voice that sounded like it was from a particular place, and I wanted this voice to sound different from the way I speak. So the first step in writing this story was to listen to people talking (I suppose this could be called eavesdropping). I’d go out, listen, and then I’d jot down some phrases that caught my attention. One example of this is the phrase “fixing to make dinner,” which I overheard one day while I was grading papers in a coffee shop. The word “fixing” was what was interesting to me about that sentence; growing up, I’d only heard people say, “I’m going to make dinner.” So I gathered phrases like that and then I just started hearing Darlene’s voice come together in my mind. I hope her voice sounds somewhat authentic in the final version of the story. Once I had the voice, the story followed.
When I got back that afternoon, both Wes and L.J. were wearing brand new overalls, which were covered in dirt but were still stiff with newness. Neither of them was wearing a shirt, and they each held a hoe and were working the soil. Above each of the older plants, the ones they’d started weeks ago, three wooden stakes were tied together in the shape of a teepee so the stems could have something to lean on as they grew taller. All in all, the whole thing looked pretty professional, like they really knew something about what they were doing.
— Excerpt from “Weight”
VH: What about gardening drew you to use it in this piece? How do you find the best symbols to use in a story? When you are writing a story, do the symbols pop up first in your process and then the story line and the message grows out of them, or do you start with a plot or a message you want to impart and the symbols follow?
When I was in Missouri, I decided to start a garden. I lived on the third floor of an apartment building, so I only had a balcony on which to garden. I got all these buckets and some sacks of soil and tried my best to grow vegetables. I had no idea what I was doing; I knew nothing about using good soil and composting and fertilizing. I managed to get the plants to grow (and grow and grow; I hadn’t yet learned how to trim plants back so they don’t get to “Jack and the Beanstalk” proportions), but I wasn’t very successful in getting many actual crops to develop. Every day when I went out to the balcony with my watering can I was confronted with plants that were tall and leafy and green without any tomatoes or peppers or other vegetables on them, and I suppose that image made its way into the story. At that time, I was also getting a lot of rejections for my stories with notes from editors on the rejections saying things like “too quiet” or “too restrained,” so I decided that I wanted something “loud” to happen in this piece. I’d been writing a lot of stories with characters who were passive—they would notice and observe, but they wouldn’t do much—and I think those little notes were a reminder that readers are interested in characters who act and don’t only observe. So I had the image of the garden that didn’t produce crops and then the goal of writing a “not quiet” scene, so then I ended up with the idea of Darlene smashing the plants. And then I had to figure out why she’d do such a thing, especially after her brother and son had spent so much time on the garden. As for symbols, I don’t worry too much about symbols and symbolism as I’m writing. I’m more concerned with character and plot, and I think symbols emerge later. When I’m writing fiction, I never, ever start with a message that I want to convey; if I have that urge, I’ll write an essay instead of a story.
From the Garden
VH: In the last paragraph of your story, the narrator notes that “All of us here are trying to coax something out of this place, and who knows what will come of our efforts.” This resonates on a much higher level than just the garden she is trying to grow. Do you think that we all, like the narrator, are stuck and limited to coaxing something from the different places in our lives? Can we do more than this, or are we just watering and waiting and hoping that something good will grow out of what we do?