Q and A with Monica McFawn, BRIGHT SHARDS OF SOMEPLACE ELSE
From the jacket copy: In the eleven kaleidoscopic stories that make up Bright Shards of Someplace Else, Monica McFawn traces the combustive, hilarious, and profound effects that occur when people misread the minds of others. The characters—an array of artists, scientists, songwriters, nannies, horse trainers, and poets—often try to pin down another’s point of view, only to find that their own worldview is far from fixed.
The characters in McFawn’s stories long for and fear the encroachment of others. A young boy reduces his nanny’s phone bill with a call, then convinces her he can solve her other problems. A man who works at a butterfly-release business becomes dangerously obsessed with solving a famous mathematical proof. A poetry professor finds himself entangled in the investigation of a murdered student. In the final story, an aging lyricist reconnects with a renowned singer to write an album in the Appalachian Mountains, only to be interrupted by the appearance of his drug-addicted son and a mythical story of recovery.
By turns exuberant and philosophically adroit, Bright Shards of Someplace Else reminds us of both the limits of empathy and its absolute necessity. Our misreadings of others may be unavoidable, but they themselves can be things of beauty, charm, and connection.
1. There's a lot of erudition in these stories - you have characters who know quite a bit about mathematics and police procedurals and horses, for example. Are these subjects related to work you've done in the past (or are doing currently)?
The subjects in the book range from things I know very well to subjects I knew almost nothing about when I began researching.. I’m an equestrian (and have owned horses for over twenty years) so I know a lot about horses, but math is another story. I’ve never been a strong math student, and my math education ended in high school. But I became interested in proofs and high-level math after watching a play, “Fermat’s Last Tango,” which was based on a true story about Andrew Wiles, a British mathematician who solved Fermat’s theorem. The play made math, which previously seemed to me to be the driest of subjects, seem intoxicating in its high abstraction.
This appealed to me, and reminded of a brief period when I become really interested in philosophy. I was reading things like Wittgenstein’s Notes on Color and Kierkegaard’s Either/Or. I’d read these texts, and hardly anything would make sense to me. But here and there, I’d feel a flicker of understanding, and it was as if this whole latticework of the world’s logic was being shown to me. Then the clarity would recede, the words would seem like gibberish once more.
I imagine that this is what it might feel like to be a mathematician, struggling to find connections and formulas that explain how the world works. I see it as being a kind of artist—searching for this high, clear ideal—but an artist that is looking for something far more specific than anything a writer or artist would seek. I liked the idea of exploring a character, like Aaron (the mathematician in my story) who has discovered a difficult proof--that private moment of exultation and disbelief before he shares what he knows with the world.
2. I also thought it was interesting to see flash fiction pieces interspersed with short stories of a more traditional length. Do you begin a story with the thought that it will be flash fiction? Or do you discover this as you're writing the story?
I started out writing poetry (and have an MFA in it), so some of the shorter pieces in the collection are also older. My work shifted from free verse, to prose poems, to flash fiction and then to traditional-length fiction. Flash fiction allowed me to use some of what I already knew as a poet (how to shape a small moment, how to be precise stylistically, how to use sound and rhythm as part of the effect).
Still, one of the last pieces I wrote for the collection, “Ornament and Crime,” could be classified as flash. In that case, I was working on a longer story about a furniture maker who had been caught cheating on his girlfriend, and began to make really ornate, ugly work to cope with his messed-up life (previously, he’d been a staunch minimalist). The story was sort of a mess, and it became obvious that it was time to abandon it. Before I closed the file for the last time, I really wanted to salvage something from it. So I made myself take the part that really intrigued me—which was the character’s love of minimalism—and make a short short out of it. The resulting piece is much better than the wreckage from which it was pulled!
3. A number of your stories concern mortality - was this a theme you were conscious of as you were putting the collection together?
I wasn’t conscious of that as a theme, but looking over the collection it obviously is. I think I write about death frequently not because I’m morbid, but because death always seems to spin characters in a way that interests me. Death puts pressure on people’s worldviews, and forces them to lean on coping mechanisms to deal with both the grief and mystery of it. It shakes up people and I’m really interested in characters who are in flux spiritually and philosophically. I think the story “Snippet and the Rainbow Bridge,” is a good example of how I use death in my work. Four characters are in the process of deciding whether or not this pony should be euthanized, and all four begin to act “out of character” when faced with the decision. The soft-hearted become practical, and the practical get wooed by the thought of trying to save this perhaps doomed animal. Yet at the same time, each character is assuming that the other characters will be acting as they usually do. Death has a way of unearthing traits and feelings in characters that are usually suppressed.
4. What/Who are some of your biggest artistic influences?
I’ve had a lot of influences over the years, but there were several writers and artists who I turned to most often when I was writing this book. When I write, I usually have five or six books close to me while I’m working—these books are both inspirations and correctives. I looked at Exit Ghost by Phillip Roth often because I liked the wry, passionate voice of the protagonist, the kind of desperate humor. I had Lydia Davis’ Collected Storiesnearby because she is so good at grabbing those throwaway moments of life and holding them up for examination. I also looked at Nathaniel Hawthorne’s unfinished manuscript, Septimus Felton, for the way he uses an unspooling, breathless style, followed by a deadpan ironic line, to play with reader expectation. Richard Russo’s That Old Cape Magic was nearby for its warmth, and Italio Calvino’s Difficult Loves and Kafka were also close for their cool, yet electric precision.
Whenever I found my writing losing something—for instance, if the sentence style was getting too tight and deliberate—I’d pick up a book that was the opposite of the problem I was having. Lydia Davis’ sentence style and progression is so unforced, that simply reading a few lines would get me unstuck. But if the work was getting too clinical and dry, I’d look at Roth or Russo to bring a humane voice back in. I see the books on my side table as paint colors I can pull from and mix to create something of my own.
5. What is the inspiration behind your collection's title?
When I was putting the collection together, I was at loss for a title. It's traditional to name a short story collection after one of the stories, but I didn't want to do that. I thought naming it after a story would give a single story too much importance. The phrase I ended up using for the title originally appeared in "Snippet and the Rainbow Bridge," one of the last stories I wrote for the book. During that moment in the story, one of the characters is focusing on the lights she sees when she squeezes her eyes shut:
"Those flashes of light, ghosts of light she'd seen, no doubt, the shapes of lamplight and bare bulbs like a visual echo--she bore down on them as if they were concealing something. They were bright shards of someplace else, she always thought as a kid, evidence of another world peeping through."
When I wrote that phrase, it seemed to encompass the book in a way that my individual story titles did not. All of my characters have a kind of fascination with other worlds and ways of life besides their own, and all strain to see beyond their own spheres. But these glimpses they see are fragmented, beckoning, and perhaps illusionary. I think my character feel (as I do) that there's something confining about the fact that a person can only lead one life, no matter how fulfilling that life may be. Every new person and place represents an alternative existence, but as a single individual you’re forced to only walk down one path. Daydreaming and art are pretty much the only ways to experience those other paths.
6. If you don't mind telling us, what are you working on now?
I finished a screenplay, Snow Angel, over the summer, and I’ve been working on shopping that around. I’ve also started a novel (tentatively titled), Keel, which is about an eccentric married couple whose lives revolve around wooden boats. Both the screenplay and the novel will be more comedic than what I’ve done before.