This was a wonderful story, both horrific and tragic. Salma’s tale was particularly heartbreaking. What was your inspiration?
I was in middle school when Columbine happened, and I remember very clearly how terror gripped my school and my community. It felt like the news was just saturated with coverage — videos of the kids crawling out of those windows, parents sobbing, the grainy footage from the cafeteria. Then after that was the speculation about the shooters, their parents, the role Marilyn Manson and video games played in their violence, and so on. It felt like it never ended. My parents were normally pretty good about turning off the TV when it stopped saying anything new, but I just remember so much about that coverage, and how it seemed to dominate everything.
This summer, I read We Need to Talk About Kevin, and around the same time noticed that shootings have become so commonplace that they barely make the news at all. Newtown seemed like the exception — I think because the kids were so young — but at this point they’re . . . honestly, they’re common. They surprise no one; and that’s horrifying.
You detail a school shooting, which can be a very challenging subject. Did you find this story difficult to write?
Writing about the shooting itself was difficult. The thing about this story is because the narratives are nested — and you’re getting closer and closer to the horror only as you peel away the layers — I got the same sense of utter dread as I did when I read We Need to Talk About Kevin. In other words, I knew that as I pushed inward it was going to become more uncomfortable, but I kept going because I had to.
The tragedy in “Descent” is framed within a far more tranquil (though still slightly unsettling) book club meeting. What drove this decision?
This past summer, I attended a workshop where I read an unpublished story, by a writer I admire very much, in a form I’d never heard of before — the “club story.” (My title comes, in part, from Poe’s ”A Descent into the Maelström,” the progenitor of the form.) I both loved it and got a distinct sense of its maleness — men gathered around drinking brandy and telling tales, that sort of thing. So I became curious about how that form could be bent, nested, queered, gender-swapped, and connected to the present in a horrifying way. “Where,” I thought, “do women gather together that could suggest the opposite feel of the men’s club?” Book club is not the only answer to that question, of course, but it suited my purposes.
I think this form really works for this story because it goes about the horror in an indirect way — the main narrator is a teacher at a nearby school who is trying to manage the kids transferred to her school in the wake of a shooting. For her, the shooting is somewhat distant and abstract, and only as the story gets deeper into its narrative layers do we arrive at its awful core.
I also come from a family of storytellers, so the function of storytelling as it relates to the shooting, and death in general (generational stories, rumors, news, etc.), is very interesting to me.
Would you say your experience at Clarion impacted you as a writer? If so, how?
I think the neat thing about Clarion is that it functions differently for different attendees, depending on when in their writing career they attend. For some folks, it’s their first exposure to the workshop model. I attended Clarion on the heels of an MFA program, so that element wasn’t new. For me, the rotation of instructors with their different insights and skills, combined with writing and critiquing every day, was just a high-intensity, fast-paced, super-concentrated extension of what I’d been doing already: writing short fiction and showing it to a group of brilliant, thoughtful writers. Also, I met some of my favorite people in the whole world at Clarion. So there’s that.
What are you working on right now, and what work do you have forthcoming that you are able to share?
Right now I’m finishing up the novella that’ll cap my collection — it’s called “The Resident” — and working on a novel, tentatively titled Venus Would Freeze.
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