A powerful opening paragraph can make or break a short story. The first paragraph of “We, the Girls Who Did Not Make It” stopped me in my tracks. I read it and sat there for a few moments taking in the chill beauty of those words. Why did you choose such a gut punch to open the story? Did it immediately come to the page, or was it coaxed to life during later edits?
Thank you for your kind words! The opening came right away, pretty much fully written. At the time, I was angry, so wicked angry that I think I sent my best friend sixty venting text messages. And then the girls started speaking. It didn’t feel like a gut punch, to write. More like a knife against a throat: listen.
It sounds so goofy to say that—channeling voices, hearing voices, oh boy—but that’s the truth. It’s a wild feeling, when a story comes to you like that—on one hand, you’re not really there, you’re just channeling it, and at the same time you’re more there, more alive, more present than you’ve ever been. You’re aware of the very space between the air and your skin.
Haha, I guess you’d call this method “extreme pantsering” on the plotter-pantser writer spectrum? As I typed the opening it felt very much like the girls were drawing their boundary with me: whatever expectations I had as writer/reader looking at a girls-in-basement situation could be thrown out. This was their story, and they were going to tell it the way they wanted to. Weirdly, the moment I knew the opening I also knew the last line, and could vividly picture the final scene. The actual words in the last paragraph changed in a million small-knife ways, but the last sentence was written from the start.
Tell us something about the inspiration behind the story and your focus on the victims.
I have to rein myself in because this story brought together a lot of things I’m passionate about. I’d read a short story that made me angry. Actually, it wasn’t the story itself, but the cultural groundwater flowing unseen beneath it. How we think about and talk about people in the real world who are abused, sexually assaulted, and murdered is never far from my mind. And how gender, race, ability, economic circumstances, etc., plays into it. We’ve gotten better at it. We have a long way to go. No one is the perfect victim or the perfect survivor. Yet we try to insert narrative wires in victims, make them bend and pose to accommodate the story we want to see.
The girls who did not make it came to life in reaction to that. They had to be ghosts. I think ghosts are the American woman’s greatest supernatural ally. I love them. Even if they only stand (or float) for injustice, they’re a powerful device to talk about (or talk around) domestic abuse, violence and just plain dying wrong.
The other thing is that Greek tragedies and Greek religion (the gods, goddesses, spirits, etc.) always find their way into the things I write. I’d like to think that across story time the girls are giving a nod to the Choruses in Greek tragedies who spoke as one, who refused to let the audience watch the action on stage without making their comments heard. The collective voice can be powerful; I wanted more for the girls, though.
Finally, one of my best friends is Amelia Royce Leonards, whose tremendous, evocative, and often very funny watercolor fantasy art has been featured all over the world. (Her IG is @amelialeonardsart—check her out if you’re into haunting depictions of fae, man-eating trees, huldras, and/or silly animal puns.) She’s also my art teacher. I’m so grateful she’s in my life; I’d written myself off as “can’t even pull off stick figures” before I met her. Anyway, one of the first things she taught me was color theory (which, with a Massachusetts accent, sounds like kah-lah theery). And I think art theory is a bit like finding religion—once you’ve learned it, something in your soul shifts, and you can’t imagine processing the world without it. What’s your favorite color? And why? Those are a child’s questions, sure. Small things, easy to dismiss as ordinary, unremarkable. But the ordinary and unremarkable can be full of meaning and worthy of our attention.
There is an intimacy to this story. I know each of the girls. I’ve seen them before, lived next to them, nodded to them on the street or in a café. It is that intimacy that makes the story all the more terrifying. Do you think horror lends itself to such intimacy? Why?
I love our gruesome and often very beautiful genre so much. Horror is your home. Horror is your heart.
Absolutely, yes, I think horror lends itself to the full spectrum of intimacies—from the intimacy of feeling like you really know a character to the intimacy we feel when a character faces a universal fear or grief. Horror also lends itself brilliantly to humor, which invites us to another form of intimacy (here we are, in on the same joke). That’s one of the contradictions I absolutely love about horror. On one hand, it can be full of awful, awful stuff. The worst of the worst. On the other, horror can move you and connect you to your fellow humans like nothing else.
In particular, this line has stuck with me: “Everyone wants to know about them, and if they get caught, they’re all anyone will hear about.” What is it about the killer, the monster, that excites us? Why is it so much harder to empathize with the victims even in a fictional setting?
Oh gosh! This is a topic near and dear to my heart and I could go on forever about it. I think the monster, or the killer, fascinates us for a lot of reasons. Morbid curiosity, maybe. Intrigue. Wish fulfillment (in the case of righteous revenge stories, anyway). As readers I think we’re attracted to narrative movement and agency. And the killer, the monster—they’re a lot of things, but they’re not still, if that makes sense. They’re active. And for various cultural reasons we tend to equate active with power. This is maybe a cynical thing to say but I think most people don’t feel very powerful on any given day.
Moreover, I think there’s an unconscious cultural impulse to place people in one of two camps: the person who does bad things, or the person to whom bad things happen. Powerful or powerless, strong or weak, predator or prey. More of us than we’d like to admit, given those two choices, would rather identify with the person who does bad things. Even if we’ve been on the receiving end of those bad things! To empathize with the victim is just too scary, makes us too vulnerable. We don’t want to look there. We don’t want to be there. It’s quite a psychological trick, isn’t it? The story killer plays on that fear, bullies us all to align with them.
The girls who did not make it took the form as ghosts—not zombies, or some other supernatural creature. Many “true” ghosts in the United States are women, and are depicted as comparatively passive (uncharitably: weak), the supposed energetic opposite of the active killers.
You have written both short fiction and poetry. Are there any other writing forms you would like to tackle in the future?
All of them! Although really, it’s not so much the form that matters. I just want to get better at telling stories. I try to read as much as I can, and you know how it is, when you come upon a story that moves you, that does something different or is executed so effectively that your whole spirit lifts out of your skin. It makes you want to achieve the same in your own work. I have so much to learn.
I’m working on a novel; that whole process is a huge pain. I’m on Team Slow Writer, so trying to complete large projects is a nightmare. I try to not get overwhelmed by the bigness of the novel and just focus on writing one good scene after the other, but it’s hard. I also want to explore creating visual stories, mixed media projects, things like that. I’m so envious of people who have access to giant art barns or studios where they can weld and throw paint and work with unconventional materials and set things on fire to their heart’s content.
Yet another thing that perpetually vexes me is that there’s never enough time to master all the creative stuff we want to in a lifetime. We’re stuck doing the best we can with the time we have. But I love how there are so many ways to tell stories. I want to read them all. I want to write them all.
Spread the word!