“On the Origin of Specie” is an incredibly tight story filled with incredible detail for a suffocating environment. Tell us something of what inspired you to write this particular horror.
One of my recurring obsessions in fiction is how embodied personhood is distorted by the operations of power that surround that body—how the world makes a space for us to live in, but it’s a twisted, cramped space that we contort ourselves to fit into. We are all in the hole, is what I’m saying.
The environment is its own character. The cramped conditions, the smells, the pain of skin scraped raw, painful light and a broken ankle, the glorious description of “the snake” and other features of the pit. This story is all about sensory detail. Did you begin writing with this level of detail intended for the story, or did it evolve as draft became finished product?
It was the intention from the beginning, yes. I had the opening, the ending, and the title in mind before I started writing (I may have cackled to myself for a while when the title first occurred to me), so I knew the story’s shape and where the load-bearing structures were. So it was important that the hole not feel vague or abstract.
One of the things I most love about the story is the voice of the unreliable narrator. Is this an actual pit, or is it a furnace? Is the main character imprisoned or being melted down to mint new coins? The dark, twisted possibilities seem endless. Why is it stories such as this, that keep the reader guessing, are so successful?
It’s intriguing to me that you find the narrator unreliable—in my own reading, they seem very reliable! But I agree that short stories seem to work better when they don’t wrap everything up too neatly. I think a short story should not leave a reader completely satisfied. It shouldn’t feel satiating or be snack-ishly forgettable. A short story’s ambition should be to haunt its reader for their natural life and, if possible, beyond.
It’s been said that the best writers put something of themselves on the page. How much of Vajra Chandrasekera made it into “On the Origin of Specie”?
Well, it’s a story about someone being thrown into a hole and dying horribly, so one would hope not much, LOL. That said, I think it’s actually commonplace among writers to borrow bits and bobs from life, sometimes even including their own, to build the telling details that give a fiction some depth of field. Words pretending to be worlds—which is not every story, granted, but at least those attempting this to any degree—need to suggest that a story is like life, that there’s more to what’s on the page than what’s actually on the page, like how in life there’s no bottom to the depths you can uncover from a person or object or situation: if you pull any thread long enough, the entire universe unravels from it. What’s on the page is never that, but it could feel like it, if you’re lucky and judicious in your choice of bits and bobs.
In addition to writing, you are also a critic and an editor. Do you find those roles influence one another? Does being a writer help in selecting stories or working with authors?
On the one hand, these are all perspectives that exist on a continuum of caring about the work of story, so yes, I think sometimes it’s been helpful to have the practice of looking at a text in these different ways. On the other hand, I don’t want to overstate that helpfulness either. Many people do just fine focusing on a single role. I think this is like talking about the differences between being a short story writer, a poet, or a novelist. One person can occupy all these roles at once, and maybe there are some transferable skills, experiences, perspectives, and what have you between them, but in the end the work you do in each belongs to magisteria more separate than overlapping.
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