Our fiction editor, Robin Lauzon Parker, recently spoke with Barbara Harroun, author of the short story “Remnants” featured in our inaugural issue. Here’s what she had to say about her story, her writing process, and her literary inspiration.
What inspired you to write “Remnants”?
I had written a story about the twin sisters who appear in this story, and the family stayed with me. Peanut allergies are very real, and very dangerous and with two children in grade school, it was on my radar. Also, as I grow older, I see the wealth of stories, or at least leaping off points for stories from my own childhood, which was rich and wonderful. I had a degree of freedom then that my kids will never know—riding my bike or walking all over town with a wolf pack of neighborhood kids.
Six years ago, my family moved back to the town I grew up in, and my daughter went to preschool beside the Catholic grade school I attended. Returning to the town I had lived in for a huge part of my life triggered a great deal of memory work and reconciliation. I would run into my high school English teacher at the grocery store, or my marching band director while walking, or kids I had gone to high school with. I had to re-envision the town I grew up in, learn to see it with new eyes instead of the eyes of a young adult who wanted out and never planned to return. I also had to confront all the versions of myself, from grade school to undergraduate. That’s a lot of time, a lot of living. And then a man once came to our grade school, looking just as Simon’s father did, minus the knife on the end of his cane, although he did have a cane. Imagistically, it lodged in my brain. As an adult, I am much like the narrator’s mother in her quest for knowledge. I am endlessly fascinated by gender and sexuality. In the 1980s, when this story is set, I don’t believe I ever heard the word “gender.”
What do you hope people take away from this story?
While the protagonist is a past-remembering narrator, looking back, and although memory is a fluid thing and not to be trusted, I want people to see he is trying to figure out the truth of that time, and still trying to figure out who he is now, how those events shaped who he is now. Being a parent myself, I have pressed my face up, over and over again, to the fact that kids are complex, wonderfully so, and often grapple with the same big questions we have as adults. I remember keenly feeling it was all, all of it—the outdoors, school, my family, church, my body—a huge, wonderful, terrifying mystery.
I still feel this occasionally. I remember, as a child, trying to figure things out. The narrator, as an adult, is still wrestling with knowing/not knowing the world, understanding and reconciling his own capability for cruelty and kindness, others’ capabilities, and still does not fully understand the spectrum of gender or feel known by or know his mother. I find his excavation admirable, and that he tries in his adult life to do better, to be better.
What are you working on now?
I am working on a manuscript of linked short stories revolving around this family. I am polishing a manuscript of short, flash and micro-fiction. I am also cooking a murder mystery featuring a librarian/runner in her fifties. That’s my day-dream-walk-the-dog-work. Just dreaming it and jotting things down. Getting to know this fascinating woman. A novel strikes me as a marathon, and my life, as full as it is, is currently suited to the sprint work of flash fiction. I love poetry too, and came to fiction through poetry, and I continue writing and reading it widely. Nonfiction is something I am trying to go toward too because it scares the crap out of me, and I admire it so.
What is the best advice about writing you have ever received?
Patricia Henley once encouraged me to “Tap the dark vein” and I saw it as a mining metaphor; dig deep, excavate. It gave me permission to look intently at that which absorbed, obsessed and disturbed me, and it freed me from writing to please others. Patricia also used to say, “Write the islands” so when scenes come, I write them, even if I am unsure of where they will actually be placed within the story.
Sharon Solwitz taught me to see revision as a truly creative, even joyful act. She constantly asked “What is necessary? What serves the story?” and she taught me to read my own work with writerly eyes.
My friend and running partner, Rebekah Buchanan, once gave me a button she made that reads, “Shut up and publish.” Once on a long run, not so long ago, I confessed I might not be a “real writer” and she called me out, knowing I was writing, had been writing all along, but I hadn’t been sending work out. Publishing is not the end all be all, but she reminded me that art serves humanity, and it can’t do that if it’s only on your flash drive. Rejection is humbling. Acceptance is humbling. The process of writing is something that nourishes and sustains me, however difficult it is, but once a story comes to an inevitable close, I need to send it out into the world.
Can you describe your writing process?
I journal, longhand each day, often in the early dark with a huge cup of coffee before the house wakes up. Often I jot seeds of stories here, or scenes, or potential endings, or first lines. I consider running part of my process because ideas come or phrases sometimes, images, and my running partner is also a writer, a colleague and a trusted friend. My process isn’t static. I try to have my feelers out all of the time. I discover and draft, share it with trusted friends and readers/writers and then I revise, revise, revise. Leave it alone. Come back to it. I just had a story that is over a decade old, that has morphed more times than I care to count, accepted. And it is a better story because of that decade–what I learned during that decade about writing and being human.
What’s the first poem story you remember writing?
I wrote and illustrated a story called “Brothers” for my parents at the age of 6. My original intent was for them to understand my plight as a middle child book-ended by brothers, and to perhaps consider giving them away. Instead, by the end I had written my way back into love for them. I was startled by the ending, and I was hooked.
What writer inspires you?
Only one? I’m constantly inspired by writers. This summer I reread Marilynne Robinson’s novels for sheer pleasure. Right now I am reading William Trevor’s Selected Stories and they are mind-blowingly good. I recently revisited Jennifer Egan’s A Visit from the Goon Squad, studying how she linked that novel. Last year, I taught Chad Simpson’s collection Tell Everyone I Said Hi. His work is incredible. We were lucky enough to bring him to campus, and the students were in awe, and rightly so.
What’s your favorite children’s book?
If I had to choose only one it would be Ray Bradbury’s The Halloween Tree. My mom read aloud to us (we didn’t have a television until I was in sixth grade), and this one had us all totally enthralled. I was also obsessed by Roald Dahl and Michael Ende. I think, as I child, I read their entire bodies of work intended for young readers. I remember going to the old card catalogue to see what else they had written. I dreamed of living one day in the library! How wonderful it is to bring my beloved kiddos to the same library that fed me all of those years ago!