Our fiction editor, Robin Lauzon, recently spoke with Amanda Pauley, author of Issue #8’s “Butchering.” Here’s what she had to say about the inspiration behind the story, her approach to research when writing fiction, and how she’s learned not to let ambition get in the way of enjoying the work of writing.
What inspired you to write this piece?
I grew up watching the process of butchering animals, and I never thought it fair. It seemed the perfect metaphor for the subject of this piece. The feeling behind the idea was that combination of wanting to be yourself, whatever that means for an individual, and at the same time, knowing who you may lose in the process.
What do you hope people take away from this story?
An awareness of what some people still go through with their families. While I’d like to think society is farther along than this, “coming out” with regard to sexual orientation can still be such an emotional bloodbath for some people – especially in a conservative area. It wouldn’t hurt my feelings if the readers’ thoughts lingered on the metaphor either – the misconception that people can count on “humane killings” taking place on small, local farms.
In the story, you choose to have Melinda postpone her coming out, and let the story work itself out in a symbolic dream, incorporating the butchering she just witnessed, instead. Why did you choose to sidestep the direct confrontation? Did you experiment with or consider other ways of telling the story?
This story has been through countless revisions, but the one thing that remained consistent was the postponement of her coming out. I felt like the literal butchering was about as much current negative action as the story could hold, and that as long as it was clear how similar the two events would be, it was better to leave her in that awful place of “just before,” with only that tiny light coming through, which is Melinda’s knowing that her child will be raised differently. This was something we discussed often in my graduate tutorial – how with dark or sad stories, you need, at the very least, a tiny speck of light to come through. Otherwise, a story could be a real turn off.
Can you go more into detail about the butchering? You said you grew up watching this. Was this also a yearly tradition in your family? If so, when did that happen and why? Does it still go on? What impact do you think seeing this had on you?
It was a yearly tradition in our family. It took place on Thanksgiving Day when the relatives were at our home so my parents would have help. The tradition finally fell to the wayside about five years ago but not for the reasons one might think – and that’s another story! Regarding the impact of growing up with the practice, it’s a terrible internal contradiction. I wish I’d never seen any of it. I still have nightmares. At the same time, if I hadn’t seen some of what I’ve seen, I might not be as anti-animal cruelty as I am now. I might still be ignoring it like most people.
You said this was based partially on your own observations, but also that you like to do research. I wonder if you can talk about the tension between what you already know and what you need to find out when writing–both in this story and others.
My research usually begins in search of detail. I usually have a story in mind already. For example, my story “Braids,” published in The Masters Review Anthology, was about a federal prison inmate. I already had the plot in mind, but I visited the prison so I could go through the motions of checking in and learn about behavior restrictions. For instance, if my character wanted to go to the lunchroom, could he just walk there? Sometimes, the research is about the small stuff. Then for my story “Secret Flock” (aka “The Window”), winner of the 2013 Arts and Letters Prize for Fiction, the opposite was true. I had a story in mind, but after interviewing a chicken catcher for details about his employment, I learned of so many issues surrounding his job that an entirely new story surfaced.
What are you working on now?
More short stories! I usually have several going at once. I’m working on a story about a disease intervention specialist who has to track down the partners of people infected with STDs. Another about some strangeness in a public library. And another about a sixty-seven year old woman who begins internet dating.
What is the best advice about writing you have ever received?
To enjoy my time BEFORE the book! It seems like common sense, but it wasn’t. After two Masters Degrees, one of them an MFA in Creative Writing in 2014, publishing a collection seemed like the next step. It hasn’t happened yet. A friend of mine, who is an editor of a small press, reminded me of the benefits of that time before the first book. Short story writers can write without worrying about book promotion, marketing, and readings. You can write whatever you want, publish in a variety of journals, and build a community of supportive readers. Letting go of the idea that there is an expected route or time table for a writer has allowed me to produce more work – more published work – than ever.
How do you support yourself while you work on your writing?
I work part-time in McConnell Library at Radford University. It’s wonderful to work in a place that has a shelf of books by Cormac McCarthy, a shelf of books by Flannery O’Conner, etc. I pick up other odd jobs as well – anything from participating in brain studies to selling junk on Craigslist. I’ve been paid to hull walnuts, mow lawns, rake leaves, and clean up a tire dump.
Could you describe your writing process?
It varies. Sometimes there is a feeling and an idea (sometimes that happens in reverse) and I sit down and write a whole story. Then there are feelings and ideas that I know will need research in order to do them justice. I love to investigate. I get on the phone or on the internet and find someone who can fill me in on how something works – a job, a process, whatever – to give a story a real life feel. And as often as possible, I have friends read and critique my stories.
What is the first story you remember writing?
I remember writing a brief non-fictional story in elementary school about how on Saturday mornings my brother and I would get out of bed early because we knew The Dukes of Hazzard came on television at 7 a.m. We would end up pushing each other around and making noise until my mom woke up, at which point we lost our allowance for the week. It happened a lot. I remember that my teacher complimented me, and the feeling that came with knowing that someone had read what I had written, something I grew to love about school.
What is your best (or worst) workshop experience?
There were several standout workshops in my Hollins graduate tutorial. Those in which you turned in a story you believed in, one you felt good about, but you learned in the process that it could be so much better.
What’s your favorite children’s book, and why?
Tuck Everlasting by Natalie Babbitt. The story made me think about a very adult concept – our temporariness. It also had me daydreaming about living forever – even though the downside was clear.