Our fiction co-editor Natasha Mieszkowski recently had this exchange with Jacob Guajardo, our Issue #14 featured fiction author. Here’s what he had to say about the inspiration behind this piece, the writing advice he’s found most useful, and his evolution as a writer.
What inspired you to write this piece?
A book on death & dying gave me this story. I wanted to write a mad scientist story. The intersections of religion and science are beautiful.
What do you hope readers take away from it?
Here’s hoping readers walk away from this story having had a good time reading it. The message is not necessarily political, and it was not written to inspire outrage. I hope readers read this piece and debate which character they are. I’m a Tammy.
What are you working on now?
I’m working on a collection of short stories and a novella. There’s something off in each of the stories—souls ripped from bodies, still-beating hearts in storage spaces. My novella is a love letter to my hometown of St. Louis, Michigan: a really strange place. There is a fence around fifty-two acres of land in my hometown where there used to be a chemical plant. There used to be a magnetic spring in St. Louis. There’s a prison. I graduated with 98 people. It’s a weird place.
What is the best advice about writing you have ever received?
Amy Hempel speaks often about being able to learn about writing fiction from other modes of artistic expression. I wrote a story recently about a comic book artist, and after she read it she recommended I watch a documentary about R. Crumb, a famous cartoonist. She asked that I pay attention to what the documentarians focused their cameras on. This “looking elsewhere” to teach oneself about fiction was revelatory.
Could you describe your writing process, and how you approach revising?
The process changes. Often I hear a line and repeat it—variations of it, testing the language—until I’m home and can begin to write. Other times the universe just gives me something too good: a dry-cleaner’s called RIP’s cleaning next to a funeral home. When revising I print a fresh copy of the story I’m working on, open a blank word document, and start again at the beginning.
What is the first story you remember writing?
I attempted a novel when I was in second grade. I titled the novel B.U.R.P.S., which stood for, Best United Rights Preparation of Spies. The title makes absolutely no sense. The first short story I wrote in high school was called “The Places You Leave Behind.” It was terrible but I love it so much.
What writers have been important to your development as a writer?
I started writing short fiction because of Amy Hempel. Now she’s one of my professors at the University of Florida where I’m getting my MFA. Her sentences convinced me that writing is not just word word word. She often quotes Gordon Lish when he said, “Wear your heart on the page, and people will read to find out how you solved being alive.”
Also instrumental are my professors and mentors at my undergrad college in Michigan: Caitlin Horrocks, Monica McFawn, Amorak Huey, and Oindrila Mukherjee.
Because we grew out of a workshop, we like to ask: what is your best or worst workshop experience?
The worst experience involved addressing an angry elephant in the room.
The best experience was my class loving this weird literary zombie story I’d written. Stories about zombies are not always welcome in workshop.
The structure of your story implies that there is an “I” observing the other characters and actions, but he/she is never identified. We are given only “we” and the individually identified other characters. Could you elaborate on this?
There is an “I” implicated and I wanted the speaker of the piece to remain ambiguous. When I prepared to write this story—because I knew it had to be written in first person plural—I asked my mentor, the writer Caitlin Horrocks, how to do it. She’d done it so well in her story The Sleep. She told me to break the rules. If it’s done well the reader will forgive any incongruence. I hope I accomplished that. For me, the “I” in the story can somehow be explained by a final experiment that isn’t present in the story.
There is a great amount of mystery in this story. Despite the rich characters and implied motives, you deny the audience a lot of information about what is actually going on and why – in a tantalizing way. How do you balance ambiguity and clarity of story? How do you decide how much to give away and why?
I don’t have the smart answer. Padgett Powell—another of my professors—is always saying that fiction, at the left end of the spectrum, is made up people doing made-up things. When we move toward the right end of the spectrum, where the situations become weird, precision and clarity become a lot more important. I hope this story follows those rules.
There are a lot of ethical questions raised here concerning the conflict with science and the soul. What compelled you to tackle that?
I am terrified of the afterlife. I grew up in a staunchly Baptist home and the state of my soul was always in question. This was one of those therapeutic journeys. I wrote about the soul and the afterlife to assuage my fears.
What authors give you inspiration?
Karen Russell and George Saunders are two authors I like to read when I want to be reminded that literary fiction can be fun, whimsical, and still heartbreaking. Padgett is always quoting Donald Barthelme—the more wacky the mode the more heartbreak.
What’s your favorite children’s book?
The Giver! I wrote Lois Lowry an e-mail when I was in eighth grade and she responded and I love her.
What is your ideal creative weather?
I write at the time of day it always looks like Carrie Bradshaw is writing.