Our fiction co-editor Natasha Mieszkowski recently had this exchange with Brent Fisk, our Issue #24 featured fiction author. Here’s what he had to say about exploring human complexity in his story “Victory Garden,” his approach to writing and revising, and the authors who have moved and inspired him.
What inspired you to write this piece?
I just imagined a much darker version of my own grandmother dating in the years after my grandfather’s death. That root cellar was the same root cellar that scared the crap out of me when they lived on Walnut Street when I was a boy.
This is a curiously balanced story, both thematically and structurally. You begin with a garden full of life and flowers and end in a dark basement with questionable contents. The character of the grandmother seems to embody qualities from both. She is strong, taking action against harmful forces, but is a little bit evil in the way she does so.
How did you come to conceive of such a complex character? Do you have an idea in your own head about where she lands on the spectrum of good or evil? Do you want the reader to come to a moral conclusion about her, or would you rather her to be an ethically ambiguous character?
I think people are complex. Over the course of a lifetime really good people are going to do some really awful things, maybe not to the extent that this character did—but bad stuff. I know my grandparents were all amazing people, but I also know, or suspect, they did things in their lifetimes they would not like to be made public. I know that’s the way it is in my life. I wanted to write about that complexity, that duality.
The relationship between the grandmother and the grandchild is intriguing. Why did you decide to structure the story around that relationship? It reveals a lot about both of them. Why did you decide to have the grandchild be a male, considering the grandmother’s murderous tendencies?
I modeled the main character on my own grandmother, so it was natural to write from a male point of view. I was intrigued by how many serial killers grew up in what seem like such normal households. Dahmer’s father seems like a decent guy. The Green River Killer had a wife and daughters. In my own home town there were people who seemed so nice and wholesome who did things that surprised everyone. I just pushed on that idea with this character and the story flowed out of that.
The ending is not ambiguous, but it does lead the reader to wonder about what happens next. What, ultimately, do you want the reader to take away from this story?
I like to think about the reader wondering what they’d do with a discovery like that. Is it a secret that can be kept, that should be kept, and at what price? Who does it harm to tell? Who does it hurt to keep the secret? I think the best stories create those kinds of eddies at the end. Some of my favorite stories have that lack of closure at the end, and I think that’s why they linger with you as a reader—all the “what if”s they make you ask yourself.
What are you working on now?
About four or five essays and short stories—nothing near completion yet. I’m also revising some old work that’s a mix of promising and frustrating.
What is the best advice about writing you have ever received?
Don’t rush the process. A good piece can be turned into a better piece if you give it space, time, and attention.
Could you describe your writing process, and how you approach revising?
I go through lulls where I don’t write much at all and then bursts where I generate a lot of new work. Those periods of inactivity might seem unproductive, but really you’re just absorbing details, casting about your past to see what’s there, what new ways you can think about it. Not writing is restive in the same way sleep is.
What is the first story you remember writing?
“The Hand.” A grade school piece about a hand. I think I wrote it in third grade when I was clearly not bothered by borrowing plot lines from snippets of scary films I wasn’t supposed to see.
What writers have been important to your own development as a writer?
Flannery O’Connor, Harper Lee, Shirley Jackson, Tobias Wolff, and Raymond Carver in particular. Lately I’ve been reading a lot of Sherwood Anderson, Ambrose Bierce, and John Steinbeck. So much rich work out there.
Because we grew out of a workshop, we like to ask: what is your best or worst workshop experience?
I had a poetry group years ago that was amazing. We met once a week, and the work generated in that group was pretty astounding. We all had very different backgrounds, ambitions, writing styles, but I don’t think I ever workshopped a piece there that wasn’t improved by doing so. I’ve had some great workshop experiences at WKU with visiting writers—James Scott, Lee Martin, Robert Olmstead, Richard Hoffman, and Debra Marquart in particular.
What’s your favorite children’s book?
Charlotte’s Web? Watership Down? The Ghost of Dibble Hollow?
What is your ideal creative weather?
Red weather, of course.