Small, shocking doses of empathy

Robin Parker interviews
Genevieve Plunkett


Our fiction co-editor, Robin Parker, recently had this exchange with Genevieve Plunkett, our Issue #12 featured fiction author. Here’s what she had to say about her development as a writer, her writing process, and the inspiration behind “Get Gregory Out”… Read more

Our fiction co-editor, Robin Parker, recently had this exchange with Genevieve Plunkett, our Issue #12 featured fiction author. Here’s what she had to say about her development as a writer, her writing process, and the inspiration behind “Get Gregory Out.”


What inspired you to write this piece?

I experience something that people are calling Autonomous Sensory Meridian Response (ASMR), which is basically an intense feeling of euphoria and relaxation triggered by specific environmental stimuli. I happen to respond strongly to people explaining things to me – think Bob Ross – and so sometimes seek out these experiences on YouTube to help me relax. I’ve found that people on the internet love to talk about their hobbies, whether it is sharing their collection of paint brushes, or doing calligraphy demonstrations. One day, I came across a young woman explaining how to care for a strange, lifelike doll. I started thinking about the many ways people dissociate from reality, how easy it is to feel strongly about something that is not real and, alternately, how emotionally inept people often are in the face of tragedy or even love.


What do you hope readers take away from it?

First, I want people to be entertained. Then, I hope that some will come away with a new grain of empathy. Empathy needs to be taken in small, but shocking doses.


What are you working on now?

I am always writing one story, while editing or revising another. I am still afraid to admit that I am working on a novel, but there you have it.


What is the best advice about writing you have ever received?

“You can teach yourself to write.” To this day, I’m not sure if the person who told me this meant me directly – that I had the capability to become a writer – or simply that one can’t be taught this particular skill in a classroom. In any case, I took it to mean that I needed to work very hard. It helped me to foster trust in my own judgments, and reminds me daily that the answers to my questions about writing are available in the closest copy of War and Peace.


Could you describe your writing process, and how you approach revising?

I write every day, but have no fixed schedule. I have two young children who almost never leave me alone, and when they do, it is usually to climb the bookshelves or to dismantle the vacuum cleaner. So sometimes I am pushing a stroller and I am thinking about how to end a short story, or I am running away from stirring what’s on the stove to write one sentence. It is not ideal and I always feel stressed, but I realize (begrudgingly) that the anxiety is often what pushes me to work harder.

When it comes to revising, I love the backspace key. I used to keep a separate document of all the pages and pages of text that I had cut from various projects, but I am not as insecure now.


What is the first story you remember writing?

My first story, if written today by a child, would probably result in expulsion. It was fourth grade, so I was nine, and I thought it would be brilliant to write a murder mystery involving my whole class, as in, writing them into the story as victims. My classmates were just as enthusiastic. I remember them crowding around my desk requesting that I kill them off next in the most gruesome way possible. My favorite line was something like, “Blood gushed from the hole where Zach’s arm used to be.” I was really proud of that line and remember reading it aloud during circle time with gusto.


What writers have been important to your development as a writer? And who gives you inspiration?

I try to read at least one Elizabeth Bowen novel per year. Her writing reminds me to pay attention. She gives all things the same amount of life, whether it is a chair, a building, the quality of light reflected by a mirror, or an elusive and almost subconscious inkling. This, for me, creates the illusion that I’m experiencing the scene instead of conjuring one image after another. Take this line from The Death of the Heart: “In this airy vivacious house, all mirrors and polish, there was no place where shadows lodged, no point where feeling could thicken.” She deals in matters of quality, depth, negative and positive space. I’m actually still trying to figure it out.

Some other writers that I am always going back to are: Isak Dinesen, Ida Fink, Alice Munro, Flannery O’Connor, and Laurence Sterne. Ida Fink’s story, “The Shelter,” from her collection, A Scrap of Time, and Mark Slouka’s, “The Hare’s Mask,” changed my expectations of short stories altogether.


What’s your favorite children’s book?

When I was a kid, it was Philip Pullman’s His Dark Materials trilogy. But as a parent of small children, I have to say, any book that holds up after the 100th read. Dr. Seuss’s Sleep Book is great, because it has enough diversity to remain interesting and, once you fall into the rhythm, it takes very little effort. Also, it involves a creature called the Collapsible Frink.

By Genevieve Plunkett

Genevieve Plunkett is a writer from Vermont and a graduate of Bennington College. Her fiction has appeared in New England Review.