What Cannot Be Said Out Loud and Finding the Truth in a Moment

An Interview with Catherine Parnell
By Fiction Editor Ann Fisher

“In our bay there is no such thing as a secret between us.”

In previous work, you note that you often “listen to the music of language” around you to build a story. Was there a word song that sparked “Sisters of the Sacred Well” for you?

I listened to everything by the Canadian band The Tragically Hip when I wrote this story and others in the linked collection. Two of The Hip’s songs moved me when I got stuck, when I needed to hear the brights and blues I sensed, the burbling waters that lifted the story: Bobcaygeon” and “Lake Fever.” Tragically Hip band member Gord Downie was diagnosed with a terminal brain tumor and died a few years ago, and this story is testament to him. He was, among other things, an activist, and in a quieter way, so is the main character in “Sisters of the Sacred Well.”

The ethereal relationship between the group of girls and Colin feels like something the reader isn’t allowed to touch – how did you envision that relationship? 

Good question. The undertow of the story is a form of admonishment and subversion. The girls know perfectly well what cannot be said aloud, that Colin’s dual nature, male and female, is sacred and secret. They live in a culture and a time not so long ago where that was seen as perversion. To the girls, it’s a form of honesty and honor. They’re trusted mates. The rest of the world, not so much, and the reader is part of the world that can’t touch the bond between the girls and Colin. The world can, however, learn by finding out what they’ve missed.

Secrets play an important role in this story. You write “And Colin knows all, not because we told him, but because in our bay there is no such thing as a secret between us.” Tell us a bit about how the concept of secrets took its form in this story, and what you wish the reader to understand about “Colin’s bay.”

There’s a deliberate play on words, “bay” as in water and “bay” as in window, and the idea of secrets links to both. Secrets between trusted mates and friends open the window to an inner world of truth and imagination that can’t be entered without tacit permission. Colin and the girls have been friends all their lives, from diapers to Depends, and the friendship nurtures and sustains them in ways the outer, bigger world can’t. This group of people live one life in the summer and another in the remaining seasons. The brilliance of summer on the water allows them a freedom that’s impossible in their staider city lives. They know one another so well they don’t need to speak. They’re about action and exploration, an unveiling. Because of this, the girls will protect Colin even as Dementia takes him away. He is, after all, one of the Sisters.

You end this piece with a note about shapeshifting as a way to open up secret worlds. Can you say more about that concept?

Shape-shifting feels as if it belongs to another world, doesn’t it? A world where we can be anything at any time in any shape we desire. What does Colin desire? To embrace and live the dual shapes split by gender. He does not deny his birth shape, he does not deny his desires. He controls and lives with them. As a sculptor, he loves the human form. So do the girls, but their shape-shifting takes place in their interior. Their minds, far more than their bodies, break traditional roles relegated to gender. Where these kids came from is beyond me. One day they arrived and morphed from children to adults.

Your story weaves water and swimming into the childhood lives of the characters. Can you tell us how swimming is important to you, and how it moves your writing?

People tend to think of swimming as a form of exercise, which it most certainly is, but to my mind, there’s something baptismal and sacred about it as a spiritual practice. There’s a silence when swimming that reveals what I feel is a conduit to the deepest part of my soul. When the characters in the story came to life on the page, I wanted them to have that conduit so they’d hear the murmur of their inner selves interacting with the universe. It’s the old write what you know, but in this case, I was writing within an environment I understood to express a deep deep love and a little bit of fury that our world is so slow to accept our dual natures. I was determined that my characters honor their duality. To do that they needed to wash away the ugly imperatives found in the gender-restrictive culture. So, they swim.

I’ve also watched the ways people get into the water – some are timid, others splash their arms and legs a bit, and others dive or jump right in. It mirrors approaches to the writing process and it also reminds me of ways to approach life – and I’m the all-in sort in the water and in life. But I’m not foolish about the water. You can go down in a heartbeat, a situation I’m familiar with from my many years as a lifeguard.

Can you tell us a bit about the shaping of this story, and your process of bringing it to completion?

I write in bursts and spurts. The story arrived fully formed, which is not to say I didn’t spend time grabbed here and there thinking and wondering about it. Stories unspool in my mind, and I see them before I write them. I always know where to begin, yet I have a terrible time compressing the first paragraph of anything I write. I’m wordy and friends tell me I’m really a poet. To which I reply, Nope.

What inspires your writing practice? What keeps you focused?

I’m moved and inspired by life around me. And death. You know, the old Seals & Crofts song with the line, “We may never pass this way again.” We probably won’t. So I watch, I listen, I take it all in. Observation unleashes alluring powers! I feel a deep need to capture moments that reflect and stand in for feelings and relationships. It’s a process of walking in footsteps and looking to the future. In our damaged and fractured world, who cared and who will be left to care? Ultimately, that’s my focus and inspiration.

As an editor yourself (MicroLit Almanac), tell us a bit about what you look for when you delve through flash submissions for publication.

I look for anything that sends a good shiver up my spine – not in the sense that I’m frightened, but in the sense that I see the absolute art in a work. Stories and essays must reveal the truth of a moment and they must make me care. They must have a reason for being, and be loaded with calibrated emotion without being gaudy or sentimental. I see a lot of perfectly good technical work that lacks purpose and nuance; but I also see work in which writers tap into emotion. The stories jump to life when that happens. On the other hand, lousy prose makes me physically ill.

What advice would you give to our writers regarding the editing process?

Editing your own work can be tough, so find a trusted fellow writer who will be honest with you – without being hurtful. When working as an editor with a journal on the editing process pre-publication, it’s critical to honor the work and the work’s author. When offering feedback (if needed), don’t make stories or essays in your own “image,” but do adhere to an established aesthetic standard. Each literary magazine or journal has guidelines, and ours at MicroLit Almanac reflect our mission to publish moments of vulnerability and revelation. Since we publish flash, we also look for brevity. Finally, as a writer working with an editor at a journal, it’s important to consider each suggested edit with an eye on the magazine’s guidelines. Remember, they don’t know you and they’re looking at your work with fresh eyes. I’ve often been surprised to find that things in my work that are perfectly clear to me make no sense to an editor, who represents audience in micro. That doesn’t mean you accept all the edits. Ask questions, explore areas in a work noted by the editor as in need of revision.

Tell us a bit about your current projects, writing or adventuring.

I’m pulling together a collection of linked stories that centers on the “girls” in Colin’s bay. I’ve got about twelve stories and need to write two more to tap into unexplored themes, but my work and adventures keep me so busy I have to really crush it to find time to write. The characters in the collection are so alive to me that I often find myself writing them quick notes that find their way into stories.

My adventuring never ends – museums, plays, and movies are abundant where I live. In the fall I’ll be going to Sicily and while I’m an art, cathedrals, churches, ruins and food fanatic, I’ve scoped out beaches, because I will swim. Yes, I will.

By Ann Fisher

Ann Fisher is fiction co-editor of Mud Season Review. Ann lives, works, and writes at the base of the Green Mountains. Her work has appeared in AcrosstheMargin, The Sonder Review, Heartwood Literary Magazine, ZigZagLitMag, and About Place Journal, among others.