This week, Life as a Shorty features a heart-wrenching story, THE FLEDGLING, by Susan Pagani. The story features a woman who can’t quite make the human connections she so desperately wants, and her struggling efforts to do. It also features a mail carrier, caged birds, and a secret object revealed halfway through, which guides the rest of the narrative. Read the story here. And check out an interview with the author below.
Keith Lesmeister: The story starts out with this horrific, nightmarish scenario, which draws readers in immediately. And while I had thought initially that the story would be about the parents who lost the child, it wasn’t about that at all. Did you know, upon starting this piece, that that would be the case? Was this always going to be about Mary Beth?
Susan Pagani: Yes, it was always Mary Beth’s story. There was a draft where I began with Mary Beth and the finches, thinking that would help the reader understand it was her story and create more of a build to the actual accident. It didn’t work as well for me. I felt the accident needed to be first, and for the reader and Mary Beth to travel away from it, in order for things to go awry as they do.
KL: The piece takes place in Minneapolis, which endures intense, relentless amounts of snow, similar to what I’m staring at right now out my kitchen window, these huge heavy snowflakes. The snow and cold in your story plays a central role throughout. I love these lines: “She liked the quiet of snow, how you could hear the scrape of a leafless branch against a house or the thin whistle of a chickadee, and then the distant sounds of freight trains and industry. She was attentive to the light, so soft and yellow on a day like today, so far down into the trees and full on the houses, giving everything the look of paper, two-dimensional and flimsy.” Can you speak to setting and how, generally, it plays a role in this piece and your work overall?
SP: A lot of my stuff starts with setting — not setting alone, but it’s a part of that first image. Winter in Minneapolis is so intense: snowy, sub-zero, interminable. It can be isolating if you’re not careful. Mary Beth is lonely to begin with, but because the story takes place in winter — when everyone is inside, rather than out working in their yards — she is even more separate from her neighbors, even more alone with her sadness about the girl. But this scene is also about her comfort with the cold and isolation. I think she likes that all her neighbors are inside and the wintery street is her own.
KL: The caged birds. Where did they come from?
SP: Confession: The birds are mine. The rest of the story, the people, the neighborhood, the houses, all fiction — but the three birds are real. I’m down to one now: one was murdered, another died of her own meanness. I wrote this story at Bennington, and I remember telling Bret Anthony Johnston about the viciousness of my finches. He said, “If you don’t use them in a story, I will.” I did take that as a challenge, but I think they belong here.
KL: The details in this piece, and the mood they create, such as the quote from question two, feel perfectly put together. Did this story take a while to finish? Or did it come together in a short amount of time?
SP: I write very slowly, sometimes just a paragraph a day, and my first drafts are always pages too long, so it did take a lot of time and many drafts. That said there were parts that seem to just come right out — the first paragraphs were like that.
KL: The protagonist, Mary Beth, seems unable to connect with people in a significant way. Her efforts are there, but she seems to fall short with everyone, including her husband. This aspect of her character seems so perfectly and subtly wrought. Did this characteristic emerge from numerous drafts? Or was this part of who she was all along?
SP: That was her character from the beginning, and so it felt like the scenes, the story itself, took shape around her efforts to connect.
KL: The object, which I hesitate to mention here because of its significance, is introduced at just the right time, and its influence on the story and its characters is without question. Can you speak to your use of objects in your fiction, and, if you want, this object in particular.
SP: I may like objects too much. Like food and birds, they might be a crutch in my writing. I’ve moved a lot — more than 30 houses — and all the art and doodads I’ve collected along the way, the stuff I value enough to pack and repack, feels really important to my sense of self in a new place. Sometimes objects in my stories are just that: defining the character. In this case, the object was the origin of the story, the first thing I saw — a mitten, half buried in the snow — and then the story evolved from how it got there and what happened to it. It’s hard to talk about what a useful tool it was, what an important driver it was, without spoiling the end of the story for folks. Can I say that Mary Beth steals not only the mitten but it’s imbued meaning as an object?
KL: What are you currently working on? And currently reading?
SP: I’m slowly working on a collection of nonfiction of essays about birds. I’m also writing a historic novel about an island in Lake Superior that is cut off from the mainland of Minnesota — food, supplies, income — by a maritime strike. At the moment, I’m reading Annie Proulx’s Barkskins and John Edge’s Potlikker Papers: A Food History of the Modern South — both are fantastic.
KL: What was your favorite holiday activity?
SP: Can I have two? Walking around the hills of Ashland, Oregon, with my family and putting together a small but super challenging wooden puzzle.