In The Field: Conversations With Our Contributors—Maureen Aitken
Your flash fiction piece, “Mushrooms,” deals with a transformational event that resonates with the narrator dealing with loss later in life. What was the inspiration behind this piece?
Two people close to me endured long illnesses before passing. Hospice nurses and workers were so helpful in showing me that you can be there and help care for someone, and even though we can’t ease their pain, your presence matters. They also talked about survivor’s guilt, which many people feel. There is another point that few talk about. When loss happens, a new door can open in one’s life, revealing a greater resonance, more beauty, than the life you knew before. That is one way to transcend that loss and perhaps transform your life.
I love the line, “New flowers, rabbit cabbage, an old woman who looked familiar,” which is so vivid, you can imagine it with all of your senses. When writing this piece, what language or literary devices did you purposefully include to alter the narrator’s senses? Did you try to make the reader feel like they were on a trip with your narrator?
I did want to offer that trip mood, both the wonder and the depth of it. Luckily for me, people like to talk about their mushroom experiences. Sometimes they talk about a hyper-clarity with brighter colors and a much deeper understanding. On the other side of the trap door, I saw a more rooted version of our natural world, so I focused on smells, colors, and texture to create a fairy-tale quality, and one with more intimacy than the world we know.
This piece starts and ends in very different places, and your precise word choice takes us through a spiral of emotions. When creating such a compact piece, how do you navigate the time span?
I saw the trapdoor section of the piece first, then the last line. In writing this, I started with the background of the friend, then their shared experience as the anchor. Once I had the anchor, I added in other timelines, moments, and observations. But I had to go over the lines again and again, reading them out loud so they sound effortless. That’s another fairy tale.
Your carefully crafted stories have endings that give the reader a sense of closure, even if the character’s story feels like it continues; I’m thinking not only of “Mushrooms,” but “In the Red Room.” How do you know when you’ve found the perfect ending?
If an ending hasn’t arrived, it can feel like a surreal hide-and-seek experience. Sometimes the end will be earlier in the piece, waiting for me to find it. Other times I’ll write many pages, get no closer to an ending, then I’ll be out walking the dogs and there it is, the last few lines, smiling at me.
What writers inspire or influence your work? Who are some authors you enjoy?
I could write a long list, starting with Albert Camus, James Baldwin, and Gabriel García Márquez.
But I’d rather talk about three or four authors that have been on my mind this month.
I first read Kazuo Ishiguro’s The Remains of the Day in college and loved the voice and grace of the writing. That book, along with Never Let Me Go and Klara and the Sun, question issues of equality in our culture in compelling ways through characters who have such dignity. I was reading parts of his work again this month and I think his writing is so beautiful.
For a long time, I studied and reread many Alice Munro stories. Her work still runs deep, but her early subject matter and story structure were also a meaningful contrast to the writing of the time. One of my favorite lines from her story, “Miles City, Montana” is often on my mind:
“In my house, I seemed to be often looking for a place to hide…so that I could get busy at my real work, which was a sort of wooing of distant parts of myself.”
I’ve been inspired by writers thinking in original ways, especially Mona Susan Power and her brilliant book, A Council of Dolls. I just finished Tomorrow and Tomorrow and Tomorrow by Gabrielle Zevin, which is so good.
For a book about writing, Haruki Murakami’s Novelist as a Vocation offers surprising advice and insights. He is such an edgy, creative thinker, and owned a jazz club. He also runs. That much I knew about him. I imagined a sort of swagger to his personality. I also imagined stories just percolated in him and then burst out. But, according to the book, Murakami writes for many hours a day, sticks to a schedule, and lives a structured life. He’s also brutally honest, especially about himself. He describes himself as someone who doesn’t stand out in crowds. If he wants a seat in a restaurant, they often put him next to the kitchen. He also claims that reviewers in Japan often trash his work. His dedication and focus are what matter to him. I find this so inspiring.
You’ve written many short stories, essays, and the book, The Patron Saint of Lost Girls. What other projects are you working on now?
I am working on a novel and a collection of flash/micro pieces. One section of the novel was published in The Missouri Review’s online section, which was nice. I like both forms for different reasons. I also enjoy the flash/micro writing community. They are a wildly talented and entertaining bunch.
Maureen Aitken‘s short-story collection, The Patron Saint of Lost Girls, won the Nilsen Literary Prize and the Foreword INDIES Gold Prize for General Fiction, and was listed as one of the Kirkus Best Indie Books of the Year. The collection also received a Kirkus Star and a Foreword Star. Her stories have been widely published in journals including The Missouri Review, New Letters, and Prairie Schooner. She teaches writing at the University of Minnesota.