Interviewed by Sommer Schafer
Read Sarah Bradley’s fiction piece, Birds of Paradise
Sommer: I really like how you don’t explain from the beginning of this story what Georgette and her mother are up to. In fact, we don’t really know until about mid-way through, though you give wonderful “hints” as to what is going to happen (and what, in fact, happens quite regularly for this mother-daughter “partners in crime”). In your process, how do you determine what should remain hidden and what needs to be straight-out revealed? Do you have any advice for writers regarding this often puzzling issue?
Sarah: For this story, at least, I didn’t feel that there was a major source of tension arising naturally from the plot; it’s more of a character study, and the tension mainly lies in the relationship between mother and daughter, the push-and-pull of their interactions and their differing wants and needs. So I thought it was important to create some tension in the storytelling by holding back a few of those details in the beginning. I wanted the reader to be intrigued first by the characters’ relationship, and then by what was actually going on. By forcing the reader to question what the “set-up” is that Georgette and her mother are creating, there’s a little bit of dramatic tension that might not otherwise be there. And I think the reader learns a lot about both the characters by slowly piecing together what they’re trying to accomplish. My only advice for writers on determining what or how much to reveal would be to err on the side of holding back; someone told me once that if I’m wondering whether or not I need to say something outright, then I probably don’t! So I try to edit out anything that feels too explicit or explanatory in favor of trusting that the reader will be able to figure out where I’m going.
You use dialogue quite effectively in this story. I feel like dialogue doesn’t necessarily need to be “believable” (because good dialogue doesn’t really mimic real-life dialogue), but it needs to accomplish multiple things in a story: propel the plot, create characterization, reflect the difference between a character’s thoughts and actions. How did you go about creating dialogue in this story? Did you know ahead of time what effects you wanted it to have on the story? How do you know when to use dialogue and when to use narration?
I really like using dialogue as a tool to establish characterization and illustrate relationships between characters. I knew for this story, in particular, that dialogue would play an important role. I thought that experiencing firsthand the way Georgette and her mother speak to one another was critical to understanding who each of them are. These are characters that spend most of their time isolated with one another, living together in a cramped apartment. They know so much about one another and have that really familiar shorthand way of communicating that family members often do. I also thought it was really important for the reader to see, through dialogue, how the mother treats Georgette. I wanted the reader to feel the way that Georgette does when her mother pressures her to do something she doesn’t want to do or criticizes her appearance or dismisses her needs. They’re like tiny betrayals: a mother’s role is to support and encourage her children, but Georgette’s mother doesn’t do that. She either doesn’t know how, or simply won’t. I wanted readers to experience those tiny betrayals for themselves, and dialogue felt like the most effective way to achieve that.
One of my favorite parts of this story is when Georgette declines the offer to smoke from the boy at the end. One gets a sense that she will go far, she will make it, despite her mother’s psychological problems. Yet, the story ends with her on the bottom of the pool, looking up at the sky. There is an understandable heavy sadness there. How did you know when to end this story and in what way? Generally, do your endings surprise you or do you plan them? Do you write your stories in sequence?
That’s a great question. The ending of this story came to me pretty early on in the writing process, with that very simple but impactful image of Georgette on the bottom of the pool. Her mother is a loud, noisy presence, one that’s hard to ignore, and that has always intruded on Georgette’s life. I wanted her to find a quiet place somewhere, and the idea of having her submerged in the water—in silence—looking out at the great big world beyond the hotel pool stuck with me. I don’t know where the image came from; I don’t usually plan out my endings. Sometimes the ending hits me early on, and other times I just end up there naturally in the writing process. I don’t write in sequence, usually. When I’m struck by particular scenes, including endings, I just write them down and save them somewhere. They help direct and propel the rest of my writing, as I try to move toward that endpoint or fill in the gaps in between scenes.
I really feel the heat and humidity in this story, and how it affects the characters (from Georgette’s “shriveled and puckered” feet to the languid, desperate loneliness of Georgette’s mother and the man she seduces). There is such a strong sense of place, which establishes and “converses” with the story’s mood and plot. When you started this story (and in general with your other fiction), did you imagine setting first, or plot or characters? How do your ideas for stories come to you? Do you plot stories out before starting to write them or do you follow feelings, images, moods?
I pretty much always start with characters in my fiction, although with this story, I also had a specific vision of central Florida and the heat and humidity that comes along with that locale. It felt appropriate for the character tension that’s happening in the story. Originally, I had the story set back in the 1970’s because that was how I first envisioned it, but that ended up being more of a distraction than an asset once I started the rewrite process. My stories almost always come to me through images; the reason I wrote this story was because I visualized that awful red nail polish that Georgette’s mother loves (Catalina Red, which was the first working title for this story!) and then started to wonder why someone would wear it. Who would choose that color from a drugstore? What would her intention be in putting it on? The story just unfolded from there. As for my overall writing process, I used to plot out stories in advance before writing, but that actually became a deterrent for me. I would get so caught up in character sketches, background research and unimportant details that I would lose sight of whatever had initially sparked my interest in the characters or story. So now I just take the inspiration as it comes and try to run with it.
Do you have any routines you follow to help you start and continue your writing? What do you do when you get “stuck”?
I have three young children, so I have to be very deliberate about my writing time. When I sit down to write, I give myself 5-10 minutes to check email and pick out music to listen to, and then I close down all those distracting browser windows and start working. On days when I have planned writing time, I try to think about what I want to write while I’m going about my day, washing dishes and preparing meals and driving the kids around, so I have some purpose or direction once I actually get to the computer. I take breaks from stories that aren’t going anywhere or slowing down my momentum. I’m a big believer in the power of putting fresh eyes on something after I’ve tucked it away for a while. If I’m really stuck, I fall back on the basics of storytelling by asking myself if my characters have enough at stake, or if I’m creating enough conflict, or if there’s any good reason for someone else to care about this story besides me. If the answer is no, then that often gives me a clear focus on what needs to be developed.
I also have to admit that my writing time is nowhere near consistent—because of my busy home life, I have to ride the waves of productivity. There are times when I have the energy and creativity and time to write multiple times a week, and then there are times when that’s just not possible. I’ve had to learn to accept that, and take advantage of the productive times when they come around. That in itself has been hugely helpful for me as a writer.
Any major influences and/or favorite writers?
When I was in high school, I loved Joyce Carol Oates, especially Foxfire. I have a tendency to write from a female perspective, especially one of a younger-aged girl. I think that probably comes from Oates. Reading so many of her novels at a time when my own love for writing was just emerging probably helped to form my preoccupation with giving a voice to girls caught in between those terribly awkward, challenging stages of adolescence.
What are you working on these days?
I have another short story that I’m submitting around to various places for publication, and several short stories in different phases of completion. I teach creative writing part-time, so I’m crafting new courses for 2017, and I’m also keeping busy with a local creative writing group that I started last summer. Teaching writing is one of the things that helps me stay motivated to write; it’s incredibly helpful to have a network of writers around me all the time, sharing work and talking about the writing process.
Any advice for writers on handling rejection? We all know the big role rejection plays in our writerly lives!
Well, “Birds of Paradise” was rejected several times before it was accepted by The Forge, so I would just remind writers that rejection doesn’t mean their story isn’t any good! If writers can think of rejection as an indicator that the magazine or journal simply wasn’t the right place or fit for their story, then it can be slightly less painful to see those rejection emails come in. It still stings, but for me, it stings a little less every time it happens. I was crushed by my first few rejections, but now I just delete them and move on. I try not to take it personally and remember that I won’t ever be accepted for publication if I’m not willing to be rejected, too.
It is such an honor to publish your story “Birds of Paradise”! Thank you. And thank you so much for sharing your thoughts with your readers and us.
Thanks to you and all the staff at FLM! You have all been such a pleasure to work with. It’s an honor to be featured in the magazine and asked to share my thoughts on the story and my writing process.