Interviewed by Sommer Schafer
Read Kelly L. Simmons’ fiction piece, Honyockers
Sommer: The suspense you create in “Honyockers” is fabulous. I especially like how you bring in the scary secondary characters at the end as a way to ratchet up the sense that something terrible is going to happen. How do you approach and work with elements of suspense and horror? How do you know when you’re succeeding?
Kelly: It’s so difficult to know when you’re succeeding at a piece. You know the backstory. You know what you want the reader to understand. But it also has to unfold in a way that you discover it together. “Honyockers,” like pretty much every piece of writing, went through many revisions. Maggie, as many of our homeless, suffers from mental illness. To her, it is all real. And she has been abused. There are bad characters out there who have hurt her. Hurt her badly. She sees them everywhere and is subjected to them constantly. I just tried to “see” her. See life as she would see it. Whether in her mind or real, the terrors lurked everywhere—in the hallways and corners and dark places.
Your story has an unreliable main character: she periodically forgets the names of the two young men; she seems to be in cahoots with a mysterious “he” whom she credits as the mastermind behind her actions. However, this “he” never physically appears and throughout remains a scary, evasive, abusive figure looming large, and yet obviously in her mind alone. What’s more, we feel for this narrator. How do you write a character like this without making the character look ridiculous, goofy and unbelievable?
I “saw” a Maggie one day. We probably all have. I was in an airport line and the woman ahead of me was explaining over and over again why she couldn’t miss the plane that had just been cancelled. She was dressed in several layers of mis-matched clothing, her bun askew, her nerves fairly crackling. I was impatient at first—I needed to catch my own plane—but grew more sympathetic as I watched her. My aunt, a clinical psychologist, whispered to me “this is what someone suffering from schizophrenia looks like on their meds.” This woman was obviously not homeless, but then I began to see Maggie everywhere. On the sidewalk, pushing an empty grocery cart down the street, shivering at a corner. Maggie is one of the marginalized people of our society who are often “unseen.” But she came from somewhere. She was born to parents. She was a little girl. Someone had loved her at one time. As writers we get to live someone else’s life for a time. That’s one of the thrilling horrors.
As your story progresses, we get snippets of the main character’s history, which directly influences the story’s meaning and mood. How do you find that balance between backstory and current story, and do you have tricks for weaving them together?
Sarah Broderick, who originally accepted my story, helped there. I knew the backstory but I hadn’t included all of it. It is a balance. You don’t want to bore someone with too much history but it has to be there. I knew I was writing about Maggie’s father, and with just a couple of added sentences, so does the reader. Hopefully! The trick, if there is one, is to know your character. Know them enough that they trust you with their most intimate details. Then, it seems, they dole out the information. For instance, one day I was doing something other than writing, and I was shown Maggie as a little girl, sitting cross-legged, and watching a tiny ballerina go round in a music box. I was also shown the carousel. And the long plaits down her back that her mother had braided into her hair. It’s a beautiful moment.
There is a gothic element to your story, which we traditionally see in stories from the American South. Do you think there is a “gothicness” also inherent in the American North and/or West?
Interesting. I never thought of my story as being gothic and certainly didn’t start out with that in mind; but yes, I see it. Absolutely. Montana is so big that it can hide its abandoned towns, its literal ghost towns. You can feel the ghosts as you touch the peeling wallpaper in abandoned kitchens, see them in the husks of stranded cars and trucks left in fields, in the fallen-down fences that were so important at one time. You can’t help but feel the “life” in them—abandoned or buried. There is a sense of fear and suspense that comes with that. Even in the more populated areas there is rot. Maggie suffers from both physical and mental abandonment. There is a meanness in the corners. There is decay—Maggie embodies it. But she also finds her humanity. If only for a moment. A heart in all this, although dying, still beats.
We all know how much rejection plays in our lives as writers. Any advice to writers about handling it?
If you’re worried about rejection, never send anything out. Ha! I know a lot about rejection as does every writer I know. But then one day, seemingly out of blue or black sky, and oddly just when you need it most and ironically aren’t expecting it, someone will call or email to tell you they loved your piece. I don’t know of a better feeling. And why do you write? Why do you keep “ass in chair” as my writer friend calls it? To get at the truth of something. To answer your own questions of why and how and to what end. When I get rejected I read the comments and get back to work. The stories that were good enough have been published. (Not many.) The ones that weren’t haven’t been. (A ton.) Ass in chair.
I love what you say in your bio: “Beauty is everywhere in Montana. Sometimes that beauty is frozen. At times, it’s raw; often crude. Every now and again it will burst majestically. The people are that way too.” What do you mean by it? What’s one of your favorite quotes?
As I write this, the afternoon temperature is at minus four, up from minus fifteen this morning. If I see someone they’ll say, “Yeah, it is a bitty nippy out.” My heart is, and always has been, with the broken down cowboy or cowgirl. Stiff-legged, arthritic, weathered, pig-headed, sometimes exasperatingly conservative, ready with the joke, surprisingly tender, willfully ignorant, wise beyond reason. The mountains in the distance are stunning but deadly this time of year. Gothic, you might say. Perfect! And provides so much material!
As to quotes, there are so many. And thank God there are writers who can articulate exactly what it is you are trying to get at, or perhaps didn’t even know you knew until you read it. Somehow, T.S. Eliot has just the right quote for anything I’m working on. Like this one: “I will show you fear in a handful of dust.”
But one of my favorites that works always: “To do the useful thing, to say the courageous thing, to contemplate the beautiful thing: that is enough for one man’s life.”
It is a huge honor to publish “Honyockers” in The Forge Literary Magazine! Thank you so much for taking time to do this interview with me.
The honor, truly, is all mine. I am humbled and grateful to you, Sarah Broderick and The Forge Literary Magazine. Thank you.