Interviewed by Sommer Schafer
Read Claudia Cadavid’s fiction piece, Breathe With Me
Sommer: Sylvie’s backyard acts as a sort-of personal stage upon which she can enact her fears, desires and ruminations. She seems to do this to help her handle tremendous anxiety. Writers do the same thing through their stories, don’t you think?
Claudia: Absolutely. Writing is a form of meditation. Pema Chödrön, the Tibetan Buddhist nun, teaches that meditation is about seeing ourselves, others, and our circumstances clearly. It’s about seeing our emotions and thoughts just as they are and not trying to make them disappear. Freedom from anger, fear, or melancholy lies in noticing these states without judgment, and learning how, after you’ve experienced them fully, to let go. Writers use a similar process. This is the treasure of writing, the alchemy of re-experiencing with gentleness, understanding differently, and then letting go. Published work is just the byproduct.
I love your attention to detail in this story—nothing goes unnoticed, and you write beautifully into this absolute “noticing.” How much of this is a reflection of Sylvie’s frame-of-mind, and how much is it simply you the author, writing/creating a world and people you clearly see in your head? And on that note, do your characters have a big impact upon the way in which you write their story?
Thank you. In this particular story, it’s part of Sylvie’s frame of mind, her need to ruminate in obsessive detail on her past losses, and fear of the future, which have been triggered forcefully when she meets someone new. I try to allow my characters to be themselves, to clash with each other and their surroundings, like we do in real life.
This is an unusual story because it delves into the head of a woman suffering from some kind of mental illness, temporary or otherwise. How did this story come to you, and how did you approach the telling of it so that the reader wouldn’t feel lost within Sylvie’s convoluted perceptions?
This story came to me in the form of fragmented images. I originally called it “Skeleton Heap.”
Here’s an excerpt from the earliest draft:
“The grave behind my house is filled with skeletons, of different colors and heights. Their bones mix together, dirt in the hip bone sockets. Some broken knees and foreheads. Hair and teeth live only in my memories, and dimples. Sweat and gestures too. Like how he rolled his tongue when he was engaged in a task, concentrating hard. His fastidious shoe shining and squeegeeing. Driving gloves and male cologne.”
But it wasn’t yet a story. It was all imagery and abstract expressionism. A writing mentor suggested I read a short story by Alice Walker, “The Flowers,” for inspiration, and that I add a more cogent narrative layer about what the images were doing to the narrator. In Walker’s story, a little girl named Myop happens upon a gruesome scene in the midst of an otherwise beautiful setting. Walker’s descriptions are in simple language, which underscores the devastation on Myop, the child narrator, when she discovers a lynched man lying next to a noose.
I was starting to write women’s fiction, with a comedic/romantic edge, and it seeped into this story. I decided to add a storyline of a happenstance encounter in a grocery store that triggered and offset the memories of Sylvie’s losses and fear. So if the story feels like two stories layered upon each other, that is indeed what it became, over time, the two bouncing off each other.
Hopefully the second layer, the relationship grounded in reality, made it easier for the reader not to get lost in Sylvie’s perceptions. The new relationship acts as a kind of relief, an escape from her ruminations, which settles her distorted perceptions down. The ending is hopeful.
Can you talk a little about the novel you’re working on?
It’s a character-driven work of women’s fiction, in the absurdist vein of say, Maria Semple, or Nick Hornby.
Any advice to writers about handling rejection?
I keep in mind the words of Samuel Beckett: “Ever tried. Ever failed. No matter. Try Again. Fail again. Fail better.” I don’t let myself dwell in the rejections. I try to send the piece out again within a few days, as a marker of commitment to my own work.
Thank you so much for doing this interview with me, and congratulations!
I’m so pleased to be published in The Forge. Thanks very much Sommer for taking the time to interview me.