Interviewed by Sommer Schafer
Read Paul Luikart’s fiction piece, The Museum of Heartache
Sommer: This is a powerful and moving story. I’ve observed that one of the most effective ways to capture intense grief is to write into the blankness of it. You do this quite effectively in this story by never allowing one scene to dominate or lead to another scene by way of a more traditional linear mode. Brett’s grief thus feels augmented. Did it take you a while to find this format, or did it come to you more organically?
Paul: “Write into the blankness…” I like that. That’s a really beautiful description. Grief is hard to write about and I think it begs to be written about, because of its difficult nature, in non-linear ways. Grief, as much as we want it to be linear and logical, is neither. But this story came pretty organically. I’m a mostly straight-ahead, what-you-see-is-what-you-get kind of writer. I don’t usually play around with form. But sometimes, and this sounds a little dorky, the story’s subject matter tells me how it wants to be presented. I had an earlier version of this and it was okay and it just sat there in my dropbox for a while being okay with its okay-ness. But then I ran it past a few writer friends who made some helpful critiques and this is how it ended up. (So, lesson #1: Have good writer friends.)
Can you speak a little bit about the song lyrics and why they are so integral to the story? I had initially thought we were going to have issues with copyrights (because lyrics are notoriously difficult), but you explained that you invented the lyrics. Indeed, the word “blue” appears in every music studio name! So, you were taxed with writing poetry for your short story.
Ha. Yeah, that’s right. It’s like I said, “I wonder how can I make writing a short story about grief even harder? Ah. Throw in a few poems.” When I first started writing, a long time ago, I started by writing poetry. It was a gateway. I’m still fascinated by the poetics of fiction. I think, for example, Nabokov and McCarthy (…and there are many others, those two just came to mind right off) write in ways that assuage this need I must have to not only be satisfied by the story but by the presentation of the story. And then the blues, well. What a way to deal with hardship and grief. Since grief, at least for me, is a topic that’s difficult to face head on, not just in my writing but in my life in general, the song lyrics are my way to present fresh lines of sight on a difficult topic. They needed to be there to support the story, but also to support me, the writer, as I considered the pain of grief.
Another aspect to this story that succeeds so admirably is your ability to take time with very pointed details, especially during the final scene. Thus, there is a swing between fantastically written details, and the showing of the emptiness of grief. How does imagination play a role in your writing?
Wow, what a great question. When I write fiction, I think in specifics. Or, imagine in specifics. So, I didn’t necessarily wonder what grief, as an abstract concept, might feel like for Brett. Instead, I wondered what the sound of the ice on Lake Michigan might sound like. I wondered what the sight of his deceased beloved’s pillow might look like. I wondered, if demons formed a choir, what it might sound like. It’s considering the hyper-tangibles. It’s giving pointed language to sensed observations without interpreting those observations.
Do you have any advice for writers on handling rejection?
Another great question. I think the common advice is, “Develop a thick skin.” There’s something to that, probably. You can’t devolve into inert little pieces each time somebody says, “No thanks,” to one of your stories. But…I do believe that most writers are inherently sensitive people. Writers usually comprehend the world in deeply felt ways, first and foremost. In that case, saying “Develop a thick skin,” is a little bit like telling a tiger to change its stripes. My advice is to give yourself permission to feel the pain of rejection. It’s okay to hurt over a rejection. That’s normal and natural. But then—and this is not my advice, but advice I was given by a mentor of mine—have the next one ready to go. Make sure you’re prepared, the minute you get a rejection letter, to send the story to another magazine. It’s another way of saying, “Keep believing in your own work.” That’s advice that’s served me well.
It is an honor to publish your story–congratulations!
Paul: Thank you! I’m incredibly grateful to have the story included in The Forge. It’s a huge honor for me. Thank you very, very much. And thank you for these questions too!