Interviewed by Sommer Schafer
Read Bim Angst’s fiction piece, Breath
Sommer: This is, essentially, a love story. But it starts with a scene of violence between the lovers. Stories that end in places (both literally and thematically) not readily anticipated are stimulating to read, and I love how you do it in this one. As you composed this story, what image most drove you: the slap or Mykhail’s accident?
Bim: The ice scene pops immediately to mind as an answer, but that image came after the accident, a chosen event. The accident led, unbidden, to the emotional impulses rising from contemplation of what might come to mind and heart in the moment of realization that one may be facing a rushing and unexpected death. I don’t think we get to choose those thoughts, and so I want to say that the slap and the ice scene arrived together. It’s hard sometimes to trace linearly or by cause-and-effect how thoughts and feelings come to conscious awareness. Sometimes they come as a package, a muddle, a tangle, and of necessity one chooses a place to begin the narrative the reader will receive, the goal being to approximate the evocation of an experience. But the story has to make sense for the reader, so we make choices of order and form.
Various news sources have recently reported on the alarming increase in black lung disease among miners in the U.S., and the fact that the coal industry is trying to absolve itself of any responsibility. This story, though seemingly historical, couldn’t be more contemporary. Were you inspired by current events for this story? Or were you simply interested in Mykhail and his story? (I came away with both).
Or is more decisive than the process usually is for me. I want to get everything in! Layering is very appealing to me. I like the potential for richness and connection, for symbol and metaphor while telling what I hope is also a very good story. Black lung is a presence in the anthracite region, historically, and personally for most of us with family ties here, and the corporate response is long-standing. To not deal with black lung in stories set here would feel inaccurate, and of course it would bypass the symbolic opportunity.
I love the details you write in this story, especially about how Vlada loves and takes care of Mykhail. Those lines feel very poetic to me and have a lovely cadence. Under the hand of a masterful writer, more details are better than less, I feel. Please, give me more so that I can further dwell! Am I wrong?
My background is in poetry. Details. Image. Gesture. Language. I could no more stop tinkering with sound and rhythm, with image and symbol than I could stop my heart. So many details present themselves. One chooses with the reader in mind.
Do you have any advice for writers on handling rejection?
I write because I’m miserable—and hard to live with—if I don’t. Sometimes, I think that may be what it takes to persist. The mindset has to be that it’s not about you, it’s about the work. But that’s not practical advice. What to do to handle rejection? Write daily. Send out more work than you can keep track of. (A spreadsheet will do that for you). Write what you care about. Figure out how to make the work interesting enough so others care about that too. Take every comment from editors as encouragement. Count acceptances, not rejections. Learn more about writing from everything you read, watch, and listen to. Read compulsively. Read up on the writing business. Educate yourself constantly. Persist.
What are you working on these days?
A novel based on the life of Nicholas Biddle of Pottsville, PA, an aging African American who marched with the First Defenders as servant to a white militia captain. Biddle was injured in an attack by a Secessionist mob, becoming the first man whose blood was shed in the American Civil War. I’d never heard of him until just a few years ago, a travesty, I think, as I grew up in the area and live three miles from where he’s buried. Once I met him, he wouldn’t let me go. Short fiction would not do him justice. So—novel.
Thank you for doing this interview with me, and congratulations!