Interviewed by Sommer Schafer
Read Roppotucha Greenberg’s fiction piece, How She Stopped Being Afraid of the Dark
Sommer: Your story shows us that sometimes gaining is achieved at the expense of something lost. Or, more positively: sometimes a loss helps us realize a gain. Even though there is much sadness in this story, and a feeling of loss, the ending is positive. I get a sense that whatever happens to this mother and daughter, wherever they move, they are going to be just fine. I admire so much how you show us everything and tell us nothing. Thoughts or suggestions on how writers can better do this in their storytelling? How do you know when you’ve told too much—when it’s better to edit something out?
Roppotucha: I’m very grateful for your interpretation of the story. A friend of mine read it in almost the opposite way, with the final note being the saddest, and the daughter’s overcoming the fear of the dark being a loss and the closing of the door. The story, I hope, works both ways, just like the shiny thing in the sky may be the end of the world or the source of enlightenment.
And thank you for your kind words. ‘Show, don’t tell’ is such an influential phrase, so I was surprised when I discovered that the opposite is also the case: sometimes you need to tell rather than show. I try to mind the gap between what the story means for me and what it means for the reader. I need to check if I’d told the readers enough. So, in this story, I only added the sentence about the pink chandelier and the move in the final draft. The characters’ future had been so obvious to me, I did not think to write about it until I remembered the readers.
In this story, imagination becomes at once a savior and a devil. What the mother and daughter imagine about the light in the sky is helpful to both of them on some level, and yet because it is ultimately unknowable, it becomes a source of fear that allows the daughter to conquer another more childish fear. Is imagination always useful, do you think? Can our problems more likely than not be solved with stories?
I think of imagination as a language; it’s not positive or negative. It’s just a way to understand the world. It is more likely to be a source of harm if it is done irresponsibly. If people confuse their imagination for the scientific method, for instance, or if they are dishonest with the way they use it.
Imagination can be a source of fear, a fear that you try to drive out by focusing on the everyday, the dishes, or the bus. But this doesn’t always work. In the story, the husband tries to offer a rational explanation for the bright thing of the sky. His explanation fails not because any of the fantastical interpretations are true, but because it doesn’t address any of the very real concerns that it raises for the woman and the child.
Yes, I think stories can solve problems, especially if problems, when you examine them, turn out to be neglected stories.
I particularly admire how you play with time in this story. It takes place in a sort-of present (seeing the light in the sky), past (having done the dishes, having gone to therapy), and future (the story is told from after their move). Was it challenging to write these layers of time as at once distinct and flowing, especially within such a short space?
I would’ve probably found it difficult in another story. But this one began with the idea of the unknown shiny object. This object is always in focus, which structurally allowed me to go to different layers of time without losing my readers or the sight of the plot.
This is a very short story. In your opinion, what are the differences between writing flash fiction and longer fiction? Are there different skills or techniques you draw upon?
I am an impatient person who loves to edit, so I love flash fiction. I love being able to finish a piece fast and spend a long time on editing or completely rewriting it a few times over. With this story, I almost knew from the start what was going to happen. This is different from some of the longer flashes that I’ve published; with those 1000-word pieces, I let the plot unfold over a few days and was surprised at what occurred. I have yet to publish a novella or a novel. I have several long projects on the go, and what I am trying to learn as I work on them is the secret of adjusting the pace of writing to the pace of invention. I used to think the only trick was in separating your inner writer from the editor. And yes, you can capture the images as they occur, type like crazy and have it all on paper. But sometimes it’s better to work slower, to let the story mature through its style, and encounter its hidden problems at the outset.
Do you have any advice for writers on handling rejection, and how to stay inspired?
My perspective was truly changed by Kim Liao’s ‘Why You Should Aim for 100 Rejections a Year’ (https://lithub.com/why-you-should-aim-for-100-rejections-a-year/) in Lithub. The article helped me to celebrate each rejection. Someone has just read my work. They might not have liked it, but they’ve read it. I pretend that the rejected story bears the marks of their reading in its words. I tend not to have too many simultaneous submissions, so I can enjoy reworking a story once it comes back. And I do enjoy it. I have a rejection tree on my blog. I ‘planted’ it fairly recently, and I add a creature every time another rejection arrives. https://roppotucha.blogspot.com/p/rejection-tree.html
Thank you so much for doing this interview with me, and congratulations!