Interviewed by Sarah Starr Murphy
Read Madelin Curtis’ fiction piece, Beasts of Paradise
Sarah: “Beasts of Paradise” is a story full of a sort of implied violence, awful things that almost happen. Kip trying to drag Joanie upstairs. The pass Stevie makes at Joanie. The car crash, and Mom’s head wound. Each of these could be so much worse, each written out fully would overwhelm the story. How did you decide which acts to leave in the shadows?
Madeline: This was something I really struggled with during the writing process. I went through drafts where I played up the violence, and drafts where I eliminated certain events entirely. In the end, I erred heavily on the side of understatement. I don’t like writing violence, because it can feel choreographed or–to use your phrase–overwhelm the story. I’m also just not very good at it. But there’s something just as scary and I think much more interesting about subtle, ever-present danger. I tried to let that sense of quiet tension direct the story.
There are several allusions to Joanie’s intelligence. Mom praises Joanie as a “smart girl,” Kip concedes the point but makes a snide comment. Mom asks Joanie what she’s thinking about all the time, and Joanie feels embarrassed. As readers, we understand that Joanie is using a tremendous amount of social and emotional intelligence just to survive. How does Joanie’s intelligence and hypervigilance influence her development as a character?
One thing about establishing Joanie’s intelligence is that it gives her license to pick up on things that another kid might miss. Writing child protagonists can be really hard, because you run the risk of creating a character who is too confined by the limits of her age, or, conversely, one who seems far too perceptive to be believable. I think that given Joanie’s tumultuous environment, it makes sense that she’s developed social and observational skills well beyond her years. In many ways, she doesn’t understand what’s going on around her, but subconsciously she’s picking up on a lot of subtle cues. This hypervigilance, as you put it, also just makes her a fun character to write. She’s attuned to small, seemingly insignificant details, and she has a deep affinity for the natural world. I enjoyed getting inside her head.
Things are pretty bleak for Joanie through most of the story. In the end, there is a note of hope and agency, even if it’s ambiguous. Did you have this ending in mind when you started, or did it surprise you?
It definitely surprised me. As I was writing the story, I had no idea where it was going, which was pretty demoralizing, and I nearly scrapped it. After all that frustration, the ending seemed to come out of nowhere. I wrote it very fast, which is super unusual for me, and all in one piece. It’s the only part of the story that I haven’t significantly altered since the first draft. It gave me much-needed direction for my revision process–after writing it, I finally knew where I needed Joanie to end up.
The ambiguity of the ending is important to me. I like the idea that Joanie could be running toward something better–that after such a difficult early life, adulthood will allow her freedom and the possibility of happiness. Of course, there’s also the chance that she’s heading in a more tragic direction. Maybe as the writer, I should know what’s going to happen next, but I really have no idea.
You are a new voice, but it was obvious from when I first read this story that you excel at polishing a piece for submission. Knowing when something is “done” is tricky for any writer. How do you determine when a piece is ready to send out?
I’m new to this submitting/publishing thing, so I don’t know how much my opinion is worth! But I decided it was time to submit the piece after I’d shown it to everyone I like to show my work to–a few professors, a workshop class, my little sister, and my mentor–and had gone through five or six drafts. In the end, I could almost recite the whole thing from memory, and I was bored to death of looking at it, so I submitted it mostly to get it away from me. Even now, though, the piece doesn’t feel “done”–I’m sure I’ll return to it in the future.
What are you reading at the moment? Or, what was the last book you read that you really loved?
I just finished Cat’s Cradle by Kurt Vonnegut. Now I’m onto Orange World, Karen Russell’s new collection!
Congratulations, and thank you for doing this interview!
Thank you for asking such thoughtful questions! I’m so excited to have this piece appear in The Forge.