Interviewed by Sommer Schafer
Read Corey Dahl’s fiction piece, Birding
Sommer: I love how you take the time in this story to stop and write the details. We see these people. We know them. How did you work that balance between ensuring the story’s movement, and pausing to dwell upon these vital, descriptive details?
Corey: It’s a lot of revision. I love a good detail, probably too much. I’m that person you get stuck in conversation with at work or a cocktail party who starts off by saying something like, “I have got to tell you what happened to Gina,” and then two hours pass and you’ve heard about what the weather was like on the day something happened to Gina, the dating life of Gina’s cousin, and the socio-political history of Argentina. And maybe it’s all very interesting, but you still have no idea what happened to Gina or why you should care. The best help for me came from working in journalism for years. The time and space constraints imposed by newspapers and magazines, plus good advice from editors, really taught me a lot about how to whittle a story down without stripping it of its color. I think a lot about Coco Chanel’s advice on accessorizing: “Before you leave the house, look in the mirror and take one thing off.” You never need to say as much as you think you do.
And speaking of movement, a great deal of time passes in this story, which reads so seamlessly. Did you have any issues writing that span of time in a relatively short space? Do you have any tips for writers on handling this potential problem?
Most of the stories I write deal with a span of a few hours or days—weeks if I’m feeling risqué—so this was really different for me. But I knew I had to show the narrator’s evolving understanding of Aunt Linda, and that wasn’t going to happen overnight. Once I started writing, it came pretty naturally, and the jumps in time became these sort of narrative propellants. I’m definitely not qualified to give advice about it, but in my own experience, I relied a lot on regular temperature checks: Where was I zooming through things? Where were things bogging down? If I couldn’t tell, I had friends read it and weigh in.
For me, there’s something integral about the first person POV—I can’t imagine this story from any other point. I think it makes a stronger tie between Linda and the narrator, more poignantly illuminating the narrator’s growing up and epiphany at the end. Do you ever struggle with what POV to write a story? How do you decide?
I try not to overthink POV too much. I’ve gotten way into the weeds about it—taken classes, read advice books and articles, forced myself to write the same story from first, second, and third person. In the end, I find the story comes out the way it wants to. Now I just write it the way I hear it in my head.
The Aunt Lindas and Uncle Waynes of the nation are often routinely mocked, disparaged, and then forgotten about with cultural sighs of relief (“good thing they’re gone”). But in this story you show us Linda and Wayne’s desperate situation, made more so by their need to pretend everything is fine. You show us their humanity. That final line is perfection. Did you write towards that ending, aware of it in the back of your mind as you composed the story? Did it come to you first, or somewhere along the middle? Was it a surprise?
The ending came to me fairly early in the drafting of this story, which isn’t usual for me. I wasn’t sure what I was writing yet—I just liked the idea of this aunt killing her birds and replacing them. One morning, I was thinking about the logistics of it—whether she went to multiple pet stores so no one would get suspicious, etc. I thought it might be funny, digging into how it worked, like some kind of Scooby Doo caper she was pulling off. But then I pictured her slumped in line, and it wasn’t funny anymore. That kind of cracked things open and changed the story for me.
How do stories come to you? And do you have a particular process of writing them down?
I get most of my story ideas when I’m walking my dog. There’s something about steady movement and getting away from Internet-connected devices that’s really productive for me. I don’t often have anything to write with while we’re walking, though, so I usually lunge for whatever’s nearest when we get in the front door. I have story ideas and plot lines and lines of dialogue on sticky notes, scrap paper, receipts, the notes app on my phone. When I’m stuck I sometimes look at them, but my favorite ideas usually stick with me regardless.
Do you have any advice for writers on handling rejection?
A writing teacher of mine—Erika Krouse—once told me to set a rejection goal each year. Hers was something nuts-sounding, like 150. I hated this idea. I wanted to get accepted, not rejected. So I went years without submitting anything. Nothing was good enough yet. I watched friends get published, win contests, and I sat at my desk every morning, moving paragraphs around, deleting sentences and then immediately putting them back in. About a year ago, I got sick of this and just started throwing my work at places, even if it was imperfect. I’ve gotten a lot of rejections—like, so many—but I’ve gotten a handful of acceptances. What Erika knew is that you can’t get accepted if you’re not willing to get rejected, and in that way, a rejection isn’t a bad thing—it’s proof that you’re trying.
Thank you for doing this with me, and congratulations!