Interviewed by Rachel Wild
Read James Cato’s fiction piece, Dragging the River
Rachel: I love the detail and energy of this story. What was the impetus for writing it?
James: Stories start with an image for me, one that sticks to me persistently, usually for weeks. With Dragging the River, that image was a truck transporting livestock left abandoned somewhere, maybe crashed and deserted, with the fate of all the curious animals inside a mystery. It kept returning to me as I drove through the woods and shoveled up soil samples and watched insects from my porch. People used to say this rusted out van in the forest by my childhood house had a body in it—a campfire story, of course. So I started there and the story sort of treated it as a touch point, something to cycle back to every so often.
You deal with serious issues through the eyes of a nine-year old girl. Why did you decide she would be the narrator?
I don’t often write from a young person’s perspective, and in Dragging the River, I had two main reasons to do so. First, I wanted the character to live in her head a little bit, but wasn’t interested in processing all that happens on the page in the same way I do now as a young adult. As a kid, stuff would happen to me, and I would process and understand it with words much later. So I wanted to capture that in some way here. Second, I thought the character should have room to explore, make mistakes, and question the dark place where she’s growing up without the scrutiny we apply to adults. As a side note, my partner is a twin, and I was eager to reflect the importance of that exceptional relationship during childhood.
The character of Errol is so well drawn, I could see him. How do you go about creating believable characters like him?
Putting a shard of yourself into a character goes a long way for me, and I put a healthy handful into Errol. As I’m writing, I try to set character traits early in the narrative through dialogue and decisions made by the characters, then expand on those throughout. By the end, I hope, even when a transformation has taken place, there’s a logical trail from where the character started to where they end up. In Errol’s case, I also enjoyed learning bits and pieces about him from potentially unreliable sources in the story—e.g. the other set of twins—which in my mind adds a dimension of realism by pushing the reader to form their own impression of Errol, as we do with most people we meet.
When you write a short story do you plot it out beforehand, or start writing and see what comes out?
The latter. I usually have a page of bulleted notes before I start, but these are images and descriptions attached to my brain from the last few days of moseying around and working in the field. When I begin writing, I often have a foggy vision for the narrative’s direction, but certainly nothing like an ending in sight.
What are you working on now?
My sneaky announcement is that I have just completed a short story collection titled BECOMING ROADKILL, though I don’t want to say much more before documents are signed and squared away. Every piece, in some oblique way, reflects on roadkill—how it affects us, how violent yet accidental it is, and all the strange shapes it can take. Dragging the River will live there too. I hope some people are excited to read it!
Thanks so much James, and many congratulations on being published in The Forge, and your impending short story collection.