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Contributor Conversations: Hillary Leftwich interviews Jan LaPerle

Hillary Leftwich interviews The Conium Review contributor Jan LaPerle. Her work appeared in Vol. 3 and on our Online Compendium.


[Hillary Leftwich]: Your flash story “Murmuration” appears on our online website and “Laden” was just published in the print version of Volume 3 Collector’s Edition. I found both flash stories to have a similar theme about the relationships between mother and child as well as life and death, but in dramatically different ways. Was this similar theme intentional? Which story do you feel has the strongest portrayal of this theme?

Jan LaPerle[Jan LaPerle]: A few minutes ago I was reading over an Artist Statement I wrote last year.  I wrote, “When I write, I write of fear.  Fear like ivy climbing the trunk of the pecan tree that shades our house; it has wrapped itself around me.  Every day I fear losing this little girl – every day when I send her off to school with her backpack and little pink shoes, I feel it; every night when I tuck her in bed I fear she may not wake in the morning.”  The thread that runs between my characters and myself is fear: fear of losing my child, fear of losing my freedom, my life, my control (so many fears and too many to list).  Instead of intentional, I’d say it’s a theme in all my work – something I just try to get at and something I look at from every angle and every distance.

There’s something simpler, cleaner about the fear in “Murmuration.”  The fear of not being able to fulfill a desire, in the story, for both characters is tragic, and most tragic in the living than the dying.  In “Laden,” there are so many complicated fears – fear of becoming a parent, fear of losing a loved one, the fears of the neighbors recognizing their own fears, and the fear of an adult looking at a fearless child.  I believe “Murmuration” travels deeper into one fear and “Laden” is a somewhat messy look at a lot of fears coming together in an image – that strange image at the end of the family frozen in the ice.  So, perhaps the strength here is in the potency, the deeper look, the murmurations.  Though I’m not exactly sure.

[HL]: It has been said that poetry lends itself to flash fiction. As a poet and a fiction writer, do you find this to be true? Are you drawn more towards one or the other in your own writing?

[JLP]: I wrote poetry first.  I completed my MFA in poetry and never once wrote fiction, but when I moved to Oklahoma and began a PhD, I took several classes in fiction.  I felt drawn to write stories, but I was never very good or very drawn to the short story.  In my last fiction class, we all ended with a 5-minute reading (we were to read a short segment of a longer piece).  But, for the reading, I decided to write a complete piece to be read under 5 minutes, and that is when I, rather organically, wrote my first flash fiction piece.  I fell in love with the form.

The crafting of a flash fiction piece is much like crafting a poem, but what I love about writing fiction is the characters, the magic between characters in setting, etc.  Sometimes writing a poem seems a little self-indulgent, and not because poetry is necessarily, but mine is.  I know I need to push my poetry, to find a way to write a new type of poem.  I’ve tried all sorts of things but maybe not hard enough.  I feel right writing flash fiction in a way I haven’t with poetry in a long time.

[HL]: In your flash story “Laden” there is a description that gives me goose bumps: “And then the trees pulled, a response to the pain they found there.  The frozen pond stood suspended in the air, held by the surrounding branches.  The slowing winds rocked the pond like a cradle.”  What is one story or poem you have read where a line or paragraph has stayed with you over the years?

[JLP]: My first love as a writer was Plath, and this line from “Tulips” has never left me: “The nurses pass and pass, they are no trouble/ They pass the way gulls pass inland in their white caps/ Doing things with their hands, one just the same as another/ So it is impossible to tell how many there are.”

Even in that poem, there are better lines, but the image here is frightening and I’ve thought of it often for many years.

[HL]: There is a saying, “If a writer falls in love with you, you will never die.” Have any of the stories or poems you have written held true to this saying? If someone did make it into one of your writings, why did you choose them, even if it was inadvertently?

[JLP]: It is often the faces of strangers that are most haunting to me – they are the ones I write about (though there are pieces of me and the ones I love floating on their surfaces).  For example, when we were living in this little town, Bluff City, I was driving to work early one morning and I met a couple driving in a car – both of them were very tall, skinny, and very pale.  The car windows were large and I could see them well.  I imagined they had been working all night and were on their way home.  They seemed very sad to me, though I knew it wasn’t fair of me to think so.  Or, maybe, there was something about them that reflected my own sadness.  I wrote then a story about them, “Swing Shift,” and in it they find happiness and light.  If I hadn’t written their story, I wouldn’t have remembered their faces, but it’s been years since I saw them on the road, and I can see them as clearly as the tree outside my window.

[HL]: Your poem, “She Rings Like a Bell in the Night” was published in Rattle and also nominated for a Pushcart Prize. The title is also taken from the Stevie Nick’s song “Rhiannon.” If you could pick one song to describe your writing overall, what would be your theme song be?

[JLP]: “After the Storm,” Shovels & Rope.

“Murmuration,” by Jan LaPerle

Bed

Anne was a child still when her mother, Helen, fell terribly ill. At a time when she was barely able to tie a shoe, she became a mother of her mother. Anne brought Helen food on a flowered tray. Evenings, after her own bath, she filled a bucket with her soiled water to wash her mother with a sponge. She rode the school bus. Shortly after the sickness began, Anne cancelled her flute lessons, stopped showing to ballet. While the other girls and boys were making college visits, she was turning corners with grocery bags in her bicycle basket.

Anne eased her mother, step-by-step, when Helen wished to move between rooms. As slow as their movements grew, time seemed to quicken. Anne celebrated twenty birthdays: one after another, it seemed, like buttons slipping through their holes. Longer than a long marriage the two lived together. Anne blossomed into her middle age without notice; Helen faded along beside the furniture cushions. Anne left the house less and less, and the bricks along the front path began to loosen, to turn.

Some time in Anne’s early forties Mike moved in across the street. He mowed the yard without a shirt. The sun darkened his skin. He liked to watch the starlings above their two houses move as a flock, each bird turning with the others (this turning, he saw it everywhere). Anne watched him watch, unable from inside to see what it was he was witnessing. Evenings, from a dark house, Mike watched Anne move across the yellow windows, back and forth, back and forth, everything so quiet: waiting, watching, dying. The trees, they hushed.

Anne and Helen’s mailbox door hung open. Mike repaired the latch. He tucked the bricks into the ground and slowly (weeks it took) made it to the door. And there, at last, when Anne opened it for him, they felt it as a gush, a current, a turning, and they could hardly stand against it. Yet when he asked, she said no (Helen in the background stomping her old foot against the hardwood).

Anne and Mike were consistent – him with offers, her with refusals. None of this weakened their need. Helen, gray as a cloud, understood; she tightened her hold. Anne grew tense. She scrubbed her mother’s skin with a sponge until the skin bled. Dishes fell from her hands. She ironed the sheets so stiff it was painful to sleep upon them. Across the street, Mike mourned, turned in bed all night. He drank hard liquor until he felt as empty and hard as the street between them.

One night Mike erupted. He loaded himself into his red pickup, the gas pedal hard against the floorboard. He hit the mailbox first, turned, sped up the brick path, over the bushes, the flowers asleep in their beds. The front end of Mike’s truck entered Anne’s bedroom through the wall. The headlamps lit her small room. Her bed slid. The headboard cracked in two.

If Anne had been dreaming of him, she dreams of him still. A dream we hope does not end with his weeping, crawling through the shattered glass, bleeding beside her in her bed. He kept her body from growing cold too quickly, as long as he could. Down the long hall Helen never heard the crash, but she could feel it – the chill as it tried to find her, knocking, turning, pounding, rattling every last knob.

About the Author:

Jan LaPerle lives in east Tennessee with her husband, Clay Matthews, and her daughter, Winnie. She teaches at Tennessee’s oldest college, Tusculum College. She has published a book of poetry, It Would Be Quiet (Prime Mincer Press, 2013), and an e-chap of flash fiction, Hush (Sundress Publications 2012), and several other stories and poems. She recently won an individual artist grant from the Tennessee Arts Commission.

Special Note:

Jan LaPerle was a finalist in our 2014 Innovative Short Fiction Contest, judged by Manuel Gonzales.