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Short Stories

Attempted Murder

By: Jeff Fleischer (Q&A With Author Following Story)

Attempted Murder

By: Jeff Fleischer

“I’m going to kill you.”

Roger Sheridan wasn’t sure he’d actually heard those words.

Then he heard them again. “I’m going to kill you.”

All Roger had wanted to do that Monday morning was eat his breakfast on his back porch in peace. It was usually a pleasant way to start the week; now, he was looking around to find the source of a threat, which was doing nothing to help his anxiety level.

The voice was high-pitched, somewhere on the spectrum between a cartoon character and a kid who had just inhaled helium from a balloon. Saying anything else, it would have sounded comical, but it also made the threat creepier. The next time Roger heard it, the voice was no less sharp, but it sounded louder. Closer.

When he heard it coming from over his left shoulder, Roger spun in his best approximation of a martial-arts stance. He knew he looked silly, and it might not do much to dissuade any person with intent to attack him, but at least he kept his balance.

To his relief, it wasn’t a person behind him. Instead, a large crow was perched on the wooden guardrail. It titled its head when Roger gave a slap-happy laugh of relief.

“Phew,” he said as he resumed his seat and returned to his instant oatmeal and coffee. The crow watched carefully as Roger stirred the congealed cereal. He’d blamed some weird early-morning thoughts on not yet being fully caffeinated, but hearing birds talk was a new one.

“You really scared me for a second there,” he told the crow. “Nevermore, right?”

The bird responded with another caw that sounded like “I’m going to kill you.” Then it hopped a little closer to where he was sitting. It looked directly at him and spoke again.

“I’m going to kill you, Roger.”

*                      *                      *

By the time forty minutes had passed, Roger had already called in sick to work, with the excuse of an upset stomach that wasn’t entirely fictional. Unsure what else to do, he’d locked the door to the back porch, along with all the other entrances, and closed all the curtains and shutters on his myriad windows.

Sitting on the old couch in his basement, the spot he thought of as farthest from the porch and hardest to see from the outside, Roger turned his television to the closed-circuit channel for the whole townhouse complex. In the upper-right quadrant of the cameras’ four views, he watched the crow pick at the bowl of lumpy oatmeal he’d abandoned in his retreat.

Each time the bird stopped eating, it seemed to look directly into the camera. Almost like it knew he was watching. The video feed was silent, but Roger was sure he could tell what the crow was saying each time it opened its beak.

*                      *                      *

“Animal control,” the woman said. “How can I help you?”

Roger was pleasantly surprised not to be put on hold. “I have a crow on my back porch. I need you to get rid of it.”

“We do pickups on Wednesdays, if you’d like to leave it for us. Or if you’re comfortable, you could bury it…”

“It’s not dead.”

“Just injured?”

“No. The crow’s fine. I just need you to get rid of it.” He could hear the panic in his own voice.

“Then I’m afraid there’s not really anything we can do. It will fly away soon if it isn’t injured.”

“But—”

“We only deal with the removal of dead animals, or any that might be dangerous.”

“It is dangerous! It’s threatening to kill me!”

Roger felt stupid as soon as he said it.

“Very funny.” Roger could practically hear the woman’s eyes rolling through the phone. “Please don’t waste our time.”

She’d already hung up before he could object. When he called back, nobody answered.

*                      *                      *

It could have been the stress, or it could have been the fact that he’d barely eaten all day, but Roger woke up in the middle of the olive-green nylon carpet he’d been meaning to replace since before he even closed on the townhouse. He didn’t remember falling asleep, but he had done so long enough that no sunlight peeked through the blinds.

He checked the closed-circuit channel again, but saw nothing out back save the mug he’d dropped in panic and a squirrel enjoying whatever oatmeal the crow had left uneaten.

“Okay,” he said to himself. “It’s gone.”

Without turning on any lights along the way, Roger went up the basement stairs, through the den and the kitchen. Taking deliberate steps with only the front of his foot, he reached the rectangular window in the back door that opened to the porch. Like a periscope, he scanned the area again, but saw nothing moving.

He felt palpable relief as he opened the back entrance and slid the screen door to the side. The backyard was nearly silent, and remained still. Just as he reached the bowl and the slightly chipped mug, he triggered the motion sensor that brought up the back lights. The sudden illumination startled him, and he jumped higher than he knew he could at his age.

“Calm down, man,” he said aloud as he caught his breath.

A crack of something touching a branch came from above him. When he looked up, he no longer felt like he had overreacted. The telephone wire over the back porch had a large crow sitting on it. As his eyes adjusted to the light, he realized there were actually half a dozen smaller crows in the oak tree. And when the one on the wire repeated the now-familiar threat, the others joined in chorus.

Roger ran back inside and locked the door, feeling like he needed to escape. He dashed upstairs to grab the rubber-banded roll of cash he kept in his underwear drawer as emergency money, and threw a few shirts and some underwear into his overnight bag. Back on the main level, he took a windbreaker from his closet and the car keys from the little dish he kept next to the front entrance.

He wasn’t sure where to go, but thought he would call his sister from the car, or his friend Harry. Worst case, he knew of a few motels off the highway about ten miles south; they were almost never crowded, and it was only Monday night. He could order a pizza, watch a movie, and figure out what to do next.

The plan sounded good in his head, but he abandoned it as soon as he saw the large crow standing on the shag welcome mat outside the front door. Instead, he pushed a wooden chair under the doorknob to secure it, and retreated to the basement.

*                      *                      *

When the doorbell rang early the next morning, interrupting a crow-free dream, Roger had no intention of answering it. He changed his mind only when the two rings were followed by a decidedly human knock, and he checked the closed-circuit channel to find Harry waiting on the same mat where the crow had stood the night before.

Roger rushed up the stairs, tripping twice on his way. “Get…in here…fast,” he ordered as he flung open the door and pulled his friend inside, while trying to catch his breath.

“You look like hell,” Harry told him. “You oversleep?”

“No, I barely got any sleep last night—” Roger paused. “Wait, why are you here?”

“You bailed on me and weren’t answering your phone; wanted to make sure you didn’t have a heart attack or something,” Harry replied before taking a donut from a white paper bag and handing him the rest. “We were supposed to get breakfast before work, remember?”

“Sorry, I didn’t—”

“I was going to bring you a coffee too, but I drank it on the way.”

“I have never been happier to see you, but let’s eat downstairs. It’s not safe here.”

“Safe?”

“I need to ask you something. Did you see any crows on the way in from the driveway?”

“There were a few hanging around the front yard, I guess. Why?”

“Did they, um, say anything to you?”

“As in, did the birds try to start a conversation? I guess they were making some noise, but I wasn’t really paying attention.”

As Harry inhaled a powdered donut, spreading sugary crumbs on the carpeted stairs, Roger explained the events of the past twenty-four hours, trying to read the meaning behind his friend’s blank reaction.

*                      *                      *

Harry had always been something of a list maker. When he roomed with Roger in college, that had meant a lot of top-ten or top-twenty lists of favorite songs or prettiest actresses or classic films he’d never gotten around to seeing but wanted to someday, even if he was more likely to watch Star Wars for the hundredth time. It always made sense to Roger that his friend chose insurance appraisal as a career. And within minutes of hearing the story, that he’d proposed listing all possible explanations and investigating them one by one.

“To start, you could just be imagining it.”

“I know what I heard.”

“Or you’re just hearing something that sounds like a threat.”

“The crows outside are definitely saying they’re going to murder me.”

Harry said nothing, but cocked an eyebrow.

“Yes, saying it out loud, I know sounds impossible. But I swear it’s real.”

“Or maybe you’re just losing your mind.”

Roger turned on the television, still set to the outdoor camera, and showed his friend the black birds on his back porch. “See, they’re saying it. Watch their mouths.”

“Their beaks.”

“You know what I mean.”

“Only one way to check.” Despite Roger’s protests, Harry went upstairs and out the back door. Roger focused on the screen as his friend, holding a broom he’d taken from the kitchen, approached the oversized crow sitting on the guardrail. His friend said something to the bird, followed by a mocking sort of dance, but the crow only tilted its head. As Harry turned and headed back, Roger could tell from his body language that the crow hadn’t raised any suspicions.

“I think you’re going to be fine,” Harry called down once he was back inside. “You must have just had a weird nightmare. We’ve all been there.”

“I told you,” Roger said as he slinked back upstairs. “I barely got any sleep—”

“Or you’re hallucinating. Could be stress; you probably need to rest up.” Roger again tried to protest, but Harry kept going. “Anyway, I’ve got to get to the office. Call me later if this is still getting to you. We can grab dinner.”

After he watched Harry’s car sputter and pull down the driveway, Roger risked watching the television in his living room. Maybe it was just stress getting to him. There was no reason a crow would want him dead. He used to see lots of the birds in his yard when he first moved in, before the last West Nile outbreak, and he obviously held no blame for that. He usually kept the bird feeder on the garage full, and the crows ate from it as often as any of the cardinals or jays, or the squirrel who had deduced how to maneuver along the telephone wire and drop onto the feeder from a precise angle.

Roger had never had a problem with crows before Monday morning. Come to think of it, the big one was definitely a new visitor, and it seemed to be the ringleader—maybe he only had to worry about the one bird.

It was that same bird that appeared on screen as soon as Roger turned on the living room set. And the same one that flew straight at the camera, as if trying to get at him through the lens, pecking with the speed of a woodpecker or a master carver. Its burst of energy seemed to fade, but the bird attacked the camera again and again, pecking furiously until Roger heard a loud crack.

Only static filled the screen. It was only a few more seconds before the power went out.

*                      *                      *

After Harry started making his list that morning, Roger had brainstormed a few additions of his own. It was possible the whole thing was a prank, that someone he knew thought it would be funny to give him a scare. His high-school girlfriend Roz had taught her mother’s cockatoo a series of phrases not fit for polite company, and found the result worth the grounding. It could be something like that, done for a laugh. Roger had read somewhere that crows could pick up speech. Like those two in the cartoons he used to watch with his father—or were those myna birds? Or ravens? It didn’t matter. If the smaller crows could all repeat exactly what the big one said, why couldn’t that same bird be repeating something it heard?

His next thought gave him a shiver. Maybe it wasn’t the bird who had a reason to wish him ill.

The crow could have overheard someone plotting to kill him. Or someone could have specifically trained it to threaten him. Either way, he was scared. He was alone. It was dark. He couldn’t see what was happening outside. It felt like the birds were closing in on him. Roger thought of a Francisco Goya drawing he liked, with a man slumped over at his desk as he was enveloped by a parliament of owls. He didn’t like it so much anymore.

“Maybe I should kill you!” he yelled, pausing to wait for a response. Only silence. “What are you waiting for? Just do whatever you’re going to do!”

When his mobile phone rang, the sound startled him almost as much as the crow had the day before, which already felt like much longer ago. “Hello?”

“Hi, Roger? It’s Bernadette from HR. You didn’t call in sick, so we wanted to follow up on why you weren’t at work. As you know, you’re required to inform—”

“I was going to come to work.” Roger was telling the truth; without power, the wall clock had stopped working and he’d lost track of time. “I’m just…dealing with something of an emergency.”

“What type of emergency? Medical?”

“Kind of. I have a crow in my yard trying to kill me, and it won’t let me leave the house.”

During the drawn-out “so” that followed, Roger knew he probably should have lied.

“So you already have two unexcused absences on your record.” This was true. But both happened when his appendix burst two years ago and he’d been rushed to the emergency room without first calling to let HR know. After months of arguing and getting nowhere, he had dropped trying to fix the error. “We’ll need you to come in within the hour, and to stay late to make up for the lost time.”

“How? I can’t get to my car.”

“I’m sorry, but you’ll need to find a way. As you know, we have a strict three-strike policy, and we’d love to continue working together.”

“But—”

“Then we’ll see you soon. Ta.”

Roger looked at his phone and saw the battery was nearly dead. Until the power came back and he could charge the device, it wasn’t worth calling anyone to come over and help; he might need to save the call in case the crow escalated things. The outage had lasted long enough that the lack of air conditioning was starting to make things feel swampy, and the heat brought new sweat to mix with what his stress had already delivered.

He went to the front door and found the large crow there, waiting. It seemed to know which door he’d go to before he did, like it was chasing him around a table. Whether it was going to kill him itself or was working for the real killer, Roger would need to get past it.

Bernadette had at least given him a choice: somehow get to work, or sit there sweating in the dark, waiting for whatever was coming. Roger was tired of waiting. If the crows followed him to work, people would see he was telling the truth, and there would be people there to help. If not, at least he’d tried.

*                      *                      *

Roger emerged from his house armored as best he could with the limited implements on hand. In addition to the khakis and polo he usually wore to the office, he’d donned a heavy dose of cologne to try masking the effects from his lack of sleep or shower. Also, his metal pasta pot as a helmet, and a plastic breastplate from an old Halloween costume to cover his heart just in case. The best he could do for weaponry was a broken box fan from the basement and an autographed baseball bat he’d won at a silent auction.

He knew he looked absurd, but hoped the ensemble would improve his odds of making it the forty or so feet from the front door to the driveway.

“Okay, here we go.” He opened the front door quickly, as if any hesitation would make him back down, and practically jumped onto the porch.

“I’m going to kill you, Roger,” the crow said.

“I knew you’d say that!” Roger swung the bat as he said it, but the crow anticipated the move and flew up. It dove toward him, but he got the fan up in time.

The pair of them repeated their dance a few times, with Roger advancing a few steps toward the car with each parry. He still hadn’t gotten very far before six more black birds came flapping toward him, like the owls in that painting. Roger lifted the fan in front of his face and ran as fast he could, moving it side to side to block diving birds. The large crow came straight at his head, but its own briefly wedged in the fan’s broken grill. While it fluttered and tried to pull away, Roger threw the fan as far as he could, trying to create some distance between himself and his primary attacker.

The other crows still pecked at him, and it hurt, but he had bought himself enough time to get to his car and close the door behind him. The large bird was already free and pecking at the windshield as Roger shifted into reverse, and all seven birds followed the car.

He managed to switch to drive with crows flapping in and out of his vision. The ringleader sat on the hood, dodging the windshield wipers Roger tried using to shake it, pecking the same spot each time the wipers shifted and gave it an opening. A spiderweb of cracks formed in the outer layer of glass as the bird kept at it.

Roger did his best to steer through the masses of feathers and fragments of flying glass. However, he only made it about three blocks before hitting a construction barrier he couldn’t see through the crows. The last thing he saw over the airbag was the large crow staring right at him as it kept pecking more glass from the same thinning spot.

*                      *                      *

Roger woke up in a hospital bed. His head was bandaged, and he had some fluid bags hooked up to his arm. He was disoriented. But he was alive.

“Welcome back,” a nurse in maroon scrubs said once he made an audible groan.

“How did I get here?”

The nurse recounted how several of his neighbors had called the police about the accident, and at least two had done the same about the sight of a clearly disturbed man in a strange costume swinging a baseball bat around. She wasn’t sure which call the officers were responding to when they found him unconscious in his vehicle.

“Is it serious? Am I going to be okay?”

“Physically, you’ll be fine. Just some bruised ribs and a mild head wound. You should be home in a couple of days.” She explained, however, that the doctors were concerned that he might have a concussion. He’d been rambling about a crow while he was out.

“The crow…didn’t kill me…” Roger trailed off as he said it, still groggy from his medication.

“No, you’re very much alive. Now get some rest, and I’ll bring you some pudding when I come back.”

The nurse checked his monitor before leaving, and Roger had enough energy to turn on a baseball game before his eyelids grew heavy again. Maybe it was the drugs, but he felt relaxed for the first time in days.

At least until he looked at the window, and saw a familiar black shape waiting for him.

Jeff Fleischer is a Chicago-based author, journalist and editor. His fiction has appeared in more than sixty publications including the Chicago Tribune’s Printers Row Journal, Shenandoah, the Saturday Evening Post and So It Goes by the Kurt Vonnegut Museum and Library. He is also the author of non-fiction books including “Votes of Confidence: A Young Person’s Guide to American Elections” (Zest Books, 2016 and 2020), “Rockin’ the Boat: 50 Iconic Revolutionaries” (Zest Books, 2015), “The Latest Craze: A Short History of Mass Hysterias” (Fall River Press, 2011), and the upcoming “A Hot Mess: How the Climate Crisis is Changing Our World” (Zest Books, 2021).

                            Q&A with Author Jeff Fleischer

1. There is a scene in “Attempted Murder” where the protagonist needs to choose between going to work or potentially being killed. Is that in any way meant to be a satire regarding our current situation where many workers need to choose between their jobs and the risks of COVID?

The idea for this particular story came along about a year ago, before COVID. I keep a running list of story ideas with notes to work on in the future, and the list had gotten pretty long this year because I was on a book deadline for about nine months that ate most of my writing time. Though I can definitely see where that interpretation would make sense.

2. Have you had any negative experiences with birds? How did you form the primary concept for “Attempted Murder?”

It was really an opposite experience that partly inspired this story. Years ago, when I had just started a gig as a reporter in Sydney, Australia, I was reading in a park and heard a voice from somewhere saying, “Hi, mate!” over and over, and it turned out to be a wild cockatoo. Once I noticed that one, I started seeing them around the city more often, where they were not only hanging out in parks or the botanic gardens but also walking around on the high floors of commercial buildings. When I started brainstorming the idea for “Attempted Murder” (the story started with the title), that interaction loosely informed the beginning, though taken through something of a funhouse mirror.

3. This story has a very frenetic pace mixed in with a lot of humor. I would imagine balancing humor and suspense is a delicate act. How did you work to achieve that balance in this story?

For this one, hopefully the pace is itself part of the humor: trying to get into the character’s head for the knee-jerk reactions to what’s happening and how quickly the paranoia builds and compounds. The whole story takes place over less than two days, and most of it in just about twenty-six or twenty-seven hours, so the action has to escalate several times.

4. Where can readers find more of your fiction and non-fiction?

For fiction, I have more than sixty stories published in various literary journals — print, online, or both (though some of those journals have closed recently). I’m in the process of seeking publishers for a pair of story collections, so hopefully there will be some news on that front before too long. For non-fiction, my books are available at many independent bookstores through IndieBound, plus the big retailers like Amazon, Barnes & Noble, Wal-Mart, Target, etc. and lots of overseas bookshops. I try to Tweet out a link to a published fiction story most Fridays @JeffFleischer and update writing news there, as well as on my website JeffFleischer.com.

5. A lot of your writing focuses on politics and particularly the importance of our American youth getting out to vote. I’ve been reading David Foster Wallace’s essay “Up, Simba!” (originally written for Rolling Stone about the John McCain presidential primary campaign in 2000), and DFW intimates that the system is almost set up to capitalize on our youth not voting. Do you agree with that sentiment? What are some things we can do to ensure an engaged youth vote?

I’m not familiar with the Wallace essay, but in the United States, it’s a chicken-and-egg situation. This answer could wind up being many dozens of pages long, but in brief, I’d say the system generally responds to older voters in large part because older voters participate at a higher rate. So they have more say not only about who’s in power but also about which issues those in power will act upon. Voters born in 1980 or later make up more than 36 percent of eligible voters; if they register and turn out at the same rate as Baby Boomers, they’ll be in position to drive policy. If it’s disadvantageous politically for candidates to take the young voters in their territory for granted, they’ll pay attention. That’s a big part of why I wrote my civics book Votes of Confidence, to play a small role in getting young voters more engaged in both politics and government. Young voter turnout improved noticeably in the 2018 midterms, and hopefully, that trend continues.

That said, there have been quite a few efforts to suppress the youth vote, as we saw in states such as Wisconsin and Georgia in recent elections. That includes things like changing rules so school IDs no longer count as valid IDs for voting in some places, or closing polling places near campuses or in cities. That’s an important point in getting young voters engaged if they couldn’t be influential, people wouldn’t be trying to stop them from voting (of course, the same holds true for minority voters who also face targeted voter-suppression efforts). The key to overcoming that is getting people registered and turning out, and having the people who try to suppress the vote punished badly at the polls — they need to pay a price for trying to steal Americans’ votes.

We’ve seen some amazing youth activism in the past few years on subjects like the March for Our Lives to address school shootings, or climate strikes across the country (and around the world), or during the Black Lives Matter protests after the murders of George Floyd, Breonna Taylor, and others. Translating that energy to voting rights and elections is a crucial step in creating meaningful change.

6. Which former president did you interview and what was that process like? Was it a telephone call or in-person? How long did you have to conduct the interview? Did you have complete freedom to write what you wished or was your work approved in any way by the oval office?

I did a phone Q&A with former President Jimmy Carter for Mother Jones in 2006 to talk about what was then his most recent book. I made the request through his office, and received a future appointment to talk with him for a little more than an hour. He called me at home that day and we talked about a range of topics, and the magazine ran a transcript edited only for length. Nobody but my editor approved it before publication; prior review wasn’t requested, but isn’t a thing to which we’d ever have consented anyway.

The other example would be during graduate school at Northwestern, when I covered Illinois politics for the program’s news service (we published daily articles online, and several local papers often ran them in print or online like they would wire stories). For a few stories, I briefly talked with a state senator from Chicago who went on to do a few things. Because of that, I got to write the blog post at Mother Jones after his 2004 convention speech and covered a few events during his Senate term after I moved back to Chicago.

7. You write widely in both journalism/nonfiction and fiction, but you obviously have a lot of political ideas. Is it easier to communicate your ideas about the world and politics in nonfiction or fiction?

There isn’t much intentional political commentary in the fiction stories. Though like any story, people can probably have various interpretations of them, and that’s completely okay; fiction discussion needn’t be limited to authorial intent.

The non-fiction books focus on being informational and making subject matter like history, civics, and science conversational and accessible for a young-adult audience. To the extent that the content’s political, it’s in favor of things that shouldn’t be controversial: that citizens in a republic should be allowed to vote, that people have value regardless of their demographics, that officials should act in the public interest, that conspiracy theories and misinformation shouldn’t be treated as a valid counterpoint to reality, that facts and science matter. That those points are now seen by some as controversial is itself a big problem. It’s a strange moment in the country that makes this the case, but it’s important not to normalize it.

8. As a fledgling writer, I am often frustrated by how hard it is to get feedback on work or to get anything published. As a former lawyer, I was always used to instant feedback—you either win the case or you lose it—and you know pretty quickly. A lot of readers of literary magazines are writers or fledgling writers; any advice for them on keeping perspective in the face of a difficult world to break into?

In terms of advice for people breaking in, it’s important to keep the odds in mind. Most literary magazines publish a tiny fraction of what they receive from their slush piles. For some, it averages one out of every twenty or fifty submissions; for others, one of every few hundred. Rejection is just part of the deal. It could be that your piece is too similar to something the magazine ran recently, or too different from the aesthetic of the upcoming issue, or the editors just got X number of stories they liked more during that submission period. That doesn’t mean the story isn’t any good; it’s a matter of taste. I’ve had stories I loved take years for acceptance and others I don’t consider as strong get picked up within a few days of submission. If your work’s good, you keep writing, and you submit consistently, something will find a home eventually.

As far as feedback, I’ve been part of a consistent writing group since 2014 with three good friends who are all really talented writers (David Nelson, Gabriella Bonamici, and Jamie Witherby; I highly recommend that anyone reading this check out their work). We’ve read enough of each other’s writing through the years that the group is a great resource. At least two of us usually share at each meeting; we first give the author our general feedback, and then the author can ask specific questions to help fine-tune the piece. To me, getting to ask detailed questions and receive meaningful feedback from people who know my work well has been much more valuable than any of the feedback I’ve received to date from magazine rejections. Plus, I get to read work I really enjoy from them, so it’s a win-win.

9. Your newest book will be about global warming. It seems that as humans we do not easily care about things unless they’re happening in our front yard. How can we move past this apathy and failed “marshmallow” test existence and get people (and perhaps more importantly businesses) actively engaged in making sure there is a future here on Earth?

In terms of climate change specifically, most people around the world have cared about it for a long time. And it’s not as if Americans or other people who came to apathy or denial did so on their own; they were inundated with decades of targeted climate-denial propaganda trying to convince them there was a “controversy” among scientists when there wasn’t any. Nothing I’ve ever written in a fiction story is as implausible as looking at any trend data on the climate and not seeing the influence of industrialization, or knowing how air pollution affects people and thinking it magically won’t have an impact on the environment.

Not that long ago, the left-right debate on the climate crisis was whether to have governments devise solutions to the problem or incentivize the private sector to do so, which was a rational and useful debate. It took many millions of dollars and lots of junk science and astroturf agitprop to trick people into denying what was in front of their faces. Most people around the world weren’t fooled, and scientists have been clear for ages. Unfortunately, it tricked enough people for long enough that it was effective at delaying action, and we’re already paying far too high a price for that. There’s still an opportunity to stop the worst effects, but some damage is probably going to be permanent.

10. In your short story “Redundancy,” published in Rowan University’s Glassworks, you write about a British company that is seeking to potentially reduce its staff. I highlighted “Redundancy” as my “story of the week” a few weeks back. In “Redundancy,” you introduce many absurdist elements (such as both a man and his “imaginary friend” being on the payroll and each receiving one half of the pay, the company’s final decision to not lay off any staff at the end of the story, etc.); as a writer how do you know how to push such elements in a way that is meaningful, realistic, and funny without being too bizarre? How much work goes into the craft of perfecting work like that when you’re essentially walking a tightrope act.

For stories that have some element of magical realism, I think the key is for characters to take the situation seriously. In “Redundancy” specifically, the point-of-view character is as skeptical as the reader would likely be, but the other characters’ comfort and familiarity with the situation serves to ground things in their reality, and that disconnect is hopefully what generates the humor. The first fiction story of mine that a magazine published (and still one of my favorites) involved a farmer dealing with his cow unexpectedly giving birth to a minotaur, and that took the same approach. If it’s real to the characters, that should translate to the reader. And I think that’s often true in realism stories as well, as characters tend to adapt to their circumstances, regardless of how unusual or unexpected they might be.

11. What does it say about me that I’m still not sure if the imaginary friend (Hartwin) is real or not? I mean, otherwise, how did Hartwin hear the conversation about his future job prospects?

It says you read it in the intended spirit of the piece. I can vouch that readers have had both reactions.

12. In “Paying the Piper,” published in Landlocked Literary Magazine, you present a sort of alternate ending or sequel for the classic Pied Piper story, and your work is also a bit of a satire of our current political situation. It seems that we keep using the same fairytales and fables, (most of which have been tamed over the years). How important is it for our society to create modern fables and legends, and why do we seem so incapable of doing so?

As far as why folktales and fairytales remain appealing, it’s partly that they’re designed to be retold and adapted. They’re usually among the first stories we learn as children, so they form a basis of reference for a lot of things we learn later, and those that endure tend to be familiar to many people a kind of common language of storytelling.

The general Western fairytale canon we usually talk about in the United States only goes back to the 1800s, which is when the Brothers Grimm fairy tales, Han Christian Andersen’s short stories, and Andrew Lang’s fairy books were published. Some of the stories they included, like Cinderella, have much older origins, of course, and there are plenty of stories from elsewhere in the world that didn’t achieve the same fame in the West. American tall tales aren’t much younger than the Grimm versions of fairytales, and it wasn’t too long before new media like radio and film were adapting those stories as well. 

Similarly, I’d argue we create new and enduring stories all the time. We just don’t know at the moment which are the works that will endure for people centuries in the future. History has a way of condensing those things, so the best-known fairytales and folktales are just a fraction of what’s out there, just as Mozart and Beethoven or Shakespeare and Moliere remain popular while many of their once-popular contemporaries aren’t familiar to most people today. It’s entirely possible that retold and reimagined stories of Captain Ahab and Huck Finn and Jo March will be similarly iconic to Snow White or Robin Hood in the 2200s. We just don’t know that yet.

13. I’m probably not going out on a limb to suggest that you earn more money from your non-fiction books, your journalism, perhaps even your editing services, and yet you consistently produce fresh, original, and well-crafted fiction. What draws you to continue working on fiction? How much time do you spend each week working on fiction?

That suggestion is not wrong. Financially, I make most of my living from my full-time job and freelance editing, with books, articles, and creative writing contributing a little extra.

Fiction writing for me is genuinely a hobby I do primarily for fun rather than money, and it’s still a thrill that other people want to read it or publish it. I wrote a lot of stories when I was a kid, and a couple of my elementary-school teachers would have me read them to the class. But I hadn’t worked on fiction (aside from a few spec screenplays) between the time I started college and 2012, though I worked as a writer and/or editor throughout that time. I’ve been writing fiction pretty regularly for about eight years now, and find it really relaxing and enjoyable. A lot of hobbies cost money, so it’s nice that one of mine costs basically just my time (along with the price of coffee and a small number of submission fees), finds an audience, and even pays a little bit.

As far as time, there’s no consistent answer. Some stories are written in one or two sessions of a few hours, some piecemeal over long periods of time, and some get put away for months or even years and picked up later. Sometimes I’m working on multiple stories in parallel; other times I work on one until it’s done. I always keep a list of ideas updated, and check for submission calls that sound fun and/or challenging to write. In a perfect world, I’d keep regular writer’s hours and produce a certain amount of work every weekday, but that’s still a wish for the future.

14. Who are some writers or other artists that have inspired your work?

I don’t know how much anyone inspired specific work directly, but you can’t help but be influenced by writers you like. A very incomplete list of people who probably had some influence would include Kurt Vonnegut, George Orwell, John Steinbeck, Richard Adams, Mark Twain, Louise Erdrich, Neil Gaiman, Isabel Allende, Nick Hornby, Witi Ihimaera, W.P. Kinsella, Elmore Leonard, Barbara Kingsolver, Arthur Conan Doyle, and many others. I probably read more nonfiction than fiction, and Studs Terkel was a big influence on that front. I’m also a big movie and music person, so a number of filmmakers and songwriters are probably just as important in terms of influence.

15. Do you have any novels in the pipeline?

I have two novels that I started a while back and intend to pick up when time allows, but I’ve had both non-fiction book deadlines (just finished my fifth) and a lot of other work that kept me busy in the meantime. The one that’s farther along would be a hard sell in the current publishing environment, and the other needs a little more conceptual work before picking it up again. But admittedly I tend to work on short stories more often because they can be finished in a reasonable timeframe and I’m constantly coming up with ideas for more of them.