Tommy Dean interviews Melissa Fraterrigo about her writing life and about her micro story, “Mama’s Boy,” forthcoming in NEW MICRO (W.W. Norton & Co., 2018)
TD: What image or thought helped you start drafting “Momma’s Boy”?
MF: My family camped a fair bit when we were kids and while my parents chopped wood or wrapped up hamburger patties in tinfoil for dinner, my brother, sister and I explored. We would set out on the lake to fish but usually came back empty handed. On one occasion we were successful and brought to shore in a bucket a gorgeous little sunfish with gold and orange scales. We made the mistake of placing a crayfish in this same bucket and later were heartbroken to discover the crayfish had killed the sunfish; in retribution we stoned the crayfish. Hence, I’m embarrassed to admit, the idea for Carlotta’s insistence that Joey harm the turtle.
TD: This story feels both timeless and apt for 2018: Do you think fiction has a way of preparing us for hardship or for joy?
MF: Thank you for saying that the story feels timeless, Tommy. That’s a huge compliment, especially since “Momma’s Boy” was initially published in 2003 in a fine anthology, Sudden Stories: The Mammoth Book of Miniscule Fiction. I certainly hope with every story that the piece will transcend the particular moment in time in which it is written, but that I is not usually apparent with the initial germ of a project. Whether we realize it or not, I think all writers attempt to use fiction to prepare us for greater challenges, ones that exist outside of the expectations we have for our lives. At its most basic, a story is a means of problem solving, and problems introduce both hardship and joy—in fact, I would argue that it is the process of attempting to live with hardship that we discover joy, and I think that’s something both Carlotta and Joey experience in “Momma’s Boy.”
TD: As the founder of Lafayette Writers’ Studio, how do you use your own writing experiences to teach new writers?
MF: Goodness, I am confident I would not be the writer I am, waking before the rest of my family and sitting down to my desk each day if it were not for the writers I have met through the Lafayette Writers’ Studio. It’s difficult to reflect on how my own writing experiences influence the writers I meet in the classroom, but certainly I am able to pull away any artifice that may exist and show them that writing is a skill like any other and that skill can be honed through practice and attention to the world around them—watching the elderly man trim his shrubs is equally as important as reading deeply and widely. Above all else though, a writer must commit herself to the work and find joy in the process rather than the result of that work. Dedication is everything.
TD: Revision: Love it or hate? Tell me about a story that didn’t require any revision; tell me about a story that took multiple drafts.
MF: I have never written a story that didn’t require revision! Even now, as I meet with book groups and give readings from my new novel Glory Days, I am all too aware of things that I would change. I think that desire to revise or reconsider a piece is inevitable. Just as we as individuals are constantly evolving, so too are our inclinations toward a piece. The person I am today is different than the person who completed Glory Days in 2016, so it’s only natural that that would influence my approach. But I really love revision. For me there is a freedom that comes from having something on the page and I try to really listen to what a particular work is trying to tell me. I am able to focus on what is working and also identify what’s not quite there, and then I just keep chinking away at it—trying to get what is on the page to reflect what is in my head. It’s not pretty—that’s for sure, but I actually love the disorder and messiness of it. Where else in life can you wield such control, such possibility?
TD: What are your writerly obsessions? What theme, idea, or image can you not let go of?
MF: I think I’m always looking for strong writing—for images that move me and make me consider how a body moves through space and time. I’m currently reading Jennifer Egan’s Manhattan Beach and she’s a master at describing a character in such a fresh and inventive way.
TD: Where do your most unique ideas come from? How do you know if a story idea is working?
MF: My story ideas have evolved just like the rest of my life—I used to mishear and misread things a fair bit and would just jot down those ideas. I was also inspired by current events, newspaper stories and such—but in this age of distraction, I have to work harder than ever to really focus on the story ideas when they come to me. I work full-time, I have a family, and an old lab-shepherd mix that wakes me most nights around 3 a.m., certain it’s time for breakfast. There are a lot more balls in the air so to speak than when I was a graduate student at Bowling Green State University churning out workshop stories every few weeks. That being said, I still try to cultivate my creativity by taking note of the ideas that come to me. I keep little notebooks everywhere and will even text myself ideas. I know that a story idea is working if I can’t put it away, if the characters and their situations continue to haunt me whether I’m shopping for groceries or billing a freelance client. That’s when I know the story has taken on a life of its own.
TD: What are you working on now?
MF: I’m on my third revision of a young-adult novel. It is thick with problems, so I’m eager to see how all of that shakes out.
Melissa Fraterrigo is the author of the novel Glory Days (University of Nebraska Press, 2017), which was included as “The Best Fiction Books of 2017” by the Chicago Review of Books, as well as the short story collection The Longest Pregnancy (Livingston Press, 2006). Her fiction and nonfiction has appeared in more than forty literary journals and anthologies. She is the executive director of the Lafayette Writers’ Studio in Lafayette, Indiana, where she teaches classes on the art and craft of writing. Melissafraterrigo.com