Tommy Dean interviews Tara Laskowski about her stories in New Micro (W.W. Norton & Co., 2018).
Both of your stories in New Micro, use an intimate 1st person Point of View. Do you generally gravitate to this pov? Do you think it creates an intimacy that a micro demands from the reader? Does it cut out some of the backstory?
Yes. I like first-person present tense for micros. I feel like there’s an urgency there, a drive that propels us forward, which is so important in such tiny spaces. I enjoy trying to get inside a character’s head as they are doing stupid things, before they even fully realize they are doing stupid things. That’s kind of how we all go about our lives anyway, right?
In your story, Dendrochronology, there’s this line: “Grown-ups wanted to turn everything into a lesson.” Do or can stories provide lessons? If so, how do they accomplish this?
I shy away from trying to impart moral or ethical lessons in stories. I feel like you can smell those coming a mile away. No one wants to feel like they’re being taught something when they read, do they? I mean, not forced upon them, anyway. If lessons evolve out of a story, then I guess that’s fine, but I think if you sit down with the intention to warn people about the dangers of XXXX, then you’re doomed.
Did this story naturally start with the structural phrase, “The year that…” or did it come later during revision? How confident are you in your craft choices during the drafting stage?
I’ve been sitting here for a bit trying to remember, but I don’t actually know how that story started! I wrote it quite a while ago. I think, though, that in general, if I can get a good voice rhythm or first phrase going, the rest of the story will spill out easier, if that makes sense. I mean, it will still spill messily and need some cleaning up, but it’s easier to get it all out there on the page if I can “hear” the voice in my head. For “We’re Gonna Be Here A While,” I definitely remember getting that cadence of “And it snowed…” going in my head, and that was it. I wanted a resigned tone with that narrator, that feeling of, “Yep, I totally fucked up…now what?”
I am not sure I make any conscious craft choices during the drafting stage. I hope it works on the subconscious level, and if it doesn’t, I hope I can insert and fix during revision.
Dendrochronology to me is perfectly balanced with multiple rhetorical elements: the year, the tree, the teacher, and the idea of safety or the illusion of safety. If we took one of these elements out, would the story still work? As a writer, are you often working toward balance?
I think taking one of those elements out would be taking a hefty chunk out of that tree. For me, the story was about the idea of time, and how we define time. I remember things very distinctly from my school days because everything revolved around the academic year. Like, I can remember what year certain songs or movies came out because I can remember seeing them during my sophomore year or whatever. After I graduated from college, it’s all kind of a blur, honestly. But during those school years, I think everything feels heightened and so defined by time. Which is why I think the tree rings work really well here, in addition to the other elements you mention. It actually might be my favorite flash I’ve ever written, and the funny thing is that I don’t even remember where initially the idea came from.
What are your writerly obsessions? What theme, idea, or image can you not let go of?
I write a lot about: ghosts, violence, how we can’t communicate with each other very well, Pennsylvania, married people who aren’t doing so well, newspaper reporters…
Where do your most unique ideas come from? How do you know if a story idea is working?
Dreams! Sometimes, rarely, but sometimes, I wake up from a really bizarre one and know I have to write it down before I forget. This is why I keep a pad of paper and pen on my nightstand. I’ve learned how to write fairly decently in the dark, though sometimes in the morning I see that the lines I’ve scribbled weave in and out and on top of each other.
A novel, a micro, and a poem go to a bar together. What happens?
The novel drinks a lot but never gets drunk. The micro starts flirting with the bartender and dancing wildly to the twangy country music cover band. We forget about the poet until last call, when we find him weeping in the bathroom for no discernable reason and make him pay the cab fare home.
What are you working on now?
I recently finished a novel that is currently searching for a home. I’m writing a bunch of short stories about ghosts and Pennsylvania and violence, etc., that I put aside while writing that novel, and I hope to start another book-length project soon. We’ll see what happens!
Bio: Tara Laskowski grew up in Northeastern Pennsylvania and now navigates traffic in the Washington, D.C. suburbs. She is the author of the short story collection Bystanders, which won the Balcones Fiction Prize and was hailed by Jennifer Egan in The Guardian as one of the best books of 2017. She is also the author of Modern Manners For Your Inner Demons, tales of dark etiquette. Her fiction has been published in the Norton anthology Flash Fiction International, Best Small Fictions, Ellery Queen’s Mystery Magazine, Alfred Hitchcock’s Mystery Magazine, Mid-American Review, and numerous other journals, magazines, and anthologies. She was awarded the Kathy Fish Fellowship from SmokeLong Quarterly in 2009, and won the grand prize for the 2010 Santa Fe Writers Project Literary Awards Series. Since 2010, she has been the editor of SmokeLong Quarterly.