The Masters Review Volume V with stories selected by Amy Hempel published in October and we are continuing our series of interviews with the authors in the collection. Today, we chat with Kari Shemwell about her beautiful and haunting story, “This Road May Flood.” In this piece, Shemwell plays with time and reality as a couple walks into flood lands looking for the drowned man, a specter that haunts the area. It’s a fantastic piece, with incredible staying power — so much so we chose it to be the final story in our collection! Enjoy this wonderful interview from a talented new writer.
Don’t forget that submissions to The Masters Review Volume VI, judged by Roxane Gay, our next collection, are open until March 31!
“You always think that you are the brave one, the one who doesn’t mind sleeping alone, the one who will stand too close to the edge of a bluff or drive without power steering in our old busted Cadillac, but I am the one who approaches the drowned man.”
What inspired the idea for your story and how long did it take to develop?
“This Road May Flood” was inspired by western Kentucky history and folklore. I took this historical event and morphed it into something larger than life. The story is based around Land Between the Lakes, near where I grew up. This area really was “drowned” after the damming of a river. Remnants of homes and roads actually do exist beneath the surfaces of the lakes, so I’ve been told. In fact, my father-in-law recently purchased a cabin that had been relocated from the lake area during the flooding. Some homes were hauled to surrounding communities; others were not. I don’t know if any people actually drowned during this historical event. That’s where the story ventures into folklore and legend.
I thought about this story for about nine months before writing it. The drowned man was the first element of the story that occurred to me. While sitting in a panel at AWP Minneapolis, I wrote down several lines of a conversation between the drowned man and a struggling young married couple. I wanted to write about depression and a suicide attempt, and the weight this would carry in any marriage, especially a young, fragile one. When I actually did sit down to write the story, the whole thing came out nearly all at once. It took on a tone and narrative style I had not intended from the beginning, and ended somewhere I hadn’t expected. Nearly all of my pieces change during the journey from concept to story. I never outline for this reason.
One of the things that stands out most in “This Road May Flood,” is the Drowned Man. How did you come up with him as a character and what challenges did you face implementing him into the story?
Paranormal fans like to swap stories of ghosts in the nature preserve. And the flooding of entire villages serves as the perfect stage for legend building. The drowned man was born from these legends. Though, I wanted him to be less of a ghost and more of just a drowned person, one who talks and moves. Not long after this was picked up for publication, the movie The Swiss Army Man was released, which has a very similar style of drowned man as one of the main characters. Apparently, I’m not the only person with this on the brain. Some sort of collective sub-conscious, perhaps?
The drowned man proved to be quite difficult to write. He needed to represent something without seeming heavy-handed. He needed to be something different for each character. For the speaker, he represented escape, death, peace. For the spouse—fear, loss, selfishness. For the professor and his wife, the drowned man represents something entirely different. These two appear in another story within my collection, and this story hints at what exactly the drowned man represented for them.
In terms of structure, your story oscillates between the past and present. In your mind, how does the piece benefit from this choice as opposed to structuring the story in a different way? Did you always know you were going to write this with a past/present toggle?
I didn’t always know I was going to write the story with this structure. It sort of just happened that way. I started calling it my zig-zag arch, and I think it comes from my love of film. Movies often have a forward moving present story line while weaving in a story from the past. This past story reveals new information about the present, and vice versa. I was hoping the forward-backward style would make the drowned man thread carry a heavier impact, provide context, and create the feeling that the narrator is trying to explain him/herself to the spouse—a form of apology or confession.
In what ways is this piece similar to or different from your other work? What are you working on now?
Many of my stories use fabulist/magic realism elements. Also, many of the stories within this collection are about couples. For example, one story recently published online is about a woman trying to give away her soon-to-be prolapsed uterus, and another is about a woman escaping to the desert to recover from an intense extra-marital affair, a process which is literally leaving spontaneously combusting burns on her skin.
Right now, I’m in the process of editing a story that I’m very excited about. It’s called “Fish Head,” and it’s an odd tale about a man whose wife begins making freelance porn videos while wearing a simultaneously creepy and enchanting rubber fish mask. Like many of the other pieces I’ve written, “Fish Head” deals with issues of identity, sexuality, relationships, etc.
What is your writing/creative process like?
My writing process if terribly slow and painful. I’m ridiculously lazy oftentimes. I write by hand, usually about one page a week. Then I read it and change it and slave over it until I’m miserable. It’s not a fun way to write, and I do wish I’d figure something else out.
I usually write away from home, at a coffee shop, typically. I write best after walking for at least a mile of two. New Orleans is a fantastic city for walking.
What are some of your favorite stories?
“Decomposition: A Primer for Promiscuous Housewives” by Jamie Quatro
“The Rememberer” and “What You Left in the Ditch” by Aimee Bender
“Interesting Facts” by Adam Johnson
“Virgins” by Danielle Evans
“Car Crash While Hitchhiking” by Denis Johnson
“The Sea of Lost Time” by Gabriel Garcia Marquez
“Crazy Glue” by Etgar Keret
“Couple of Lovers on a Red Background” by Rebecca Makkai