In early February, we published Becca Anderson’s prize-winning “Ghost Story,” selected by Tope Folarin as the winner of our Summer Short Story Award for New Writers. Today, we are excited to share with you her interview, in which we discuss her writing process and the inspiration for this powerful short story.
To start, congratulations! “Ghost Story” was selected by Tope Folarin as the grand prize winner for our 2019 Summer Short Story Award. It’s been published for almost two months, now. What was it like for you to win this award?
When I got the news, I had just boarded an extremely delayed flight. I only had enough time to reply to the email, text my parents, text a friend, and then I had to go into airplane mode. I think I spent the entire flight staring down at the e-mail telling me that I’d won. By the time I landed I’d convinced myself that some kind of mix-up had happened, and I would find an email correcting the mistake. Luckily, that wasn’t the case! The story has been up for nearly two months, now, and I’ve had some wonderful conversation with both people I know and strangers who have read it and liked it enough to reach out. It truly has been the biggest event in my writing career so far.
In Tope’s introduction to “Ghost Story”, he called it a “fantastic, moving story,” one that “calmly leads you along, and then you realize what’s happening, and it’s too late to protect yourself.” I think this is the perfect description for this piece, one that mirrors the narrator’s own experience in the story. What was it that first drew you to this narrative?
For the past six years or so, I have been trying to find my way into a story where Bigfoot plays a pivotal role. “Ghost Story” is the most recent—and definitely most successful—failure in that quest. The original idea took place about twenty years after the last time Riley and Mia saw one another. I made it maybe a page before I started thinking about what caused their parting. It went from third person to first before settling into second. I became extremely interested in the idea of a flash-forward operating in the place of a flashback. As I was writing, I started to think about the story working like an interrogation, one where Mia is both the questioner and the questioned. I often find myself caught in circular thinking patterns—what if I’d done this or said that or went here?—that ultimately change nothing. I think a lot of us do. We all make choices that, while seemingly small in the moment, change the trajectories of our lives. The tragedy comes when we go over the same things again and again, as if that can somehow set things right.
One thing we pride ourselves on is sharing the work of emerging writers, like yourself. Who are the emerging writers you’ve been following? Whose work should we all be paying attention to? Any great new stories you’ve read recently?
I’ve been reading a lot of novels lately and have let my short story reading slip! One of my favorites, though, is “Children of a Careless God” by Elizabeth Gonzalez James. It was published in the most recent issue of The Idaho Review. It’s about four cats living in an apartment after their owner suddenly dies, and it is absolutely beautiful. I believe she has a book coming out in the not-so-distant future as well! I’d also shout out Jacqui Reiko Teruya (most recently in Passages North and CRAFT) and Ariel Delgado Dixon (work featured in The Greensboro Review and Kenyon Review). They’ve both had work published here in The Masters Review as well.
I ask this in all my interviews, because I’m fascinated by all the weird habits we pick up along the way. What does your writing process look like? A student of mine recently told me when he writes, he’s always got his guitar in his lap, and he’ll strum chords whenever he’s stuck. Another said she composes out loud while walking around her apartment. So for you, what do you do while writing?
It’s funny. Two weeks ago, I would’ve told you that my writing process generally involves me, my laptop, and a coffeeshop, library, or café somewhere in town. I’ve traditionally had enormous trouble writing at home. There’s always something to be cleaned or tidied, laundry that needs doing, food that needs cooking…a million and a half little things that have absolutely nothing to do with getting words on a page. Right now, in this moment of social distancing and self-isolation, I’m having to learn new habits. Namely, staying at my desk and telling myself I can call my mother back later, just like I would if I had gone out somewhere. The main habit I have with writing, though, is to stagger it with reading. I think of it like stretching before a run. If your muscles aren’t warmed up, you’re not going to have a great time. I don’t necessarily read a lot—maybe ten or twenty pages from a novel or a single short story—but I find my own words come much easier after having read someone else’s.
As a writer from Wisconsin myself (UW-Madison alumnus, with a sister who graduated from UW-Eau Claire), I’m so interested in your novel-in-progress! Anything you can share with us on that front?
Oh, hey! It’s always fun to meet another Wisconsinite out in the wild! My young adult novel-in-progress is about Cal, a sixteen-year old, who comes to live with her estranged maternal grandmother in the far north of Wisconsin. She soon learns she’s descended from a long line of practicing witches. It’s still coming together, so I don’t want to go into too much detail! But, as anyone who has talked to me in-person for more than five minutes would tell you, I am more than happy to talk about the setting:
I’m someone who is very much in love with the Great Lakes and the states that surround them, specifically Michigan and Superior. The northern Midwest is, I think, a place largely ignored in pop culture. We’re often dismissed as Flyover States. However, I think it’s a region absolutely ripe for strangeness and story. When I think of the Midwest, I think of plains and cornfields that go out to the horizon, or forests that tangle for hundreds of miles, or lakes that reach up and swallow ocean-class ships whole. Lake Superior is littered with shipwrecks that are almost perfectly preserved due to the cold temperature of the water. It’s so frigid that not even bacteria can survive.
The Apostle Islands, the setting for my novel, are in Lake Superior just off Wisconsin’s northernmost shore. They’re formed of twenty-two forested shores, and only the largest of them, Madeline Island, maintains a permanent population. The rest are protected by the National Park. The islands are made of a brown-red sandstone and intricate sea-caves. In the summer, the area in inundated with campers and kayakers. But it’s in the winter when the islands really shine. The groundwater seeps out of the sandstone shores to form truly elaborate and breathtaking ice-caves. The lake freezes so thickly that the ferry to Madeline can’t break through, and a four-mile ice road marked by felled evergreens is built until the spring thaw sets in.
The real question is how could I not write about witches living there?