Kristen Arnett selected “Wish You Were Here” by Carlee Jensen as the second place winner in our 2021 Summer Short Story Award for New Writers, and we’re so pleased to share this interview with the author today, conducted by assistant editor Melissa Hinshaw. Dig in below:
This is a story about the way grief hits us each differently, which ultimately separates us when you get right down to it. Did you start the story knowing Mel would encounter tension with Alicia down the road? Where did that tension show up along the way as you wrote and developed these characters?
I didn’t know, no. I almost never start stories with the ending in mind, and this story in particular grew mostly from an assortment of feelings and images that slowly strung themselves together into a narrative. If there was any outcome I was hoping for, it was that Alicia and Mel would find a way to connect and be a kind of family to each other. I think that’s what both women sincerely want. But as I figured out more about Mel and what this friendship had meant to her, the anger and resentment she felt—not only at having lost someone she loved, but at being left alone with that loss in a world that had very little space for her grief—really pushed its way to the forefront. I felt like I had to respect that, even if it meant I couldn’t give these two what I wanted for them.
I love the way we get a sense of Jackson even though he’s absent from the entire piece simply by the way Mel and Alicia attend to him in narration and action. This is part of what makes this piece feel so non-forced. What did you attend to while writing to accomplish this?
I’m really interested in the ways in which our love for other people animates our lives in a very concrete, tactile way: how spaces, objects, and experiences can unlock memories and associations, even when they aren’t direct artifacts of the relationships that are dear to us. I think this is true for relationships with the living, but it becomes so heightened after loss. And because this is ultimately a story about the imprint of having loved someone deeply, it felt really natural that the physical world would be full of these tripwires that bring Mel back to her memories of Jackson.
While editing, I noticed your rhythms of punctuation—lots of colons and semicolons, commas, and em-dashes. It lent a sort of pulse to the story. How is this style particular to or exaggerated in this piece versus your other writing?
This is definitely part of who I am as a writer and thinker. But I do think that this story in particular tries to capture a state of emotional confusion and internal conflict, which layers of punctuation can bring to life really effectively.
There’s a nice contrast between death and grief and the lush green living state of the garden. Was this an intentional choice in writing, or did it come to you organically (pun intended)?
I’m not a particularly talented gardener, but I have known a few incredible gardeners in my life. It’s kind of remarkable how much a garden holds the spirit of the person who planted and tended it; there’s just so much effort and attention involved, so many choices that inevitably reflect the person behind them. So it was less about the metaphorical content of the setting than about connecting with my own sense of these people I loved, and where I would feel their presence most strongly.
I can’t help but wonder what would have happened had the narrator said any of the things she thinks of to say to Alicia. How might the story have turned out differently if she had?
We’re really bad at this, as human beings—we see what we should do, we know what we should do, and we just can’t get over ourselves long enough to do it. I think that for Mel to reach out to Alicia in that moment and extend that kind of compassion to her would have required her to be a lot farther along in her thinking about this loss; it’s really not until later, reflecting on this moment, that she even comes up with something to say. So, in a way, it would have been a story about a completely different kind of grief for her to have made that leap.
I love the way this story weaves between the narrator’s own grief experience and the narrator’s observation of a stranger’s grief (the memoirist). Where did that aspect of the piece come from?
In writing this story, it was really important to me that I honor the experience of dying and create space for people who had died to speak for themselves, in all their complex humanity. It’s really easy to portray dying as either a loss of agency or a martyrdom, and I don’t think either one of those is sufficient. Obviously there’s a real limitation in my ability to write from a dying person’s point of view—I’ve had the privilege of good physical health—but there were so many people who had shared their experiences, both in writing and in my own life. That research and reflection was, for me, a really important part of the work of this story. I felt like Rachel emerged from all those voices that were informing my thinking as I wrote.
Interviewed by Melissa Hinshaw