Colin Bonini’s “Sandbox” was chosen by K-Ming Chang as the winner in the Micro category of our 2023 Spring Small Fiction Awards! First, be sure to check out the micro that Chang called “heartrending,” “devastating” and “gorgeously crafted,” then check out our interview with the winner below!
Congratulations on winning our micro category for this year’s Small Fiction Awards! “Sandbox” is a coming-of-age story of sorts, told in the second person, tracing the protagonist’s brother’s cancer diagnosis. The second person is supremely effective in this story at both bringing the reader closer to the emotional weight in the story and at establishing the voice of the younger protagonist. You’re doing two rather risky things in this very short space—second person POV and a child protagonist—but you’re pulling it off so well. Did this story begin in this way, or were these decisions you came to later on?
Thank you! It means so much that The Masters Review editors shortlisted this story, and that K-Ming Chang enjoyed reading it.
I have some friends who routinely use the second person beautifully, so I learned a lot from them, and there was something about the second person that made writing a young protagonist feel easier. In any story, I want the reader to feel the immediacy of the characters’ crisis, and with a young main character like Charlie, that felt hard to do without putting the reader directly in his shoes. Especially in a story this short, when the reader doesn’t have too much time to get to know that character. They need to be in the story right away. I also ended up with the second person because, to me, this story’s first line is so essential to its general atmosphere, and it just wouldn’t be the same if it was written in first or third. Once I had that line, I had to stick with it.
The abruptness of this last line is so devastating; it catches me off guard every time I read through the story. How did you land there?
My initial instinct for this story was to end on an image from the hospital—like an IV drip or a heartbeat monitor or, you know, something like that—but I was struggling to think of anything as eerie and resonant as the nine-legged spider. Everything I came up with felt clichéd. I’m pretty sure, initially, the last line was just the first clause in a longer, compound sentence that led to the hospital image. But every image was falling flat compared to the spider and the flies and the jar and the brother, and the hospital just wasn’t as important to the story as the pool. So I started deleting whatever it was I’d written afterwards, then re-reading to see if I landed on a better ending. Sometimes that happens; the ending is actually something you’ve already written without realizing it. That’s what happened this time, at least. I landed on the final line because it felt like something was supposed to come after it, but never did. And that’s how loss works. Loss is when something ends before it’s supposed to.
This story is chock-full of very specific images: the lima-bean shaped pool, filled in with sand; the objects that the protagonist digs out (planted by his brother) and the reality of the objects he finds not planted by his brother, which I think is really what forces him to face the reality of his brother’s situation. I guess my question here comes back to that pool: Where did that idea come from?
The pool is a half-truth. Growing up, one of my best friends had a pool in his backyard, but his parents drained the water and filled it with grass because they were worried about him drowning. This dude’s backyard was such an integral part of my own experiences with brotherhood and friendship, but it was also such a weird, weird spot. The whole backyard was made of concrete, then it had this peanut-shaped patch of grass in the middle. There was such an obvious gap, there, so obviously something missing, but the gap became what made that place special. This story is an homage to that friend, in some ways; he’s had to face some serious loss, and his friendship also came at a period in my life when I was coping with a lot of the grief that directly shaped this story. I love the idea of both exposing and filling an emptiness at the same time, and I feel like that’s what our friendship did, in many ways. At least for me. His pool was a fitting image for that concept. I just replaced the grass with sand for narrative reasons. It’s easier to dig in a sandbox than it is to destroy a lawn.
Do you often work with compressed forms?
I do, which is something I’m starting to understand about myself and my writing. I feel like all my writing is either wildly expansive and vast, or super tight and self-contained, like “Sandbox.” I always had trouble with “regular”-length short stories because I just want to add and add and write and write, so I always thought of myself as a long writer. Like, I could never meet submission standards with my fiction. I finally decided to lean into that long-writing tendency and start a novel, which I’ve been at work on for the past few years. Working on the book has been great, but at some point I began to miss the sense of closure that short stories gave me. It felt weird to be at work on one thing for so long but have no finished or final product. Flash- and micro-fiction became a way to have the best of both worlds. I could spend a weekend or two focusing on the line, the sentence, the sound of something super compressed, whereas I could spend the rest of my writing time zooming out on the larger plot concerns and the movement of a much, much larger project. I have trouble finding a happy medium, but I’ve found a lot of joy in moving between extremes.
What are you working on now?
A few things! This story is actually the first story of a chapbook I’m shopping around, and I’m at work on a few essays about sports, music, and fashion. My biggest project is still the novel I’ve got going, for sure, but I’m using the essays I’m writing as a way to conduct research and re-center my priorities. Basically, everything I’m doing right now, I’m looking at as process work for the book and for my teaching, which feels just as important as my writing practice.
Interviewed by Cole Meyer