Emily Pegg’s “Hatching Moths” was chosen by K-Ming Chang as the runner-up in the Flash category of our Spring Small Fiction Awards. Please read this terrific, haunting short flash, and then check out our interview with the winner here!
What sparked this story, or led you to write this piece?
This piece was intended to be a poem, originally—but I’m a terrible poet, so I ended up with a story hacked apart with clumsy line breaks. In revisions I put it all back together. I love moments of no return, especially between characters, and in this piece was especially drawn to the narrator who has this moment of realization completely on their own. They’re facing a pest infestation, but also this infestation of dread. That dynamic was fun to explore.
We’re incredibly close to our narrator in first person present tense, but are also kept at this fascinating maybe-closeness/maybe-distance where the narrator doesn’t let us know basic things, for instance names—we simply have she and I. Can you talk a little bit about how you came to that choice for the piece, and why?
To me, this contradiction was central to the narrator at this point in their life. They have all this love and familiarity held for their partner, a real openness that we get a glimpse of. But they’re also in a kind of denial that things have changed between them. Leaving out those details is a kind of control the narrator can assert over their situation—withholding identifying information becomes a kind of shield. We see intimately how they behave and feel but wouldn’t be able to pick either of them out in a crowd. That protection allows them to stay in this state of privacy and ignorance, to pretend things are as good as they’ve always been.
Flash fiction (and all its various subgenres, as we highlighted in this contest) by definition requires brevity—there are so many things about the place, the conflict, and the characters of this story that are given to us through incredibly quick small moments of detail, or through the tone and mood conveyed by the beautiful language that is basically every incredibly sentence in here, or through this powerful voice you wield so masterfully. On one hand, I’m asking as impressed reader (and jealous writer), how do you pull that off so efficiently? On the other hand, I’m interested in the ways that flash forces or allows us to build narration without so many of our normal storytelling devices. Feel free to answer either/or/none/all of the half-questions in here.
Oh gosh, now I’m blushing. But truthfully brevity has never been my strength, so the constraint of flash is a fun challenge for me. You have so much less time to convince a reader to care, and I think specificity is crucial for building that connection. As a reader it’s what I’m most drawn to.
The narrator of this piece suited a leaner form, this person who has sort of entranced themselves with the trees to avoid acknowledging the forest. Their whole world is the details, so it felt natural to write with a kind of macro lens.
In revisions, I tried to remove pretty much anything that didn’t characterize the narrator, which required that specificity. It’s also where the vocabulary came in—how a character chooses their words can communicate who they are so efficiently. This narrator speaks partly in a language they’ve adopted from their partner, someone who’s obsessed with the science and magic of space, as a way of being close to them. And there’s a kind of heartbreak in that, I think. That they’ve absorbed so much of what their partner loves that it’s taken over their inner voice.
What do you hope people will remember or hold onto most deeply from this story?
Oh, what a question! I suppose a kind of recognition, maybe, of longing and fear that the narrator experiences, which are so intertwined. That’s always been the magic of space to me—this hypnotic fascination, but also this terror, that can feel very much like love.
I’m that annoying guy at the reading that always wants to ask the super-cliché questions, so apologies in advance. First, can you tell us a bit about your writing routine? (mornings with coffee pecking at the keys; ten hours in front of a keyboard every day; chunks when inspiration strikes, et cetera?) And the story process itself: are you a seventeen drafts before even your first reader sees it kind of writer, or does it all flow brilliantly to fountain pen on first thought without stopping (someone someday will reply yes to that, I’m sure), or do you write a single sentence a million times until it’s perfect, or…?
I’d love to say that I write every day for hours, but that’s unfortunately never been the case. I write in sprints. I’ll have periods of days, weeks, or months where the writing just runs out of me, then I’ll have a period of writing less. Whenever I’m in a lull I try to read more, so my brain has something to chew on until it’s ready to plug in again.
On a story level, I notoriously over-write early drafts and have to come back to them with a cleaver—if at least two-thirds of what I wrote at the start hasn’t been amputated, I know it’s not ready. There have been some stories that possessed me to write the whole first draft in one or two sittings, but often I write a few paragraphs and leave them alone to ferment. When I return to them I’ll have a good sense of what the story wants to be if the original idea was any good. No matter how the first draft shakes out, I rewrite a lot before anyone’s allowed to look at it.
And finally: what do you view as the function that literature plays in the world, and how do you feel your work exists as part of that function?
I’ve long believed one of literature’s superpowers is to transform its reader and world. I recently found Angus Fletcher’s Wonderworks: Literary Invention and the Science of Stories which expresses it more eloquently than I ever could. In the preface he describes literature as “a narrative-emotional technology that helped our ancestors cope with the psychological challenges posed by human biology. It was an invention for overcoming the doubt and pain of just being us.”
And I do love to think of literature as a salve, as treatment. Reading has certainly been that to me, as has writing. Most of my work has treated something in me during its creation—anxieties, feelings, or experiences that I’d never say aloud. Recognizing a feeling you’ve had in someone else’s work can lessen isolation and shame, and I think that’s part of what I try to write towards. A kind of balm, or relief.
Interviewed by Brandon Williams