First, read Laura Farnsworth’s “Russian Thistle,” which Ye Chun selected as our 2021-2022 Winter Short Story Award for New Writers grand prize winner. Now that you’re back, check out our interview with the winner below! Laura shares the process behind crafting this prize-winning story, and what’s next for her.
“Russian Thistle” invokes an interesting conceit: the story is set in a psychiatric hospital and our nameless protagonist replays memories of her childhood “like a slideshow on the screen of [her] eyelids”. How did you arrive at the decision to tell the story in this way?
I’d been sorting through old family photos, and experiencing how the images sparked “film reels” of childhood memory at a sensory, cellular level. Stored somewhere in our physical selves are the scents, textures, and melodies of how and where we grew up. Some will be positive and uplifting, but others troubling, even tragic. Most of us contain the spectrum, and we may not recognize the very real currents connecting them to our present selves. This is the dark tunnel I explored.
This conceit allows for an unsettled temporal plane to exist in your story; we are simultaneously in the past and the present, the ground is unsteady, but despite this, the story carries on. The uncertainty, the disorientation—it’s part of the experience. Did that approach make this a difficult story to edit?
Yes! I tried for quite awhile to make the story work in a present-tense kind of voice, but two dear writing partners helped me see the inherent confusion. Delineating the past from present at a few key points helped with structure, but I did leave some fuzz and static as ambiance. For the protagonist, then and now are not so neatly divided.
I’m similarly interested in the choice to utilize the second person here, which is such a great choice for this story. Do you often work in second person, or is this another form of experimentation for you?
Marvelous question. Usually, I work in a close-third kind of voice, which is very character-specific and interior, but allows some flexibility when a slight remove is needed. Second person, in this case, fully drops the reader into the protagonist’s emotional terrarium. First person would have felt too self-aware for a character suffering in the depths of trauma recall. Third person falls too easily into reportage. I wanted her overwhelm to form a container around the reader. Works like Lorrie Moore’s Self-Help, and Tommy Orange’s There, There, made me brave enough to try!
Obviously place has a great importance in this story; the narrator dwells on the hard rock candy mountains, and it is the setting of all her childhood memories, her connection with Soobie. Is place a consistently important factor for you in all your work? Do these mountains factor in elsewhere?
Like the protagonist, I grew up in the pink evening glow of those mountains (the Sandias to the east of Albuquerque, New Mexico) and have nostalgic affection for them. Though I’ve set other stories in my home state, this was the first time the Sandias have appeared in my writing. They form an obstacle of intermittent beauty, a boundary, a navigation tool. I hope to feature them again.
Titles are hard (I find them one of the hardest parts of writing), but you’ve picked a great one for this piece. Could you speak to the importance of the metaphor here?
I am a botanical illustrator and gardener, so earth science appears in most of my stories. Plants are rife with human qualities–they thrive, wither, and propagate. They have the power to wound and nourish. They succumb to disease, and form symbiotic relationships. They react to environmental pressures. Russian thistle, commonly known as the tumbleweed, is a desert menace, but also a marvel, requiring the violence of wind and fire to proliferate. This seems a tangible analog to generational trauma.
What does your usual writing process look like? Morning writer? Evening? Do you plan everything out, or are you a Let’s see where this takes us kind of person?
I long to be more structured and scheduled, but what happens is this: the beginning of a story arrives, often while I’m walking in the early morning. Sometimes it’s just the tease of an opening sentence, but usually it’s a paragraph or passage, which I text to myself before it evaporates. Not all of these self-texts become stories, but I try them out. Outlining feels constraining to me. I prefer the discovery of dropping a character into the crude, improvisational stage set of a fresh idea and recording what they do. Slow and unconventional, but I’m at peace with it.
What’s next for you? What are you working on now?
My current projects, both art and writing, examine how memory and emotion live in our physical bodies. I’m working on a story about a third-grader encountering grief and diverse ideas around spirituality when the class pet dies, and another about a woman facing the imminent loss of her mobility. Printmaking is a new obsession, and I’m creating a series that riffs on antique medical and psychiatric diagrams. I recently became certified as a Reiki practitioner, and am curious to see how that influences my creative work.
Interviewed by Cole Meyer