On Monday, we had the fortune of publishing Nancy Ludmerer’s magnificent “Matchbox”, the second place finalist for our 2020 Summer Short Story Award for New Writers, selected by Kali Fajardo-Anstine. Today, we’re equally fortunate to share this great interview assistant editor Melissa Hinshaw conducted with the author. Dig in below:
Inquiring minds must know: How did you manage to make a 22-page second person story so engaging?!
It can be hard to pinpoint what makes a story engaging (whether my own or someone else’s). Several years before I began working on “Matchbox,” my son (then 26) commented that I cared about my characters the way I care about people. It’s one of the nicest compliments I’ve received about my writing—and perhaps explains the appeal of this story. For me, “Matchbox” is about character and identity. Candace, the narrator, is still trying to separate herself from her twin. I’ve used second person before but this story, more than any other, demanded it.
What inspired “Matchbox”? What sorts of ideas or images were you pulling out of other works—fiction, real life, movies even—when you sat down to write this piece?
I practiced law for over 30 years. As part of my pro bono work, I interviewed prisoners throughout New York State correctional facilities, so it was a milieu I was somewhat familiar with; like Candace, my narrator, I viewed it as an outsider. Later I worked with a New York State justice task force seeking to eliminate wrongful convictions; DNA evidence was critical. Those experiences informed “Matchbox.” The immediate catalyst was a March 1, 2019 article in the New York Times about how DNA could be used to identify and therefore exonerate—or convict—an identical twin. Like the article Lottie shows Candace in “Matchbox,” the Times story reported that judges were skeptical because this DNA research had not been sufficiently replicated. Another source was the classic (or comic) twin narrative. Since I was a kid, I’ve loved the mayhem that look-alikes can foment—whether in books like The Prince and the Pauper, movies like The Parent Trap, or verse like Henry Leigh’s The Twins, which I was so happy to excerpt in “Matchbox.”
The theme of matches, flames, and this sort of almost-explosiveness starts in the very beginning with the title and carries all the way through. How did you “tend the flame” so to speak as you were writing “Matchbox”? Is that a theme that you started with, or that you added on later on in writing?
Once I decided that Lottie’s crime would be arson, I had to explore why. It’s a crime that’s often viewed as psychological in origin, particularly among young people, and because it is so serious, can lead to lengthy imprisonment. The scene in which Lottie’s lawyer wants Candace to go before the jury and speak about her own fascination with fire was also key. What you identify as the “almost-explosiveness” in many scenes and in the sisters’ relationship followed naturally from these elements. The title came last. My working title was “Heredity.” Once I settled on “Matchbox” it seemed exactly right.
Do you have a sister? How did you tap into the deep well of sister conflict for “Matchbox”?
I don’t have a sister. I do have two older brothers, and remember how surprised I was when a few years ago one brother described the other as the person who was most like him in the entire world. From my sisterly perspective, I always thought they could not be more different! I think “Matchbox” might have been harder to write if I did have a sister. My longing for a sister and imagining what that might be like all went into this story. Your question also drew me back to my high school yearbook, where twin sisters Doria and Sharon (non-identical) both inscribed loving wishes. Sharon concluded hers: “Always remember the other half.” I’ve never forgotten it.
I couldn’t help but notice an echo between the image of ashes at the end and the behind-the-scenes presence of the narrator’s dead mother. In some ways this is a grief story. Tell us a little bit more about that.
The sisters’ experience of their somewhat wayward mother binds them, as does the love they all shared. Her death is both freeing and scary for them. Candace resists the role of Lottie’s caretaker; Lottie is propelled into violence. To some extent, their future relationship will depend on how they both deal with this loss going forward.
I believe you live in New York, and this story is set in New York. Tell us about how place informs or interacts with your writing.
My apartment in Manhattan is two blocks from the corner where for years a bus (bigger than the one in “Matchbox”) used to pick up and take family members to upstate prisons on the weekend. Kids and adults would wait patiently for the bus in all kinds of weather. There’s a terrific article and photo essay about this at here. To feel confident moving characters in a fictional world, I often do research—as I did, for example, for a story currently making the rounds, set in 19th century Poland. In “Matchbox,” most of the setting is based on personal experience.
You’ve published with us before—your story “Summer, 2002”—and are evidently continuing the trend of winning contests and acclaim elsewhere. How do you make your work stand out again and again?
I never attended an MFA program but nonetheless have been privileged to study and work with amazing writers. I began sending out “Summer, 2002” in 2003; thirteen years later, after multiple rejections and revisions, Masters Review took it. My belief in that story was sustained through the years by my wonderful writing teacher (at Kenyon Review summer workshops) Nancy Zafris, who believed in the story from the get-go, and has continued to be a mentor and friend.
As for “Matchbox” it began as an eight-page opening and fragment, which I showed to the brilliant Karen Bender, who’s been working with me one-on-one as a writing coach since September 2019. She loved the premise and the setting and kept asking the critical questions that helped me move the story forward. Her input was invaluable.
I’m grateful for the discipline that practicing law required and instilled in me for decades. Judges don’t move deadlines because a lawyer doesn’t get inspired. I’m also grateful to ongoing (pre-COVID) workshops at my local YMCA (hosted by Beth Bauman) which provided weekly prompts and to my husband Malcolm Spector who remains my first and most loyal reader.
My parents taught me by example that gratitude is the greatest virtue. Thank you for asking these questions and for loving “Matchbox.”
interviewed by Melissa Hinshaw