On Monday, we published the third place finalist to our 2020-2021 Winter Short Story Award for New Writers, “You’re Not the Only One” by William Hawkins, which you can read here. Now, read Hawkins’s interview with assistant editor Melissa Hinshaw!
One of my favorite things about this piece is the pacing, which seems to be driven in part by your syntax: super short, three word sentences, long meandering nearly-run-on ten-line descriptions, questions, em-dashes. Is this style something you work on consciously or just kind of flow with as you write? What’s your secret to accomplishing this sort of syntactical range without getting annoying and rambly?
As to the first part of the question, I do, in the act of writing, tend to write long, nearly-run-on sentences. It’s the editing (always the editing) that saves me from myself, in regards to avoiding rambling or overtaxing the reader’s eye. I do love an em-dash, it must be said, and the versatility of that punctuation is something I lean on again and again; it allows me to produce a variation in the reading experience, which I think is important for reasons as pragmatic as keeping the reader’s interest to as abstract as testing how far I can stretch an idea or thought before it can no longer hold its shape.
The sense of subtle heartbreak starts early on in this story: “It was just administration. It was only a persimmon tree.” How did you manage to infuse this sense of passively, slowly compromising in all these small daily movements?
I would say compromise is always in the small, daily movements. The actions. It’s one thing, in conversation or thought, to say, “I’ll meet you halfway.” To do it requires either a breaking of certain habits or a careful grooming of new ones, and habits are predicated on small, daily movements toward a larger goal. The character who carries this story is in an act of compromise.
I hate to ask how you were inspired to write a story about resentment building in marriage and family life but…. I gotta! Especially because there are many stories on this subject, but so often not as delicately handled. How did you get the idea for this story?
No reason not to ask! I think sometimes writers are a little overly-sensitive to that question—I suppose for the simple reason that writing does reveal something about our personal lives. It is a public display of our interior life, even if an imagined one. Anyway, when I was at the MFA program at UC Irvine, I was living in graduate housing, in an apartment where my bedroom window overlooked the parking lot. UC Irvine is about seven miles from the coast, relevant to our story as it meant there was no central A/C in the apartment units, and as such my windows were often open. There was a family living in the complex—a husband, wife, and their two, towhead young boys—and I would often watch them, usually the mother and her three boys, get in the family car and go to who-knows-where. That was the inspiration; but of course, I think the real question is why was I inspired by that? What in my interior world responded to this stimulus from the exterior world? I’m not sure. I think answering that would take a little more soul spelunking than I’m prepared to do at this time.
There are so many good, painstaking lines in here. If you had to pick one single favorite line—or a line to represent this whole story—which would it be and why?
“Elise.” Up until I wrote that word, the main character had no name. And the name itself came naturally, but I had to write all the way to the end to get there. Her mother calling her name, where before her identity is slowly being pulled into this slow-moving implosion of a family life. It’s simplistic, I’ll grant you, but I would argue sometimes our needs aren’t very complicated. In any case, I was happy to find her name.
This piece ends with the main character finally asking for help. How did you know this story was done?
A teacher told me that every short story contains a moment (or maybe better, is a vehicle for a moment) of choice. Where a person must choose, or else a choice is made for them. Perhaps it’s a small choice, or a large one. Perhaps it’s made consciously, perhaps subconsciously. I think I knew it was done because Elise had crossed the threshold, she could call her mother or drown in her life, and she called her mother. I left her there with her sons to some well-deserved privacy. I’m not sure how things will turn out for her, but my hope is that it will be better for her having asked for help when she needed it.
If you got to cast this story as a movie, who would you pick to be the husband and wife? And who would have been the neighbor who left the note in the laundry?
You might have stumped me here. I don’t have much of a visual sense of the husband and wife, and certainly none of the neighbor who left the note, but I don’t begrudge the actress of this hypothetical the work that’s cut out for her; I left quite a lot unspoken that she would have to emote! Is it possible to get a time machine and enlist the services of a young Elizabeth Taylor and Richard Burton? A prequel of sorts to Who’s Afraid of Virginia Woolf? No? Drat.
Interviewed by Melissa Hinshaw