Mary Akers: Hi, Jennifer. Thanks again for letting us have your wonderful short story “Europa Hides an Ocean.” I loved this piece so much. It was one of those read-and-accept finds that make editors feel a little giddy. One of the first things I admired about the story was your stylistic choice to use a close third person, while keeping the main characters generically described as “the girl” and “her mother.” It reminds me a bit of Hemingway’s “Hills Like White Elephants.” The names-as-descriptive-nouns actually (at least for this reader) left me feeling closer to the characters because of their “anyman” quality. Can you say a little bit about what that narrative choice meant to you?
Jennifer Williams: Your enthusiasm for my story means a great deal to me, thank you so much.
As a writer I’m particularly interested in the shared characteristics of people: what we have in common rather than what makes us unique. For stories, I tend to be focused on the relationship, or perhaps an event—whatever particular tension is at hand—rather than the individual. So, descriptors sometimes work better since giving a character a name, even if it’s just Bill or Jane, immediately focuses the narrative and makes it about exactly one person’s experience. Of course, I still strive to make my characters more than place-holders. But with “Europa,” I was less worried about giving readers full characters sketches than I was about shining light on a particular moment. That is, when the mother and daughter finally switch directions and begin to climb out of their grief. And I love the idea that this inflection point ending up occurring at such an ordinary stage in their trip. I like all my stories to have a bit of mystery—something that’s initially hidden and, if I’ve done it right, only understood at the end.
As with first person, a close-third can actually facilitate this sort of narrative obfuscation since it gives the impression of intimacy even as the narrator or protagonist continues to hide things from the reader. Maybe this is why the story gives off hints of “Hills Like White Elephants” since there’s still that wall. Not to mention that big thing that’s not being talked about! I didn’t imagine the two characters in Europa were afraid to discuss anything. But their loss wouldn’t have been new. What might they say to each other that hasn’t already been said? This is an ordinary moment, not a moment of confrontation, and even when the girl complains about missing the truck (her way of saying what’s already been said) her mother responses wearily. I think tension, a building block of the short story, can be found almost anywhere.
MA: Yes, that weary response says so much. Another thing I love about this piece is your expert use of sensory details so that we are connected to the girl by sights, smells, sounds, touch, and taste. I’ve been thinking a lot lately about what makes a piece of writing “atmospheric” and I think sensory details are a big part of that. Do you consciously add them in, or is that something that comes naturally to you? Are sensory details important to you in your own lived experience?
JW: I like that word, atmospheric! Some of that focus on sensory detail might just come down to what got drilled into my head during my MFA: show don’t tell, remember that everything we experience comes to us first through one of the five senses. I don’t think all stories have to be this way, but the physical world is a great place to start. And when I’m writing and I get stuck somewhere, taking things back to the immediate, the senses, can be a helpful way to push forward. For this story in particular I rely on it heavily because the narrator is limited to what she can or is willing to communicate. I need those descriptions to build the meat of the story because neither the girl nor her mother is talking directly about what’s going on.
MA: When I choose work to illustrate each issue, I’m often surprised to learn that the image I chose ends up having special significance to the author–a significance that I couldn’t have known. I think this speaks to the way our minds crave to connect disparate things–especially inter-genre connections (like dance and music, visual art and text, etc). What did you think of Mia Avramut’s image used to illustrate your story?
JW: If I had to distill this story down to one word, it’d be obscurity, and Mia Avramut’s piece, “Rainfall,” captures this perfectly. In fact, her work made me realize how much I played around with what can and can’t be seen, or heard, or understood, in the story. I think this happened as a natural output of me trying to get into the girl’s skin, imagining how frustrating it might be to be so young in that situation. There are all sorts of limiting factors—the physical, of course: darkness, foliage, distance. But also what her mother may have explained or withheld, as well as the girl’s general lack of experience. “Rainfall” includes a very identifiable scene that is then deliberately blurred through its topical affect. It is very much in line with the girl’s worldview.
MA: Nice. I love everything about that. And finally, because we are a recovery-themed journal and because the answers to this question are always interesting, could you tell our readers what “recovery” means to you?
JW: Recovery, to me, means redefinition. Facts may not be malleable but interpretation certainly is, and I think recovery involves a great deal of reinterpretation—not of an event, not of ‘what happened’ but of its meaning and consequences, how it connects with identity. I’d argue that recovery from trauma comes when we redefine the world around us to such an extent that we move ourselves into a new life, a new reality. I don’t mean physically moving necessarily, although my characters in “Europa” took this route. But if we’re lucky, we redefine our priorities, our points of view, sometimes our partners or our friends, until the new life is sufficiently unique then the trauma can be contained inside a previous chapter, relevant to a previous you. I think that to some extent what’s real and true and important to a person is negotiable. I always consider this when I wake up from a particularly vivid dream. During those first waking moments the dream world seems more real—I’m still afraid, or I’m still trying to catch that train. Then the new world takes shape and I very quickly shed the dream world. I just let it slip away and quite readily accept the new one.