Mary Akers: Your story In the Basement really struck a chord with me, and I’ve heard the same from readers. I wonder if the use of second person to tell this story in part accounts for the way we take it in as readers. Do you use second person often? What do you think the advantages of it are? The disadvantages?
Stefanie Freele: I’m not a huge fan of reading second person, nor writing in it, even though obviously I occasionally do. Sometimes the ‘you’ can be unnecessarily intrusive, too pointing-at-the reader, even accusatory. I wrote this story in third person, changed it to first person and settled in second. In this story, third person felt too distant – as if the character’s anguish was too far away, leaving a mile of safety in-between the reader and the character: third was too comfortable for the reader, yet this story is about discomfort. First person felt too much like Stefanie Freele is the narrator which could position the reader back toward the author instead of toward the protagonist. When I tried out second, it seemed right – like binoculars finally zooming in. I think second person can be used for a variety of good reasons: explanation, allegation, etc. In this story, now that I think about it, I perhaps chose second person for the uneasiness such a perspective might cause.
MA: Congratulations on winning the Glimmer train fiction contest! I was thrilled to hear that you had won. How did you react when you first got the news?
SF: Certainly I won’t forget that day. Elated! Surprised! Flabbergasted.
MA: Recently, I had a conversation about “success” with a good friend of mine who is also a writer. She defines it very differently than I do and I wonder about what has to happen before a writer thinks of himself or herself as a successful writer. I think we often spend too much time looking toward the next goal and attaching a feeling of success to obtaining that. How do you define “success” as a writer?
SF: I’ve always had a hard time with the word success. It seems to be such a black and white concept. If you aren’t successful, then you are a failure. And, success is such an individual notion. My garden’s first strawberry is something to rejoice; your seven rows of healthy asparagus might be a chore to pick. I don’t think I use that word, “success,” in my vocabulary – it reminds me of people who drive posh vehicles but have huge car payments. I like the words content or pleased or happy instead. And, if you were to ask me, am I content as a writer, yes I am – I’m writing. I’m learning, reading, growing, my writing is improving, I know some of my weaknesses and I’m working on them, fussing with them.
MA: That’s brilliant. I think I need to adopt your asparagus-strawberry success point-of-view. Perhaps even start a movement. Single Strawberry Successes unite!
I know that you grew up in Wisconsin. Do you think the idea of “place” creeps into your writing? If so, how does it reveal itself?
SF: Growing up in Wisconsin creeps into everything about me. I loved growing up there. The seasons are extreme, the northern colors stunning, the people down-to-earth. I feel like I haven’t yet done Wisconsin justice actually, I have a bunch of stories sketched and brewing (excuse the Milwaukee pun) that take place in Wisconsin.
MA: Morgan Mauer’s illustration for your piece was one of my very favorites. What did you think of it? Did you find any special meaning in it?
SF: I could over-analyze the illustration, but I like to leave art to speak for itself. The artwork is stunning, haunting, symbolic – perhaps especially for me, the author of the story. In the first draft of “In The Basement”, I used wording in the end something like ‘that she was walking toward death’ but that was too obvious. I changed the language to walking in the direction of more food – which if things continue on that tangent for her, she will die. The illustration has a giant D in it, which really grabbed me as an indicator
of “Death”. The profile – emphasizing the body parts that can be destroyed by bulimia – in its scientific portrayal, overlaps the border, becoming stronger as the picture moves right, or weaker toward the left toward that daunting D, depending how you look at it: I love that careful detail.
MA: What does “recovery” mean to you?
SF: Recovery is everywhere. The character from “In The Basement” is in can’t-find-the-way-out hell. That is a form of recovery: knowledge that this-right-here isn’t working. There are so many stages of recovery: hitting a bottom, turning it over, moving on, seeking help, doing the right thing, reaching for the highest good, etc.etc. I’m thinking even that hurt of compulsion – like the heaviest anchor — is part of recovery.
MA: Yes, that’s excellent, Stefanie. I think it is, too. Thanks so much for sharing your thoughts and your fine work with us.