Mary Akers: Hi, Sylvia. Thanks for agreeing to talk with me today. I enjoyed your wonderful Shorts On Survival piece “Carrying the Day.” The first line is fantastic. It starts “I know the sun was shining that day or I wouldn’t have been hanging sheets on the line to dry.” What a simple sentence, yes? And yet it manages to feel very ominous. How can that be? It amazes me every time I read it. Why do you think it reads as such an ominous first line?
Sylvia Hoffmire: The sense of foreboding conjured in that first line arose in my perception from the implication of a reluctantly forced memory, the fact that she can only be certain the sun had shone through a recalled action. My intention was to convey a sense of her obfuscated memory.
MA: I’ve been thinking a lot about the importance of beginnings lately. How do you find your first lines? Do they come to you right away, before anything else? Or do you have to go back and mine your writing to find just where the piece will start?
SH: Finding the beginning, the exact right place to enter the story, can stall me for days when beginning a new piece. Even though I know that it may change many times in the process of revision, I need to feel that I’m in the right place at the right time before I can embark comfortably and productively to discover the unfolding narrative. And when I’ve found that place, then, of course, the crafting of the opening sentence becomes the challenge. Often, I just have to take myself firmly in hand and get on with it, banking on the fact that at some point in the process the opening will reveal itself…
MA: I think one of the things that makes your story so visceral, so real, is the way in which you use commonplace details described in a fresh way. “His playpen bare as birth” and “the back steps sagging toward the middle” and “my hair, fresh washed and lemon rinsed” are just a few examples of what I mean. Could you talk a little bit about how details work to create a mood in this story?
SH: With this story, in particular, I knew from the outset that it would be a very short, very compressed piece, and I wanted every single word to be freighted with the narrator’s controlled despair. I knew this story’s success hinged on the reader’s empathy; therefore, the sensory details were key. In all my writing I rely heavily on visual details to convey character so that what the narrator sees and remembers provides clarity for the reader, entry into the particularity of the narrative. And I would venture to say that my teaching (of creative writing) focuses on encouraging recognition of the significant details contained within the mundane. In my daily practice, as well as my teaching, I know that’s no small order.
MA: What did you think of the illustration that Jenn Rhubright picked for your piece? I’m always surprised by how often the writers find the illustrator’s selection to be spot on for some reason that couldn’t have been known. Did Jenn’s photo have any special resonance for you?
SH: An illustration’s meaning is so embedded in the eye of the beholder. For me, Jenn Rhubright captured a moment in time which actually precedes the narrative – is back story, if you will. She depicted a moment in the protagonist’s life when she was free. Though she can never be free again – that instant in the doorway, the illusion of choice – resonates in her life everyday.
MA: And finally, what does recovery mean to you?
SH: With something as deeply wounding as the loss of a child, I can’t imagine that recovery is ever possible, but, clearly, endurance might be essential for many reasons. How or why she chose to endure…or didn’t… evoked the ambivalence present in the ending of the story.