Jessica Roth: What, exactly, set “Wonder” in motion? When you finished writing it, had it carried you to the same place you thought it would when you began?
David Licata: I was at an artist residency (where we met, Playa Summer Lake) and on a 1,000-words-a-day schedule, forcing myself to produce first drafts to round out this collection of connected stories I’ve been working on for longer than I like to admit. I had the catalyzing event of the collection (the senseless murder of a valued member of a community) and I had the characters. I had completed several stories, published one in The Literary Review, but until I set “Wonder” down, I hadn’t written anything that explored the most intimate and immediate reaction to the event—that of the wife of the victim responding to the news that her husband has been shot. I knew I needed to write that story, but I couldn’t go there for a long time. I guess I felt safe at this residency. The thing that set the story itself in motion was the main image, the cart. I had that swimming around in my head for at least six years. I wasn’t hoarding it, it was just there. I didn’t have plans for it. But when I started writing this story, I knew that image had a place in it.
For the most part, the story did bring me to where I thought it would. Curiously, though, the starting point was very different in all but the last draft. In previous drafts it had a false beginning. I was trying to do a little misdirection, but really it was a last ditch attempt at avoidance.
JR: I remember reading an earlier draft of “Wonder.” What did your revision process look like? How is revising a short-short like this different from revising a longer piece of fiction?
DL: Usually I write a first draft and then put it away, just forget about it for at least six months. I might revise other stories or work on something else, but I try to distance myself from first drafts.
Then at some point I have an urge to work on it. I pick it up and take a deep breath, because reading my first drafts is torturous. First drafts try very hard to convince me to stop writing.
But if a couple of things glimmer in that first draft–an image, a sentence, a bit of dialog, an action–if there’s something redeemable in it, I will only despair for several days and look at it again and start cutting it. I’m generally one of those taker-outer writers. Cut, cut, cut. With the short pieces, under a 1,000 words, I find I work very quickly. My short pieces aren’t poetic in that flash fiction sense, so I don’t obsess over the language the way a poet might. Usually after six or seven drafts I discover that I’m not improving it anymore. That’s when I ask someone I trust if they’d give it a read. (Thank you, again!) Longer stories go through many more drafts and I put them away more often and for longer periods. Reading the first drafts of longer stories is exponentially more distressing.
JR: You already know that I am skeptical of hard, fast divisions between genres. Is there an autobiographical element to “Wonder”? In general, when you are writing, how do you navigate between factual truth and narrative truth–where does your allegiance lie?
DL: There are autobiographical elements to “Wonder.” The cart is based on an actual event. I was with my mother the day she took her last breath, by her bedside holding her hand. I went home that day, taking a bus from New Jersey into New York City. I live near Lincoln Center, and there’s a pedestrian passageway under the Metropolitan Opera, it’s a little bit of a short cut. I walked through it as I had many times, but this day there was horse, a cart, and a man and woman in what I think were Italian peasant costumes. I guess they were part of the opera that was happening that night and this was where they waited for their cue. But I had never seen anything like that before there. I thanked the universe for letting me experience a sense of wonder on that day. It was the tiniest glint of hope on the most despairing day of my life. Nothing like that glint would appear again for a year, though.
I’m not that interested in portraying factual truth. I am interested in portraying emotional truth. The same goes for my nonfiction work. Navigation is trickier there, though. I suspect I’ll be dealing with those waters for as long as I work in nonfiction.
JR: Okay, here’s the question we all love-hate: What is “Wonder” about? What do you want readers to be thinking or feeling when they reach the last word?
DL: Most of us will experience that call, the one we dread, the one that is unimaginable and inevitable. It’s about trying to make sense of that call. The descriptor on R.KV.R.Y is nice. It’s “about wonder in the midst of tragedy.” True. But I wanted the story to be emotionally true, and that’s why it doesn’t end with the character seeing the cart, it doesn’t end on a hopeful note. She loses the cart and she searches for it but doesn’t find it. She’s going to be driving in darkness for quite a while before she finds that wonder again. That’s how grief is.
I suppose I’d like the reader to feel a sense of the preciousness of life.
JR You’ve told me you are working on a short story collection. How does “Wonder” fit in?
DL: The collection is about what happens to a community when one of its citizens is violently removed. What happens immediately and over time. Chronologically, the death in “Wonder” is the first event in the collection. “Wonder” introduces us to a few of the main characters, either directly or indirectly. The wife is featured in many stories, prominently in some, less so in others. Same with the son, who is mentioned in passing in “Wonder.” The dead man’s absence is present in every story.
But I haven’t committed to the sequence of the stories. There’s no reason it has to be organized chronologically.
JR: You were first introduced to me as a filmmaker. Is there a relationship between that work and your work as a writer? If so, where do the two intersect?
DL: I like to think there is. They are different limbs sprouting from the same trunk. I seem to explore the same themes in the films and in the writing—mortality, legacy, continuity, community, the passing of time, the power of having a passion. My brain seems to like puzzles, so I play a lot with story structure. There are many points of view in the collection, told over an expanse of time. In the documentary I’m working on now, “A Life’s Work,” I’m focusing on four people who have dedicated their lives to projects they likely won’t see completed in their lifetimes. The film is told in several chapters, not three acts, and instead of Person A telling his complete story, Person B telling her complete story and so on, there is intercutting between subjects so the similarities and differences of these people becomes a huge part of the story.
The mediums fill different personal needs. I can be very social, that’s the filmmaker side, the side that likes to collaborate with a group of other artists to realize a project that can’t be undertaken by one person. But I also value being and working alone, and that’s the writer side.
It’s a bit schizo, but it seems to work.
Jessica Roth lives in Boise, Idaho, where she writes stories that should be poems and poems that should be stories, instead of working on her first novel. She is a graduate of Prescott College and a Frederick & Frances Sommer fellow. Her poetry and prose have appeared in Alligator Juniper and CT Review. She most recently received the Glenn Balch Award for her short story, “Mesquite.”
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