T.L. Sherwood: Kirie, in your story, Sex for Groceries, the narrator migrates from the East Coast to return to her dying parents in Portland while the introduction references how hatchlings are left alone during storms. I loved that juxtaposition. Did the quote from the National Audubon Society Field Guide to North American Birds prompt you to write this story, or did you come across it afterwards?
Kirie Pedersen: A few years ago, I decided to learn, or re-learn in some cases, the natural history of the Pacific Northwest. Every day, I read a page of Daniel Mathew’s Cascade-Olympic Natural History, and one bird from the National Audubon Society Field Guide to North American Birds. Then I’d set off into the wilderness to see if I’d learned anything, or could learn something more. I was captured by the poetry of the descriptions. As I finished the final draft of “Sex for Groceries,” the description of the Black Swift (Cypseloides niger) came back to me. Don’t you think it sums it all up?
TLS: I do–and very well. I’ve noticed this in my own life, but I want to ask you why you think siblings can come together at the death of a parent and seemingly forgive past harms, but are quick to return to their resentments and pettiness after the interment.
KP: Did that happen for you?
TLS: Yes, and to many people I’ve met. I think the only person I know who didn’t have something similar happen to them was an only child.
I keep hearing that story or experience. For me, the “coming together” was a brief illusion. My fantasy was “after a courageous battle, she died surrounded by family and friends,” and everyone joins hands and sings Amazing Grace. I had /images of the family gathering, telling jokes and sharing fond memories as we went through our parent’s home.
When I was five or six, the phone rang very early one morning. My parents were still in bed, so I picked it up. It was Dan, one of my father’s friends, demanding to speak with my father, who refused to come to the phone. “Tell him Jack is dead,” Dan said, and hung up. I knocked on my parent’s bedroom door. “Jack’s dead.” And shockingly, for a few days, maybe even a week, my father became kind. Tender. It happened again when another close friend died. So even then, I guess I knew that death could render even the hardest man temporarily tender.
TLS: What did you think of Suzanne Stryk’s “Facts of Life” when you saw it was chosen as the illustration for your story?”
KP: I love the blue feathers. It reminds me of a design by Lise Solvang, the Norwegian fabric artist whose designs are based on mythical creatures. It also reminds me of another story I recently finished, “Hawk Strike, with Feathers,” about how some accipiters can strike prey at over a hundred miles per hour. This is, indeed, a “fact of life.”
TLS: What–or who–inspires you to write?
KP: I love the physical feeling of writing. I love writing with freshly-sharpened Palamino Blackwing pencils. I love writing with fountain pens. I sort of love to type, though I can’t quite associate that with story. Sometimes, although I’m pretty shy socially, I like telling stories aloud in some formal venue, every eye and face in a group gazing back into my eyes, faces and bodies open and expressive. Even before I could write, I drew what I called picture stories, endless frames of girls with horses, usually. And before I could draw, I told dream stories. “That little voice talks to me, Mother, and gives me the dream.” Or so it says in my baby book.
TLS: What is your biggest doubt? And if you could give your sixth-grade self a piece of advice, what would it be?
KP: One “biggest doubt” is too abstract a concept for me. I awaken filled with doubt, and gradually find my way into the day through tangible, physical activity, what I can see or hear or smell or taste or sense.
My sixth-grade self was pretty squished. Once during a session of neurolinguistic programming, the therapists had me meet that self, and I saw her sitting on a chair, frozen. “She’s dead,” I cried, and was so convulsed they brought me out of the session and asked if I wanted to be held.
That little girl hadn’t yet discovered alcohol or drugs or boys or any way to quell her pain. Not that any of that does much for pain. Not for long.
Which is to say I have gradually coaxed that sixth grade self out of hiding. I talk to her and other squished selves of childhood. I ask how she’s doing. What does she need today? Does she trust this person or that? Does she like this story? Is this story helping her?
To start with, the main piece of advice was that it was okay to stay alive. When I was about that age, there was a story in the newspaper about a ten-year old, eldest of five siblings. She heard her parents fret and fight about being poor, about not having enough money. She took her brothers and sisters by the hand and they walked in front of a train. I understood that girl then, and I understand her now. I promise daily to care for her, and I do.