“Violets for Lee” is told mostly in flashback, which is thematically powerful for a story about regret and loss, both of which are backwards looking emotions. The technique also heightens the mystery of the story as we get bits of the present and bits of the past all at once. How did you decide to write the story in flashback?
To be honest, I never considered doing it any other way. The story began with my image of someone tunneling into a bleeding heart on a burnt wasteland to discover a series of doors at the center. How and why this occurs came to me later. It only made sense to reveal the emotional back story through flashback, foregrounding the exhausting physical journey of the character.
The main character spends most the story without any shoes. Missing shoes suggests two important aspects of her condition: vulnerability and also a kind of numbness to the world. What were you trying to show by having her walk around without any shoes?
Yes. Vulnerability and numbness. And also a sense of being completely childlike and unprepared for the experience. She attempts to use her lack of preparation as an excuse, but Miss Harriet preempts her. Prepared or not, we cope with the experiences that come to us. And I wanted her to experience this one with a completely childlike lack of defenses, stripped down to essentials. It’s like rebirth in a way: take nothing in, take nothing out.
Miss Harriet is the perfect keeper of the heart, as often the people best able to cope with loss and regret are the elderly. How should the reader interpret the other two people the main character meets before she gets to Miss Harriet?
The first neighbor, the mother, is dealing with the loss we experience through transition. She’s chosen a certain lifestyle, and even if she’s happy with it, inevitably she’s had to give up other things. The loss she’s experienced is the loss of possibility, potential, other life paths she could have taken. The second neighbor is dealing with the break up of his marriage and the changes that come with that, the loss of security and domestic contentment.
Sugar is a meaningful missing ingredient for the cake, as an overpowering loss like losing Lee can feel like the “sweetness” of life is absent. What should we make of the fact that Miss Harriet was the only person who had any sugar?
Loaning a cup of sugar is one of those banal things that neighbors do for one another–or at least promise to do for one another. I wanted to find something prosaic to balance out the surreal events of the story.
Sugar, like you said, it’s sweetness; and sweetness is what she finds on the other side of the door, just not exactly the kind she sets out looking for. Somewhere along the way as I was working on this I began listening to REM’s song Sweetness Follows. It’s the perfect soundtrack to this story, and definitely shaped how it evolved.
Miss Harriet has accepted and come to terms with her loss. She’s just a little bit crazy, though, and this gives her a liminal perspective, which allows her to serve as the portal into the absurd.
“Violets for Lee” portrays an incredibly hard part of losing someone we love, which is letting that person go. Letting go can feel like a betrayal of the person you’ve lost, but as in the story, life necessarily goes on. Did you ever feel tempted to end the story with the main characters choosing Lee’s door?
In fact, in earlier drafts of the story, my protagonist did choose the other door; she chose the absolution and uncertainty of the next life, wherever it would lead. But after thinking about it for a while, and asking my own sister for some writing advice, I realized that this approach wasn’t quite right. Choosing the other door might symbolize suicide, and that wasn’t the story I wanted to tell. It takes more courage and offers more redemption to choose the door that leads outward, to move on and leave loss behind, and that’s the choice she makes in the end.
Is there anything else you’d like to say?
Thank you so much to everyone who took the time to read my story! This is my first sale to Fantasy Magazine—hopefully not the last—and I’m so excited to have my work published in this market that I’ve admired for so long. My next story, “Love is the Spell That Casts Out Fear,” will be found in The Way of the Wizard anthology edited by John Joseph Adams, coming out in November 2010. You can find me online at http://crackingdes.livejournal.com.