Willow Fagan lives in Ann Arbor, Michigan, where he reads tarot and cultivates dreams. This is his third story appearing in Fantasy Magazine. His fiction has also appeared in Behind the Wainscot.
Your story, “my mother, the ghost”, spends a lot of time discussing why we tell stories. How did you decide to write a story that would focus on stories? Did you find it to have any particular challenges?
Hmm, well, I wouldn’t say that I really sat down and decided to write a story about stories. That’s just the story that came to me. But it probably stems from my longstanding interest in metafiction and my fascination with the power of stories in general.
I think that all stories are part of a long dialogue and, in certain ways, are responses to other, earlier stories. Metafiction just makes this conversational aspect explicit. Also, I know that my understanding of the world, especially when I was a child, was very much shaped by the stories that I read. I’m probably drawn to exploring this in fiction. And, it makes sense to me that a child who discovered that one of their parents was a ghost would turn to ghost stories in order to try and understand their situation. That’s one of the most important purposes of fiction, in my opinion: to serve as mirror for our lives.
There were certainly challenges involved in writing this type of story! Generally, I think that whenever a writer expounds on how powerful and important stories are, there’s a risk of it coming off as narcissistic or self-congratulatory (which is a danger that I’m hopefully avoiding in this answer!) There were also specific issues that I had to deal with in writing “my mother, the ghost”. In the earlier drafts, too much philosophical musing about the nature of stories ended up disrupting the flow of the story I was trying to tell. There were also some sections which were overly self-referential. In my experience, it’s often hard for writers to clearly see the flaws in their own stories. I found the critiques of other writers, specifically from the Online Writer’s Workshop, to be very valuable in seeing these issues in “my mother, the ghost”. I ended up cutting about 800 words to make the final version of the story.
Another interesting idea your story focuses on is uncertainty. Allison even goes so far as to say that “life is uncertainty”. Brian seems both attracted to uncertainty and frustrated by it at different points in the story. For example, Brian seems both curious about what the nature of his mother’s ghost but, at the same time, worried that if he understands it too well it might cause the ghost to change in some unwanted way. Do you think there is a “right” way to approach uncertainty in life?
I definitely don’t think there’s a single correct way to deal with uncertainty, but I would say that there are some approaches to it that are more helpful than others. For example, if you simply refuse to accept uncertainty, as Brian tried to do earlier in the story, you’re most likely setting yourself up for disappointment and unnecessary pain. I tend to think it’s better to flow with uncertainty and to be open to the possibilities that arise with each changing moment. That’s an ideal, of course, and one that I struggle to move towards myself.
I agree with Allison that “life is uncertainty”, but that doesn’t mean that I’ve mastered the art of dealing with it at all. I think that coming to terms with uncertainty is one of the hardest parts of life. At the same time, I share the aspect of Brian that you point out, and am both drawn to and troubled by uncertainty and ambiguity. My attraction to ambiguity is partially rooted in the fact that I identify as queer and genderqueer, and my understanding of queerness includes it being something slippery and mutable. I’m fascinated by mythological figures that can be read as queer, such as shapeshifters who change from one gender to another, and from one species to another. To me, that’s the attractive face of ambiguity, but of course there’s also the stomach-clenching anxiety that can happen when you don’t know what the future will bring in terms of the well-being of yourself and your loved ones.
Because an author always chooses which details to include in a story and which details to leave out, one might say that all stories have some uncertainty to them (at least compared to the “blooming, buzzing confusion” of real life.) As an author, how do you approach including and excluding uncertainty in your writing? Is it something you consciously consider?
I’m going to come at this question a little bit sideways.
I’m really interested in the question of uncertainty in fiction. One of my favorite writers, Kelly Link, includes an enormous amount of ambiguity in her stories. She writes things like, “She kissed him. Or she didn’t.” This is very satisfying to me and I’m not entirely sure why. I think that it might be because any narrative has ghosts–that is, other possible paths the story could have taken. By explicitly conjuring these ghosts within her stories, Link creates a very rich, layered effect. With this story, I was aiming to do something along those lines.
Brian, our narrator, portrays himself as very passive. Telling a story, especially about oneself, is a very empowering act. Should we read the story with this in mind? Is the story itself a part of the plot?
That’s an interesting perspective on the story, one I honestly hadn’t thought about before. I’m of the school of thought that the writer’s interpretation of the story is not the only valid one, so I’m reluctant to say that readers “should” do anything. But I like the framework that you’re using and I certainly agree that telling one’s story can be a very empowering act. I see Brian as moving from doubt towards trust in this story, and from refusing to grapple with the painful realities of his family (partially through never talking about how his mother is a ghost) to honest engagement with them. I think it makes sense to consider how the fact that Brian is telling this story plays into that. And a story which includes statements like “The problem with telling a story is that stories are hardly ever finished, so the people you tell the story to are in danger of becoming characters in the story themselves and changing the trajectory of the plot” certainly invites the type of reading you suggest.
All three of the main characters (Brian, Allison, and Jane) have had “extra-normal” experiences. Do you think that experiences like that help people to bond?
Oh, definitely. I’ve never had anything as strange as being abducted by aliens happen to me, but I have had what could be called “extra-normal” experiences. Living as a queer person in American society is sometimes very alienating, and involves experiences that the majority of people have not had and may not easily understand. And as someone who is genderqueer, that is, as a minority within a minority, that dynamic is amplified. I find that a number of my closest friends are queer people who, for whatever reason, don’t fit well with the mainstream of LBGT society.
I’m also Pagan, and I’ve had spiritual experiences that could be seen as “extra-normal”. My spiritual practice, and the insights and transformations it brings, are important parts of my life. It’s hard for me to be close to people who have never ventured into those realms and who don’t even consider them to be real.
On the other hand, one of my best friends is an atheist straight boy, so there’s multiple ways in which people can bond.
Do you have anything else you’d like to say about “my mother, the ghost”?
I think I’ve probably said enough. Thanks for the thought-provoking and insightful questions!