The fiction editors, Rappahannock Review: “Eventually They All Get Sick” is what one could consider a headline story, as it pertains to the real-world story of a teenager caught posing as an OB/GYN. Why did you fashion this story after this headline? What intrigued you about it?
Tasha Coryell: In college I had a job reading newspapers to see if they mentioned my school (Knox College), which sounds like a made up position. I spent 10 hours each week reading newspapers and it was very influential for me. A lot of my writing process stems out of reading news articles, usually on the internet, and drawing my inspiration from there. The first time I saw the article about the kid posing as a doctor, the article didn’t mention that he was posing as an OB/GYN and that made the story read totally differently. That’s the thing about newspaper articles, every story has a million different takes. I have become very distrustful about the nature of truth and headlines. I was imagining this kid who was very curious about the world and then the OB/GYN part was so disturbing to me, so I just changed the story. I made him an ER doctor because I wanted him to see a lot and experience a lot.
I also am always interested in the idea of the autonomy of children. Children are generally only treated as adults when they do something wrong and boys with adult sized bodies, particular if they are black, are often treated as adults rather than children who are given more allowance to make mistakes. I wanted a character who was constantly chastised for his size and then with the addition of a single item (a lab coat) was suddenly treated with respect.
RR: The last sentence of “Eventually They All Get Sick” is “it could mean anything,” which is certainly the feeling the story gave to us as its readers. Why did you leave this story so open-ended? Do you try to stay away from particular themes and meanings in your writing?
TC: The end of this story was really hard for me. All I knew is that I didn’t want the mother to die. As soon as someone dies the tone of a story changes completely. I am not against people dying entirely. I write lots of things where people die, but the death of a parent is different. Once a parent dies it becomes “a story about the death of a parent.” I wanted it to be more than that. Originally I had his mother make a complete recovery and then I took the story to workshop and my peers didn’t like that. Someone suggested that he make his own stir fry and she might have been suggesting that as a joke, but I really liked the idea. I write a lot about young people who struggle to perform basic tasks because that was and is a lot of my experience as a young person. How do I cook for myself? How is my bathroom going to become clean? How long is it appropriate for me to lie here and watch Netflix? What will happen if I eat this whole pizza? I wanted this character to start experiencing that transition.
RR: Why did you decide to use the illness of his mother as a catalyst for Drew to pose as an E.R. doctor?
TC: It’s a cliché, but I think that mothers are the catalyst for a lot of things. Grief is such a strange emotion. There is a fascination in the world with men and the grieving process and men and their mothers, so I think that abnormal behavior evolving out of grief surrounding mothers is a natural occurrence. In the original news story it was implied that the boy was suffering from a mental illness and wasn’t taking his medication. I’m not very interested in stories that use a lack of medication as a plot device or mental illness to explain things away. People are always more complicated than their mental health and mental health is often related to external factors. I also think it’s personal for me. My very first memory is visiting my mother in the hospital when she had appendicitis. My mother has a lot of health issues. I’ve been to the hospital a lot or avoided the hospital a lot because of it.
RR: The way the story is written works to keep the reader outside of Drew’s immediate experiences. What motivated the decision to exact this kind of emotional distance with the reader?
TC: I always make a joke that “I don’t write realism, I write rullism.” As mentioned earlier, I like to write about things that actually happened or could actually happen and I am not opposed to the term realism. A lot of times people associate realism with being boring and I don’t think that has to be the case. I like to write realism that has a slant to it and I think this slant can be achieved in a multitude of ways. No one cares if exciting things happen in stories if the voice is boring. I’ve spent a lot of time cultivating my writing voice. I want people reading my stories to know that I wrote that story. There are particular things that I’ve always really enjoyed when reading, I like short, declarative sentences. I like protagonists that are not thin and beautiful. I like the uncanny. I think that the emotional distance from my characters has grown out of these things that I like. When writing these stories I don’t feel far away from the characters. I feel very close. My hope is that readers can find these emotions too.
RR: You’ve written one novel. You are working on a second novel, as well as two chapbooks of prose poems, all while pursuing your MFA at the University of Alabama. And you’ve manage to send in work to our journal. How do you manage your time so successfully? Do you ever tire of writing? If so, what other ways do you let out your creative energy?
TC: There is this stereotype that writers are very dysfunctional people and I’ve known quite a few dysfunctional writers that match this stereotype, but I think it’s much easier to be a writer who is functional and can make plans and develop a routine. It’s so easy to procrastinate on writing. I will do almost anything instead of writing. I have washed the dishes instead of writing, I have graded student papers, I have cleaned my toilet. I think this is because, despite years of school, I still think of writing as a fun activity and I need to get my obligations out of the way before I do my fun activity. A couple years ago I had a shift in thinking. Writing isn’t my fun activity, writing is my most important activity. Instead of grading or cleaning or answering emails, I write first. I can only write for two to three hours a day with the exception of some very inspired days, so whenever I begin my work for the day I take the first two to three hours to work on writing. The amount I write per day varies. Sometimes I write eight pages, sometimes I write two paragraphs, but I am always writing. When I am intensely working on a novel, I am very focused on word count. I am a compulsive planner keeper and I will write my word count goals down for each day and that way I feel an extreme amount of guilt if I don’t meet them. Guilt is a huge motivator for me.
I almost always feel like writing. When I was younger and was a lot more melodramatic I would talk about how hard writing was. Writing isn’t hard. It’s all the things that come with writing that are hard, submitting, editing, rejection, talking to other writers. But writing itself is a very pleasurable thing for me, especially writing fiction. I used to draw a lot in addition to writing. I don’t do that anymore. I do compete in triathlons though. Training for a triathlon is a lot like trying to work on different writing projects at the same time. Everything is a little bit worse because of lack of time, but a lot gets accomplished.
“Eventually They All Get Sick” appears in Rappahannock Review Issue 2.2
Tasha Coryell is an MFA Candidate at the University of Alabama where she is working on a novel about murderous sorority girls. Her work has been featured in [PANK], The Collagist, Word Riot and other journals. You can find Tasha tweeting under @tashaaaaaaa and more work from her at tashacoryell.com