Interview With Sage Tyrtle
Rappahannock Review Nonfiction Editors: “The Happy Elephants Daycare Center” does so much with its images and details, and we love how it reveals complex ideas about alcoholism in such a short space. Do you often work in flash genres, and how did you decide on the genre of this piece?
Sage Tyrtle: My work ranges from one hundred words to nine thousand. I think the piece itself dictates the length—sometimes you can really say everything in a tiny space, and sometimes you need to explain about that thing that happened in 1977, and then the thing with the grandma, and then the broken window thing, so the thing that happens in 2022 makes sense.
What I love about flash is the way it’s like a tiny exquisite lemon tart. You would never want to eat more than one in a sitting, but that one? WOW is it delicious.
RR : The setting is so surprising and significant. What led you to make the comparison between AA meetings and daycare centers?
ST: I was in a workshop with Tommy Dean, the Fractured Lit EIC. He asked the participants to pick a setting and put something totally disparate in it. A daycare centre seemed as far from an AA meeting as I could get.
Originally the piece was reversed—the reader knew from the first sentence it was an AA meeting. My son, who’s my first reader, said that he loved it but I needed to tell it in the reverse order. I was very crabby as of course I thought it was perfect already, but when I made the change I could see—he was absolutely right.
RR: We loved the line “We made light and airy Lego Houses and the people inside loved each other more than whiskey.” How did you decide what images to include?
ST: As a little kid I was unhappy at home and I really struggled in school. I didn’t have any friends and was tremendously lonely. When I thought about my own after-school daycare experiences, building Lego houses were what came to my mind first. My Lego people were always much happier than I was and I desperately wanted to miniaturize myself and climb into those small homes and live there instead.
RR: We see you do performance work as a professional storyteller. Can you tell us more about that? Has writing changed for you when you consider how it might be performed?
ST: For ten years I told true and fictional stories on stages all over the world, my stories were featured on NPR, CBC, and PBS. I’ve won multiple Moth StorySLAMS and the Moth GrandSLAM. When the pandemic began, stages vanished and after spending two months figuring out that Napping For A Living was not a tenable career choice, I set about pursuing a goal I’d had even back when I was making Lego houses in daycare: to be a published writer.
The first hard lesson I had to learn was that I no longer had my own inflections or pauses to tell the story as an addition to the actual words. My son would look at my stories and be like, “Yes, but take out all of these ellipses and all of these italics, and you can’t repeat this word eight times,” which were all tricks I’d used while on stage. (I was crabby all over again but—he couldn’t have been more right).
On paper I have to describe characters. On stage, all I had to do was change my stature, my movements, my voice. But on the page I have to help the reader create images in their own head by using nothing but words.
As much as I loved performing on stage I’ve found that I prefer the written word. I love the luxury of knowing that the only word limit is the one I create myself (instead of being given a specific number of minutes to be on stage)—and the depth that I can incorporate into a written piece that just wouldn’t work with the spoken word.
RR: Do you have a favorite childhood memory that’s made it into your work?
ST: My father had custody, so I was only able to see my mom for a few weeks a year—not her choice or mine. I have a thousand favorite memories of her, but one that’s made it into my work is writing a story with her on her typewriter—the story of Princess Tapioca and her mother Queen Milk and their fight against the Duke of Salt. It felt like such magic, that we were creating a world and characters together that hadn’t existed before that moment. That memory made it into a story that’s out on submission, “Not Even the Maharishi Mahesh Yogi Can Help You Now.”
Sage Tyrtle’s work appears in Issue 10.1 here.