Rappahannock Review Fiction Editors: “Plaid-Belly” initially focuses on Oksana and her family in their everyday lives before shifting to talk about sexual assault. What role do you believe family plays in your story?

Shelley Sheremeta: Usually, our first interactions are with family. Family informs the ways we interpret the behaviors of others, how we learn social behavior. Family provides us with direction, especially in the early years. It’s understandable that a person’s first question in the realm of sexuality might be posed to an adult in the family, or that an explanation of abuse might come from a family member. I think that Oksana’s response to her sister’s announcement about Plaid-Belly might have been different had her earlier question about rape resulted in a discussion rather than a reference to a musty old dictionary. Or Oksana might have felt comfortable sharing the information about Plaid-Belly with either parent if she hadn’t been left to feel awkward with her question.

RR: One of the most intriguing aspects of this story for us was the very dark and mature subject matter being taken on and processed by such a young narrator. How did you choose to take on that perspective?

SS: The comic book store experience in general is lodged in my psyche! I put a lot of thought into how that childhood experience could be told in a non-anecdotal way, yet which captured the feeling that “something is wrong” in a way that can’t be explained. This led me to draw together other instances from childhood that stood out. Some of the instances I’ve used are thematically similar, while others might not appear to be at first glance—such as ‘learning by watching’: operation of a wringer-washer machine, and how to deflect a pedophile.

RR: If readers were to walk away with one message from your story, what would you want it to be?

SS: I’d like for people to reflect on the fact that learning begins in the home. Above and beyond protecting a child in every way possible, demonstrations of ethical and physical boundaries, and how to establish them, are an important part of raising a child. I so admire all the parents and caregivers who give 100% every day.

RR: In terms of story plotting, there are some writers who diligently plan out their plot before writing and those who plot as they go along. Where would you say you fall on this spectrum?

SS: During lockdown, I worked on a novel and found that lengthy process really needed a detailed, planned plot! And, by the way, that plot has been re-plotted a lot. A pre-planned plot made it easier to look at the broader picture at a glance, and move chunks of writing around as needed. It was too much to keep in my head; it had to be in a spreadsheet. But for short stories, many times I find myself mentally shaping a story around a memory, or something in the news, or a recent conversation. It’s more of a meditative process, especially when trying to find parallel analogies. I love Robert Olen Butler’s book on writing, From Where You Dream, and refer to his process often.

RR: In your story, Oksana’s sister picks up an Archie comic to shield herself from Plaid-Belly. If you could be any Archie character, who would you be?

SS: Jughead, all the way!

Read “Plaid-Belly” by Shelley Sheremeta.