CONTRIBUTOR SPOTLIGHT: INTERVIEW WITH
Rappahannock Review Fiction Editors: We’re interested in the way this story is split into three parts. Can you discuss your approach to the structure of the story?
Jenn Hollmeyer: When I started this story, I already knew its title, which got me thinking about the molecular structure of ozone. Ozone contains three oxygen atoms, so I wanted the story to have three parts — each one told from the point of view of a different character, since all three were required to tell the entire story. I ended up giving the narrators three-letter names with an “O” in the middle, just to underscore the connection to ozone.
RR: Can you discuss the way you developed these specific characters? How do you see the similarities or connections between each of the three narrators?
JH: I knew I wanted the three narrators to be connected in some way, but not just genetically. Joe and Lou are father and son, but Tom is just Joe’s neighbor. Joe reminds Tom of his father, and Tom reminds Joe of his son. This familiarity creates the most interesting connection of the story, in my mind, allowing Tom to serve as a bridge between Joe and his son, Lou. Tom is the only narrator who appears in all three sections of the story, and the section told from his point of view is in the middle. As it turns out, Tom’s father and Joe do have something important in common — they’ve both lived apart from their children for a period. And Tom and Lou both know what it’s like to have at least one absent parent, on at least a temporary basis. So, the characters began to take on complex emotional similarities as they came to life for me on the page.
RR: Between Joe, Tom & Lou, we get a pretty good look at the lurking conflict of the story and yet we’re left with a lingering desire to know more. How do you approach that fine line of providing enough narrative explanation for the story while also leaving the readers wanting more?
JH: It’s a real balancing act. For me, a realistic story doesn’t feel fully developed unless I can see glimpses of other plotlines hiding in the corners. Because that’s the way life is. But at the same time, these other plotlines can’t ever come into full focus, or the reader loses the main thread. I try to strike the right balance through revision. Lots and lots of revision. In some areas, I write the minimum and then gradually build on it. In other areas, I write too much and have to go back with a jackhammer. It helps to set the story aside for a while between drafts and come at it with fresh eyes to see if what’s on the page is the right amount to hold the story together.
RR: Air and atmosphere play a significant role in the story, such as Mr. Martin’s oxygen tank and the title. Can you discuss the way you developed this theme and its influence on the story?
JH: My inspiration was Ron Carlson’s fantastic short story, “Oxygen,” about a lonely college kid who takes a summer job delivering medical oxygen in Phoenix. The heat is so intense, you can practically feel it coming off the page. As the story goes on, the characters become more desperate, until the narrator notes that “it was an effort to breathe and at times I had to stop and gulp some air.” The characters and their interactions eventually seem devoid of feeling — as empty as air itself.
Themes of emptiness and loneliness started to emerge in my story, too. I was especially interested in the distance (air) between my characters. There’s the physical and emotional distance between Tom and his father, and between Joe and his son. There’s also the gap of three years that Joe spent away from his family. These spaces contribute to a feeling of loss or emptiness for the characters.
I was also interested in the idea that ozone can be both good and bad; in the stratosphere it protects us from UV rays, but at ground level it hurts us. Lou explains this to Tom in the story. And I realized the story itself started to contain elements that can be both good and bad — such as the characters’ influences on each others’ lives. As I revised, these elements became stronger. For example, it turns out that Joe (Mr. Martin) needs open air to settle his breathing sometimes, but his “air-goraphobic” wife is so afraid of going outside that she won’t even step onto the porch with him.
RR: Is there any non-traditional necessity to your writing process? Do you have to listen to music while you write or eat a snack, or something else?
JH: I don’t have any necessities, traditional or otherwise. I do most of my writing on my laptop before dawn, stretched on the couch with my dog on my feet and a cup of black coffee within reach. No music, but sometimes I put on forest sounds or other white noise. I also keep a college-ruled spiral notebook in my bag and scribble in it throughout the day. But when I’m off my regular schedule, I write anywhere, at any time, with anything.
Jenn Hollmeyer’s work in Issue 5.3: