Rappahannock Review Fiction Editors: In “Instructions for Clearing,” you use the spectral character, Mary, as a way to help Tammy process her grief over her father’s death. What was your inspiration behind making her supernatural in nature and not a living person to help Tammy cope?

Katie Bockino: First off, I want to say thank you so much for these amazing and detailed questions about my piece. I’m so flattered and humbled by them, and so excited that Rappahannock Review is publishing my story!

This story actually started with Mary. There is a grove of trees behind my family’s house, and I remember thinking when I was younger that if ghosts were out there, then they’d have to be dwelling in between those creepy trees. So to me, this always was a ghost story, and I built Tammy’s character around that notion. 

Furthermore, Tammy was never close to anyone in her life, not even her dad, so I realized she wouldn’t be able to, nor want to, confide in someone about her grief. At the start of the story, she doesn’t even realize how traumatized and devastated she is. She needed someone whom she could implicitly trust and let her guard down around in order to process what she was truly feeling. Tammy knows Mary is this intangible being, so in the back of her mind nothing can go wrong or be used against her by talking to this “ghost.”

RR: Writing from the perspective of a teenager was a very compelling way to explore the stages of grief. How do you approach writing from such a young perspective?

KB: A lot of my writing and stories focus on characters that are either teenagers or young adults. It’s such an exciting time, but it’s also so terrifying. Everything is new – the good, the bad, and the weird. You don’t have the hindsight or perspective often to fully understand certain situations or moments in your life, but what’s so wild is that you think that you do. Or, at least I did. I really thought I knew everything once I turned 16, and there was nothing left to learn or grasp about life. But I think that’s why so many of my memories from then are so vivid and even intense. I love exploring that in my writing, since many of those moments shape how you view and approach your future. I try to keep all of this in mind as I draft and edit, which makes certain scenes almost harrowing to write.

RR: Once you had an idea of what you wanted to write about, how did you go about expanding the story and building Tammy as a character? Since grieving over the death of a loved one is such an intimate experience, how did you build her voice?

KB: This story was very hard for me to finish. I’ve noticed over the years I can generate very quickly, but then I take forever to revise and edit. For this piece, I struggled on building her voice and character. I wrote it during my senior year in college, and was determined to use it for my MFA apps. So I wasn’t only workshopping it in class and with professors and my peers, but I was stressing over making it “perfect” in order to get into grad school. Because of all this added stress, I felt a disconnect to Tammy, and couldn’t figure out how to change that. 

Then, a few weeks before I needed to submit all of my apps, I talked with a wonderful professor and said how unhappy I was. She told me to stop editing for a while, stop thinking about it, and go back to the story with fresh eyes and edit how I generate – freely, without concern or worry, and let the chips merely fall where they may. Hearing that, I was finally able to go back to what made me want to write about Tammy and her life and grief. Instead of working on the story, I journaled from her perspective, and created a full timeline about her life. When I went back to finally edit, I could see the whole piece and what it needed.

RR: We understand that you were a finalist in NYC Midnight’s “Micro Fiction Contest” where you had to write a short story in 24 hours. Did you feel more pressure with such a deadline, or was it at all freeing? Based on your experience, do you plan on entering any contests similar to that ever again?

KB: NYC Midnight’s “Micro Fiction Contest” was tremendous fun. I recommend everyone do it just to experience that type of challenge. When I entered, I viewed it more as an awesome exercise to try with my friend, than a contest I would have any chance advancing in. I was also instructed to write a “comedy” story each round, which was really hard since I don’t think of myself as a funny writer. But because I was like “welp, there’s no way I will place” I really just had so much fun figuring out how to write a compelling story. I played with my language, my ideas, and pushed on what I thought would still be considered “comedy” for all of my pieces. I would definitely do it again!

RR: Are you currently working on any other stories that incorporate paranormal elements like you’ve done with “Instructions for Clearing?” If not, what other genres do you like pulling from and why?

KB: I currently am querying a young adult fantasy book about a girl becoming a guide for a group of explorers despite the fact she has no idea how to safely lead them through this unexplored, magical, and lethal terrain. Paranormal/ supernatural/ fantastical elements are just so much fun to work with. I love those types of backdrops because you can use the magic and at times spooky additions to uncover very human and universal truths that only surface when faced with something that is unknown.

Katie Bockino’s work in Issue 9.1: 

“Instructions for Clearing”