The Fiction editors, Rappahannock Review: Your story “An Early History of Hang Gliding” is told from the perspective of a teenager whose mother has just died. What did you wish to achieve by writing about loss from such a young perspective?
Leslie Maxwell: I wanted to explore the time immediately following the death of my own mother when I was a teenager. It was a time when I was moving through the larger world that was, to most people, the same as it had been the week before, but my immediate world had been completely transformed. As well, I felt torn between wanting to be consumed by my grief and wanting to be transported to a place where that grief was not present. These are similar to Evie’s experiences and feelings, and I know that these feelings are not unusual for anyone who has a major loss. There is an added dimension when a teenager experiences such a loss because she is still trying to find her own footing in the world. That footing is so fragile that the death of a parent knocks the person into a different orbit. For me, I scrambled to try to get back in the same orbit I had been in before my mother died, and it took me a long time to realize I wouldn’t necessarily be able to get back.
I had written about my mother’s death in essays but never in fiction before. Fictionalizing my experience enabled me to explore this loss in a way that I had not been able to in nonfiction. It felt personal, as the feelings came from a very real place, but at the same time, I felt a sense of distance because the feelings and experiences were Evie’s and not mine.
RR: In “An Early History of Hang Gliding,” birds are used as recurring images to reflect how Evie is feeling, from wanting to fly like birds to wanting to drown like the turkeys at the end of the story. What drew you to using birds as a motif for this story?
LM: I didn’t intend for birds to become a motif! But you’re right that they did. Without Evie’s ever realizing it, she becomes obsessed with birds, even seeing them where they aren’t — in the high-density power lines and in the hang gliders. In part, they are reflective of her experience in this new and unfamiliar world and her desire to be transported back to the world in which her mother is alive—or maybe just to be transported to any other world, any other experience, besides the one she is living. If she were a bird, she would have a way out.
As well, birds also echo the tension Evie feels between wanting to be in control of her life and feeling completely out of control. Birds have a lot of control over their lives in Evie’s mind: they have the ability to fly and can choose their route and destination. They can leave a hostile environment. They can migrate. They can move when they want. In other ways, though, they, like her, are just as out of control of their lives, seen in how the turkeys at the end just can’t help themselves from looking up at the rain. Evie both aspires to be like and identifies with birds or the bird-like things she sees in the story. She feels as if she is in free-fall, and she is wondering if something will catch her.
RR: I saw from your website that you were a co-founder of the nonfiction section of Phoebe: A Journal of Literature and Art, and served as its co-nonfiction editor during graduate school. It also lists many pieces you have written, many of which have to do with history. How does this interest in history inform your fiction?
LM: Phoebe, which has been around since 1972, is an exciting journal based at George Mason University. When I started grad school, Phoebe was focused, as it had been for some time, on fiction and poetry. One of my classmates in creative nonfiction, the wonderful Josh Ambrose, asked if I’d be interested in working with him to propose that Phoebe add nonfiction. We did, and the editors agreed. Thus, we became the co-nonfiction editors for two years and the founding co-nonfiction editors. Working on Phoebe was a really important experience. I loved working with writers and finding pieces that resonated with me and that I thought would resonate with readers.
As for history, you’re right. I do write about it often. It’s something I think about a lot, actually—in my writing, I’m constantly thinking about how my history and my family’s history informs my present and what I can learn from it, or how our cultural history informs our collective present. For nonfiction writers who write about themselves, I think it’s pretty common (at least it is for me) to be constantly culling through the past—recent and distant—to understand it and its importance. Writing “An Early History of Hang Gliding” also helped me learn how I could do the same thing in fiction.
As well, in some of my recent journalistic writing, I’ve had the chance to dig into the history of the college I attended, and it was a reminder for me of just how important it is for us to understand the histories of the people, places, and things we love. Understanding history, both personal and public, gives us the context we need to be able to make sense of our present.
RR: In the preface to David Copperfield, Charles Dickens acknowledged feeling a sense of sadness and loss when he finished writing his stories. Has this ever been your experience? How do you relate to or engage with your work once it’s completed?
LM: I haven’t yet had the experience of feeling sad when I finish a piece of writing, though I can certainly understand that some writers might. Definitely the content of the piece that I’m writing can bring up feelings of sadness and loss, and it often does. But the actual finishing often brings up a nervous energy, kind of like I had too many cups of coffee. I have all this leftover energy, energy that I had been putting into the thinking and writing that has nowhere to go.
RR: Writing is often described as a continual learning process. What did “An Early History of Hang Gliding” teach you about your own writing process?
LM: It taught me to be resourceful. It reminded me that if I’m having trouble writing about an experience or time in a personal essay, there’s another way. There’s fiction, and there’s poetry, and there are styles and modes within those genres. There are so many access points to writing that if the first try doesn’t work, something else probably will.
Leslie Maxwell’s work in Issue 3.2: