The Fiction editors, Rappahannock Review: How does your experience working on nonfiction essays influence your fiction? At times, Mary Beth can be a rather unlikeable character. How do you craft such a character without alienating the audience?
Susan Pagani: With essays, I try to look at the situation and the characters (myself, other people, a goose) with empathy and humor. I say try because, if there’s conflict involved, in the moment and sometimes for a long time after, empathy can be a hard business — the other person is just bad and wrong and the situation is not funny. Time seems to make it easier to see the shades of a thing and my own missed opportunities and failings. Similarly, I tried to write Mary Beth with empathy and humor. If people can’t relate to her actions, maybe they can relate to the loneliness behind them. For me, the disconnect between what she intends to do and what she does is interesting and, sometimes, funny. She surprises me. Maybe readers won’t want to be friends with Mary Beth, but they’ll find her foibles compelling — do they need to like her or to be curious, to want to know what happens to her and the mitten?
RR: “The Fledgling” begins with a very dark event (the death of a young child) and then pulls away and re-shifts to focus on a tangential character. What made you decide to frame your story through this lens?
SP: To be completely honest, this is how the story came to me. However, I did write a version of the story that opened with Mary Beth and her finches, and then Jane came and we learned about the little girl’s death at the same time as Mary Beth. In the end, I liked the distance created by opening with the accident and then shifting away from it. The reader and Mary Beth are carried away from the shock of the initial event, and that makes it possible for things to go as ridiculously awry as they do and for it to be funny — and for it to be terrible when Mary Beth returns the mitten back at the end of the story.
RR: You give detailed descriptions of nature throughout “The Fledgling.” What is the significance behind winter as your choice of season? How would a different season change this story?
SP: Of course the snow drives some of the plot — the accident, the lost mitten. But I think the main thing is that winter in Minnesota can be isolating. It’s too cold to sit on the front stoop or to stand in our snowy flower beds and talk across the fence. We may bundle up and go out for some exercise, but otherwise our forays into the out-of-doors are short. Our garages open onto the alleys at the back of our yards, and in the cold we tend to run from them into our houses. So if we’re not careful, it’s possible to go days, weeks even, without even seeing our neighbors. Mary Beth is a lonely woman, more so because it is winter, and it’s that isolation that drives her and allows things to get out of control with the mitten.
RR: You recently completed your MFA. What advice do you have for writers who may be considering pursuing a masters in creative writing?
SP: My advice would be to go for it.
Susan Pagani’s work in Issue 4.1: