Online Fiction Interview: Alison McCabe

Alison McCabeAlison McCabe’s “Heirloom” deftly trades in contrasts. Over the course of  a few hundred words, the diction evolves from the colloquial to the lyrical, and the strangest of details—a cat toy mistaken for a rodent, a son-in-law’s name long forgotten—are also the story’s most humorous. We recently emailed McCabe to ask about her work, about how she approaches the drafting process, and about how she manages to move so dramatically in time and in tone in such a short work.

Nate Brown: “Heirloom” starts in such a clear perspective and with such a strong voice. “Vermin” seems like precisely the right jumping off point for the story. Why’d you start it there?

Alison McCabe: Thanks for saying so, Nate. Truth is, it took me a while to find that voice for the opening. Your question got me sifting through earlier drafts that began differently. “Vermin” was in there, but tucked away in a later paragraph, and it came directly from the old man in dialogue. So vermin is definitely still his word. Which seems appropriate, at least to me, that he have enough pull to start the story off. His voice prevails.

Beyond that, I can’t remember for the life of me how the vermin detail was born. I thought I’d pilfered the idea from a conversation with a close friend about her own grandfather mistaking cat toys for real mice. But when I mentioned it to her last week, she was stumped. Well, me too then. I’m starting to worry the old man isn’t the only one who’s losing it.

NB: That particular detail—the cat toy mistaken for a real mouse—is so vivid. It makes sense to me that it comes from someone’s lived experience. In terms of this story and your other work, what’s the balance of wholly invented or imagined details to observed details that are woven into your fiction?

AM: Oh I feel like I can’t take full credit for anything—the most interesting material always seems to come from outside my own head. I’m a scavenger. I’m always taking and repurposing. But I love the repurposing part. I’ve never created a character with the hope that she perfectly fit anyone I know, and I’ve never tried to capture a place exactly as I remember it. I know some writers do this to outstanding effect, but I like to veer a bit. Most of my characters are a cocktail of different personalities I’ve encountered. Same goes for the details surrounding them.

“Heirloom” felt more fictionalized than a lot of my writing. Then my mom read it and said she was so pleased to see me write what I know with this one. At first I thought “huh,” but then I sat with her comment and, you know, she’s totally right. I’ve never witnessed an old man battle drinking and dementia per se, but underneath all that, there’s real life stuff for sure.

And the cat, the cat is mine. She doesn’t eat chicory coffee, but Chicory is her name. So you get a sense of this fact/fiction mash-up going on.

NB: It’s clear that the old man is ill, and yet his illness seems to have softened him. We quickly learn that he’s forgotten his drinking, so while he’s not quite himself with his family, we get the impression that he and his family are all the better for it. There’s something terribly complicated about that, as if the real intimacy with this guy can only come once he’s no longer fully himself. Is that how you see it?

AM: Yes, and it’s heartening to know this comes across. I’d always wanted the story to have this layer, but I don’t think I’d formed the concept in my mind quite so succinctly. It was more a feeling I had while working on the piece, and I’m sure that feeling came from my own desire to understand how this dynamic could exist within a family. Because I think it’s pretty common. Not that dementia might lead a person to stop drinking (I’m not sure how likely this even is), but that family can still love parts of a person despite other parts that devastate them. Maybe some of what the couple is trying to do in this story is separate the old man from his disease (here I mean alcoholism, not dementia). This way, they can find it in themselves to care for him after years of pent-up hurt. And maybe the old man is fully himself not when he drinks, but during that brief period when he finally stops. Either way, I agree the intimacy between them gets complicated. I still don’t know how to feel about it. 

NB: I would’ve enjoyed this story had it purely been about one demented old man who remembers that he likes a tipple the day before he dies, and yet, that’s not really the story here at all. It begins with the old man and the drinking problem and his antiquated diction, but with the line “Except, in time, the old man did return, or he never left,” the story takes a turn. Suddenly, we’re following the daughter and son-in-law, who is now an old man himself. But it’s not just that the story veers into that future that grabs me, it’s that the high diction of the last paragraph of the piece stands in such stark contrast to the diction of the story’s opening. I’m a bit flummoxed, actually, as to how you can get all of that language and that big gap in time to play right on the page. How’d the piece come together initially? 

AM: Slowly, I’ll admit. I took my first stab at this story a year and a half ago, and I’ve been toiling with it on and off since. The initial version dragged, with more scenes, more exposition, more spoon-feeding. So maybe those time gaps we see now were filled in a bit, though not satisfyingly, more like busting at the seams.

When revising, I already had the skeleton to cover decades, and I figured it made sense to keep that timeframe to get at how undying family influence can be. I wanted to make sure the daughter and her husband still had the space to escape the old man’s hold, but then also the space to discover they could never escape it entirely. We see these characters shift from one stage to another, and this gave me room as a writer to move around with language, too.

NB: I like the term “spoon feeding” to describe that sort of flatfooted spelling-out that we so often do in drafting work. From start to finish, what’s the process of hammering out a story like for you? How do you know a piece is done and ready to go out into the world?

AM: I’m a heavy reviser, and I’ve learned this the hard way. My first drafts can be pretty gross. I tend to overwrite and then need to slim down. Usually for the first few weeks after writing a story, I think I’m brilliant and it’s brilliant and it’s the story that’s going to heal the world. This part of the writing process feels excellent, and it’s one of my favorites, but it’s also fleeting. I’ve realized I have to be careful to never send stories out when I’m still thinking about them like this.

What I’ve learned to do is put a story down, let the infatuation wear off, and come back later when it won’t hurt so bad to chisel away at it. Once I’ve done this, and let a few trusted writer friends work their editorial magic, then I’ll send it out.

NB:  What else are you working on now? Stories? Something longer?

AM: Yes, both. I love writing stories, and I’ve got a few I’ve been futzing with. But I’m also three years into a novel about a missing boy, a (con)man-child, and a family broken then mended by both. It’s exciting, working on a longer project, but it’s also great to take breaks for stories now and then. Stories give me a sense of completion and, when I’m very lucky, I get to share them with the world. So thank you, ASF and readers. Nothing’s better than that.



Alison McCabe was born and raised in the Garden State, and now lives in the Sonoran Desert. She teaches English at the University of Arizona where, in 2010, she received her MFA. Alison’s fiction is forthcoming in Third Coast, and other writing has appeared in DIAGRAM and Cutthroat Magazine. She’s currently at work on a novel.

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