Web Exclusive Interview: Heather Wells Peterson

heatherphotoIn our August web exclusive story, “Gorman, CA,” a couple’s car runs out of fuel on the side of the road in a land that is foreign to them both. Heather Wells Peterson indicates lack throughout the landscape and the action as a skilled painter would, in the wilt of the odometer’s needle, in the drought-stricken hills, in the protagonist’s silence. It’s one of those subtle revelations that’s so sublime in short fiction: a moment, seemingly insignificant from an outside perspective, that casts a life’s entire trajectory into stark relief.

 

Erin McReynolds: The title’s a pretty big clue, but this is a story in which place is significantly linked to revelation. It’s as if, inside, she’s been heading toward a conclusion that this tiny, insignificant patch of the globe could externalize for her, making it clearer. Which came to you first, the situation or the setting?

Heather Wells Peterson: It’s funny—my professor in grad school, Mary Robison, used to say in workshop that if you couldn’t think of a good title, it always works to just name the story after the town it takes place in. She’s one of those writers for whom the setting is as natural and integral to any story she writes as the air the characters are breathing, so for her this advice made more sense. Some stories, after all, take place nowhere, or anywhere.

But in this case, I was having trouble titling the story, mostly, I think, because I wanted what I thought of as the crux or climax to remain subtle, so I didn’t want a title that did too much pointing in that direction. I tried Mary’s trick out of desperation, and then I realized it was really the only title that made sense.

To actually answer your question, then: I’d like to say the setting and situation came to me together, as one integrated, complex organism, because that’s how I’m hoping they’re working in this story. The honest answer is more mundane—I was inspired to write this story by an actual event, when I really did run out of gas on the side of the 5 by Gorman, CA. While much of the story is fabricated, the setting and inciting situation came to me together when they actually happened to me.

EM: When I was a kid, we drove that stretch of 5 freeway at least once a year. It’s pretty forgettable (sorry, Gormanites) which lends itself perfectly to the notion that her unhappiness may have been going unnoticed as any roadside cluster of gas stations, until she was forced to register it. Both when you read and when you write, do you find yourself drawn to particular combinations of setting and crisis?

HWP: It’s true that Gorman is, in itself, pretty much nowhere. You’re right—a blank patch of dust like that is a good screen on which characters can then project their own emotions and crises. The woman, and the man, to a lesser extent, might not feel that way about Gorman, though. It posed too many challenges to them, and they had to interact with it too intimately for them to see it as anything less than menacing. I think that’s what I love about a strong sense of place in a story, whether I’m reading or writing it. Of course, setting can’t just directly reflect a character’s mood, like, they’re sad, so it’s raining. That’s too easy. But it can get in there and screw things up and make things more interesting.

EM: Her inner mechanics in the course of this one afternoon are clear, yet you manage to avoid giving away too much about her intentions. There’s a resulting tension between what a mystery she is (even though she “would never want to marry him,” it wouldn’t surprise me if she did, anyway), and how identifiable she is. How did you approach this character, and how does a flash-fiction form inform that approach?

HWP: I tend to write long, as the answers to these questions likely indicate, but this story only made sense to me tight and condensed. This is a woman who is on the verge of changing her mind, of realization. The realization is lurking in the darkness inside of her somewhere, and she senses that it’s there, but she’s not ready to look at it. I hope that feeling is one of the things most readers can identify with here, that feeling of being stalked by a self-knowledge you’re not quite ready for. The woman is a mystery to herself, in a way, I think, as much as she is to the reader.

EM: Oh yeah, I totally identified. That lurking self-knowledge also mirrors the experience a reader has of a good short story—there’s this sense of significance to every sentence in a form as taut as this, so that by the time the dog comes running down the road, you fully understand what you were supposed to know. Was that always the image for the end or did you have to cycle through a few possibilities? 

HWP: I am always fighting the urge to tack on a few more lines, just to make sure the reader “gets it,” but I’ve been trying hard to get into the habit of feeling when a story is truly over, and of trusting the reader to come to an understanding within themselves, rather than on the page.

EM: Can you talk about the novel you’ve currently working on?

HWP: I have a finished novel that my agent is currently looking to place. It’s about a woman in a similar phase to the woman in this story, in a way, but her powers of self-denial, and the intricate mechanics of her psyche, as engineered by her childhood and her family and everything else that has happened to her, draw out the time it takes for her to turn on that inner light and really take a look at that knowledge she’s carrying inside of her.

The basic plot is that a woman, Laurie, comes home early from a trip to find out that her husband is having an affair. She confronts him, and he convinces her to try opening their marriage to other partners. I wouldn’t say, though, that this is a story about marriage so much as a story about a woman who has managed really never to get to know herself. The novel tries to map what about a person and her life could cause that kind of estrangement, and what it takes for her to become more intimate with her own feelings and desires.

EM: Who have you been reading, or what has been inspiring you?

HWP: Dorthe Nors’s novellas, translated from the Danish by Misha Hoekstra and packaged together as So Much For That Winter, are funny and almost dangerously odd. I recently read Edna O’Brien’s The Country Girls trilogy for the first time, and those books were seriously life changing, in the sense that you can’t believe you were ever a person who hadn’t read them, who was just living your life not knowing how great those books are. I also read Mrs. Bridge recently, by Evan S. Connell, which has to be the best book with a female protagonist written by a man that I’ve ever encountered.

Heather Wells Peterson has an MFA in Fiction from the University of Florida. Her work has appeared in, or is forthcoming from, Lit Hub, Lucky Peach, Bellevue Literary Review, Subtropics, and The Collagist, among others. She lives in Vermont, where she is currently working with her agent on the publication of her first novel. More about Heather can be found at heatherwellspeterson.com.

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