Collision Launches Us: A Question With Heather Abel and Malerie Willens

AGNI: It seems to me that both of your stories in Issue 82—”Desire and Other Isms” (Abel) and “Gropius Falls” (Willens)—thrive on the use of collision. At the center of your piece, Heather, is a mother-daughter relationship, but the center gets shaken when the character of Jeff DeMaren appears, and that collision complicates and drives the story forward. Similarly, in your work, Malerie, the main character thinks she’s just trying to get back into her house, but then her encounter with a locksmith she might never have otherwise met sends her in in a really unexpected direction. Could you talk a little bit about the role of collision in your work—why it’s productive for you and how it finds its way into the story?

Abel: During the time when I wrote “Desire and Other Isms,” I was, in a mundane way, often bored and lonely. While my kids were in preschool, I worked alone. The rest of the day was spent with them, at home or on the obvious errands. My only adult interpersonal encounters occurred with other parents at school pick-up. Surely, I thought yesterday when I first considered this question, I put a collision into my story, because I was longing for a disruption of my own. I was mad with hope that some other parent and I would discover a shared past and my life would become more interesting. Besides, I thought, I live in New England, which isn’t where I’m from, and people here are so guarded and muted. I always like to blame things on New England when I can.

But I woke this morning remembering how often I cross the street in my small town to avoid talking to a perfectly lovely acquaintance. I leave stores. I give up on buying stamps. I don’t return emails. I ignore voicemail. I hide. Of course, I’m hiding from the tyranny of mundane pleasantries, but I’m also hiding from the possibility of a fascinating—or disturbing—collision. As a kid, I would sit, bored, outside my childhood home, longing for a fire to begin in the dry shrubs of Malibu, burn its way across Sunset Boulevard, and reach me. But at night I would lie awake in terror of the same fire. Perhaps what drew me to write about collision is that—like everything narratively compelling—it’s something I both long for and dread in equal measure.

Willens: Narrative work can’t exist without collision. Collisions are reasons for telling, flashpoint moments that change things. A well-utilized collision should make us believe that the moment of collision is the only moment at which that story could be told.

But I’m wary of short fiction that relies too heavily on a single collision: [Person A] encounters [Person B/Rogue Element/New Idea], altering [Person A’s] future/point of view. It can feel over-determined, where every decision the writer makes is serving the collision or thesis. We often know more about the protagonist than she knows about herself, the tone can be cautionary, and the foreboding becomes a distraction when it dwarfs action and character development.

As a writer and reader, I’m more and more interested in rhythm and acoustics at the sentence level, which can slacken the puppet-strings and deepen the reading experience. I’m also drawn to work in which unexpected collisions—smaller moments of friction, characters that exist for reasons we might not understand, dialogue that catches us off guard—can shoulder some of the burden, giving us a story that’s about more than what it’s “about.” I get impatient with stories that feel like fleshed out taglines.

In “Gropius Falls,” the protagonist stops and recognizes that her situation (the collision) is vulnerable to an overly metaphorical read. I purposely made the antagonist a locksmith because it was just so ridiculous, something out of a romance novel. The goal was to prime the reader to expect clichés—big metaphors, broadly drawn binaries of intense young stud versus staid husband, or the sharp sterility of modernist spaces versus the messiness of the junkie/artist/their pasts—then shut them down when they enter the protagonist’s consciousness. This wasn’t punitive, building expectations for the sake of dashing them. I wanted to reroute the story to give the reader the sense that they’d narrowly averted something banal, and then reward them for staying.

Collisions launch us. They’re the what. But it’s the why, who and how that make a story a story.

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Heather Abel lives in Northampton, Massachusetts. Her debut novel, The Preservation of the World, will be published by Algonquin in 2017. “Desire and Other Isms” is her first published story. Her nonfiction has appeared in many places, including the Los Angeles Times, Slate, the New York Times, in the collection The Friend Who Got Away, and as the Kindle Single, “Gut Instincts.” Find out what she’s published in AGNI here.

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Malerie Willens’ short fiction has appeared in Best American Nonrequired Reading, Electric Literature, Open City and Canteen, among others, and has stories forthcoming in Tin House and Granta. She lives in New York and is currently writing a novel. Find out what she’s published in AGNI here.

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