Conversation with Joanna Parypinksi-Part 1 of 2

Happy October ! Today Joanna Parypinski and I talk about her short story “The Thing in the Trees” from the recently released Nightscript 4 anthology. Tomorrow on her site we will talk about “The Monkey Coat.” in part 2 of the conversation.

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DB:        One of the things this story made me think about is how the choice of characters can affect story and theme. The narrator in “The Thing in the Trees” is a Female to Male transgender person who is married to a woman they married before the transition. Why did you choose this character?

JP:         This story really came about from the marriage of character and concept. I had heard a barely-remembered story (as in, a news story, not a fiction story) about this situation of a female-to-male transgender person married to a woman, and how they dealt with it (from what I recall, the wife in the real story was much more supportive than my character). It was a really intriguing situation that I hadn’t really seen before, in fiction or otherwise, and the depth of love and conflict there felt like something worth exploring. So I had this character in my mind, and what came next was the image of a pair of jeans hanging in a tree in the forest, and everything started fitting together from there.

I think if the story were told with a different narrator, it would simply be a different story. The conflict in the relationship is really based on identity and transformation, and those themes resonate in the story in other ways as well, so I think those issues are really integral to both the character and the story.

DB:      I found myself thinking about the “shapes” of stories after reading “The Thing in the Trees” and how structural decisions could push a story towards or away from “kinds” of horror that often overlap or exist side by side such as horror, literary horror, and weird fiction and strange tales.

The structure of a story where the narrator is told a scary story and then the scary story turns out to be true (to grossly oversimplify) could be said to be a traditional “horror” structure. I felt your choice of character added a layer of resonance to the story. Does choice of character and other decisions like choice of end point move a story closer towards or away from any given category?

My follow up thought to question two is that one of the things I enjoy greatly about “The Thing in the Trees” is that it is “shaped” like what we might think of as a traditional horror story. There is a ghost story told. The narrator has strange experiences that mirror the story. And then the ending point is a reveal. I find many traditional (traditional as in ones that are not necessarily interstitial) horror stories have a reveal as an end point. However the story in my opinion effectively uses hallmarks of weird fiction by not revealing the explanation of what is happening even in light of the revelation that what was thought to be fiction might be true.

JP:   That’s a really intriguing question. I hadn’t really thought about it before, but I do think that there is a more traditional horror story laying the foundation of “The Thing in the Trees” with, perhaps, a more complex or slightly nontraditional layer above that having mostly to do with the unique situation and experiences of the characters. I appreciate that you felt this layer of resonance from the character!

I think both of those choices (character and endpoint) in some part help to categorize the shape of the story. Ending points are crucial in determining what kind of story it is, I think, because the place a story ends can impact what the reader is left with. This is kind of a random example, but just imagine, for instance, if The Graduate had ended before the bus ride.

“The Thing in the Trees” has a more abrupt ending than many of my stories because I typically include more of a denouement (perhaps this is my novelistic side bleeding over into my short fiction). But at one point I decided I wanted to end this story with a reveal. Frankly, I wrote this story after reading Brian Evenson’s A Collapse of Horses, and I think I was heavily influenced by some of his stories when crafting this one (many of his weird horror stories are supremely odd and end on a powerful reveal without fully explaining the mystery). I really enjoy the way that weird fiction and horror fiction can blur in a way that is both drawing from traditional horror while simultaneously building something new from it.

DB:       There is a wonderful reference to the Persephone myth in the story where the narrator at one point thinks to them self that they feel like they just drank pomegranate juice in hell. (For our readers in the Persephone myth Persephone is forced to spend six months of every year in the underworld as a settlement between Hades and Demeter (Mother Nature) for her actions of eating six pomegranate seeds while being courted by Hades.) There are other references of duality in the story such as the narrator referring to top half surgery and the narrator’s perception of their wife at the end of the story. What is your process when thinking about theme and resonance of a story and how did you approach it in this story?

JP:         Sometimes when I’m writing a story, I won’t really think about theme at all. If the character and plot are intriguing enough, then I may simply focus on those things and see where it takes me, and hopefully some themes will begin to emerge. I do feel that I put particular thought into theme and resonance with this story, in part because in writing from a narrator different from myself, I wanted to present a realistic, sympathetic, and non-stereotypical representation, but also because I wanted that representation to underlie the larger themes of the story—I wanted the choice of character to be integral to the story being told, rather than just having a unique character for the sake of being unique.

I’m not sure I can articulate concretely the way the theme emerged in this story. It’s difficult to pin down when an idea started bleeding through during the process of writing, perhaps because it felt very natural for this story, as if the theme were sort of emerging on its own without me having to try too hard to force it in. It just all made sense and came out very easily (which cannot be said for most of my work!).

DB:      At the point in the story where the events are at their most strange the narrator attempts to think of a rational reason as to what might be going on (why their wife would be up in the trees). Yet there is no objective reason given. There is only the logic of the story—the reader seeing that what they were told was fiction now appears to be reality (the events depicted in the ghost story have now come true). How important is it for any given story to provide explanations? Does the level of explanation affect how a story will be perceived or categorized?

JP:         This is something I’ve been struggling with—or, if not struggling, then trying to pin down, myself. I think I have a tendency to want to explain my mysteries, particularly in novels, but also, to a lesser extent, in short fiction. I’ve always had a pretty solidly logical left brain, so I think that part of me tends to try to answer lingering questions in my mind, which I then feel compelled to offer the reader.

For this story in particular, I made a deliberate decision to forgo an explanation and to try to keep some sense of weirdness or not full explanation through to the end, which I think relates to the choice of ending the story on a reveal of sorts, rather than following through to a denouement.

I think it’s not necessarily important for a story to provide explanations, provided there is a sense of internal logic to the story that doesn’t leave the reader flat-out confused as to what literally happened. I find those sorts of stories that are deliberately obscure mostly frustrating. But I’ve also found that the stories that tend to linger the most in my mind after reading are the ones that leave something to the imagination, whether that is a mystery not fully explained, or just a lingering sense of weirdness.

In that sense, I do think the level of explanation affects how a story is categorized. For instance, a story that offers a scientific explanation might veer towards sci-fi; a story that offers a magical explanation might be viewed as fantasy; a realistic explanation, and you have a mystery; a visceral or supernatural explanation would be categorized as horror; and a story that forgoes a full explanation might be put into the “weird fiction” category. At least, that’s how I see it, but I think this could definitely call for a larger discussion.

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Joanna Parypinski is a writer of dark speculative fiction whose work has appeared in Nightmare MagazineThe Beauty of Death 2: Death By WaterHaunted Nights edited by Ellen Datlow and Lisa Morton, The Burning Maiden Vol. 2Dark Moon Digest, and more. She holds an MFA from Chapman University. She currently lives in the L.A. area and teaches English at Glendale Community College. Visit her at https://joannaparypinski.com/

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Nightscript 4 can be purchased direct from the publisher and at your favorite booksellers.

https://chthonicmatter.wordpress.com/2018/02/09/nightscript-vol-iv/

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Tune in tomorrow to Joanna’s blog where Joanna and I will talk about the Monkey Coat from Nightscript 4.

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