What We Do with the Wreckage
Our Research Notes series invites authors to describe their process for a recent book, with “research” defined as broadly as they like. This week, Kirsten Sundberg Lunstrum writes about What We Do with the Wreckage, winner of the Flannery O’Connor Award for Short Fiction from University of Georgia Press.
Mama, my daughter asks me at bedtime, if you were an animal, what animal would you be?
We’re reading fairy tales — Andersen and Grimm. In her favorite of these, people leave their cozy homes for the uncertainty and darkness — but mystery and magic! — of the woods, where they encounter animals that possess the ability to transform, to speak, to lift a veil no one else has realized was draped over the real wonders of the forest. My girl wishes hard that she could be such an animal, and — knowing her as I do — I think this is less about her love of animals and more about her own rich capacity for wonder. She wants to be a fairy tale animal because she feels a kinship with them — creatures of her own kind.
If she could transform herself, she would be a fox, she says. But I am a puzzle to her. What would I be?
I kiss her goodnight and go to bed with this question in my own mind, and by the next morning it has come to me — the answer: Short story writers are foragers, scavengers, pickers. Racoons, jackdaws, coyotes, crows. We linger at the most appalling scenes, pecking at the bones, making a meal out of the scraps.
When people ask me where my stories come from, I often struggle to answer. Everywhere? I want to say. The truth is that I don’t know. I just find them. In the midst of my day, like a bit of carrion at the side of the road or a bright bead flashing between the trailside brambles, there it will be — a story, or at least the heartbeat of one.
This sense of myself as a scavenger is particularly relevant to the process I went through in writing the stories that make up my new collection, What We Do With the Wreckage (2017 Flannery O’Connor Award for Short Fiction winner; released by University of Georgia Press, October 2018). As a whole, the book examines the aftermath of upheaval, of heartbreak, of catastrophe, and lifts up the question What now? It took me over a decade to write this collection, in part because finding and writing stories the way I do is slow work (and, okay, also because in that same span of years I was parenting two young children while simultaneously teaching full-time). My writing process involves gathering the best and shiniest flotsam that washes up on my shore, then repeatedly sifting through it piece-by-piece until I can see the stories it holds. Often years go by between the time when I gather something that I think might someday be the start of a fiction, and the time when I actually begin writing that fiction. Several of the stories included in What We Do With the Wreckage came about through that process.
One of those was “The Remainder Salvaged.” I wrote the first draft of this story during the winter of 2011, and it was published in the journal Willow Springs the following fall (issue 68). But the start of that story was a photocopy of a newspaper clipping that my husband’s grandmother had mailed to me years before — probably 2002 or 2003. The clipping featured a picture of her uncle alongside a story about the Wellington Train Disaster of March, 1910. The clipping detailed an avalanche in the Cascade Mountain Range that hit two Great Northern Railroad trains and killed 96 people. My husband’s great-great uncle had been one of the volunteers cataloging bodies after rescue teams snow-shoed into the avalanche site to find and retrieve victims. The bodies were towed out of the mountains on sleds, the article noted, because the avalanche had made any other mechanism of transportation impossible. It was grueling, cold, and heart-wrenching work. 1
I found the story incredibly compelling, but I didn’t know how to incorporate it into a piece of fiction — not yet; and so I saved the photocopy (along with my husband’s grandmother’s handwritten note about it) in a file of story ideas. It sat there for years. During one summer, my husband and I even made a trip to the site of the avalanche, where hikers can now walk a groomed trail leading beneath concrete snow sheds that look — in the summer, anyway — like beautiful ruins hidden in the woods. I also read Gary Krist’s nonfiction account of the disaster, The White Cascade: The Great Northern Railway Disaster and America’s Deadliest Avalanche.
Finally, during the winter of 2011, after a year of devoting all of my creative energy to nursing and tending my newborn daughter, I was desperate to write something (anything!) again. I returned to that file and found the Wellington clip. I was living in New York then, and it was January. There was snow on the ground. I holed up for several long days in the garage beneath my apartment, where I was alone and couldn’t hear my husband and baby upstairs. I set up a desk and a space heater, and I got to work imagining Wellington and the awful span of hours that followed that disaster. And, like magic, the story came together.
Another story in my collection was the result of a similar process. “Endlings,” the first story in the book, was first published in the summer of 2017 as a volume of the Ploughshares Solos series. (It will also be reprinted by Ploughshares this October.) This story follows Dr. Katya Vidović as she struggles to help Simone Hunter, one of her adolescent patients in the eating disorders rehabilitation unit of a Seattle hospital. Katya is an immigrant to the U.S., having left her native Croatia in the 1990s. This history is the background to Katya’s relationship with Simone, and it colors her response to Simone’s obsession with the “endlings” of the world, and in particular with “Benjamin,” the last known captive Tasmanian tiger.
This story came together incredibly slowly for me. It began with nothing more than a fascination with the extinction of the Tasmanian tiger. My daughter — a first-grader by this time — was working on her annual school interest project, a researched report and presentation on any chosen topic. She chose Tasmanian tigers. We made several trips to the library for books. We scoured the Internet so that I could print her articles on the tigers. We watched the Youtube video Katya watches in my story — a few seconds of moving black-and-white footage of Benjamin circling his enclosed paddock at the Hobart Zoo. 2
In helping my daughter collect her research, I found myself fascinated too. I read all that I could find on Tasmanian tigers, including Margaret Mittelbach’s and Michael Crewdson’s book Carnivorous Nights: On the Trail of the Tasmanian Tiger. In this process, I discovered the word “endling,” meaning the last recorded individual member of a species. What a word!
In the meantime, I was working on a story-start that was going nowhere. A few years before, during the Evergreen State Fair, I had sat eating an ice cream cone on a picnic table bench while a man walked a massive, leashed tortoise around a nearby patch of grass. The image was weird and lovely, and I knew it belonged in fiction, so I kept writing it, re-writing it, trying to figure out the story to which it belonged.
I also thought about my own history. What could I mine from my life for this story? During my adolescence, I was hospitalized for just over a month with severe anorexia nervosa. I remember that hospitalization only thinly. I was young (13), and quite sick, and the whole experience was surreal even as I lived it. The memories I can pick at from that period are odd and disembodied from any clear narrative, and remembering them is like looking through a foggy pair of binoculars at something very far off. Still, there’s so much to unearth there — good story material, if I can attach it to other bits-and-bobs.
This is what I did in writing “Endlings.” As I re-wrote and re-wrote the scene of the man walking his leashed tortoise, I realized he had an audience of girls. He was on the hospital’s lawn, and the girls were Katya’s young patients — among them Simone, who was carrying in her mind and her heart Benjamin, the Tasmanian tiger. And all of them — the refugee Katya, the starving Simone, and Benjamin — were endlings, of a sort. All of them separate, different, misunderstood. All of them hanging onto survival in the aftermath of their own disasters.
I go back to my daughter’s question then: What animal are you, Mama?
In the morning after she asks this, I tell her I’ve thought about it, and I’m a scavenger. Maybe a crow. Maybe a vulture. Definitely something with wings.
She shakes her head, offended at this suggestion. “Vultures are dirty. They eat dead things. They mean bad luck.”
“Maybe,” I say. “Everyone has to survive, though, don’t they?”
I leave her thinking about it. To me, though, it’s not offensive at all. Story construction can be an unseemly, messy business, but I don’t know another way. And, anyhow, I like the metaphor. I like the idea that the life I’ve set up for myself in writing short fiction means being able to find beauty and use and meaning in the overlooked, the abandoned, the wrecks.