Contributor Spotlight: A Conversation With Alfredo Salvatore Arcilesi

Alfredo Salvatore Arcilesi’s short story, “Pasture Statues” was published in Issue I

 

What’s been inspiring you recently? Any images or themes you’ve felt particularly drawn to as of late?

Large. Looming. Capable of a mighty spin, yet the mechanical beast remains stagnant. For the past few weeks, I’ve been seeing, in greater and greater detail, this common Ferris wheel, posed against a snow-covered forest, as the wheels in my head turn faster and faster, building the world around it. This is but one of the rides populating the near-empty winter fair by which the two main characters of my debut novel are surrounded. It’s as if the Ferris wheel is staring at me, waiting for me to make of it what I will: a metaphor, a set piece, a mere prop, something else entirely. Until I truly know what to do with it, the staring contest will continue.

 

They say the best writers are the best readers. If there’s one (or a few) pieces of literature you could assign as “required reading” to all emerging writers, what would it be?

A couple of years ago, I happened to see a copy of Dune atop the tall pile of paperbacks on the front counter of one of my favourite bookstores in town. I knew little of it, which was to say it was allegedly one of the greatest science-fiction novels of all-time. I didn’t realize there were five sequels to the original piece; I also did not realize there were countless other canonical novels co-authored by Frank Herbert’s son, Brian Herbert, and Kevin J. Anderson. After stalling to dive into this epic, I finally did just that. I’m not so sure I would classify Dune as “required reading,” however, it screams as a rich example of an author’s ability—perhaps even their duty—to create a world (several, in this case; heck, an entire universe!), populate it with living, breathing beings, flora, and fauna, full of hopes, dreams, beliefs, fears, the wide spectrum of emotions available to them, and all according to the laws of their respective natures. For reader and writer alike, Dune serves as a premiere example of what imagination, exploration, and discipline can accomplish. Even if one were looking for inspiration and/or a better understanding of how to build a world as everyday as our own, Dune makes for good teaching.

 

Let’s dive into the piece! Pasture Statues is such a compelling title; it feels so naturally intuitive without feeling obvious. What drew you to that specific image as a title for the piece?

I’ve always enjoyed titles that arouse curiosity, intrigue, even a bit of frustration due to its seeming vagueness or pretentiousness. There are times when a title makes itself known almost before I know how the full story will unfold. There are other times when a title will come as a result of the finished piece, its resultant mood or attitude, or the summation of a key image. In the case of Pasture Statues, I was nearing the end of writing the piece, and knew I wanted one of “those” titles (I want all of my pieces to have one of “those” titles!). At some point, it occurred to me that Cate, Millie, and the cow were involved in a sort of Mexican standoff. Each of them, as described in the opening lines, are staring at each other; and while neither of the three are pointing a gun at the other in typical Mexican standoff fashion, they were indeed facing off with each other. Or were they commiserating? Or were they simply standing there? So a new question emerged: what do these two humans and one animal look like to someone on the outside? Or, more to the point, given the nature of the story once it is fully revealed: what do these two humans and one animal look like to someone driving by, rubber-necking for a glimpse of something they think they want to see? They would appear as statues standing in a pasture.

A funny footnote: one reader asked me to include a scene involving statues because they wondered where they were.

 

The mirrored opening and ending of Pasture Statues – the staccato of terse sentences – was a fascinating craft move. How did you land upon using these short phrases as a throughline within the piece?

Bang! Here’s one person. Bang! Here’s another. Bang! And a cow. On the one hand, the characters and their first actions are introduced rather rapidly, as if to say “this is who we are, and this is what we are doing”; however, upon reaching the same “short phrases” at the story’s mirrored end, perhaps one might feel the characters and their repeated first actions unfold not rapidly, but slowly, deliberately, in light of what has just been revealed. In other words, the first encounter of the “staccato of terse sentences” will have been redressed with a far different context upon their reappearance: what once meant one thing means another.

 

To again use the word “mirror,” I loved the mirroring between the mother/child and the cow/calf relationship as a lens to process the character’s loss. What inspired this connection between human and animal within the piece?

One of the many things by which I’m haunted when writing is providing a reason for everything. My English teacher once said: “sometimes, a blue car is just a blue car.” While this is indeed true—and there are countless situations in which I consciously or subconsciously applied that simple aphorism to the page—I find it isn’t always good, interesting, or fun enough. What if the car is blue because the driver wanted to remember her late lover’s blue eyes? What if the driver was the responsible for hitting and killing her late lover with the car, and later decided to commemorate the loss by painting the car the blue of her late lover’s eyes? What if the driver is colourblind, and, in an effort to see and savour an entirely different colour, must paint the car a blue she never truly sees? What if? What if? What if? Thus, it wasn’t good enough for Cate and Millie to stare at and communicate with just any cow, a mere prop, but rather one with a backstory. And so I thought: what if the cow had a calf? And what if that calf… Well, the story explores that “what if?”

 

It’s often difficult to plot a reveal that feels intuitive yet still shocking, and I have to say, the masterful “reveal” of this piece left me devastated. What advice do you have for fiction writers attempting to toe the line between foreshadowing plot versus too-obviously signaling a narrative twist?

In writing, I enjoy keeping a secret (or several) as much as when and how I reveal it (them). Here are a few things, in no particular order, I keep in mind when dealing with secrets, reveals, twists:

  1. Don’t write a twist for the sake of having a twist. Don’t force it. This usually makes for poor writing, oftentimes to the detriment of the characters and plot. This is especially true for stories whose sole purpose for being told is revealing the twist. If the story is best told in a straightforward fashion, then let it be.
  2. When a twist is revealed, don’t spend too much time, if any at all, reminding the reader and your character(s)the details that led to the twist. Highlight a key detail or two, allow the reader and character(s) some time to digest the new reveal, and then move on, otherwise, it risks appearing bloated and pretentious, as if the writer is saying: “Look how I fooled you. Look how clever I am.” Cleverness, in this case, is subjective. Allow the reader to re-read the story, this time with an eye for the details they previously missed, and let them decide how “clever” you are.
  3. A twist is best revealed organically. Instead of simply spitting out the twist you worked so hard to conceal, bring details to the surface at a decent pace. In the case of Pasture Statues, a flash of red light here, a scream there—these were all part of the environment and situation, and implied just enough to set tone, mood, pace, and the eventual reveal.
  4. Too much foreshadowing is glaring. Not all readers are intelligent, but not all readers are unintelligent, either. Give them just enough meat on the bone to gnaw on.
  5. Twists, even strong ones, can come off as gimmicky if not handled properly (see 3.)
  6. Don’t bother with the overdone twist. That it was all just a dream, or that he/she/they/it were dead all along are terribly boring, lazy, and uninspired.
  7. Be sure to actually reveal the twist (unless ambiguity is your intention), and make sure that it is understood. It is important to let the reader and character(s) in on the plot.
  8. Be sure the story works both ways, beginning to end and back, with and without the twist. If the twist throws previously-established logic and rules out the window (there are a few exceptions), then you may need to retrace your steps.
  9. No matter how well-designed your story, a reader may still stray too far from your intentions. Case in point: a reader was disappointed with Pasture Statues because it failed to reveal a zombie apocalypse as its finale. While I never hinted anything specific to a zombie apocalypse, the reader’s mind wandered to this trope. Perhaps it was their preference or expectation, but, ultimately, it wasn’t what my story was about, and they were disappointed. This doesn’t mean Pasture Statues is a bad story; it simply means Pasture Statues is a bad zombie apocalypse Also, I thought this was interesting in that it gave me insight into how a reader thinks, and how, in this case, the overdone zombie gimmick was not yet “dead” to this reader. Most importantly, it showed that no matter your story’s intention(s), a reader will always glean another.

 

This piece could’ve ended in many different moments, upon Millie’s realization of her mother’s death or at the “scream (that) perforated the ambience,” but it settled itself so compellingly in the few moments before the loss was revealed to the reader. As you sketched the plot of this piece, how did you decide where the narrative began and ended?

Throughout the story, details about the surrounding truth slowly penetrate the fragile sanctuary Cate—with a little help from the cow—has created for Millie. As these hints of reality poke through, so do the questions about Millie’s future—questions Cate has been asking herself throughout the story; questions the reader, upon experiencing the reveal, may ask themselves. Thus, the reader is given enough information to wonder what will become of Millie, whether or not Cate’s own musings will amount to some sort of realization, or if something yet to be considered will unfold. Ending the story with a question, or several, means it ended precisely where it needed to end. What precisely happens to Millie is of no importance, only the strands of possibility. As I explained to one reader: “It’s not my job to tell you what happens afterwards. That falls on you.”

 

As an aside, your ability to craft such inventive work while also involved with a full-time job is beyond impressive! What advice would you give to writers struggling to balance creative work with a demanding work schedule?

It’s all about discipline, discipline, discipline, which is difficult, difficult, difficult to maintain, no matter how disciplined you think you are. Working as an artisan baker, a typical day begins at 4:00AM and ends at 12:30PM, which translates to being up at around 2:30AM and returning home at around 1:30PM. There are days when I set my alarm, say, for midnight, wake up, and hit the keys for a couple of hours. There are days when I set my alarm for midnight, barely wake up, question my life’s choices up until that ungodly hour, and hit the keys for a couple of hours—all the while alternating between questioning my life’s choices and those of my characters. And then there are days when I set my alarm and characters to “leave me alone,” and I enjoy a few more dreams or nightmares, or sometimes both, or sometimes, blissfully, none at all. And that’s when the guilt of not writing snuggles into that part of my brain where the stories live; guilt and its best friend, regret, who likes to remind me how I wasted another day. Of course, there is always the option of writing after work, but most days the energy isn’t there. Strangely, there is something about writing when my part of the world is asleep that fuels my creativity; that one window aglow on a silent, dark street.

Whether it’s a few words, paragraphs, or pages, I strive to write something each day. A notorious note-taker, I write on my phone while riding the bus to and from work; at work, I’ll do the same, unless I decide to withdraw my notebook, which I’m sure to keep in my backpack at all times. If I feel the need to write while at work—waiting for oven timers to go off, or during lunch—but am unable to use my phone or notebook, I’ll loot the printer for a blank page or two. And there’s always the clean backs of order forms. It certainly helps that my co-workers and management staff support my endeavors, such is the case that some want me to write a book about their lives.

Bottom line: write each day. How much and how well is up to you.

 

Anything else you would like to add? Anything we missed?

Readers and writers can find me on Twitter, under the handle “@libraryscent”. I’ve got a number of short stories in circulation, as well as several others in the works, so feel free to search my full name: Alfredo Salvatore Arcilesi. My debut novel is also under construction.

Here’s a thought: how remarkable is a dictionary, for its pages contain every story ever told.

Anyway, keep reading, and keep scribbling—something is bound to come of the mess.

And try to have fun!

 

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