Nicole Haroutunian’s short fiction has appeared in the Literarian, Tin House Flash Fridays, Vol. 1 Brooklyn, Two Serious Ladies, and other publications. Her short story “Youse” was the winner of the Center for Fiction’s 2013 Short Story Contest. She is coeditor of the digital arts journal Underwater New York, works as a museum educator, and lives with her husband in Woodside, Queens. Her first story collection, Speed Dreaming, was recently published by Little A.
To read an exercise on showing dramatic elements twice and her story, “Youse,” click here.
In this interview, Haroutunian discusses the inspiration for her story, “Youse,” the process of revising a published story for inclusion in a collection, and one possible difference between literary and young adult fiction.
“Youse” is a story that could have gone in a very different direction. We could have seen Margaret the way other people see her, as an object of pity, but the story doesn’t allow that view. Was it difficult to avoid sliding into that perspective, or did the story always see the world so firmly through Margaret’s eyes that pity wasn’t a possibility?
As is often the case, I had to trick myself into starting this story with a self-devised writing exercise. I work as a museum educator at, among other places, the American Folk Art Museum. One of my favorite branches of the collection is schoolgirl art—amazing samplers, embroideries and watercolors done by 18th-19th century schoolgirls. Some of this work takes the shape of mourning drawings—ritualized drawings made to commemorate a death. I chose a selection of schoolgirl art, wrote descriptions of each work, and then tried to weave a contemporary story around those descriptions, with each new scene sparked by another artwork. One of the first paragraphs I wrote was about a mourning drawing created for the artist’s father, hence Margaret’s father’s death. Eventually, Margaret’s story took shape and the framework could be excised; there’s no explicit trace of the art in the story now. My residual positive associations with schoolgirl art still come through, though; these girls exhibited such strength, personal vision and insightfulness—I transferred those feelings onto, or into, Margaret. Of course it’s possible to feel pity for the schoolgirl artists—they dealt with a lot of death and had to live within the parameters of a pretty circumscribed life—but they also had a lot of privilege. The same is true of Margaret. At least half of the adversity she faces is of her own making and comes from a place of privilege, so although I have empathy for her, it’s hard to feel too sorry for her.
The story contains a lot of heavy material: a dead father, catcalling from some pretty sketchy guys, and a trade of sexual favors for exam answers. How did you manage to keep all those balls in the air, so to speak? Did you ever wonder if you’d included too much for a single story?
I see this story as being about the relationships between a pair of teen girls and their mothers. All the material you mention is there to serve the tension in and development of these relationships. So it didn’t feel like too much to me because the central concerns of the story seemed fairly straightforward in the midst of all the drama.
The ending is lovely, a very small and intimate moment. Did you always have it in mind? Or did it occur to you as the story came together?
Following from my last answer, it took me many, many drafts to decide which relationship was truly at the center of the story—Margaret and Joanna or Margaret and her mother. When I finally decided it was Margaret and her mother, I knew I wanted the last moment of the story to be between the two of them. When the story was originally published in the Literarian, a few things were different—the major one is that it was set in the 2010s rather than the 1990s (I knocked it back fifteen years so that it was plausible, in the context of my collection, that Margaret could grow up to become Meg, the protagonist of a few other stories). The last few lines, though, are in a slightly different order. It’s really subtle, but I think it does change the ending for the better.
Since the story is about teenagers, I’m curious about how you would categorize your fiction. I’ve heard of writers who write a book that they imagine is literary fiction and then an agent says, no, this should sell as a young adult novel. (This happened with Margo Rabb’s forthcoming Kissing in America.) Do you think about these distinctions at all? Do you think there’s a difference?
Before last summer, when I worked as a teaching artist for a book club summer camp for 9-13 year olds, I hadn’t read much, if any, young adult literature since I was a teenager. I’ve still read very little, so I don’t say this with a lot of confidence, but what I thought I noticed is that often the reader has to do less work when reading young adult literature and more work when reading literary fiction. YA books are forthcoming in a way that my stories aren’t. There’s more overt emotion, plot and resolution; there’s less ambiguity. In literary fiction, there’s often a lot of room for readers to make their own meaning. To me, it’s not about how old the characters in the story are, but how the fiction is written. I don’t think this is true in every case, of course, and it’s also not a value judgment. Some of my literary touchstones for this story were Lorrie Moore’s Who Will Run the Frog Hospital? and Jo Ann Beard’s In Zanesville, both of which I think are sometimes categorized as YA, but don’t read that way for me despite being about teenagers. I think a young reader would probably find “Youse” a little, or a lot, boring. It ends with the implication that someone is about to take a sip from a glass; a teenager would probably expect a little more in the way of payoff.