Tag Archives: Dire Consequences

An Interview with Katherine Fawcett

25 Jun
Katherine Fawcett's debut story collection, The Little Washer of Sorrows, has been compared to the work of Kelly Link and Donald Barthelme.

Katherine Fawcett’s debut story collection, The Little Washer of Sorrows, has been compared to the work of Kelly Link and Donald Barthelme.

Katherine Fawcett is a Canadian writer living in Pemberton, British Columbia. Her short fiction has been published in Wordworks, Event, Freefall, subTerrain, and Other Voices, and her plays have been performed by several community theatre groups. She teaches music at the Whistler Waldorf School, plays violin with the Sea to Sky Orchestra, and fiddle whenever possible. Her debut story collection, The Little Washer of Sorrows, includes stories about banshees, mermaids, and half-feral boys coming of age.

To read “Dire Consequences” by Katherine Fawcett and an exercise on increasing tension by shifting gears, click here. In this interview, Fawcett discusses writing fables, humor mixed with horror, and Stephen King’s Night Shift.

Michael Noll

When I read the story’s final line, I laughed and gasped at the same time. In a way, the story is structured like a well-told joke. The end is almost like a punchline. How did you find this structure? Did it simply occur to you as you wrote, or did you have the ending in mind when you began the story?

Katherine Fawcett

I’m delighted that the ending made you laugh and gasp. I do enjoy going for goosebumps. I think the horror of inevitability is really powerful. To be funny and devastating at the same time reflects the inescapable reality of being human.

The structure of this particular story did fall into place as I wrote it. I knew it was a fable, and that in telling it the loss of the girl would have to somehow come around again. But no, I didn’t plan the ending in advance. When I neared the ending, I had no choice in how to finish.

Michael Noll

I also love the quick pacing. This is something I’m seeing a lot of lately, in stories by Sheila Heiti, Amelia Gray, and Dina Guidubaldi, to name a few writers. The stories don’t really descend into scene and stay there. Instead, they zoom along over a series of events, as this story does, with the result being a story that feels a bit like a fable. Does this seem like a fair description of the story? What attracts you to this form?

Katherine Fawcett

Daydreams for Angels is the first story collection from Heather O'Neill, the bestselling author of Lullabies for Little Criminals.

Daydreams for Angels is the first story collection from Heather O’Neill, the bestselling author of Lullabies for Little Criminals.

I recently read Heather O’Neill’s collection Daydreams of Angels, another Canadian author whose short stories often trip quickly along with gorgeous images and snapshots of events. I like how this style can feel intense–almost dream-like. I think the short story lends itself to this form very well. I love a story that is organized in such a way that readers feel they are swinging Tarzan-style from vine to vine with every turn of the page.

Michael Noll

This story was originally published as part of a series titled “Thrilling Tales of Torment.” As such, I guess it’s a kind of horror story, which makes sense—after all, two children die. But it’s a peculiar kind of horror story in that it’s funny. (At least, I laughed at the end.) But it’s also a weird kind of humor since the thing that is funny is also horrible, and so as I was laughing, I was also feeling a lot of empathy for the characters, especially the boy. Was this story intended as horror? Is that a genre you’re drawn to?

Katherine Fawcett

To be honest, I didn’t write this as a “Thrilling Tales of Torment” story, but when I was asked to submit a Halloween story, it was the most suitable one I had at the time. It certainly isn’t horror in the traditional sense, but you’re right–a couple of dead kids is a pretty nasty and no one wants to laugh at that, so it’s kind of a blend of bad, distasteful humour and weird, funny horror.

I do like reading horror–although I sometimes find it too disturbing to read at night. The first short story collection I ever read was Stephen King’s Night Shift. I must have been 11 or so–I remember being terrified and thrilled, and sharing the stories around campfires to scare my friends.

Michael Noll

One review of the book uses the term “fabulist” and compares you to Kelly Link, the incomparable giant of the weird stories that seem to now officially fall under that label. What do you think of that term: fabulist? It’s relatively new, and so it seems that the definition of what belongs is a bit fuzzy. Does it seem like an appropriate category for your work?

Katherine Fawcett

I am honored to be spoken of in the same breath as Kelly Link. I’d never defined myself as such before, but if the Link is a fabulist and NPR says I’m following in her tradition, then yup, you can call me a happy fabulist too. The word is appealing because it is like “fantastic” and “beautiful” and “marvelous” going out for drinks together.
But to properly answer your question, I looked it up and found out that fabulist has two meanings:

  1. Someone who recounts fables.
  2. A liar.

I suppose all fiction is lying by definition, but a fable is something that brings to light a truth. So yes, lying to find truth would be a great category for my work.

I read somewhere that fiction is simply a craft that arranges letters and spaces and punctuation in a way that makes us empathize with the fake struggles of pretend people. It seems to me the whole process of categorization (fabulist, magical realist, satirist, sci-fi writer etc) has more to do with marketing than actually sitting down and telling stories–lying to find truth. But if lumping me into a category will pique readers’ interest, lump away.

June 2015

Michael Noll Michael Noll is the Editor of Read to Write Stories.

How to Switch Gears and Increase Tension

23 Jun
Katherine Fawcett's Little Washer of Sorrows offers funny, unsettling  stories that have drawn comparisons to the stories of Kelly Link.

Katherine Fawcett’s Little Washer of Sorrows offers funny, unsettling stories that have drawn comparisons to the stories of Kelly Link.

One of the easiest mistakes to make as a writer is to write the same thing over and over again. What happens is that we hit on a great idea to start a story (something spooky or funny or weird or sad), and then, when the story hits a lull, we double down on that idea to keep the story going (more spookiness, humor, weirdness, or sorrow). It’s the literary equivalent of saying, “More cowbell.” A better strategy is often to switch up what your story is doing, to step away from your great idea, and that stepping away (or switching gears, depending on your metaphor of choice) can actually increase the story’s tension.

A great example of how switching gears can heighten tension can be found in Katherine Fawcett’s story, “Dire Consequences.” It’s included in her story collection The Little Washer of Sorrows and was first published in Pique, where you can read it now (it’s the third of three stories).

How the Story Works

The story begins with a great idea: a girl doesn’t want to eat her broccoli, and her mother says, “No one’s ever died from eating broccoli.” So the girl eats it. Here is what happens next (it’s the story’s great idea):

“See?” said the mother. “I told you. That wasn’t so bad now, was it?”

The girl didn’t answer. She wiped her mouth on her sleeve, went quietly to the couch, curled up under the afghan, and died.

Awesome, right? At that point, the story comes to a natural pause. The girl is dead. Now what? It’d be tempting, as the writer, to up the ante and find ways to immediately keep the weird cause of death going. But, instead, Fawcett does something different:

From that day on, the boy knew he could get anything he wanted. “If I have to do my homework, I’ll die,” he’d tell his mother, and she’d write a note to his teacher. “I’ll die if I can’t have an ice cream cone,” he’d say and she’d get him a large tiger-tiger in a waffle cone. “I will die right now if I can’t ride in that fire truck,” he’d say and she would have a chat with the fire chief and next thing you know the boy would be sitting in the passenger seat, looking out from under a red plastic fireman’s hat, grinning and waving at all his envious friends.

The story has switched gears, from cause of death to consequences of death. Before long, the story switches gears again:

But like mourning and passion, the novelty of the boy’s threats eventually wore off, and the mother could not bear how spoiled he’d become.

“Hey Mum! Mum! I’ll die unless I can have my birthday party in Disneyland,” he said one day. “With all the kids in my class. Plus a few from soccer.”

Enough was enough.

“Quit using that ‘I will die’ stuff with me,” she said. “You will not die. You’re just manipulating me.”

Neither one of them knew if this was true or not, but deep down the boy was scared that she would test it, so he gradually returned to his obedient ways, and she returned to not being such a pushover.

The story has switched gears again by moving from consequences of death to a kind of acceptance of those consequences.

The story keeps changing gears in this way until the very end. When you read to that ending, you’ll see that the story delivers the sort of payout promised by the great idea at the beginning. And you’ll also see that the story moves in a pretty direct line toward that ending—but, when reading the story, that line doesn’t feel direct. For such a short story, it has many parts and movements, each one ratcheting up the tension and emotional stakes by switching gears.

The Writing Exercise

Let’s increase tension by switching gears, using “Dire Consequences” by Katherine Fawcett as a model:

  1. Find the first pause of your story. When we’re writing, we often feel these moments as they arrive. They have a conclusive quality; we write a sentence and automatically add a space break. These are often moments where we hit writer’s block because they mean starting a new section or part of the story, and any new start means, to some extent, inventing something new rather than extending something that you’ve already created. Fawcett handles her first pause with this phrase: From that day on. It has a natural movement toward consequences or effects: the aftershocks of the big quake that starts the story. So, try starting a new section (after the pause and the space break) with this phrase. If something big happened just before the pause, how can you move forward in time and reveal the fallout from that big happening?
  2. Amplify the consequences. E. M. Forster famously wrote that “The king died and then the queen died” is a story while “The king died and then the queen died of grief” is a plot. The difference between the two is a sense of consequence. Imagine if he filled in that second line: “The king died and then the queen wouldn’t leave her room and she wouldn’t eat and wouldn’t drink and wouldn’t get up to use the chamber pot and wouldn’t clean herself up or put on new clothes or swat the flies, which were considerable by the time she died of grief.” The consequences get stacked on top of one another until they become unsustainable. This is exactly what Fawcett does with the son, who demands to have things so that he won’t die. So, try repeating the basic consequence that you’ve invented. How can you break it down into specific actions that can be repeated?
  3. Change the energy level. What happens when the consequences become unsustainable? Once you’ve created an unsustainable situation, you’re going to hit another natural pause: the situation will resolve itself. Then what? Fawcett switches gears again by changing the energy level of the story from frantic to calm. The kid is freaking out, asking for stuff, and the his mom calls his bluff and they settle into a more sustainable routine, which will, of course, get broken (which will be the next opportunity to change gears). So, how can you dramatically increase or decrease the energy level of your story?

Good luck and have fun.

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