Laura Madeline Wiseman interview with Karen Stefano
“Holdings,” “Amateur Bottleer,” “Coiled Messages,” and “Hit the Bottle” each glimmer, filling emptiness with hope, and each with a remarkable power of evocation. There are so many dazzling lines in these pieces:
“In the hotel shadows, I lie, sing mermaid songs, imagine out loud the salty blue tempest that brought these bottles to your ready hands until you pull me to you in silence.”
“In my house the milk never came in glass, but there were drunk men, large thin men with ice that clinked, and women who were on the bottle and over the bottle, those who hit it and hit.”
“My body floats in the current of place, this neighborhood of grass and all the robins eating the withered berries of spring come morning.”
I understand that these pieces are part of your flash novel, The Bottle Opener, on drift bottles. Tell us more about your fascination with drift bottles and their inspiration to you as a writer.
A couple of years ago, I traveled from D.C. to Virginia. I had taken the train to D.C. from Chicago, but decided to rent a car in D.C. to drive through the Blue Mountains and down to Virginia Beach. The drive in the mountains was misty and wet, vistas opening up suddenly and then cloaking again in clouds. I hiked a small trail that crossed the Appalachian Trail to an outlook over a valley of summer fields and sloping vegetation. The drive near the cities was crammed, fast moving traffic, through winding roads and dense trees. It wasn’t until I arrived at the beach and the open expanse of water that I felt at home again. I’ve lived most of my life in Midwest cities, far, far away from the ocean. The Midwest is a place I love—vast stretches of crops, big blue sky with towering white clouds, long, easy cement tongue of highway with travel time of miles equals minutes. I fished with my dad as a kid on boats on Minnesota lakes big enough that the other side of the lake was too far away to see. There was something about the movement from intense traffic, to wet mountain tops, to beach that inspire the first few drift bottles pieces in The Bottle Opener, ones that I kept thinking I wanted to write, rolled up messages that lived inside me for months and then years before I drafted the first while I was a writer-in-residence at the Prairie Center of the Arts.
The Bottle Opener also collects pieces on bottle collecting. It fictionalizes a personal experience that I didn’t know how to write into flash until I started writing pieces about drift bottles. My dad’s hobby, beyond summer vacation fishing, is antique bottle collecting. I grew up with bottles everywhere—whisky jugs and chamber pots around the television, bitters and pops stacked in white buckets in the garage, ink bottles and poison bottles drying in the dishrack by the sink. Shelves of glittering bottles lined the walls from floor to the top of the couch and around the framed photographs and art on the wall. Bottles filled the surfaces of desks, the greater part of the kitchen table, and side tables in the living room. Inside the closet in my bedroom, were bottles, curled inside cardboard boxes wrapped in newsprint were more bottles, inside my great-grandfather’s hard suitcases, torpedo bottles snuggled in brown paper, on my dad’s dresser, still more bottles. On the weekends, my dad would search for bottles, find them, and bring them home.
The Bottle Opener was inspired by my trip to the ocean, but also by this childhood filled with bottles. Objects have a history, a past—I certainly learned this growing up. My dad is the editor of his club’s antique bottleering newsletter. It features his column on bottling adventures. As a kid, I often went to the club’s quarterly meetings and the annual show and sale. In those rooms, bottles lined tables spread with white linen to buy or to talk bottling with venders. Each year, my dad entered a display of bottles with bottle history and fact, bottles glimmering under plexiglass lids inside wooden hutches he build with his hands, bottles lit from below by florescent bulbs, bottles winning blue ribbons, red ribbons, everyone who enters gets a yellow ribbon, or best in show. Later, my dad pinned those ribbons to the curtains of the living room, their curling tails collecting dust, mystery, lore. Every bottle had a story and when paired and grouped, together they told a larger story about bottling practices in brick bottling companies along the river at the turn of century, brick buildings razed when the interstate was built through town before I was born, and all that evidence, history, and bottles buried under concrete or dug up and driven away, lost. In a way, the bottles in my dad’s house were drift bottles, ones that had drifted up from the land to arrive in his hands. I wanted to tell a story about such love of glass, of what they can tell us if lifted to light.
What other themes and topics interest you as a writer?
I’m eclectic. I let things obsess me—mermaids, suffragist ancestors, bras, Martians, Cleopatra, advertising images of women and girls, gender violence, imaginary body parts, bluebeard, Lilith, the lady of death, monsters, ghosts.
What do you think works in flash fiction? What doesn’t work?
Pace, energy, imagery, plot, hook, tension, fresh language, smart dialogue, character building, etc. are all important elements in writing a story. I write across genres and when I build books from what I’ve written (poems, prose poems, flash fiction, short stories, creative non-fiction, experimentation, flash novels, etc.), I keep ideas of story-making and what a reader might want to know to keep going forward in the book. Because I consider writing play, I’m always fascinated by the idea of something “working” or “not working” in a genre.
What have you read lately that you absolutely loved? (And why did you love it?)
Michael Henson’s Timothy Weatherstone and the depictions of class struggles is a chapbook I very much admire. In Timothy Weatherstone the author has created portraits of lives intimately and tragically tied to addiction, and though that might signal the fall of the hero in another story—for certainly some of his heroes do fall—there is this sense of community that enacts a healing, a coming together, a uniting around a situation in an effort and movement towards care. He’s just won the 2014 Brighthorse Prize in Short Fiction for The Way the World Is: The Maggie Boylan Stories from Brighthorse Books, a book that will collect his chapbook.
I just finished reading several books published by Kelsay Books. I reviewed Julie Kane’s Paper Bullets in Bookslut and adored it for its humor and light verse. Julie Brooks Barbour’s book Small Chimes is a lovely collection on care in family. I especially love her poem “Come to Me and Drink,” a rich exploration of breastfeeding. Jennifer Faylor’s Edison’s Ghost Machine meditates whimsically and playfully on losing a beloved. And I’m in the middle of Joanna C. Valente’s Sirs & Madams, a book that tells the story of three sisters in verse. I also reviewed Ellen Bass’s Like a Beggar from Copper Canyon Press, a book with smart juxtaposed images.
Returning to chapbooks, where I started this answer, by and large, I read chapbooks more than any other printed container of work. Some of my favorites this year have been Sarah A. Chavez’s All Day Talking (Dancing Girl Press, 2014) for the feisty character development, and Amorak Huey’s The Insomniac Circus (Hyacinth Girl Press, 2014). He is masterful in writing clever and humorous titles. Lynn Schmeidler’s Curiouser & Curiouser (Grayson Books, 2014) is delightfully absurd, even as it explores tragic brain conditions. Jennifer Franklin’s Persephone’s Ransom (Finishing Line Press, 2011) is a brutally honest look at autism and the cost of autism to the family. Persephone’s Ransom holds the title of the first chapbook that made me cry. There hasn’t yet been a second.
What life experiences have influenced you as a writer?
Watching Cher and Winona Ryder in Mermaids as a kid, learning my ancestor was a suffragist who spoke with Susan B. Anthony and Elizabeth Cady Stanton at just the time I needed to pick a topic for the dissertation, 1990s non-cable television of Star Trek: The Next Generation, Enemy Mine, and Mork and Mindy, taking an honors seminar class on Cleopatra as an undergrad at Iowa State, majoring in women’s studies and teaching women’s studies classes, volunteering in domestic violence crisis centers, bottle digging with my dad, researching the books by Margaret Atwood, Jeanette Winterson, and Marge Piercy for a thesis on resisting gender representations in women’s literature, imagining befriending a body part not attached to a body, reading myths, fairy tale, and lore, visiting history and art museums in Taos, riding trains in Canada, marrying a man whose name is Adam, my sister’s ghosts.
If you could go back in time and give some advice to your ten-year-old self, what would you say to that ten-year-old girl?
Beachcomb—orange bobbers, drift wood, polished glass. Avoid the big box sacks, the rusted hooks and florescent lures, the dead bloated fish with opaque eyes.
When you see creatures with mustaches floating in the sea near piers and pylons topped with gulls and pelicans facing into the wind, call them men with panty hose over their heads. On the Friday night made-for-TV movies, this is how men don women’s underwear—in acts of threat and violence. Later, look for other ways men don women’s underwear—The Rocky Horror Picture Show, The Birdcage, Boys Don’t Cry—and know that gender is not hard wired with theft and that the creatures you saw swimming weren’t really men at all.
Your dad will write two books about bottles, A History of Eldora Potteries and A History of the Des Moines Potteries, and edit a bottling newsletter that features his column, The Diggers Scoop. You’ll be on the monthly mailing list. Save each issue in a filing cabinet labeled Family History. Read them or don’t read them, but remember he remembered to add your copy to the post office’s big blue box.
Collect Garbage Pail Kids.
Learn all the words to “Circle in the Sand,” “Eat it,” and “Thriller.” Watch them in the apartment next door on your friend’s MTV.
Eat junk food—cheese puffs, pop, Bit-O-Honey.
Ride shotgun on the weekend with your dad, plat book between you in the cab of his red Ford truck. Wait as he pulls over, turns off the ignition, and leaps from the truck to grab a six-foot pointy tool, sidle into someone’s yard via the alley, and press that probe into the ground listening for the sound it makes when it smacks bottles. Later, read a book under the shade of an old cottonwood on the other side of some yard as he digs a hole to where the bottles are, the doll’s heads, the marbles, the flat-sided baby bottles.
Fly escorted in planes, savoring the small sack of cinnamon suck-ons and studying the patchwork of farmland below.
Watch Who Framed Roger Rabbit, the news of medical waste washing up on city beaches, Ronald Regan’s War on Drugs, and the Exxon Valdez oil spill in Alaska—all that oily crude washing ashore.
Adore reading, practice cursive, write sentences in a miniature journal that comes with a purple comb and a hand mirror, best friend a girl who becomes your pen pal until her brain begins to fade. Her mom will write you an apology letter that says, Tracey no longer remembers you. She has brain fade. Build forts from trash you find in alleys. Find ways into and out of all doors locked against you—use windows left ajar, butter knives, kid smarts, screw drivers, the strength of your arms.
Learn that your father is a bottleer and you are your father’s daughter. By default, you collect crocks, whiskey jugs, bitters, ball masons you fill with beach shells, buttons, petrified rock. Fill your windows with the blues of cobalt bromos, the aqua of ketchups, the browns of curatives, the aged porcelain of saucers, corks, coffee mugs made to save a man’s mustache.
Thank you so much for introducing us to a whole new world! (And I think that my ten-year-old self would have liked to hang out with your ten-year-old self!)
In order to preserve the artistic arrangement of the writing, this piece has been created with Print2Flash Flashpaper.