Melanie Pappadis Faranello Interview with Jonathan Cardew
Thanks for joining us this issue with your wonderful short story, “Airways.”
I have to admit I was smitten by this story! It does everything I need from short fiction: humor, movement, bathos, an almost sensual description of maraschino cherries (I didn’t know I needed the latter one!). I read a lot of fiction—for this gig, and for pleasure—and I don’t always know what I need or what I crave for in a story; but once it’s there, I do know. What is it you crave for in a short story? What short story hits all the right notes for you?
Thank you so much. I don’t always know what I crave from a story either, but there are certain stories that stay with me long after I read them. Two stories in particular that have stayed with me for a very long time are “Welcome” by John Edgar Wideman and “Notes to My Biographer” by Adam Haslett. Both of these stories break my heart every time I read them. I’m pretty sure they changed me in some fundamental way. Haslett’s story makes me cry for pretty much every character in it including its difficult first person unreliable narrator. It’s one of the most sensitive stories I’ve read without ever becoming sentimental. It’s both tragic and bursting with compassion. Wideman’s story knocked me down when I first read it. There’s such a beautiful and seamless intersection between language and consciousness. When I first read Wideman, I was overwhelmed by his unrestrained use of language. How do these writers literally constrict my heart with agony and at the same time expand it with feeling so that I’m somewhat turned inside out after reading? I like stories that feel raw like this. That feel like both the writer and reader are inhabiting these same human, and often difficult spaces. I think it takes a willingness on the writer’s part to go there. When I read a story, I want to crawl inside the character and his or her experience in the world. I also love when a story hints at something greater than what it is about, when it’s functioning on multiple levels. When I read Tom Perrotta’s stories, I feel like I’ve gotten a sneak peak into a character’s private world that is otherwise shrouded in a type of normalcy, and this chance to break through these boundaries and to understand a character’s psychology is very satisfying. The stories by Tatyana Tolstaya (On The Golden Porch), and Yasunari Kawabata (Palm of the Hand Stories) were my first inspirations. These stories excited me because they take such poetic liberties, challenge constraints, and just because of how original and beautiful and passionate they are. When I first read these, it was like they were saying there's more than one way to tell a story, tell it however it needs to be told, even if it defies all rules, there are no rules, the smallest moments are often the biggest.
I love the character of Will in this story. Everything happens to him; rarely does he seem to have any control over his destiny. He is at once present and removed from his life, and I think we can all see a little (or a lot) of ourselves in him. How did this character and story germinate?
I think Will is overwhelmed and trying to gain control over what feels like life having grown beyond his parameters of comfort. Probably everyone at some point has felt that way. I started thinking about this story a couple years after my first son was born. Pregnancy is such a transformative process, both literally (physically) and emotionally, and I think while it can be shared between two people, it can also be isolating for the partner. I think of Will as being positioned on this outer sphere while his wife grows more pregnant. The experience for Will is somewhat alienating. He is going through his own transformative process, trying to figure out who he is while preparing to step into his new identity. The broken gutter is taunting his insecurities. Airways is the first story in a five-part series that follows Will as he navigates the changing relationship with his father who has Alzheimer’s. The novella belongs to a short story collection manuscript titled The History of Grooming.
Why the title “Airways”? Tell us about how you came to settle on this one.
The title “Airways” is related to Bethany’s snoring that has developed as a result of her pregnancy. As the baby grows, her uterus literally starts crowding and pressing on her diaphragm, making it hard to breathe, while hormones are making everything swell, including her airways, constricting the flow. I think entering parenthood can feel both expansive and constricting at the same time like this. Will’s identity is expanding as he is about to step into his new role of father, and at the same time the forces of his daily life—being a new homeowner and husband, having a mortgage, dealing with job layoffs, etc..—press in on him and feel suffocating. There’s a sense that he’s unsure he will be able to handle all the pressures. This thin stream of air is a both a hazard and a reassurance. No one’s going to stop breathing. It just might feel a little congested.
Let’s talk about humor. You do it very well. You do it incredibly well, in fact! I laughed much throughout this story—in part from the timing and phrasing… “Dear Linda, is this man enough for you? Did Jones, or whatever his name was…what kind of name is that anyway?...did your fellow ever climb an actual ladder?”…but also through the bathos of the piece (moving from thunder and lightening to duct tape; from a new life and wife to… maraschino cherries). Overall, the humor works to develop the arc and the character, and not just for cheap tricks. What are your thoughts on humor in fiction? Did you anticipate a bloke in Milwaukee laughing his ass off throughout this piece? I’m curious to know, also, who/what your favorite comedian/comedy show/film is.
I never saw any humor in this story until you said it made you laugh! I’m glad it did! But no, I never anticipated anyone laughing. This is a hard question for me because I seem to have an enormous disconnect in my understanding of funny. I don’t get a lot of comedians. Jokes sometimes confound me. I never think I’m funny. Yet my husband tells me I’m the funniest person he knows. So I don’t get it. When writers are trying hard to be funny, or making humor at someone’s expense, it doesn’t work. The first time I cracked up from a comedian was when I saw Bryan Regan. He was hilarious. I kept thinking yes, that’s so true! We are ridiculous, aren’t we!? The moment you refer to in the story when Will climbs the ladder is a very real and intimate moment for him. He’s battling his own thoughts, trying to talk himself through, and it’s a humbling experience for him. We are all probably inherently funny in our private moments. Maybe it’s just being human. Maybe it’s the absurdity of what we do everyday. I’m not sure. Funny seems to be about truth.
You’ve done a number of interesting things around literature—research projects in Nepal, teaching creative writing to teens, yoga with poetry. Can you give us a snapshot of some of these activities, and how they’ve informed and, perhaps, helped you grow as a writer?
I love teaching creative writing in alternative settings and working with diverse populations of all ages from young children to senior citizens. I’m currently working as a teaching artist with youth and teens at a cultural arts center in Hartford, CT. During our workshops, we write to the sounds of hip hop dance and bucket drumming classes going on upstairs, and a youth orchestra practicing their instruments in the art gallery down the hall. It’s an incredibly vibrant space and it helps add to the feeling of accessibility which I think is so important in bringing creative writing to the community. Teaching has always been a great balance for me in terms of my writing and getting me out of my own head. Whether working with youth who are exhausted after school and yet have come to write in the evenings despite many not having basic writing skills, or teenaged girls in a yoga and poetry class who are exploring questions of identity , or senior citizens in a low-income housing facility, many of whom are immigrants and have limited English and choose to write in their native languages, others in wheelchairs who can no longer hold a pen in hand and chose to tell their stories aloud for someone else to transcribe, every time one of these students surprises him or herself by what they’ve written, each story, every poem like a little breakthrough, expressed in a way uniquely their own and from a place that might not have been heard before, it’s so powerful. It’s like oh, yes, this is right, this is exactly the point.
The field research in Nepal I completed many years ago was part of a study abroad program with School for International Training. My independent study project was to collect and translate oral folklore from the Limbu people living in the Northeast Himalayas. While trekking from village to village with my Limbu translator over the course of a month, we were able to record and transcribe many stories. It was fascinating to learn the folklore and note how universal the themes were in terms of human experience and emotion. You can travel to the farthest point from where you are and find commonality on the other side of the world. Something universal is going on here. Nothing is truly that foreign. Stories can help us understand this. Stories can bind us together. Maybe that’s the point. To connect. To bridge this disconnect.
Fantasy land: A hotshot Hollywood agent reads “Airways” (because hot Hollywood writers are always hanging around Connotation Press) and she wants to produce the story. Who’s directing it? Who plays Will? Who plays Bethany? Who plays any of the other roles? What’s the one sentence log line (or summarizing hook)?
Fantasyland! If any hotshot wanted to produce and cast, I’d say go ahead and leave the picking to them! Mostly because I’m really bad at naming famous people. Will’s character has since morphed slightly and found his way into this new novel I’m currently working on. He’s a little rougher around the edges, more assertive, but he loves his family as fearlessly and struggles with the same feelings of his world threatening to collapse around him. He makes one bad decision after the next in attempt at saving his family from financial ruin. For him, I picture Mark Ruffalo. A one sentence log line or summarizing hook for Airways? That’s a tough one. I guess it’d go something like this: One rainy night in suburbia, a man on the brink of becoming a new father comes face to face with his own shortcomings as he wrestles his broken gutter on the roof meanwhile discovering that even the neighbors across the street are living with secrets of their own.
We love your work, so tell us where we can read more! (any links to published works; upcoming publications; future projects)
Thanks so much again! I’m currently working on finalizing edits on my second novel with plans to send it around with my first. The stories that are part of my collection have been published in various literary magazines. Here are some recent links to a few stories online:
Arboretum in Story South
Everybody Needs Something at Adelaide
Marionette at Blackbird
Thanks so much, Melanie, for your time and excellent fiction!
In order to preserve the artistic arrangement of the writing, this piece has been created with Print2Flash Flashpaper.