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Interview: Elizabeth Bourne on “What the Red Oaks Knew”

– Tell us a bit about “What the Red Oaks Knew.”

This story is the only piece on which Mark and I collaborated. Mark was from Arkansas, and always wanted to write about his home state. Through him I came to appreciate Arkansas’s beauty and quirky personality. We had almost finished a first draft when he wanted to go back to the two novels he had been working on, so we set the story aside. After Mark died, I found this incomplete draft in my writing files and decided to finish it for him. That was very important to me. It took me about a year to write, most of it involved making sure the voice matched. I didn’t want anyone to be able to see the seams, so to speak, and I’m pleased that so far, no one has been able to tell what he wrote from what I wrote.


– What was the inspiration for this story, or what prompted you to write it?

Mark and I came across Red Star (it’s a real location) traveling the Pig Trail from Fayetteville to Russellville where Mark’s family lived. We arrived at a mountain crossroad and saw an abandoned airstream, a dead raccoon, and a dirt trail disappearing into the misty woods. A sign proclaimed this to be Red Star. No population. We fell in love with the mystery of it. There are a number of locations in the Ozarks famous for ghost lights, and UFOs, and of course, the Boggy Creek monster, also called the Southern Sasquatch. It seemed natural to develop a story set in the mountains of Arkansas where anything, and more importantly, anyone, could live safe from the larger world.


– What kind of research, if any, did you do for this story?

We visited Arkansas several times a year, and traveling the less-known routes became a pleasure on every trip. I don’t think we specifically thought of it as research, but our conversations as well as our feet often led us back to Red Star. We knew who lived there, and why, and the landscape was as familiar to us as Seattle. We developed many characters we intended to write about, in fact, I have an outline for Beulah Welbe’s story. She’s Midas’s mother and the supervisor of the Tyson chicken plant’s kill floor. Beulah’s a woman old as the Ozarks with some unwholesome cravings, as is discovered in the story.


– Most authors say their stories are personal. If that’s true for you in this instance, then how is “What the Red Oaks Knew” personal?

This story is a piece of Mark and my history. It’s special because we worked on it together, we traveled to Arkansas together, many of the characters are based on people Mark grew up with, and that I came to know. It’s a few thousand written words from days of conversations, and I kept our times together in mind as I wrote the story. It’s full of wood smoke and foggy drives and the scarlet leaves of the red oaks that blanket the Arkansas mountains. It’s Mark’s Arkansas, a place that was special to him and became so for me.


– What might you want a reader to take away from this story?

That life is complicated in ways we can’t anticipate and sometimes in ways we can’t comprehend. The fact that it can be painful, and surprising, and a struggle doesn’t mean anything more than that. It’s how we choose to deal with our experiences that carves us into the people we are, for good or ill. And sometimes, a shot of bourbon helps.


– What are you working on now?

There are two things actively in the works. A second world novel about the city of Titianmar, where luck is as real as money and far more valuable. Around the first anniversary of Mark’s death I began writing a guidebook to a non-existent city as a way of holding grief at bay. I soon realized that I was in love with Titianmar, and the story of Madka, a powerful onietsin, or luck artist, who can channel the city’s luck through her art. Several political factions try to kidnap her, so Madka decides to discover who she is, and why she’s important. There’s politics, and romance, and a mystery. I’m having to invent a whole world and it’s huge fun. But of course, I got distracted. I kayak Seattle’s urban waterways, which is an alien world completely unlike the day-to-day city, and a story sprung to mind about the city above, and the city below, which is inhabited by trolls, and what happens when they intersect. Originally I intended a super short story of about 1500 words, then I was asked to make it longer and write about what happens next. I thought it was going to be a short story, but it really wants to be a novella, so what can a writer do?

“What the Red Oaks Knew” by Elizabeth Bourne and Mark Bourne appears in the March/April 2013 issue of F&SF.


Interview: Sean F. Lynch on “The Cave”

– Tell us a bit about “The Cave.”

A man and his son have lost their way in an immense cavern. They discover another passage.  Hoping it will lead to the cave’s exit, the boy bravely volunteers to explore it while his father rests. In addition to the physical obstacles presented by this subterranean predicament – darkness, narrow crevices and drop-offs – something else seems to be taking place.  In more ways than one, time is running out.


– What was the inspiration for this story, or what prompted you to write it?

I don’t want to undermine the experience for anyone who hasn’t read it.  In other words, “spoiler alert:”

Upon waking in the morning, I occassionally scribble in a notepad before getting out of bed.  About four years ago, I jotted something that began: “For as long as he can remember, a younger man has been following an older man through a never-ending cave. . . ”

That was the genesis.  I started developing it slowly, a few hours a month, sometimes shelving it for weeks at a time.  In the beginning, “The Cave” took place in present day North America.  Later, I changed it to an earlier period, perhaps the mid-1700s.  I wanted it to be dream-like, a fairy tale for adults.  About a third of the way through, I thought I’d never finish it.  I then had an epiphany, to break a rule I’d learned years earlier in a writing course.  The rule was that a short story, being brief, should only have one point of view.  I’d been telling the story through the father’s eyes.  I realized I needed the boy’s point of view for the second half. So, in a section in the middle (that may be transparent to the casual reader) I began telling the story through the boy’s eyes. The rest came fairly quickly.


– In addition to its fantasy setting and unsettling tone, “The Cave” seems to experiment with notions of time, and I was wondering if perhaps you could speak to that idea at all.

The journey the protagonists take on some level could be representative of how time and memory work.  I have twin sons and can remember holding their hands walking down the sidewalk when they were two years old.  Or walking into their bedroom when they were four and having a conversation with them, and one of them saying, “We’re talking to daddy, now, this is interesting.” But as anyone with kids knows, the years pass quickly.  One wants to remember every laugh, every hug, every daydream our kids have, but it’s just not possible.  We remember some things and forget others.  In a way, to remember anything is to bend time, at least for the moment one is experiencing the memory.


– Most authors say that their stories are personal.  If that’s true for you in this instance, then in what way was “The Cave” personal?

This particular concoction– for better or worse – has mainly male characters, and exploits a relationship with my Y-chromosome.  Before my kids were born I published a short story based on an evening with my father.  It’s a dynamic that intrigues me.  Also, I’ve explored several caves, from a scary steep one in Santa Cruz to a huge beautiful cavern in Utah.


– What might you want a reader to take away from this story?

A bad night’s sleep (wink, wink).


– What are you working on now?

I’ve dabbled in a few ideas over the past several months, most recently a space-ship voyage with characters that might’ve come out of a P.G. Wodehouse novel.  I’m a slow writer and also work full-time.  We’ll see what happens.

I took a writing course once from a great teacher named Clay Morgan. He read part of his novel in progress about smoke-jumpers.  Fifteen years later I ran into him and asked about it.  He said he never finished it, “Life got in the way.”  I later discovered he’d written some other books and his wife went up in the space shuttle.


– Anything else you’d like to add?

I’m VERY grateful to Gordon for selecting this, and the editing staff at F&SF.  I was also delighted by Lois Tilton’s review and some other blogs I’ve read.  It humbles me to be in a mag that’s featured Bruce McAllister, David Gerrold, and other greats.  Thanks for the experience!

“The Cave” appears in the March/April 2013 issue of F&SF.

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