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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.



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