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Interview: M. Rickert on “Last Night at the Fair”

Ferris WheelF&SF: How do you describe this story to people? Do you describe it to people?

MR: I don’t really have much occasion to describe my stories to anyone other than my husband. Even then, I prefer to read them to him. But I do remember right after finishing this one, going to the grocery store where a woman I barely knew asked me, in that polite way, how I was doing, and I blurted out that I had just written a story called, “Last Night at the Fair.” She, apparently nonplussed by my oversharing, closed her eyes and smiled.

F&SF: What made you decide to write this story right now?

MR: I decided I wanted to write some stories from the point of view of an older woman. I live only a few blocks away from the park that hosts the county fair every summer, and I’ve been enchanted by it since we moved here. I especially like to go up there in the morning before the fair officially opens to walk the grounds. My husband and I almost always go on the opening night to watch the pig judging, which is fascinating and strange. One year I timed it right to attend the judging of baked goods, and happened to sit right behind the winning bread maker and her two children who were so proud and excited when the judge described the perfection of the bite! There is just something about the fair that I find inspiring. Also, and this part is a bit of a spoiler for anyone who wants to read the story first and hasn’t done so yet… A few years ago there was a rumor of a lion roaming Wisconsin. In the tradition of such rumors, a single blurry photograph was published in the newspaper. There was some speculation that someone might have had a pet lion that either escaped or was set free. Ever since then, I knew that lion would become a part of something I wrote, and I don’t know why it appeared for this story, but when it did, I felt it was the right time and place.

F&SF: You’ve been inspired lately. We’ll publish three stories by you this year, something that we haven’t done in over a decade, plus “Evergreen” in our Nov/Dec issue last year. In general, these stories seem shorter, more economical, compared to some of your earlier work, but they’re all still very powerful, maybe even more powerful for their brevity. What’s brought about this sudden surge of writing

MR: Well, thank you for your kind comments about this recent work. I have had a lot of fun writing short after working on a novel for so long. I’m calling it my last novel because it takes everything I have to write a novel, which is part of the reason I have been away from short stories for a while. But, also, I began to feel like I was repeating myself too much in my own work and needed some time to find a broader approach. It helped me a lot to read Ray Bradbury’s One Hundred Stories, which I have been lingering over for some time. I very much enjoy the scope of Bradbury’s affection, and began to consider how I might want to challenge my reach. While all this was going on my agent and I parted ways, leaving me feeling very unmoored and quite a bit lost. I went through a season of doubt. My friend and I had planned a writing retreat In Michigan that coincidentally fell during my sorry summer. It was just the two of us in a lovely home near the beach. We each claimed our writing posts. She was very happy in the dining room, and I was thrilled to have the screened-in-porch. I don’t usually have any trouble with blank pages, but I remember that first morning, sitting at the table with a pounding heart. Just write something, I thought. So I started writing about an old woman who lived in a house near the beach. It was okay. It was something, at least. The next day a fairy popped onto the page, and I wrote the entire day, finishing a decent draft. By the end of that week, I had two stories I liked in my backpack when I took the ferry home across lake Michigan, feeling very much like I had gone on a much longer journey than miles could measure. After that, something rose up on me. I consider myself a fairly easy going person, but there is, inside of my quiet demeanor, a very large presence that wants to be heard.

F&SF: How has your writing process changed over the past twenty years?

MR: I frequently refer to George R.R. Martin’s quote about some writers being gardeners, and others being architects. I was a gardener for a very long time but have learned, in recent years, to cultivate a bit more of the architect. I think that is probably the biggest change. What that means within my writing practice is that I am able to approach plot more consciously than I had before. It’s been interesting to experience this evolution and to come to understand that, like much of life, the things I thought I knew about my strengths and weaknesses when I was in my thirties might no longer apply.

F&SF: What are you working on now?

MR: Right now I am working on final edits of my novel, The Shipbuilder of Bellfairie, which will be published by Undertow Publications in 2021. I’m expecting to get the copy edits for my novelette, “The Little Witch” (Tor.com) fairly soon, and I recently finished a novella which is currently under submission. Eager to complete all these tasks and get back to writing something fresh. These days, horror calls.

“Last Night at the Fair” appears in the July/August 2020 issue of F&SF.

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