This is one of an ongoing series of interviews with contributors to The 3288 Review.
Sommer Schafer received her MFA from San Francisco State University in 2013. Her fiction is currently available or forthcoming in Brewed Awakenings II, Glimmer Train, Santa Monica Review, China Grove, Room, A Bad Penny Review, Barge Journal, Eleven Eleven, kill author, and Fiction 365. She lives with her husband and two children in San Rafael, California, and is a member of the online writing collective The Fiction Forge. Her story “A Final Affair” was published in Issue 1.1. Visit her online at http://sommerschafer.com.
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3288 Review: How did you get started writing? Was there a recognizable inspiring moment or event which started you down this path?
Sommer Schafer: I credit the beginning of my love of writing with two things: my parents’ love of books, and receiving my first journal for my 9th birthday.
The first, because my parents were constantly reading to us; even, I suspect, before we could sit unassisted or lift our heads. Some of my earliest, happiest memories are of plopping down of the ground with a good book or two in hand, and getting lost. What a profound gift my parents bestowed upon us when they gave us the gift of imagination! They also seemed to always love telling a good story. Not necessarily a rip-roarer or something with a beginning, middle or end. They were vignettes about odd family relatives or meandering stories of memories of their youth. My dad’s tended to be funny; often philosophical and honest. My mom tended more toward the dramatic and incredible: that pond on our walk was the magical pond of the moon fairies; when the owls came out at night they hooted magical spells to the bats. We didn’t have a lot of fancy stuff growing up, but I always had available shelves and shelves of books (most of them used), and plenty of conversation. Even before I could string complex clauses together, I was curiously pulling out those tomes by John Irving and Leon Uris; feeling their beautiful dusty weight against my palms and fingertips.
The second, because I really started writing regularly when I got a journal, and I fell in love. Countless journals later, I’m still going strong. Keeping a journal allowed me to “voice” my observations; to work through my own thoughts and confusions; to express, in as much detail as I wanted, my awe of life. From then on out, writing became a way of life, as integral as breathing. It became the one place where I could think and exist uncensored. My greatest wish today, even beyond wanting to be published and read, is that I never lose that unabashed love of the written word, of, as Virginia Woolf wrote, life itself.
3288 Review: Your story “A Final Affair” has a strong sense of place, almost as if the town of Hope is itself a character. How, and to what extent, does the idea of “place” influence your writing?
Sommer Schafer: I’m glad that comes through in this story. Yes, the town of Hope is a character, and in all of my writing, the natural environment is a physical, intelligent presence. In this respect, and if one must put a label on it, I’m an “environmental writer,” and all of my favorite writers (Virginia Woolf, William Faulkner, Paul Harding, Annie Proulx) write fiction that resonates with the mystical push-and-pull of nature. One of my professors in graduate school once commented that the natural environment in my writing comes to life and adds a sense of magic to my stories. This is exactly what I intend: for the natural landscape—the lichen and trees and animals and rocks—to “magically” animate. So, “place” is not just there to act as a backdrop; place is alive and has motivation and desire. Perhaps this is simply because I spent a great part of my childhood in “wild” places, running unsupervised through forests full of moose and bear, building imaginary worlds by the side of isolated rivers, hiking at night through thigh-high snow. I remember once driving with my family through the Alaskan interior and coming across a field of cotton grass. Dad stopped the car along the deserted road at the verge of its cut into the mountains, and the five of us hiked into that field, discovering that it was veined with tiny creeks and was spongy muskeg, slowly wetting the edges of our shoes. The air was cold and quiet. The white balls of the cotton grass covered the buoyant Alaskan field to where we couldn’t see them anymore, off and over the slopes of the hills at the foot of the mountains, green and white slowly easing into the brown and gray of jagged rock. And those little white balls felt just like the cotton balls you buy in a bag from the drugstore, but softer and hiding hard little seeds inside.
Humans make too much noise and place more value on what is human-like. But under our noise, and under our value placements, are entire non-human worlds that continuously intrigue and mystify me. I sense that there are truths and “magic” there, and a very ancient history, all of which are a constant source of friction and inspiration for my fiction.
3288 Review: That sounds a lot like the idea of sacred ground, or maybe a sort of genius loci – some larger presence immanent in the landscape. Given that, would you place your writing under the umbrella of “magical realism”?
Sommer Schafer: When I think of “magical realism” I think of Italo Calvino or Aimee Bender or Gabriel Garcia Marquez or Ben Okri, and my work seems way too realistic in comparison. I’m obsessed with accurately capturing my reality, which has no plot lines or snappy dialogue or supernatural happenings. On the other hand, yes, my stories’ genius loci – their pervading spirit of place – definitely lends a certain magic to them, whether or not there are explicit magical happenings or not. And trying to expose the remarkable in the everyday, is magic. I don’t think that “magic” looks the same across the board, and that’s what makes creative writing so appealing to me. There are no prescriptions here; it is simply a matter of the author trying to find ways to express very real feelings and ideas that sometimes are best expressed in magical or mystical ways, and who’s to say what those ways look like? Well, no one, really! And isn’t that wonderful. For example, there’s that mind-blowing dinner scene in Virginia Woolf’s masterpiece To the Lighthouse. No ghosts or angels appear here; there are no body elevations or bending of scientific rules. Yet, this scene is full of pure magic—how Woolf is able to show her characters’ thoughts and how these thoughts translate to visible actions (the passing of the butter or the turn of a head)—how she uses mere words to bring invisible aspects of humanity to life, and how doing all of these things allows her to manipulate time. Now that’s magic, though it’s not as explicit as, say, what you’d find in a César Aira story or something by Marquez.
It’s funny, though, that you bring up “magical realism” in my writing, because I do have a hot pink strand running through me that loves magic and horror and the supernatural, though I’m not a big reader of this kind of writing. I’ve written several stories that are explicitly magical and horrifying. You can read two of them online: “Things Come to Life” in Fiction 365 (August 2012), and “The Women” in A Bad Penny Review (Issue 4.2). Also the story you published, “A Final Affair,” is about a witch who has certain powers.
People are good at burying things deep so that they won’t have to face those things that repulse or scare or shame them. This is denial, which is a type of lie, and at the root of personal, cultural and social problems. Writers purposefully do the opposite; they delve deep where everything is buried, pulling it all out. This takes magic, but also exuberance – which is, basically, love.
3288 Review: Considering the rich imagery in your fiction (and your interview answers!) – do you also write poetry?
Sommer Schafer: I don’t, but sometimes I think I should. Actually, I’ve written a handful, but I mostly think they’re awful. It’s funny, because on the other hand I’m not sure I consider myself such a great storyteller either. I think that the way we write a story mirrors the way we tell a story orally (I also think it’s the way we think it), which makes me laugh because I speak in long parenthetical sentences with lots of semicolons (and, god, I think that way too). Sometimes I can’t help but pity the listener who must eventually come to the realization that, well damn, the punchline’s never coming is it? I become obsessed with the details of smell and sound and sight and feeling; I just can’t let anything go.
When I write a story, I transport into that story’s realm as if it were real life, and in my life, nothing goes unnoticed; nothing is resolved and everything is potentially connected to everything else. I wish I could let it go unnoticed, though! Just go ahead and tell a straightforward story, beginning to end. I am a writer of mood and atmosphere, and my characters seem to morph from this. So, in that respect, I suppose I am more a poet than a storyteller. And perhaps this is why I love writing short stories versus novels. The short story is such a perfect combination of poetry and prose because part of the art is that it doesn’t reveal everything; much, if not all, is left in the negative space.
The Japanese word for this is ma, which means in between. The long-lasting-ness of a short story is the quality of its ma spaces, and how these spaces reiterate and create tension with the words that are actually there making scene and dialogue and movement. So, a short story writer needs to have a keen poetic sense, I think, in order to use words that suggest and intimate, but are never explicit. Poetry and short stories are doing the inglorious yet vital work of liberating language from utilitarianism, and from the cultural expectations that words must always advance a plot or propel a certain acceptable storytelling trajectory. Thus, there is great variety among short stories in theme, tempo, mood, construction, beginnings, endings; those written by Virginia Woolf are nothing like those written by John Cheever or Amy Hempel or Lydia Davis or Adam Johnson or George Saunders.
Long answer short: I think you’re right. I’m a poet who writes stories.
3288 Review: You have recently participated in some public readings. Is this a regular part of your literary life? And do you write different pieces for performance and for publishing?
Sommer Schafer: Yes, I was most recently asked to read during San Francisco Litquake. The Bay Area is teeming with wonderful reading series: Quiet Lightning, Why There Are Words, Action Fiction!, to name only a few. I wouldn’t say it’s a regular part of my literary life, but it’s the funnest part and acts as an important balance to the act of writing. As any writer will admit, the writing life is silent and solitary, lived mainly in the head. So any opportunity we have to get out and about, talking and meeting other writers, is exciting and vital.
It’s tempting for me to hunker down and hide. I’m not particularly outgoing, and I’d rather listen than speak. Participating in my first reading in the Bang Out reading series helped me see, amid my nerves!, that not sharing my writing is selfish. It also helped me break that cycle of thinking, “oh, my writing sucks; I’m never going anywhere; no one’s gonna wanna to hear this,” which is basically just my ego butting in. Reading my work out loud helps me take ownership and pride in it, but it also gets me out of my hideout and into the world; it puts me on the line and feeds that aspect of the writing life that can too easily go ignored, which is that one’s writing is to be shared, not hoarded. Readings are examples of pure generosity—writers giving of themselves completely and audiences giving back. And it’s often quite magical. I love hearing the other writers; I learn a lot from them.
As far as what I read goes, that can be challenging for me. I tend to write long stories, but for readings I need something 1,500 words or less. I also don’t consider myself very entertaining. My writing is usually deep and dark. Sometimes I’ll read parts of longer stories. Other times I’ll scrounge around and find a polished shorter piece that started as an exercise but turned into a complete short. Perfect. And as far as the not-feeling-entertaining goes, thankfully Bay Area audiences are uber intelligent and into just about everything!
3288 Review: Do you do any work with newer writers, as a teacher or mentor or volunteer, or as an editor or beta-reader?
Sommer Schafer: In January 2016, I will be teaching an online workshop on the short short story (1,000 words or less) through the Eckleburg Workshops. That’s going to be fun! We’ll be reading Hemingway, Lydia Davis, Amy Hempel, Virginia Woolf, Peter Orner, Italo Calvino. I’m also involved in the international online writing collective, The Fiction Forge. We’re about thirty award-winning writers from around the world who regularly critique each other’s stories and complete writing exercises together. It’s been invaluable for me.
3288 Review: And for the final question: What are you working now? What is the next work the world will see from Sommer Schafer?
Sommer Schafer: Ah, the magic question! Thanks for asking. I have a novella, “Julie Goes North,” coming out in The 3288 Review’s affiliate publication, Brewed Awakenings II. Two short stories are also forthcoming within the next year in Glimmer Train and Santa Monica Review. I’ve also written two book-length works of fiction that I’m currently trying to find representation and publication for. Otherwise, it’s a continuous process of submitting and being rejected and submitting again. It feels like I have about a hundred pots simmering on a hundred different burners, and that’s just how it goes. Readers can check out my other publications and readings on my website: http://sommerschafer.com.