Split Rock Review was honored and excited to include Richard Harshorn’s flash fiction story “Eras (Circles)” in the Spring 2013 issue. We caught up with Richard to find out more about his writing life.
Split Rock Review (SRR): What originally compelled you to begin work on “Eras (Circles)”? How did it start? Did you do much research in preparation in writing this piece?
Richard Hartshorn (RH): If I say “the muse,” is that cheating? As a whole, I'm sure most of us don't believe, as people once did, in an actual goddess that puts ideas in our heads, but there's still that inexplicable hunger that I think most writers feel when beginning a new piece. This was just what I had to write at the time. It's also part of a story collection I've been putting together for awhile now, but like everything else about the piece, I didn't know that when I started. I always begin with a character, not a concept, and I usually realize when looking back at a finished (if anything is ever really “finished”) piece, what I was actually doing when I wrote it, as far as where my mind was or what my “mission” might have been. For instance, I did not say aloud to myself when beginning this story, “Now I'll write a story about the progenitor of all life on Earth living in present-day Los Angeles after she experiences/ushers in every major extinction event we know about.” Maybe, subconsciously, I knew that was what it would eventually be, because that was the only place for a character like this to end up, but it's not necessarily my place to say what it's about, either. The only things I really knew when I began was that it would be much shorter than the other stories I'd been working on, and that there would be parentheses in the title.
As far as research, I've been interested in natural history (specifically fossils and such) since I was very young, so some of the territory was familiar, but I definitely had to make sure I had my eras ordered correctly. I also read widely about what the world was like at various times for the sake of the character's behavior, without getting bogged down in facts, without including any sentence that was simply “information.” For example, in the Paleoproterozoic Era, there were 450 days in a year, and I think mentioning that says something about the ennui that leads the character to do/make all of the things she does. And that leads to a (fictional, obviously) revelation that I think is interesting: “All of these things exist because the Earth was bored.”
SRR: How many revisions did this piece undergo? How much time elapsed between the first draft and the final draft?
RH: I revised it as vigorously as I would a longer piece, but I was very deliberate with sentence length the first time around, so instead of doing major cuts and additions, I would read the whole thing over, think about how it sounded and felt, and shift one or two words each time. The most notable thing I remember about the revision process was that it took quite a few rereads for me to even think about the fact that there's more than one “O” in the Hollywood sign. The second-to-last line originally omitted the word “first,” and I battled with myself about whether to put it in there. I thought it made the sentence too long.
That said, it was about nine months between the first and final draft.
SRR: Who (or what) were you reading when you wrote this piece? Any influences you would care to disclose?
RH: I'm not sure prose fiction can be influenced by other prose fiction in the same way that, say, a modern-day filmmaker could be influenced by Alfred Hitchcock (“This shot is a very clear homage to Psycho,” etc.) unless we're just ripping exact lines, character names, and thematic material out of other works. When your film imitates a scene from Psycho, critics consider that a wonderful homage. On the other hand, although Moby-Dick is no longer copyrighted, no one is going to applaud me if the defining line in one of my stories is Fred Jones seeks thee not! It is thou, thou, who madly seekest him!
But if another writer makes you want to try something you're not comfortable with, whether it be a new type of character or a setting you're afraid to visit, or whether a single line of theirs births an entire story of yours, I think that's a good influence. It just bugs me when book reviewers claim that contemporary authors all have “antecedents,” as if this work is somehow not “original” simply because it reminds a reader of something else. I really don't buy the “everything has already been said” stuff.
Sorry; I didn't really answer the question. At the time, I was rereading Neela Vaswani's story collection Where the Long Grass Bends and first-reading Robert Vivian's essay collection Cold Snap as Yearning. If readers find similarities between my writing and Neela's or Bob's, I will definitely not complain.
SRR: Did you let anyone see drafts before you finished it? Is there an individual or group with whom you regularly share work?
RH: I did not show or mention “Eras (Circles)” to anyone before it was published, save one to whom I sent a draft copy of the entire collection, back when there was only one “O” in the Hollywood sign. There are a few people (I can count them on one hand) I trust with draft-reading, but I don't send them everything, nor do I send each person the same stories to look over. I really don't have a system, though it's comforting enough to know that I have friends (both writers and non) who are actively interested in what I'm working on. It's something I didn't have when I was starting out.
SRR: How did this flash fiction piece arrive at its final form? Did you consciously employ any principles of technique?
RH: I must admit that I don't know what flash fiction is, anymore than I know what a novella is. Boiling it down to nothing but word count feels too mathematical to me. I've heard “Eras (Circles)” referred to as a “diminutive series,” which sounds highbrow, but I think it's closer. It's still fiction, obviously (though I can't prove that a childlike creator being didn't sing songs with an apatosaurus), but I want my writing to stick with people. A “flash” feels like something you witness and forget.
In this piece's case, it had a set ending whether it wanted one or not, because the Cenozoic Era is where we are now. I wanted to explore what might happen after the Cenozoic without being specific about it, because then you have a Ragnarok situation, but what happens when Earth gets bored with this era and “warms up [her] voice” again? Not to get all existential, but I think people put far too much stock in the importance of humans on this planet. We're an unspeakably small part of Earth's history.
Technique-wise, I just knew the sections had to be short and that every word had to be there for a reason. There's also some image patterning, which happened both consciously and un, but I don't want to get too “behind the scenes” about it and leave readers with nothing to dig up. Maybe the stuff I think is there really isn't.
SRR: What were some of your biggest challenges in completing this piece?
RH: The biggest conflicts I had with myself were 1) whether the one-word section (“Vacancy”) was too gimmicky to work, and 2) whether changing tenses was a good idea. But I realized that when I was thinking “Does this work?” I was actually asking myself whether it worked for people other than me. In fact, whether it worked for me is also irrelevant. What's important is whether any given choice works for the piece and its characters. The tense change is necessary because the Cenozoic is the present. It's immediate. It's what we are all concerned with. The lengths of time that passed between older eras are completely unfathomable to us. We have no frame of reference for even one million years in our own past as a species, let alone 100 million or more. So I think I had to take something that has a mythical, untouchable quality now, and find a way of saying, “There was life then, too, the same as there is now.” That kind of challenge is the most fun part of any writing project, in my view – at least more fun than combing every sentence for dangling participles, or freaking out about word count.
SRR: Can you address the balance the piece achieves between subtle humor and poignancy?
RH: Do readers find the story funny? I know everyone weighs the importance of author's intent differently, but I didn't intentionally inject humor into this. I'd be flattered if a reader found anything humorous or poignant in my work, really. I think if a piece is going to work that way – humor, poignancy, or both – it has to be presented in a way that is open to subjectivity while still being pretty clear about what is going on in the narrative.
In general, I think people prescribe strong emotions to terse, matter-of-fact sentences, so that might have something to do with how the lines in this story come off. The strongest example that comes to mind is Kate Chopin's “The Storm,” which of course ends with the line, “So the storm passed and everyone was happy.” But the reader knows that everyone is anything but happy, or that if they are happy, it's due to their own willed ignorance. So it's dismissive, funny, ironic, and sad all at once.
Maybe some people find it funny that a creator being could be assimilated into modern-day society (since she's lived through every other era, the Cenozoic had to come sooner or later) and get mixed up in everyday conundrums. Trying to look at this piece objectively, it still seems sad to me.
SRR: What are you currently working on, and were can we read more of your work?
RH: I am currently revising the collection of which “Eras (Circles)” is a part. It has been “done” in full draft form since last fall, so it's all about chiseling right now. As for new writing, I'm working on a linked collection, or what I'd rather call a “novel-in-stories.” The stories in the first collection have progressing themes and patterns, and some of them share characters, but this one has a clear narrative path, or at least that's what it feels like now. Regardless, I'm still working on short stories.
More of my stuff can be found in publications such as Drunken Boat (forthcoming this year), The Dirty Napkin, 751 Magazine, The Faircloth Review, Our Stories, and Hawaii Women's Journal.