Featured Fiction Writer: Kelle Schillaci Clarke
We're starting off our third year of Lammergeier fiction by speaking to Kelle Schillaci Clarke, whose story "The Toaster" appears in this issue. Join us for a conversation about the intricacies of communication and trauma, writing during the pandemic, and more.
Ethan Brightbill: The characters in "The Broken Toaster" know each other well enough that they can often read each other without speaking, yet that same intimacy also seems to keep them from reaching out to each other at times. I was hoping you'd share your thoughts on how that dynamic plays out in the story, and perhaps more broadly as well.
Kelle Schillaci Clarke: I’m endlessly intrigued at how humans struggle to communicate with one another, at all levels of intimacy, and the power dynamics at play within that communication. I’m even more intrigued by the breakdowns, and what happens in the silences/unsaids, of which there are many in this story.
As far as how that dynamic plays out in the story, the couple’s difficulties in reaching out to one another are in some ways a result of their trauma and shared loss (of the pregnancy), but at a deeper level, the trauma ends up revealing a more problematic truth about their relationship: their inability to provide and receive emotional support from one another.
EB: The couple in this piece seems to embrace yet subvert gender norms. There's an unhealthy dynamic where the protagonist seems hyper-attuned to her partner's emotions even though she's more directly affected by their situation, while the husband is so obsessed with fixing things that he seems paralyzed. At the same time, the husband does show emotional vulnerability even if he tries to suppress it, and he ultimately provides the support the protagonist needs through his suggestion of destroying the toaster. What's more, she finds catharsis by dismantling the toaster in a way that's even more violent and visceral than what the husband proposed. With all of that in mind, how do you see gender playing out in this story? What do you hope the reader will take away from the relationship here?
KSC: Oh, such great questions! While I don’t actively work to embrace or subvert gender norms, they do tend to present in flippy-floppy ways in my stories. In this one, writing about miscarriage meant exploring a complicated type of loss in which both partners are directly impacted, yet their actual trauma experiences are very different. Generally speaking, for women, the loss is often visceral; their bodies endure a form of actual physical violence, and as such, they can be left feeling that their bodies have somehow betrayed them, that there’s something wrong with them or broken. This idea of “fixing/being fixed” became a central theme for the story, illustrated in the partner’s (traditionally masculine?) desire to fix the toaster with his hands and his tools, despite being obviously ill-equipped. He can’t fix the toaster, and he can’t “fix” his wife, who isn’t actually broken and/or in need of fixing. His attempts to do so are causing more pain and resentment, ultimately leaving both partners paralyzed, as you noted. I know the “fixing” cliché is often attributed to the male gender, but I think it can apply to anyone put into the helpless situation of dealing with the aspects of a partner’s trauma that they are unable to fully relate to or repair, while also coping with their own loss and grief.
I can see how the gender roles may appear subverted a bit from traditional norms in how the wife is in need of the violent/visceral catharsis (perhaps due to having endured the more violent aspects of the loss), whereas the husband is more wiling/able to show vulnerability through tears. But I feel like those roles and responses are super-fluid and could just as easily be worn by either character, and could even be swapped down the line. It’s less about their inability to be in the same place at the same time (emotionally), than it is about their struggle to bridge that gap.
EB: While this story doesn't touch on the pandemic directly, the domestic isolation of these characters feel particularly pertinent now when so many people are stuck at home with little to distract from their personal struggles. With that in mind, how has the pandemic affected your writing?
KSC: I feel like isolation—domestic and otherwise—has been a thread through my stories for years! It’s funny, that moment when the characters go to work in this story, I thought, OMIGOD, remember when we all used to go to work?! I was actually a bit jealous of them! The pandemic definitely put a halt to my writing in 2020, then it shifted and writing became the thing I wanted/needed most, yet struggled to actually do, with a husband and young child at home with me all day.
I know some writers and editors are actively avoiding “pandemic” writing at the moment, which I totally understand. I find myself writing into it some days, then fleeing from it the next. Denying myself a topic to write about is the most sure fire way to get me to write about it.
EB: You've been published everywhere from Superstition Review to Pidgeonholes, and you have an MFA from the University of Nevada at Las Vegas. What's on the horizon for you as a writer now?
KSC: There are so many awesome and supportive literary journals out there right now—Lammergeier included—publishing the work of enviably talented writers. I’m incredibly humbled and inspired by what I read on a daily basis by members of this literary community, and I'm pleased and honored at the opportunity to write and share my own work. My goals at the moment are to complete my short story collection and get Covid-vaccinated, not necessarily in that order.
EB: And finally, our traditional closer: what's your favorite bone?
KSC: Give me ALL the bones! So many of my stories contain them, and, if not, they are attempting to dig-dig-dig their way toward them!