Featured Fiction Writer: Evan James Sheldon
In this issue, we interviewed Evan James Sheldon, author of "The woods have always been thinning." Join us for a conversation on generational patterns of thought, the borderlands between realism and the fantastic, and pirate swords.
Ethan Brightbill: The possibility of death seems to be everywhere in this story, and not just because of the coffins. Whether it’s the guns the protagonist and his father take with them into the woods or the “wild cat” at the end, the chance of death is always there. I was wondering if you could speak to that a bit.
Evan James Sheldon: Beginning with a fairly absurd action, that theme carried throughout the rest of the story. The narrator gets pulled in, first in an attempt to help his father, and then it spirals out of his control, trickling down to his relationship with his son. I wanted to look at the repetition of this type of thinking on a generational level, which can be tricky in a short story. As far as death leaking into everything in the story, that really comes down to my editing process. The end of this particular story changed from my initial drafts because of an excellent suggestion by an excellent reader. She saw an opportunity I had missed. When I come back to a story, I’m looking for those loose connections my mind has made while drafting and try to make them more apparent without beating the reader over the head with them.
EB: This story contains no fantastic elements, yet there’s something fantastic about it. From the manic coffin-making to the blending of thoughts and speech through italicization, the characters exist in a surreal space where it feels like almost anything can happen. What challenges did you face while creating that effect? What did you aim to use it for?
EJS: I wanted this story to linger on after you’ve finished reading. I wanted the reader to wander with the narrator into the woods at the end, wondering where his son has gone, wondering if he’s just laid back down. A major part of this involves miscommunication, or characters unable to ask for what they really want. That’s part of the reason for the formatting choices. Did he really say that? Do I really think that? Put this way, I think the action, dialogue, and internality become less concrete, perhaps making the experience more believable while at the same time exaggerating the strangeness.
I love surreal and absurd stories, and I write a lot of fairy tales and speculative fiction. My goal with this story was to take something strange and push it into a more traditional literary category. Making something so odd believable is a huge part of writing speculative fiction. Like so many others, the work of Karen Russell and Carmen Maria Machado, who I had the privilege of taking a workshop from, unlocked the possibilities of combining different genre elements into character-based stories. I know other writers have been doing it for a long time, but those two in particular opened my eyes. I’ve read and reread, and then re-reread, a couple of craft essays by Aimee Bender and one by Kate Bernheimer on the structure of fairy tales, and their direction and suggestions in those essays play out in this story, particularly when it comes to repetition and not tying up loose ends.
EB: What works, fiction or otherwise, influenced this piece and your writing more generally?
EJS: When I was writing this, I was rereading the short stories of Flannery O’Connor and Snow Hunters by Paul Yoon. Making your own coffin is something that happens in one of O’Connor’s stories and stood out to me as such an odd, human thing to do, but beyond that, I was interested in a character who couldn’t stop building them. There’s, hopefully, a feeling of isolation here even though the narrator is with other characters nearly the whole story. Often, it is the strangeness of someone’s action that pulls me into a piece, the weird bits of the world that interest me most, and then the stories build from there.
I grew up Southern Baptist, the son of a pastor actually, and so Southern Gothic literature always resonates with me. I return Daniel Woodrell’s novels and O’Connor’s short stories whenever I feel stuck or like I’ve drifted outside myself. When I was younger, I had stipulations on what I could watch, no Simpsons for example, but I could read whatever I wanted. I’m not sure why my parents thought this was a good move, but I took advantage of it. I read a lot of horror and fantasy, and those genres still hold a special place in my heart.
Now, I read a lot of anthologies and novellas and literary journals. Last year I tried to read only writers who live/lived outside of America. Reading is a part of my writing schedule and I don’t let myself write unless I’ve read already that day. This probably makes me a bit slower in production right now, but hopefully more well-rounded in the long run. Plus, I like it.
EB: In addition to publishing numerous short stories, you’ve also written poetry and nonfiction, including a poetry micro-chapbook published by Ghost City Press, Shed the Midnight. What projects are you working on now?
ESJ: I don’t write much poetry anymore. I don’t know that I’m patient enough for it. I’m always writing short stories and flash, I try for one or two a week, and I’m also working on a couple of longer projects. I have a flash collection I’m trying to figure out what to do with. A novella that’s nearly there. I’ve started and stopped writing one particular novel idea for the last couple years. I think I’m getting closer though, closer to writing it in a way I will be happy with once it’s out in the world.
EB: Finally, what’s your favorite bone?
ESJ: I wrote a story a while back about a boy who finds a bone in dryer and it becomes a pirate sword after his mother dies. It becomes what he needs it to be when he needs it, when he’s in a position he can’t navigate. So I guess my favorite bones are pirate swords. Also the clavicle. So shapely.