Tara Laskowski is a name most flash fiction writers and readers will recognize. She is the editor of SmokeLong Quarterly, a prominent journal dedicated to flash fiction. She is the author of Modern Manners For Your Inner Demons (Matter Press 2012), and her fiction has been published in Ellery Queen’s Mystery Magazine, Alfred Hitchcock’s Mystery Magazine, Mid-American Review, the Norton anthology Flash Fiction International, and numerous other journals, magazines, and anthologies.
Laskowski’s new collection of short stories, Bystanders, feels as though each main character is dropped right in the middle of an utterly life changing event—but the life changing event doesn’t happen to the main character. Although it’s not a collection of flash, the stories within Bystanders contain the familiarity and heightened tension associated with the form. Each story involves characters who are on the periphery, people who have been watching the lives of others take place around them. The notion of stories centered on bystanders may sound counterintuitive to those of us who write fiction. We are taught that our characters must have agency, must do something, and then the rest of the plot may fall where it does in relation to that act. Good things or, more often, bad things happen as a result. Bystanders brilliantly challenges that notion, asking how the terrible things that occur to others eventually affect people and therefore cause them to act.
I first met Laskowski online via a network of fellow female-identifying and non-binary writers from the Washington DC metro area. For Barrelhouse Magazine’s Conversation and Connections conference this year, Laskowski and I, along with Abigail Beckel of Rose Metal Press, worked on a panel about flash novellas and the use of flash techniques when creating longer works of fiction and nonfiction. I felt a certain kinship with Laskowski, a fellow mom with a non-teaching day job like myself, as I continued to get to know her and her work. After reading Bystanders, I had several questions for her about bystanders, her choice not to write flash, the conversation surrounding parenthood and its impact on creativity, horror stories, baby monitors, and a little diddy ‘bout Jack and Diane.
The Rumpus: I know you as a writer of flash fiction, but this collection, although there are definitely flash influences, is not a collection of flash stories. What was your inspiration in deviating from the form? Was it a conscious decision or was this something that occurred organically?
Tara Laskowski: Several of the stories in Bystanders were written while I was in graduate school in the early 2000s. I came to flash later than that, so before then I was writing a lot of traditional-length stories. I always knew I wanted to pull some of these longer stories into a collection, but it wasn’t until a few years ago that I started to discover what the common themes were in my writing. That is, I write a lot about people (mostly women) in broken or stagnant relationships that are suddenly forced to recognize this and do something about it. Usually, that force comes from outside. And I realized that I’m interested in how people change when something terrible happens to someone else. So that’s where the loose theme in Bystanders really came from. I took a hard look at all the stories I had written up to that point and selected the ones that best fit that theme, and then I wrote about five or six new stories to round out the collection.
Rumpus: Did you find yourself returning to flash techniques while drafting your stories for this collection? If so, how did it help or hinder you during the writing process?
Laskowski: There are a few stories in Bystanders that were definitely inspired by flash techniques. I’m mildly obsessed with the modular story because I like not having to tell a linear story all the time. I also love white space, and jumping around in time, place, or character point of view. So there are a few stories in the collection that do those sorts of things. At some point, I think I toyed with the idea of including more flash in the collection, but it never seemed to click. And these stories, I think, just all worked together so nicely that I didn’t think I needed any others.
Rumpus: Why bystanders? What was your initial inspiration for the collection?
Laskowski: I don’t know. I think it’s just where my mind goes. Like, if I’m watching an action movie, and it’s the end, and the hero comes out of the wreckage of the destroyed building, and there are clouds of dust and destruction billowing behind her, and she’s all like, “I just wrecked this town and killed the terrorists and where’s my bourbon?” The credits start to roll, and here’s what I’m thinking: What if someone a few blocks away was on his way to tell his wife that he’s been cheating on her and wants to leave her, and then buildings started falling down around him? How would that alter his actions and feelings? That’s the story I want to tell. That ripple effect that violence, trauma, betrayal, horror, can have on the people who were before just standing on the sidelines. And it doesn’t have to be as dramatic as a terrorist attack. Sometimes the everyday horrors and traumas can be just as devastating, if not more so.
Rumpus: Have you ever been a bystander?
Laskowski: Aren’t we all, every single day? And aren’t we doing that every time we read a book or watch a movie or look at a piece of art? I think we are constantly changing ourselves and our actions and the way we want to project ourselves on the world by observing the people around us.
But, I know that’s kind of a philosophical answer to the question you’re really asking. So here’s my bystander-ish moment. Last fall, right before the holidays, I was walking to work in downtown DC and came across police tape blocking off the entire block near my office. When I got closer, I saw a man’s boot peeking out from a tarp lying in the middle of the street.
Whatever had happened had clearly just happened—someone had just died, moments before, on that street. People were on their cell phones, crying to love ones. I’d assumed that the man had gotten hit by a car but then realized there were no cars on the street. Then I overheard someone telling someone else what had happened. The man had jumped from the roof of the building. She’d seen it. So had all the folks who were still there crying.
I hadn’t seen it, but that didn’t prevent me from being deeply affected by it. I posted about it on social media because I felt like I needed to reach out to people in some way. Kind words came back—folks were worried about me. About me? I wasn’t the one who’d jumped. I wasn’t the family whose lives were forever changed. And yet they persisted—don’t underestimate the way something like this can affect you, one person wrote. I almost deleted the post because I was worried I was somehow capitalizing on other people’s grief.
But in the days that followed, when this man’s story and tragedy kept following me, I realized that they were right. My bearing witness to this death had done something to me. Even in not seeing his jump, I was changed because of it.
Rumpus: From page one of Bystanders, I was creeped out. I mean this as a compliment. There is a good mix of horror in each story, although they aren’t filled with gore and guts. Horror in random occurrences: for example, a little sister being electrocuted while trying to crawl beneath an electric fence, or a group of strangers menacingly approaching a couple with a child stranded on a road in the middle of nowhere at night. Your first story collection, Modern Manners For Your Inner Demons, is an etiquette guidebook with the strange and creepy twist of teaching the manners of adultery or homicide or some other “demon.” What draws you to write horror and what do you think makes for a good horror or mystery story?
Laskowski: I was born on Halloween! It’s in my blood!
Actually, I used to hate horror movies. An uncle once let me watch one of the Halloween movies when I was too young, and it scared the hell out of me. I had nightmares for months. Never wanted to watch another scary movie again. But then at some point in high school, I think it was when I went to see Candy Man, I realized that there is a delicious delight in being scared (safely). For a long time, I would watch any kind of horror movie—slasher, torture porn, ghost stories—but after I had my son, my tastes changed. I can’t watch those soulless torture movies anymore, or anything involving families or kids. I most enjoy the campy kinds of horror, where you know despite the gore that someone’s going to triumph over the evil in the end. I have no time for the movies or books where everyone gets tortured, and then everyone dies. There’s no entertainment in that.
I don’t consider myself a horror writer by any means, though I feel like those interests probably do creep up a bit in what I write. I think I’m more drawn to the small horrors or violence that wreck us daily—freak accidents, maybe. Or even those bursts of emotions that flare up and explode in otherwise polite society. Like, if I’m on the commuter train in the quiet car and two passengers start cussing at each other. That’s super exciting sometimes to witness, right? Because it hardly ever happens.
Rumpus: You are so good with that everyday creepy. I read “The Monitor” late at night after putting my children to bed. My husband was not home, and our dog was downstairs—there was no one around for me to grab during the truly scary moments. The story, about a woman who sees visions inside a baby’s bedroom that is not her own through a baby monitor, gave me the chills. Video baby monitors are creepy in general. Did you have one for your son?
Laskowski: I would say I’m sorry, but I’m not! That actually makes me happy that you were scared. We did have a video monitor, and people look super creepy on those screens. Of course, your mind starts to wander with all kinds of what-ifs.
Rumpus: What I appreciated more about that story, though, is the very real depiction of postpartum depression. Myra’s postpartum is juxtaposed with the terror associated with the visions, compounded by an absent partner and her own insecurity and fears about his absenteeism and the urges to harm her child brought on by the PPD. Did you write this from a place of understanding? If so, do you believe, as a mother, that our fears and nightmares drive that anxiety? How did it feel to explore this topic? It was masterfully done.
Laskowski: Thank you! I knew when writing that story that I didn’t want to ever make it clear for the reader if the visions Myra was seeing on the screen were the result of something supernatural or just sleep deprivation/depression. Because that point in your life, when you have a newborn, and you’re tired and stressed and worried about everything, is such a crazy, chaotic and frantic time that it feels like anything can happen. I don’t know if I had full-on PPD, but it was the hardest two months of my entire life, and I’ll never forget it. I think I cried every day for six weeks. Luckily my husband was super supportive and immensely present during all of it, unlike the husband in the story. Poor Myra. She’s got it rough.
Rumpus: This collection contains several instances where the tension arrives through danger or some horrible act that occurs to a child—a child riding his bike is hit by a car, the girl I mentioned above who wants to pet the cows and gets electrocuted in front of her sister. As a mother, were these scenes difficult to write? What made you decide to explore the theme of bystanding through acts involving children?
Laskowski: What’s interesting is that all the stories you mention were actually drafted before I had my son. The newer stories in Bystanders that involve motherhood or children, generally, are more about protection. “The Oregon Trail” comes to mind. There’s a scene in that story where the couple and their child are broken down on the side of the road and a couple of teenagers threaten them. The mom in that story is both irritated with her husband, who she sees as weak and helpless at that moment and also ready to “gouge out” the eyes of the boys and “wash the bits out later in a 7-Eleven sink.” Those emotions—the vulnerability of being a parent, the overwhelming weight of being responsible for someone else, and the fierce knowledge that you’d do anything to protect that little person—are ones that I probably wouldn’t have understood as well without being a mom. I’m not saying that people can’t write authentically about something they haven’t fully experienced, but I think it does add complexity when you have.
Rumpus: That is so true, and now that you mention it, I can see the difference between the stories you wrote before you were a mom and after. Being a mother does change how you write about children. I often wonder about the relationship parents have to the creative process. There was an article published in New York Magazine’s “The Cut” last April that asked: “is domestic life the enemy of creative work?” Your husband is also a writer. What is your take on this topic? Is it difficult to create while maintaining a family, especially a family where both parents are writers?
Laskowski: So many smarter folks have weighed in on this topic, and I think it’s one that I continue to waver about and chew on. Is it difficult to write and have a family? Yes. Is it impossible? No. My son, like I mentioned above, continues to inspire me and delight me and allows me to see the world from a very different point of view. These are all good things for creativity. Can I get inspired by a story idea and spend my entire Saturday drafting it while sipping a pina colada and taking breaks to read poetry? No. More likely I’m scribbling cryptic notes on napkins or note cards while pushing a Thomas the Tank Engine train along a wooden track and making chugging sounds. Or telling him, “Hang on, Mommy just needs to finish this email.”
My life is a continuous cycle of me feeling bad-ass about finishing a story draft, and then feeling overwhelmed by all the stuff I haven’t done yet, and then feeling guilty that I didn’t spend enough time playing with my son, and then worried that I forgot about something, and then feeling bad-ass again.
I do think that having a husband who also writes helps more than hinders. Having someone who understands the importance of taking time to write is immense when kid stuff comes into play. It’s so easy to put everything else to the side when you’re parenting, if from nothing else but sheer exhaustion, and so it’s nice to have someone who can help reinforce those priorities.
Rumpus: Another one of my favorite stories in the collection is “Half the Distance to the Goal Line” about a couple named Jack and Diane, who have been together since high school. Did your inspiration for that story come from the song?
Laskowski: “Life goes on, long after the thrill of living is gone.” That always struck me as such a sad line in that song. But the initial inspiration actually came from the title of the story. I thought it was a good title, and so I started wondering what kind of story would fit the idea of someone thinking they’re getting closer and closer to something but never quite making it.
Rumpus: Can you talk about the point-of-view flip in that story? It is written with an implied “we” that breaks the fourth wall in a sense, making the reader become the bystander. Why did you choose this story for that particular point of view? What were you hoping to accomplish with such an interesting narration choice?
Laskowski: The story is told in this kind of community ‘we’ voice. I wanted to tell the story of this couple through the eyes of the folks they went to high school with. I have always felt that even after people graduate from high school and move on and grow up and get other lives, they are in some ways trapped by the image that people had of them then. Originally I wanted to have this story take place at a high school reunion, but that felt like a moment where perception and reality clashed, and that wasn’t really what I wanted to explore. I wanted to explore the way that the perception of a group of people, and their shared stories and rumors, can affect the way this couple lives their lives. In this case, it’s this rumor of an abortion that’s holding them back. And more so than whether or not the abortion actually happened, it’s that continued telling and believing of the story that matters.
Rumpus: Have you moved on to your next project? If so, what can we look forward to from you?
Laskowski: My first collection, Modern Manners For Your Inner Demons, is being re-released in April 2017 with new content, so I’m writing a few extra dark etiquette stories for that. I’m also working on a novel that’s set in my hometown of Wilkes-Barre, Pennsylvania, and follows a group of high school friends from when they all meet during the 1972 Agnes Flood through several decades of violent newspaper strikes, hauntings, affairs, and other crazy things. Fingers crossed!