Thu 15 Nov 2012
by Thomas Jay Rush
Flash Fiction Chronicles interviewed Gretchen Bassier about Every Day Fiction’s Top Story for October, “The Pumpkin Master.”
FFC: Congratulations. Your story won story of the month for October.
Gretchen Bassier: Thank you!
FFC: The title, “The Pumpkin Master,” carries a hint of menace. If there isn’t already a Hollywood horror movie with that title, there should be. But Peter’s carvings, from the very start, are the opposite of horrific. In fact, they’re bucolic. Having said that, Peter spends his entire life with a knife in his hand carving flesh (albeit pumpkin flesh, but flesh nonetheless). In fact, in the first sentence Peter is wishing he found rotting flesh more appealing. The question: Does Peter have a more sinister edge than it may appear, or am I just imaging that?
GB: You are not the first person to think that! The title and the opening line definitely give the impression that something darker is coming. I remember one person in my writing group thought the pumpkins were going to come alive and take revenge on the man who kept carving them up. Someone else expected Peter to drop dead in the middle of carving a pumpkin for his granddaughter (my writing group members are cheery folks, aren’t they?).
But honestly, there’s nothing sinister about Peter’s character. To him, a carving knife is like his paintbrush. Everything is as sweet and innocent as it appears, which is why I was surprised that so many readers responded to the story – I expected people to be disappointed that no zombies showed up, or let down by the fact that there were no bloody guts. Ordinarily, a story would never get away with being that “good.” I think with everything that’s been going on in the world–the shootings, the bombings, the natural disasters–maybe people just needed to take a break from all the darkness and read a story about a nice man with a special gift, who stays in his marriage and loves his grandchild.
FFC: I think you did a good job of pacing the story. It moves well through time. Peter’s entire life is presented. That’s not easy to do in such a short piece of flash fiction. Looking closely at what you’ve written, it seems one thing you did was begin a lot of the paragraphs with a time signature. One paragraph starts with “The next day,” the very next paragraph with “In the years that followed,” then “Peter was at college,” then “One night,” then “That winter,” and finally “Several decades and thousands of pumpkins later…”
These time signatures, I think, had the wonderful effect of keeping the story moving. In fact, the story literally skips along. Right to that wonderful last sentence. Your thoughts? How do you think you were able to get an entire life story in a such a short piece?
GB: Last year, I read an excellent story in Every Day Fiction called “26.” I was fascinated by how the author, Michael Peralta, managed to paint such a vivid picture of a character’s life in just a sprinkling of words. Mr. Peralta also did another neat trick in that story, but I won’t spoil it. Those who haven’t read it should go check it out for themselves (Go! Now! The Pumpkin Master commands you!). That piece (and its author) inspired me to challenge myself and see if I could fit a whole life in a flash, even if I could never manage to do it as eloquently as he did.
For my story, I knew I wanted to focus on two particular moments in the character’s life – one that occurred early in his life, and one that took place in his later years. Covering the decades in-between those two moments was the tricky part. I tried to keep the time signatures you mentioned as varied as possible, so it was not the same exact phrase every time (e.g. “Two years later,” “Ten years later,” “Fifty years later”). I also remember lengthening a few of the paragraphs in the middle section to decrease the choppiness (thanks, Pamela!) and rewriting the proposal scene to include a line of dialogue, just to break up the long string of summary-type paragraphs. In the end, I think, as one reader mentioned, Peter’s life was very much like a fairytale.
FFC: Speaking of that last line, I think that is what really made this story. It’s a truly beautiful last line. There’s ambiguity in that line. I wondered, as I read it, if you were saying that the pumpkin or the little girl dancing was the most beautiful thing in the world? (I’m sure you meant both–even if you didn’t just say you did and we’ll all think you’re brilliant). I was taught in my MFA program to avoid melodrama, and that last sentence is certainly melodramatic–but it totally works. Talk about melodrama. Talk about the last line of a story.
GB: Melodrama? You mean you want me to talk about how I act when I get a rejection letter? Oh, you meant melodrama as it’s used in writing. Right. Gotcha. As writers, we are taught to show rather than tell, to give clues that let readers figure things out for themselves, instead of just laying everything out on the page. But I think it’s possible to go too far in that direction. I read a quote last year from a Creative Writing professor who said his students were trying so hard not to be obvious, that they ended up being subtle to the point of obscurity. This sentiment resonated with me because one of the most frequent critiques I get about my writing is that my hints are too subtle, that readers are not picking up on my intent. My initial draft of this story, which ended a bit differently and did not include the line you mentioned, got a similar reaction from early readers. So, I tried to make an ending that would resonate, rather than fall flat or confuse the reader. I still believe it’s better to show than tell, and I still think subtlety rocks, but I also think sometimes it’s okay to just come right out and say what you mean.
That said, there is a little room for interpretation in that last scene, isn’t there? I definitely thought of Katie as the “most beautiful creation,” but that phrase could certainly apply to the pumpkin as well – though by far his simplest carving, it did earn Peter the best reaction he’d ever gotten for one of his pieces. And there is also the question of why he didn’t get his usual “flash” of inspiration in the first place: Was it just a temporary glitch? Had his gift left him permanently? Or was the answer, as one of my group members suggested, in the last line itself: that Peter didn’t get a flash for his granddaughter because he could not outdo her beauty?
Last lines, in general, are pretty much the scariest ones to write (at least for me), because the success of the whole story is riding on those final few words. Just like the first line has to hook readers and draw them in, the last line must make readers feel like the journey they went on was worthwhile. That there was a point to the story. That they got something–a smile, a laugh, a scare, a new idea–out of the experience. I often rewrite my last lines more than once, trying to give them a little extra kick or clarity. Usually, I can tell by the readers’ reactions whether I’ve succeeded or failed!
FFC: Why “fractals and world-upside-down drawings by Escher?” In a past life I was a mathematician so I found this particular choice of yours brilliant. I loved it. But, tell me, why does Peter see these two particular things in his room? Do these two things have anything to do with the rest of the story or did these two things just happen to be hanging on the wall in the place that you wrote the story?
GB: Those were very specific choices, as was Peter’s taste in music. My logline for this story was: “A man who has always loved intricate patterns and elaborate designs discovers that the greatest beauty of all can lie in the simplest of moments.” So, the highly-detailed carvings, the very grand way Peter proposed, and even his wall decorations were all meant to have a certain level of complexity, in order to contrast with the simplicity of the final scene. In hindsight, I suppose I could have used the decorations on my wall, but somehow I don’t think Harry Potter and Superman posters would have quite fit the bill :).
FFC: What are your plans from here? Tell us about any other writing work you may be doing. Brag about your website.
GB: Well, my main goal for the future would be to get my novel published. If I could only ever get one more piece of writing published, that would be it, no question. But seeing as I’m not quite ready to start submitting that to publishers yet, I’ll continue to write short stories (just finished a humor piece about a drunken unicorn) and I’ll also be posting various writing resources and tips on my new blog: http://astheheroflies.wordpress.com. I just came from an excellent writing workshop with children’s author Jean Alicia Elster, and am planning on attending several more workshops over the next few months, so I should have lots of useful tidbits to share!
FFC: Congratulations on your wonderful story. I really enjoyed it. Good luck in the future.
GB: Thank you so much! Also, many thanks to everyone who read “The Pumpkin Master” – I would never have had this opportunity without you.
Gretchen Bassier is thirty-one years old and has a BA in Psychology from the University of Michigan. She works as a home healthcare aide, caring for a young man with Muscular Dystrophy, and didn’t know she wanted to be a writer until she got a really cool idea for a novel. She finished the first draft in about three years, and hasn’t stopped writing since. As a fairly new writer, Gretchen loves to try out different genres and styles, and recently started a local writing group, which meets monthly to share the joys (and the occasional despair) of being an author. Her cats like to “help” her with the writing process by sprawling across the keyboard and decorating her notebooks with claw marks. Click here for Gretchen’s website: http://astheheroflies.wordpress.com/.
Thomas Jay Rush has been a house painter, a carpenter, an oil well roustabout, an actuarial analyst, a researcher at IBM’s Watson Research Center, and the owner of his own software company. Recently, he was named Poetry Editor at Rathall Review, a literary magazine associated with the Creative Writing Program at Rosemont College. Mr. Rush lives with his wife and three children in Southeast Pennsylvania. Visit his website here.