Aliza T. Greenblatt: From your short bio it seems like you have been active in the writing community; attending two intense workshops, reading for Lightspeed and Nightmare, as well as conducting a few author interviews yourself. From doing a quick search (and correct me if I’m wrong), “The Merry Jester” appears to be your first published story. Congratulations! How does it feel to be a published writer?
Kevin McNeil: Thank you! And you’re right. “The Merry Jester” is my first published story. I began writing fiction in 2010, and attended Kij Johnson’s novel writing workshop in 2011, which was my first chance to learn some of the fundamentals. So I’m still pretty new to all of this, and up until now, I’d pretty much kept everything I’d written to myself. Putting things out there is scary, but it feels great to see it on-line at Every Day Fiction.
ATG: Can you tell me a little about your writing process for this story?
KM: My approach to this story was very different from how I normally work. I blame Jeanne Cavelos, who is the director of the Odyssey Writing Workshop, which I attended in 2012. One of the requirements of the workshop is the Odyssey Slam, where everyone in the class reads a flash story at a Barnes and Nobles. I hadn’t written any flash stories, so I worked this up in order to have something to read
I’ll be honest — my only goal was to write something I could read without embarrassing myself. I deliberately excluded dialogue in order to make the reading easier. I’m still at a stage where most of what I write is an experiment to improve some aspect of my writing. In this case, I wanted to write something very focused, with a consistent tone, that would get me back into my seat before anyone realized I didn’t know what I was doing. And in the end, the Odyssey Slam turned out to be a great time.
ATG: Your bio says you work as a physical therapist and that you are a coach for the Special Olympics. Has working with people who are combating personal challenges influenced this piece at all? Or was it inspired by something else altogether?
KM: I’m sure the work I do with people overcoming injuries and dealing with personal challenges influences most things in my life. I love getting people back on their feet, and coaching kids I consider to be the greatest athletes in the world is incredibly rewarding. In the case of this story, if my background was an influence at all, it was unconscious.
The inspiration for this story was a wooden marionette (like the one I described) my wife and I purchased while we were traveling in Prague a few years ago. I usually like to take my time and plot out my story ideas, but with this one I just thought about the marionette and wrote to see what I’d come up with. At first, it seemed to be straight horror, where the jester wasn’t such a good thing to have around your house. Eventually, the story ended up in another direction, exploring the idea of faith, which is why there are some hints to religion in the word choices.
ATG:Part of what I found so interesting about this story is the idea of value and how it changes as a person changes, though the object remains the same. The jester becomes more valuable when Matthew has more in life to lose. Do you think the jester is created to protect its family or is it Matthew’s belief in it that gives it power?
KM: I suppose this could be interpreted however the reader wants, but for me it’s Matthew’s belief that gives the jester power. Belief is powerful. There’s a Henry Ford quote I like: “Whether you think you can, or you think you can’t – you’re right.” In my experience, what you focus on, what you believe, is what you get. We’re able to give a lot of things power in this way. And if we believe we’re right (politics, religion, whatever), it’s difficult to convince us we might be wrong.
ATG: By the end of the story, Matthew suffers from a form of survivor’s guilt. He comes to both love and fear the jester and will never let any harm come to it. But it makes me wonder, what sort of stories will Matthew tell his daughter about the puppet, knowing that she will one day have to face its painted smile? How will he handle his own guilt?
KM: This is a tough question. I left Matthew in a confused place where he needs the jester, but is also beginning to question it in some ways. But I think Matthew is committed. He’ll deal with his guilt, thinking it’s what he has to do to protect his family. He believes what he’s been told about the jester, and he’s seen enough to confirm these things for himself. I think Matthew will pass the information on to his daughter as it was told to him, so that she and her future family will also be able to live a healthy life. But I don’t know if the faith of the next generation is ever as strong as the previous one. What I wonder is whether the daughter will truly value the jester, or if she’ll end up putting it in a box in a closet.
ATG: What other projects are you working on now? Are there other stories of yours, either upcoming or published, that you can point readers to?
KM: Right now I’m completely focused on short stories – working on my own ideas, and also reading stories for Lightspeed and Nightmare. I have a sports mentality, and a lot to learn, so I feel like I’m still in training, putting in my practice time, trying new techniques, and challenging myself. I’m just beginning to submit stories to magazines. Even “The Merry Jester” took some arm-twisting from a friend to finally submit to Every Day Fiction. I’m enjoying the work right now, and hopefully I’ll have some more out there for people to read soon – as much as that scares me.
ATG: Thank you very much for taking the time to chat with us. Best of luck with all your writing endeavors
KM: Thanks for the great questions, Aliza. Every Day Fiction had some really great stories in January. So thanks to everyone who enjoyed “The Merry Jester.”
Aliza T. Greenblatt works in a firmly non-writing field when the sun is up and writes under a desk lamp at night. Fueled by a sheer love of books and a tyrannical imagination, she writes the stories that appear over her morning coffee and won’t leave her alone until they are put down on paper. She writes, raves, and blogs at http://atgreenblatt.com. and on Twitter @AtGreenblatt