This post is part of the Candlesticks and Daggers Interview Series run by contributor Sati Benes Chock. For more about the book, please follow the link here.
Excerpt from Julia Tagliere’s story “His Last Human Day”
Trapped, he crouches, contemplating the giant sludge of applesauce oozing between his toes, and tries to remember exactly when everything went wrong. Then he does remember: He no longer has toes. It’s just another mind trick he still hasn’t conquered, like remembering he has an exoskeleton now, not skin. They say karma’s the bitch, but for him, it’s the remembering.
Hi Julia! Can you tell us a little about how you became a writer? How did you begin? Did you always know that you wanted to be a writer?
As I suspect is the case with many writers, I started writing very young and wrote a lot of early garbage, resorting to non-writing employment—in my case, nine years of teaching high school Spanish and French—for survival purposes. Actually, when I began college, I really thought I’d be an interpreter at the UN by now; funny how things work out, isn’t it? After my third consecutive maternity leave, I took up writing again to save my sanity, and started taking graduate writing classes to get better at it. Sixteen years later, I’m still working on that.
What do you read for fun?
Anything by Neil Gaiman (I read Good Omens at least once every year) and Cook’s Illustrated magazine—outstanding writing, detailed research, and a healthy dose of dark fantasy (especially the cooking magazine). I’m also doing the Book Riot Read Harder 2017 Challenge this year, which will have me reading things outside of my comfort zone this year; they may not all be “fun,” but we shall see.
Some writers have rituals that they feel helps them with the creative process. Do you employ any rituals, or do anything regularly that helps keep you on track with your writing?
When I’m composing, I burrow into my comfy chair, put my feet up, and work with my laptop propped on a pillow on my legs; I can sit like that for hours without moving. When I’m revising, however, I’m all business—I hunch over my desktop keyboard to work, streaming classical music to help me tune out any distractions. Both approaches are terrible for one’s back; I’m certain later in life I’ll wind up emulating Dalton Trumbo and have to write in my bathtub. Keeping track of my daily word count keeps me honest.
You have a lot of experience with writing programs, having studied at DePaul University and most recently getting your M.A. from Johns Hopkins (Congrats!). What would you say to beginning writers who are trying to decide whether or not to enter a program? Is there anything you’d wished that you’d known before applying?
Dirty little secret time: I don’t believe that, in and of themselves, writing programs make anyone a better writer (except for Ed Perlman’s Sentence Power class—that kicked my butt. Thank you, Ed). In fact, I think that’s a mistake many beginning writers make—believing that if they just complete a program they’ll magically become great writers. What writing programs do, and it’s something I feel both DePaul and Johns Hopkins do quite well, is create opportunities: opportunities, in a (largely) supportive communal setting, to study, to analyze, to reflect, to debate, to connect, to be exposed (and I mean that in dual senses, both to be exposed to other works and viewpoints and such, as well as to be exposed as a writer oneself). Recognizing those opportunities and taking advantage of them with an open mind, a willing spirit, and the tenacity to put in some really hard work—that’s what makes one a better writer. Could you accomplish this growth on your own, outside of a formal writing program? Perhaps, but it’d be far more difficult to recreate such a banquet of opportunities in isolation.
If you could tell beginning writers one thing about the publishing process, what would it be? Any advice for writers trying to crack the anthology market?
We’d all like to think that being published is simply a matter of being talented, but the hard truth is that getting published requires more than just being a good writer. The world is full of good writers. The ones who are published are the ones who put themselves in the right place at the right time, something you do by getting out there and meeting people. I know, we’d all much rather snuggle into our comfy chairs and pretend the world doesn’t exist, but it just doesn’t work that way. Get out there! Attend conferences, seminars, lectures, readings, become active on social media; that is how you make the connections that will get your work seen.
Your story, “His Last Human Day,” was a ton of fun. Without giving away too much of the story, I’d like to talk about it a bit. This is a tale about transformation, on a number of levels. What touched me most about it was how well you humanize a character that is a species most find abhorrent. Was that difficult to do, or did it just sort of happen organically?
One of the things I found so difficult about reading Kafka’s Metamorphosis (and this piece is obviously an homage) was that Samsa was just so gross (I can’t watch the Jeff Goldblum version of The Fly, either). For me, personally, as a reader, the grossness got in the way of the story; I knew that, if I was going to be able to say what I wanted to say with this piece, I would have to tone down the gross-out factor quite a bit, perhaps even incorporate some humor. Once I made that decision, the actual humanization came about rather organically.
How did you come up with the idea for this story, I mean…were you just standing there in the shower, thinking dark thoughts while pondering Kafka….and…suddenly, you weren’t alone? In other words, any basis in real life, or was this just one of those fantasies that evolved out of “what if’s”?
This piece came about in two ways: First, the house we’d just moved into had a huge infestation of stink bugs; those little fuckers were everywhere. As I was showering one morning, I noticed a stink bug on the door; it was just sitting there, swinging its antennae back and forth, looking for all the world like it was actively watching me shower— that left a very disturbing impression. Then, in one of my classes later that week, we did a first-line swap: We each wrote an original first line on the chalkboard and then chose someone else’s line to start a new piece. I chose one about someone standing in a bowl of applesauce and wondering where everything went wrong, but when I began working on the assignment, using a normal-sized human protagonist just didn’t work; for my purposes, the character had to be someone (or something) very small. Of course, I thought immediately of my stinkbug stalker, but I worried about being perceived as ripping off Kafka. After much deliberation, I tackled the problem head-on by making the character an actual cockroach (a common misconception of Samsa’s character) and having the cockroach itself address Kafka’s work directly in the piece. It turned out to be one of the most fun pieces of writing I’ve done to date.
You wrote a novel, Widow Woman, in 2012. One theme of that work was forgiveness, which is also touched upon in “His Last Human Day.” Do you find that this is a recurring theme for your writing?
Yes, it is a recurring theme. I suspect it’s because I have a hard time with cynicism. Perhaps that makes me a Pollyanna or a naïve chump, but I always want to believe the best of others, no matter how abhorrent. Enough evil exists and dark things happen every day in real life; in my fiction, I can let the more optimistic, hopeful side of my imagination take over and create those opportunities for redemption. It’s not always granted, of course—wouldn’t that be dull? But the opportunities are definitely there.
Any future projects (or anything else) you want to tell us about?
I have a few short pieces already in the pipeline, along with an upper middle-grade adventure I’ve finished and am hoping to get out in 2017. As far as new writing, I’ll be working on completing my third novel, The Day the Music Didn’t Die, a fun work of magic realism for adult readers I’m excited to get back to now that I’m done with my classes; I also blog about “stuff” at justscribbling.com.
Julia Tagliere is a freelance writer and editor and studied in the M.A. in Creative Writing program at DePaul University in Illinois. Her work has appeared in magazines such as The Writer and Hay & Forage Grower and in numerous online publications. Julia’s debut novel, Widow Woman, was published in 2012. In 2014, Open to Interpretation, the juried photography and prose series, selected Julia’s short story, “The Navigator,” for publication in Love + Lust, its fourth and final installment. Another of her recent stories, “Te Absolvo,” won Best Short Story in the 2015 William Faulkner Literary Competition. This December, her personal essay, “Stars I Will Find,” appears in a collection of stories about the challenges of simultaneously caring for growing children and aging parents, Here In The Middle: Stories Of Love, Loss, And Connection From The Ones Sandwiched In Between. An active blogger and past finalist in Minneapolis’ Loft Literary Center’s Mentor Series Competition, Julia resides in Maryland with her family, where she recently completed her M.A. in Fiction Writing at Johns Hopkins University.