Paige Clark is the author of She Is Haunted (out on May 17, from Two Dollar Radio). Her story “Conversations with My Brother About Trees” was published in The Offing’s Fiction department on May 5, 2022. Q&A conducted by Mary Pappalardo, Fiction Editor.
Donate to The Offing! Our Patreon supporters received early access to this Q&A with The Offing contributor Paige Clark and receive other perks as well. The Offing pays our contributors, and we appreciate the help of all of our supporters in sustaining our work.
Mary Pappalardo: One thing that struck me when reading this collection is that, in its wading through of all the complexities of human relationships, there’s this livewire of almost dark comedy running beneath things. Is humor something you are intentional about writing? Or is something that just naturally bubbles up in your work? I ask because I know many writers talk about how difficult it is to write funny, but it reads so lived-in and organic in this collection.
Paige Clark: It’s a bit embarrassing to admit that the humour is intentional, but it is! Not in the way that a comedian writes a series of jokes or a monologue to intentionally make people laugh, but as I am writing, I definitely search for and keep anything on the page that makes me giggle. In fact, there are a lot of “jokes” that did not make the cut because my first readers and editors convinced me they were indeed not funny at all. So not only are my jokes intentional, but I also find them funny, if not funnier, than any reader does! In person, I laugh at my own jokes before I can even get them out of my mouth. This makes me decidedly un-funny according to exactly everyone I know. I hope even though I’ve admitted this future readers will still find the humour in the work. It’s necessary, I think, on the page and in real life. Humor is a way through.
MP: So much of this collection is thinking about the relationship between mothers and daughters, and that relationship is certainly a huge part of “Conversations with My Brother About Trees,” but I’m also curious about the other relationship that’s at the heart of that story, and which appears in other stories as well: the relationship between siblings. Does the sibling relationship open up new space to think and write through family histories and dynamics for you? What about that relationship makes it an interesting thing to write?
PC: I think I was drawn to writing about brother-sister relationships because a) I have an older brother and I’m just not that inventive, and b) I was desperately trying to figure out how to have a relationship with said brother. I was very bitter because I felt like he’d had an easier time than I did growing up because of his gender and because my parents split up after he’d gone away to University. Then my partner said to me, “you have to remember your brother grew up in the same house that you did.” That was life-changing for me because it enabled me to see how my brother and I both carried the trauma of our family history and have a lot more empathy for him. What you see in the book is me trying to understand him on the page and in “Conversations with My Brother About Trees” is where I succeed the most, I think, in working him out or at least trying to. To this day, my brother is at once both the most familiar and most wonderfully strange person to me in the entire world! You don’t get better material than that.
MP: I’m fascinated by the sort of wandering direct address of “Conversations with My Brother About Trees” in that sometimes the story’s narrator is addressing a “you” that is ambiguous, sometimes the story calls attention to its written-ness by mentioning how things look on a page, and so maybe it’s addressing very specifically a reader, and then the story ends with a direct address of a tree. How do you navigate this use of the second person, and how do you work with the story’s self-referentiality without dipping too far into the realm of “metafiction” or whatever it is we’re calling it these days?
PC: The direct addresses in this story came about quite organically, and, perhaps, that is why they feel natural rather than overtly writerly. I did not think of those two elements—the second person and the metafictional– as going hand in hand during the writing process. It’s wonderful when a reader can connect those dots for you!
When I began this story, I started with a memory of my brother asking me once if I thought trees could talk. At the time, I quickly dismissed him. Then years later I came across The Hidden Life of Trees by Peter Wohlleben and realized that my brother was on to something. So the premise was as simple as that: write a story about how trees can talk to each other and how your brother knew it all along.
In terms of the metafictional elements, I started with the image of my grandfather’s calligraphy. I could see this very vividly as I was writing. I knew I had to find a way to capture how his black characters looked on the page.
But I do believe the real reason both of these elements work is because of revision and editing. Both were clumsy and over-the-top in the draft stage and took refining and refining again not to read as if I had too much ink on my pen.
MP: You’ve talked before about how this collection took you a long time to write—8 years!—and how that pace was sort of necessary for you. What advice would you give to other writers who might be feeling the intense pressures and demands of the market to write and publish as quickly as possible?
PC: I guess I’d start by asking the question: what’s the rush? Though I felt that pressure and demand to publish acutely, mostly because it seemed like nobody took my writing career seriously until I had published. So that 8 years of writing was also about fostering self-belief. If I had a mantra during that time, it would have been I am a writer. I am a writer. I am a writer. Sometimes I would be making coffee at my barista job and thinking that to myself again and again. It is so, so tough.
The best advice I was given about publishing was from an Australian writer Robert Lukins, who told me that unless you are incredibly lucky, you’ll never make your living off a single book or even multiple books. All you can do, he said, is to make the book a beautiful object that you are proud of.
Beautiful things take time. Don’t give in to internal or external pressures. Remind yourself every day that you are a writer even if nobody believes you yet, not even yourself.
MP: Is there anything you’re reading right now, or that you’ve read in the past six months, that you’re finding hard to put down, or that you just keep thinking about? In other words: what writing lately has absolutely knocked your socks off?
PC: I only read books that knock my socks off. If I find something easy to put down, I do exactly that. I haven’t read the whole book yet, but I can’t wait to get my hands on Paul Dalla Rosa’s An Exciting and Vivid Inner Life, which comes out at the end of this month. I have read all of his published short stories—most of which are included in the book—and I gobbled each one up as soon as it came out. I think about his narrative voice often; it reminds me of being alone in an empty white room.
Patrons got it first! Consider becoming a monthly supporter of our Patreon. All donations are tax-deductible.