“Are the birds really electric now?”: Sadie Hoagland talks about American Grief in Four Stages

Sadie Hoagland is the author of American Grief in Four Stages, a new collection of stories from West Virginia University Press. Here she talks with Tessa Fontaine, the author of The Electric Woman: A Memoir in Death-Defying Acts, a New York Times pick, a Barnes & Noble Discover Great New Writers choice, and an Amazon Editors’ Best of the Month featured debut. 

Tessa Fontaine: Many of your stories are written in the first person, with characters who must reckon with a crisis. Though they may be surrounded by other people, they mostly wade through grief alone. Do you think the short story form lends itself particularly well to these kinds of stories?

Sadie Hoagland: I think the intense grief that is the subject of many of the stories does fit the short story form well. For one, the reader doesn’t necessarily want to be in that space longer than a short story. But in addition, the short story allows for a kind of reading that asks us to consider emotional territory and space over plot investments; we can’t know the characters as well as we can in a novel, but the glimpse we are given into their lives is incredibly intimate. I think the brevity makes it all more poignant.

TF: Where do your stories usually come from? Voice? Character? Situation? Image? Form? Magic?

SH: Sometimes I start my stories with a line, “It was my birthday when I found out that all the birds were electric,” or “We knew my sister was really different, after all, the day she got murdered.” These sentences are evocative for me as a writer, they contain mystery for me and I write to look into that mystery. Italo Calvino in his lovely book, Six Memos for the Next Millennium, says of verbal sources of the imagination that “the word connects the visible trace with the invisible thing, the absent thing, the thing that is desired or feared, like a frail emergency bridge flung over an abyss.” I certainly feel when I begin stories with a striking sentence that I am peeking over an abyss, and yet I must go on.

Other times the stories begin with a question like: what would have early on-set dementia seemed like to people before they had science to explain it? Especially in a time when magic was the predominant explanatory system? Or, how do we reconcile our writing identity with our parent identity? One story in the book came from a colleague who told me that in writing about death and time past, that I was writing ghost stories. So I thought I better sit down a write a ghost story.

TF: Many of these stories have one foot in the familiar, known world, and another in an off-kilter version of the world, where birds are electric or grandparents get sent off to war. Our expectations are disrupted, and yet we understand the emotional world entirely. When do stories require something in them that presses against our known world?

SH: That’s such a good question. I think because trauma is central to some of these pieces, it was important for me to both put a wall between our world and the world of the story, perhaps as some kind of amulet, or protection, for me and for the reader. But also, because trauma is central to some of these pieces, it was necessary to me to have a formal element that expressed the impossibilities of conceptualizing and articulating some trauma. For example, it’s impossible to have electric birds, but it’s also impossible to tell your mother about your cancer diagnosis. After we learn of something terrible happening, the world feels unreal, impossible, in that moment. Leigh Gilmore, who has written compellingly on trauma, writes that when expressing trauma, we feel the need to repeatedly state what happened, as if no one could believe us. When I was twelve, three of my four grandparents died within ten months. This is unbelievably bad luck, unbelievable in a different way than sending elderly people to war—but still unbelievable. The surrealism works doubly in that story as an obvious mirror that asks us to consider if it is that much less odd that we send younger people to war?

TF: Is the grief in these stories particularly American?

SH: I think so. Rather, I think that everything that surrounds the grief is American. While the emotional response to grief may be initially universal, it becomes digested and made legible via cultural practices. In the case of America, our cultural narrative tells us to grieve privately. To get right back into the machinery of society. It also tells us we have very few resources for the bereaved. No leave policies, no cultural practices beyond the funeral to support someone going through an incredibly difficult time, and no formal acknowledgement that the grieving process takes months, if not years. As you noted in your previous question, these narrators are alone in their grief, but not necessarily by choice.

TF: “Prelingual,” “Fucking Aztecs,” and a few other stories operate with anachronistic or nonlinear time. How does time work for you when you’re working on these stories? What is the value of disturbing linear time?

SH: The anachronistic stories about the Aztecs and the Salem Witch trials came out of my own curiosity about two very specific historical moments. Both of those pieces took an immense amount of research. The ones that play with time, in particular “Time Just Isn’t That Simple,” came out of this sort of mashing up of the 1950s, the 1980s, and now. This is the childhood world of my parents, myself, and my own children and I was interested in what hadn’t changed, and what had. I was also interested in this sort of core person we remain as we grow, and the way the past, to children, is all the same. To my four-year-old, “the old days” could be 1982 or 1882.  Lastly, time in stories is always both circular and linear, the repetition required to draft and write means the story, at least for me, is written in circles. The reader comes to the story and reads it from the beginning to the end, but it is all already there. It both is already all unfolded, and yet unfolding anew as they read.

TF: So many of these sentences are gorgeous, with great lyricism and stunning syntax. How many drafts do you write? How do you edit?

SH: Thank you! I usually write a first draft in at least two separate sittings, and then sit on the piece for a while and then go back and read and revise for larger structural issues. But in one of the last revisions, I do read for sentence level writing, trying to make each line a little better. I learned this from the brilliant writer and teacher Melanie Rae Thon who once instructed me to take my novel, and on every page take out one mediocre line and replace it with a “stunning” detail. It seemed like a daunting task at first, but since has become part of my practice.

TF: Are all the birds really electric now?

SH: I hope not! I hope none of my fiction has any literal correspondence in reality, only emotional realities that speak to my readers.

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