Interview with the 2019 Peter Hinchcliffe Fiction Award Winner Paola Ferrante
DH: Congratulations on winning the 2019 Peter Hinchcliffe Fiction Award for your story, “The Underside of a Wing”! It’s a daring and ambitious story about mental health, relationships, climate, animals, and the bystander effect. For me, the brilliance of this story is the way the albatross circulates, flutters, refuses to settle. Rather than taking on one-to-one allegorical significance or directly mapping onto the story’s main character, “the girl,” the albatross seems to exist alongside the protagonist as a kind of paratext. I wonder what you were attempting to evoke or provoke with the albatross, and how you arrived at the final presentation of the albatross.
PF: The idea of the albatross actually came to me when I was talking to a friend. We were talking about how I was having difficulty managing my current anxiety and depression, which is itself linked to climate grief, and she used the phrase “like an albatross around your neck,” to describe what I was going through. And I thought, yes, even though it’s cliché, that is exactly how I feel when I am in the middle of a period of anxiety. Once I thought of it that way, personifying anxiety and depression and climate grief in this one figure of the albatross just seemed natural.
DH: I certainly see the connection to anxiety and mental health–the albatross as a psychic burden the girl carries, a sort of shadow side. But I wonder if the albatross means more than that as well, evoking the complexity of human mental states? For instance, I think the story invites us to ask whether the albatross itself a thing worthy of love. This is a story that takes birds, extinction, and the albatross as real animal seriously, while also deploying the bird as a (slippery, I think) allegory. How do you manage/navigate those two, potentially competing, visions of the albatross?
PF: It’s interesting that you mention two competing versions of the albatross, because in the earlier drafts of this piece, I definitely focused on the albatross as psychic burden. Because of this, I had huge difficulties trying to find the right ending for this story, and it only shifted when I began to focus on the albatross in the physical. I was horrified by the photographic series by Chris Jordan that shows dead Laysan albatross chicks with their stomachs filled with plastic that I began to see the albatross as a representation of vulnerability, due to the necessity of interconnectedness between humans and the natural world, and between humans in a society. For me, the albatross says that not only do we as humans need to get better, far better, at taking care of the natural world, we also need to get far better at taking care of each other, and ensuring people aren’t isolated. So in that sense, I began to see these visions of the albatross not as competing, but as an expression of the common idea that there is an imbalance in our ecosystem. This imbalance exists in both the natural one, and the societal ecosystem in terms of how, in my experience, having to live with anxiety and depression can be an isolating thing. To me, the albatross, as this huge bird, is the thing that, in both its iterations, can no longer be ignored if we are going to function in a healthy way.
DH: That is fascinating. I think it’s super useful to think mental health and ecological awareness as linked, rather than separate, conversations. I wonder if you might tell the story of this story. How did it come to be? More specifically, how did you come to settle on its unusual form? Did the form present itself immediately or was the form (as I suspect) the result of many drafts?
PF: You suspect right! This piece took an incredibly long time to find its form, almost six months in fact. I had been wanting to write about my experience with anxiety and depression for some time, so this piece started life as a very traditional, realist short story in past tense with many of the details, from marathoning DVDs when I should have been doing research for thesis, to having my ears pop coming down the mountain, taken directly from my experience of dropping out of a Masters in clinical psychology. However, I quickly realized, to paraphrase Jessica Westhead in a recent panel at the Wild Writers Festival, that the piece had no “pulse.” It wasn’t really until I found the image of the albatross that the piece took shape, almost as a prose poem at first. I knew I wanted it to be fiction though, as I felt there was a plot and a narrative arc that needed to happen, and that the emotional resolution would have to come from character growth. Once I discovered the albatross, I knew that I had to tell story in third person, because I feel like, when I am anxious, I am living my life in the third person because there is the person others see outwardly, and there is this other being that terrifies me, a wild thing over which I have no control. I also made the decision to transition the piece into present tense, in order to deliberately place the reader in the middle of how “the girl” feels.
DH: Wow–quite a journey from personal life to final narrative form. “A wild thing over which I have no control” is a brilliant evocation of this story, which captures that wildness at the level of content and through its form–brief, tumbling sections and language that sometimes soars lyrically and other times flaps and gropes deliberately towards sentence fragments. (“An ocean that blue is not.”) It seems like finding the albatross helped you to locate the story’s “pulse” and to accommodate the wildness this story wanted to house? I wonder if you have any advice on how to let wildness into one’s work? I also wonder if you can comment on your environmental aesthetic more broadly. Does your work tend to explore the relation between animals, environment, and human mental health?
PF: I definitely find that I gravitate towards animal metaphors in my work, both in poetry and in fiction. Currently, I’m working on a short fiction collection called Her Body Among Animals that explores the boundaries placed on women’s bodies through animal metaphors. Throughout that collection there are definitely themes that revolve around issues of gender and mental health that arise in response to these boundaries. I’ve also started my second poetry collection, The Dark Unwind, which very directly explores fear as it relates to the connection between human mental health and the effects of climate change. As for “letting wildness into one’s work,” which is a phrase that I love, by the way, I think it comes down to really writing about the things you are passionate about. My mentor, Robin Richardson, once asked us to make a list of our deepest fears, and that exercise stuck with me, because I think if you are writing about the thing that matters to you, then you are confident in your subject, and that leaves room to experiment with how you tell that story.
DH: You’re the poetry editor at Minola Review and you’ve recently published your full-length poetry debut, What to Wear While Surviving a Lion Attack (Mansfield 2019). How does “The Underside of Wing” interact with, or draw on, your poetic practice?
PF: When I wrote my first poetry collection, it was very influenced by Emily Dickinson’s idea of “tell the truth, but tell it slant.” I think writing around a difficult idea is often easier to do than addressing it directly, which is something I learned from Robin Richardson, who is our editor-in-chief at Minola and my mentor, and who writes about the unsympathetic voice in poetry. In What To Wear When Surviving a Lion Attack, I was quite drawn to the form of the prose poem, and I think reading a lot of prose poetry, particularly Anne Boyer, very much influenced the presentation of this piece. Generally, when I start to write a poem, I have some grand idea or concept that I know I’m going to address some aspect of, and then a line or two that I start to work with. I had honestly never tried to do fiction this way before, but when this piece finally found its form, I couldn’t get the opening line “An albatross is a bird who doesn’t go away,” out of my head. I actually approached writing each section of this story as though I was writing a prose poem, or a piece of flash fiction, in that I was trusting the layers of imagery rather than the plot to propel the story forward. As I wrote this piece, I also found myself reading it aloud to make sure the rhythm is correct, which is obviously a practice I learned from poetry.
DH: The story certainly benefits from the poetic prose-poem approach. It is a lyrical, sing-soaring thing. Is there more fiction in this mode in the wings?
PF: “The Underside of a Wing” is one of the stories in the collection of short fiction that I’m currently working on. In this collection, many of the stories play with form. For example, one of the pieces I just finished, which borrows a lot from magical realist traditions, uses “poetic” retellings of urban legends about lizard men as a counterpoint to the narrator’s story of watching her abusive partner turn into a dragon, and grappling with how to understand the horror of this reality, which feels so unreal. In general, these stories borrow heavily from horror and science fiction genres, and, much like poetry and like “The Underside of a Wing,” they intersperse narratives to question whose truths we believe when women tell their stories.
DH: Dragons and lizard men! I can’t wait.