Last week's panel at the MWF with Maria Takolander, Craig Cormick, Marcus Waters and Patrick West was a great opportunity to hear how other writers approach their work, and the themes that drive them. Jeff McMullen launched the anthology with an impassioned plea for all of us to engage more deeply with our world. Here's the short introduction to how 'Of Life Below' was written for The World To Come:
A short story can be made to do pretty much anything you want. As a writer, one of my main preoccupations is how life bears down on the human character – and the story is an incredibly versatile mode for examining that.
It also has yields an artistic result in a relatively short time. It’s exciting to read that first draft and see the pattern of symbols and phrases emerging -- it’s one of the most addictive things about writing fiction. It allows us to get into contact with what Natalie Goldberg calls “the wild mind.”
When I heard about this anthology of speculative fiction, The World To Come, I felt like it was an invitation to write very freely. My mind latched onto the term “speculative fiction.” I knew it as an umbrella term for all sorts of writing – sci-fic, dystopian and so forth – but personally, I found the term liberating. My story would not have to conform to realist constraints.
I started with a character, Karol, who was suffering from a recurring dream, an unpleasant, lucid dream. She didn’t know -- though I knew -- that this was not a flashback, but a ‘flash forward’ or a premonition. I decided to set the story in the French city of Colmar, where I’d been inspired by the dense atmospheres of the old buildings and streets. This seemed an interesting contrast– Karol’s uncomfortable sense of the future, in the setting of Colmar, a place thick with the past.
Karol is still in love with Jarvis, who’s left her; all the time she feels troubled by a future that she no longer shares with him. I realized that I was exploring how we can be haunted by things that haven’t yet happened. This is true for Karol; she is haunted by what won’t happen, and she’s also being hunted down by what will happen.
And so the pattern emerged.
As I revised the story, I saw a third element of time – or rather, what is not time. Karol’s premonitions are of a death – a murder, to be specific – giving rise to the question of what happens after death? Is there some sphere alongside our own, even in dialogue with our own, that is not time bound?
As a practitioner, I find writing to be at its most exhilarating when we let the unconscious, (or the wild mind), shows us something. This is also a great way to read. When we read stories from The World to Come – and indeed any short story – we can ask this question. What are we being shown? Can we treat these tales as clues to the larger riddle of our existence?
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