Improvisation Within a Loosely Defined World: Michael Townsend's A Dark Room


Michael Townsend’s recent game A Dark Room is an experiment in paced narrative and has been featured on various gaming sites, including Kotaku, GiantBomb, and BoingBoing. Unstuck talked with him about his work, and about games and narrative generally.

Interview by Allie Werner

UNSTUCK: So, what do you do when you're not making games?

MICHAEL TOWNSEND: I'm a professional software engineer. I work on web applications, mostly. I spend the rest of my time playing games (both digital and cardboard) and writing games, though I can be convinced to go out to the pub on occasion.

UNSTUCK: What are you playing right now, cardboard and otherwise?

MICHAEL TOWNSEND:  Lately, I'm playing a lot of Wildstar. Also burning through the new Telltale series as they arrive. In the cardboard realm, we either play a whole lot of Cosmic Encounter or a whole lot of Magic: The Gathering.

UNSTUCK: What made you decide to make a text-based game?

MICHAEL TOWNSEND: Honestly? Limited resources. I've started work on many games, and all of them end up sad little half-finished things. Folders on my hard drive that make me feel bad, but that I can't bring myself to delete. Generally, that's because I don't really like drawing. I'm not good at it, and it's really hard. Then I played Candy Box, and knew I would actually finish one of those.

UNSTUCK: So working with text allowed you focus on gameplay and storytelling without having to worry about graphics.


UNSTUCK: It's interesting you mention Candy Box. I  found Candy Box after playing A Dark Room while I was looking for similar games. But while A Dark Room really grabbed me from beginning to end, I'm not sure if I'll ever finish Candy Box.

MICHAEL TOWNSEND: Well, A Dark Room wouldn't exist had aniwey not built Candy Box. Candy Box is longer, and it doesn't really have a cohesive narrative. It uses different styles of mechanics to hook you, and different mechanics work for different people. The main focus of the project was to take the framework defined by Candy Box and apply narrative to it.

UNSTUCK: So how did you go about developing the narrative for A Dark Room? What's distinctive about writing a game as opposed to writing static story? How do you plot things out?

MICHAEL TOWNSEND: I haven't written a static story since high school, really, but I wrote A Dark Room pretty much the same way I always wrote back then. It's mostly improvisation within a loosely defined world. I might have a major plot point or two pinned down at the beginning, but I really do just make it up as I go along. Writing for games isn't really all that different, but you have to deliver the plot in a very different way.

UNSTUCK: How so?

MICHAEL TOWNSEND: You need to take player agency into account. A game doesn't satisfy unless the player feels like they have some control over the outcome of the game. In a narrative game, the outcome is generally narrative (rather than score, victory, etc...), and so the player needs to feel like the narrative involved them. The best games do this through trickery.

UNSTUCK: That's something I think about quite a lot in regards to games. How games attempt, successfully or unsuccessfully, to create the illusion that the player is constructing the narrative when in fact everything is pre-written.

MICHAEL TOWNSEND: It's more or less the medium's defining quality. Telltale does it brilliantly. Other games actually opt to do it for real, with varying results. The Witcher 2 famously pulled it off with gusto.

UNSTUCK: In your own game development, what do you do to try to make the reader feel personally involved in the story?

MICHAEL TOWNSEND: In A Dark Room, I did a little trickery, but mostly I just didn't tell the story. I wasn't sure if it would work, but it looks like it did. Among certain crowds, at least. I told the story mostly through suggestion, and let the player build the narrative for themselves. When you feel like you've come up with the lot, you feel agency even though the writer had you by the hand the whole time through the mechanics and environment. I always find stories more engaging when there is plenty left unsaid.

UNSTUCK: I don't want to spoil the game's plot too much, but I will say that it gives the player the opportunity to move through three different kinds of gameplay as the world expands. How did you develop this expanding structure?

MICHAEL: I came up with game modes at the same time I as thinking about the plot. I knew I wanted the game to grow in scope with each shift, with the previous mode serving as the foundation for the next. Two modes were actually dropped from the game that reinforced this even more. I liked the idea of "zooming out" the mechanics because it dovetailed nicely with the way I wanted to gradually reveal the game world.

UNSTUCK: How did A Dark Room originate?

MICHAEL TOWNSEND: Well, A Dark Room originated about 10 minutes into Candy Box. I thought that the incremental nature of the game was brilliant, and I felt like it had great potential for delivering narrative. I didn't really sleep very well that night. By the next day, I knew what I was building. Making games is something I've been interested in for as long as I can remember. I love programming for the same reason I love games, and games are the most fun I can have with programming.

UNSTUCK: What reason is that?

MICHAEL TOWNSEND: Puzzles. A good game is a puzzle, just like a good problem to solve in code.

UNSTUCK: What resources would you recommend to someone interested in learning how to build games?

MICHAEL TOWNSEND:  Game design is the most important aspect, I think. A poorly programmed game can still be excellent if its design is good, while a badly designed game can't be saved by even the most elegant of code. Play lots of games. Play good games and bad games and think about what it is that makes them that way. When you understand why the good games are good, it's much easier to build one. Also, watch everything produced by the fine folks at Extra Credits.

Programming is a whole different beast but, similarly, the best way to learn is to dive in. Folks who are totally new to the concept should take a look at Codecademy. It's intuitive, free, and will teach you enough to get you started. Some may disagree, but I think Javascript is a great language to learn with. There's no need for compilers, libraries, or scary-looking IDEs, and you can see the results of your code instantly in your web browser. The MDN has a great starting point here. Once you've got the basics down, head over to and play around. 

Oh, and if you're more inclined toward writing than coding you might want to check out Twine. With it, you can build some cool interactive narrative experiences with no coding required.

UNSTUCK: What are you reading right now?

MICHAEL TOWNSEND: That's an embarrassing question, because the answer is nothing. I love to read when I have the time, but it's probably number three or four on my priority list. When I do read, though, it's usually non-fiction, good sci-fi, or weird Grant Morrison comics.

UNSTUCK: Do you have any other projects in the works?

MICHAEL TOWNSEND: If I didn't, I'd have time to read. It's pretty different, though, and I fear that those who loved A Dark Room might hate it. But it's what I find interesting right now, so it's what's happening.

UNSTUCK: Any final thoughts?

MICHAEL TOWNSEND: If nothing else, I hope that A Dark Room has gotten a few more people interested in making their own games. You can actually build something cool pretty quickly. The world needs more people building cool things, I think. I kind of rely on it for my entertainment.
Post by Allie Werner 

"At its heart, wrestling is all about the 'Tinkerbell moment,' that moment in Peter Pan when Tinkerbell lies dead and the outraged audience shouts and claps and cheers; desperate to change the outcome. The best wrestling crowds are the ones who are united in their belief that if they believe hard enough; if they clap hard enough; if they shout hard enough – they can change the outcome."

- Michael Ryan, “I Am El Generico's Father”

When I moved to New York I got a roommate, and my roommate got me into professional wrestling. On Monday nights I would wander through the living room and sit through part of a WWE match. I liked the stunts, and the soap opera dramas enacted on the stage, but I never had my Tinkerbell moment. I didn't become invested enough in the WWE narratives to feel my heart in my throat when a favorite wrestler was in danger of losing a match.

Then she introduced me to Kaiju Big Battel.

Wrestling is fiction. I know that. You know that. Nearly everyone who watches wrestling knows that. Kaiju Big Battel is an indie wrestling group that takes wrestling's fictionality and runs with it.

While a mainstream wrestling circuit like the WWE features broadly sketched characters and ongoing plots, it likes to stay tethered to reality. As the WWE constructs its narratives, it creates stories that are ostensibly occurring within the same world that its audience lives in.

Kaiju Big Battel, meanwhile, has men and women in monster costumes performing piledrivers into cardboard buildings. When wrestling abandons any pretense of being an unscripted contest, something wonderful happens. It can embrace any sort of framing narrative. Kaiju Big Battel takes its cues from monster movies, kung fu epics, and comic books.

Kaiju Big Battel doesn't follow the laws of our world. There is no conservation of mass. The biology is a mess. One of Kaiju Big Battel's most beloved teams is Los Plantanos, twin brothers who are also giant, anthropomorphic plantains. Ancient viking warriors battle space bugs and demons and sea monsters. Heroes ultimately triumph and villains receive their comeuppance. Kaiju Big Battel's laws are, ultimately, narrative ones.

This is why Kaiju Big Battel works so well. There is no awkward mapping of the narrative necessities of wrestling onto the practicalities of our reality. Instead, the audience agrees to enter the internal logic of a live action Saturday morning cartoon. Kaiju Big Battel constructs its own hyperreality of heightened colors and flying kicks that reads as brighter, truer than our everyday real.

Unlike cartoon characters, however, the wrestlers are aware of their audience. They react to the audience's boos and adulation. The participatory nature of a wrestling show allows the audience to feel that they, personally, are cheering their favorites towards an uncertain victory. Even though the results of the match are scripted, those are real people in fake monster costumes slamming each other into the mat. They can hear you.

Wrestling exists within a twilight zone of real and not-real. Kaiju Big Battel, by embracing its unreality, felt realer to me than any other wrestling match I'd ever seen.

I attended my first Kaiju Big Battel match a few months ago. Along with the rest of the audience, I screamed. I shouted. I stamped my feet and clapped my hands until they burned. At the climax of the match, as the Baby Sky Deviler emerged from the wreckage of the Internet and sent evil monsters flying with a gentle push of its small paws, I knew that I, somehow, had helped bring that event into being.

I was so proud of all of us.

*   *   *

Photos and wrassle facts courtesy of Sarah Jacoby.

Interview: Lindsay Hunter


You got the cat you came to know as Milton the day that Indonesian man phoned up to say he wouldn’t be meeting you at the Sizzle Steak because your new hairdo reminded him of a hive of blood beetles, which was a bad omen, and while he was at it your perfume reminded him of his momma’s deathbed breath, and finally he spluttered how you make him sad, and that was really the thing of it, this put you off so much you didn’t deign to ask him what a blood beetle was, even though that was the best part of the Indonesian man, the exotic facts he could drop into a conversation, like that time he mentioned in passing that he boiled his shoes every week, and was a blood beetle an annoyance similar to the house roach or was it a horror similar to a flying ant, you don’t know and now you never will, you daubed some hand soap on your pulse points so you wouldn’t smell like breath no more and you went to the Pets 'n Friends and walked straight to the kitten bucket and pointed, a little boy said Uhl, that thing got a noface, and you told the boy Better than too much face, biglips, and you named that cat Milton and you tried not to look directly into its face, cause you remembered the Indonesian man saying how cats can hypnotize you into digging out your own internal organs and offering them up as an afternoon snack.

     —from “You and Your Cats” (Unstuck #1)

Lindsay Hunter is a writer living in Chicago, where she hosts the Quickies! reading series. Her collection of slim fictions, Daddy’s, was released in 2010.

Interview by Allie Werner

UNSTUCK: How did this story originate? What made you want to write about a cat lady?

LINDSAY HUNTER: Well, originally I wanted to write a story about a middle-aged woman who took a roommate. I wrote that story and it didn't do what I wanted it to do. It was flat. Then, I was asked to read at a local reading series, P. Fanatics, with a theme of "cats." So I kind of molded the two ideas into a Voltron story. And I wanted, also, to explore the impulses behind collecting.

UNSTUCK: Now I have the image of a literary Voltron in my head. Which element of this story would be the arms?

LINDSAY HUNTER: One arm would be a centipede of cats. The other would be the Indonesian man.

UNSTUCK: Do you have any collections of your own?

LINDSAY HUNTER: Yes! Okay, look, I believe inanimate objects have feelings. I am constantly filled with anxiety that I'm hurting everything's feelings. (My husband has the same illness.) Exhibit A: Last weekend when putting the ladder away, we both agreed the ladder shouldn't be shut in a room alone in the basement, but should be amongst other basement flotsam, amongst "friends." So, anyway, that has led to a lot of hand-wringing about throwing anything out. I collect books, folk art, and every every every item I can find from my childhood. You're shrieking into your hands, aren't you?

UNSTUCK: I feel like anthropomorphization of objects is a pretty common instinct, actually.


UNSTUCK: I mean, I think everyone does it during childhood. We all have a security object of some sort.

LINDSAY HUNTER: I used to, before getting into bed with my first lover (I did just use that word, oh God), put my stuffed animals "to bed" by laying them down on a pillow and covering them with a blanket.

UNSTUCK: I used to worry about certain toys getting jealous of other toys if I played with them more.
LINDSAY HUNTER: Yes. Precisely!

UNSTUCK: Today, I try to keep my stuff pared down to a minimum because I move around a lot, but I can't get rid of books or small plastic toys. Like, the random French fry transformers from 90s Happy Meals.

LINDSAY HUNTER: Oh, you have to keep those.

UNSTUCK: And speaking of anthropomorphism, one of the things I really liked about "You and Your Cats" was that the cats weren't actually anthropomorphized that much. They felt very animal and indifferent.

LINDSAY HUNTER: Right! I wanted the woman to be cat-thropomorphized. Folded into the pack. Is that what a group of cats is called? Pack? Harem? The cats and the woman, they live together out of necessity.

UNSTUCK: A pride? Like lions?

LINDSAY HUNTER: There we go!

UNSTUCK: So she becomes kind of the inverse of dogs dressed in fashionable sweaters.

LINDSAY HUNTER: Right. She is slowly becoming cooled to society. Retreating into her own world.

UNSTUCK: I went down a weird Internet rabbit hole after reading your story, because I decided to Google what cat food tastes like. And I found a very detailed Yahoo Answers thread about it. Apparently it has some human fans. What do you imagine cat food tastes like?

LINDSAY HUNTER: That does not surprise me! I imagine it tastes like chewed Spam. Which itself already tastes chewed. The oil of it coats your tongue, and there are sudden chewy pieces. With every chew you think the word, "doody." Delicious, in other words!

UNSTUCK: I imagined it as a mix of Spam and creamed tuna. With some peas.

LINDSAY HUNTER: Ooh, good call.

UNSTUCK: Why did you decide to go with a second person narration in this story? Did it just naturally go that way during your first draft, or did you shift to it later?

LINDSAY HUNTER: Oh, yeah, it started that way. I rarely go back and make huge changes once I've got a story totally down. As for why I went with second person, I love the simultaneous closeness and distance you can get with it. And for this story, that felt like the right choice for the character. You know her pain, but she is still withdrawn.

UNSTUCK: When I was first reading the story, I also felt like the "you" emphasized the fact that she had no one to talk to. I, as a reader, felt almost complicit in her loneliness.

LINDSAY HUNTER: Wow! I love that.

UNSTUCK: You have a book of "slim fictions" out called Daddy's.

LINDSAY HUNTER: This is true!

UNSTUCK: What attracts you to slim fiction as a form?

LINDSAY HUNTER: Man, so much. I love the immediacy of it. I love how an entire world can be shown in just a matter of moments. Which any great fiction does. Longer stories, novels, etc. There is a world in every sentence. I love the stakes of short fiction. I love how it seems, to me anyway, that word choice is just as essential as plot.

It's like poetry in that way. I had an argument with a professor once about whether or not a story I had written was a poem or a story, and I feel like that is the tension I want in everything I write or read.

UNSTUCK: What are you reading right now?

LINDSAY HUNTER: I just finished The Sisters Brothers and I loved it. Every sentence was so careful and essential. It was funny and violent. Now I'm reading The Vanishers and the language in it feels bright, fresh, new. I am only about 50 pages in but I am enjoying it a lot.

UNSTUCK: Is there anything else you wanted to talk about before we wrap up?

LINDSAY HUNTER: Anyone reading this, be kind to your stuffed animals. Don't write crap. Don't read crap either.

*   *   * 

Allie Werner is a graduate of Reed College. Before joining Unstuck as an Assistant Editor, she read slush for Tin House and interned with American Short Fiction. Her first published story appeared in Storyglossia last summer. She can be found online at A. is A. In her spare time she enjoys coffee and comic books, preferably simultaneously.

Interview: John Maradik and Rachel B. Glaser


“I want a boyfriend,” Norene says.

“Are you alone? No,” says Priest Paul. “God can be your friend. Jesus is when your vision narrows and you can’t stop feeling warm,” he says. A beam of light blinds him. He slumps as if shot. Someone yawns and his eyes snap open. Priest Paul reminds me of an undernourished horse. He seems to be carrying a load that is endangering his life. I decide I like him a lot.

I’ve seen pictures of him at Priest School having the time of his life. Days he would study scripture; nights him and a priest-friend would hit the streets, helping. “You’d be surprised how many lost souls there are, every night, drunk and wandering. We would help them find their cars. Women would be all dressed up, stood up by their dates, and we would take them dancing, politely refusing drink.”

During Elementary Service, Priest Paul would rock side-to-side pretending we were at sea. Running back and forth, yelling for the sails. “To the canoe-pews!” he’d shriek, wiping ocean spray from his face. “Yes, good, now the bow, run to the bow! The bow! Remember which is the bow?” “Yes, yes, now, all hands on deck!” Out of breath, we’d slide to the floor and put our hands around the podium. At Teen Service, Priest Paul was more subdued. He tried to match our nonchalance, but it came more naturally to us.

     —from “Peer Confession” (Unstuck #1)

John MaradikRachel B. Glaser met at UMass-Amherst’s MFA Program. Maradik’s work has been published by 14 Hills and American Short Fiction. He is the winner of the 2010 Bamby Holmes Award. Glaser is the author of the short story collection Pee On Water.

Interview by Allie Werner

UNSTUCK:  Writing has a reputation as a solitary activity. One of the things that first interested me about "Peer Confession" was the fact that it's a collaborative work. What prompted you to collaborate with another writer?

JOHN MARADIK:  This story was our first collaboration. Rachel and I were in a workshop together at U. Mass and our professor was looking for volunteers to turn in a story first round. Nobody had work ready so Rachel and I said if we could collaborate, it was likely we could crank something out in time. As soon as we opened up a Google Doc together, things got pretty weird. I think our story started off with both Rachel and I trying to impress each other with funny or out of control sentences. We were in love and living together in a loft apartment with no walls. Out of the swamp of sentences we were creating, a story began to emerge. Something about a church. Something about a crazy priest. It’s almost like the story wrote itself.  As the deadline neared things got a little desperate and we sat by a lake frantically brainstorming in a notebook and then we wolfed down food at a breakfast buffet. It took a year of casual editing to get the story to where it is. 

UNSTUCK:  Did you feel like writing a story together provided a different set of challenges from writing alone?

RACHEL B. GLASER:  Yes, it definitely has a different set of challenges, but also a different set of rewards.  Occasionally, one of us will write a line we really like, and the other will want to cut it. The plus of this is that there is constant editing occurring with two sets of eyes, so there's never is a really messy draft, or a lot of material to cut. The main reward is having someone to relate to during the writing process. Often, when you're writing a story alone, the story is like a one-person cave. Writing a story with John is always fun, because it's fun to read the story aloud to each other and to talk about the story when not writing it.  Also, writing collaboratively makes the story feel alive. The story gains lines that I didn’t write. Though they come from John, it almost feels like they come from the story, like the story is helping us write it.

UNSTUCK:  "Peer Confession" is a story about adolescence. What do you think is the most awkward part of being a teenager?

RACHEL B. GLASER:  I think the main awkwardness is also what’s so exciting about it: trying to figure out who you are, and who you want to be. At a certain age, teens’ looks and personalities combine to become a reputation. Do I wear make-up? Would I ever smoke a cigarette? I feel that someone in their early teens is trying to choose who they want to be, but that it is colored by who they guess they will be.  Having a close friend is this real merge—by association and influence. There is a real freedom in the separation between adults and classmates. I remember feeling this “kid feeling” really early on in life, watching Nickelodeon and MTV. It felt like they were channels for my brother and I and not for my parents or other adults. This apartness is a sort of wilderness. In “Peer Confession,” Doris is trying to understand if her braces and her church are holding her back, and also if she minds being held back. Is she ready for what would come next?

UNSTUCK:  The story contains two competing churches, one that encourages peer confession and orthodontia, and one (Church Hello) that throws surreally wild parties.  If you two founded your own individual religions, what would their main tenets be?

RACHEL B. GLASER:  Music and dancing are such a powerful and natural way to make humans happy, so I think my religion might be more of a disco or house party. Not unlike Church Hello, actually!

JOHN MARADIK:  My church would also involve lots of dancing, but gardening too. I don’t think I like gardening, but planting things in the earth is probably important and sacred even though it is too much work to be fun. So I guess you could only eat unprocessed foods in my religion. Bob Marley and Louis Armstrong would be the gospel music. One love, one heart, etc. Meditation and yoga would be part of my religion too. But no yoga classes. Just a free-form stretching sort of thing in a room full of mats with vaporized weed streaming through the ventilation system. Astronomical observation would also be mandatory. Acupuncture would be mandatory. But not ritualistic. There would be no rituals. As soon as something started feeling like a ritual I would change the religion completely. I would also abolish cell phones and computers and jobs.

UNSTUCK:  I would probably join both of those sects. So, what are you two reading right now?

JOHN MARADIK:  Right now I am reading The Pillow Book of Sei Shonagon and the New and Selected Poems of Mary Oliver. This Pillow Book is the non-fiction diary of an 11th century Japanese court lady.  Here is a quote: “A preacher ought to be good-looking. For, if we are properly to understand his worthy sentiments, we must keep our eyes on him while he speaks; should we look away, we may forget to listen. Accordingly an ugly preacher may well be the source of sin.” Very relevant to our story, huh? Anyways, the book is filled with these quirky and beautiful observations. I think Rachel was intending to read this book first . . .  but I am stealing it! As for the Mary Oliver, just about every poem is a stunner.

RACHEL B. GLASER:  Though the books of James Purdy sit gloriously unread on my shelf like the six books of the Mishnah and the five books of the Torah, I’ve been reading other places. Some of what I’ve read recently has been the poems of Christopher Deweese and Heather Christle. These two poets are friends of mine and John’s, and are married.  Their work is not collaborative, but it is interesting to think of these two personalities and sensibilities existing side by side, influencing and entertaining each other.

UNSTUCK: Where can we find more of your work?

JOHN MARADIK: Check out Rachel’s book Pee On Water— one of the best collections of short stories ever written by a person on their own!

RACHEL B. GLASER:  We are currently trying to place a story of ours called “First Semester,” and hope to start another story this summer.  It was an honor to have our first story in Unstuck alongside such wild and varied stories!

*   *   * 

Allie Werner is a graduate of Reed College. Before joining Unstuck as an Assistant Editor, she read slush for Tin House and interned with American Short Fiction. Her first published story appeared in Storyglossia last summer. She can be found online at A. is A. In her spare time she enjoys coffee and comic books, preferably simultaneously.

Interview: Marisa Matarazzo


She wears a pack strapped to her back containing a bladder containing drinking water that has been filtered through a sieve that has some properties that make electrolytes stick to the water molecules as they pass through. She drinks gallons of it. Sucks it from a rubber mouthpiece at the end of a rubber tube that extends from the bladder in the backpack. She is also taking whole handfuls of detoxifying herbal supplements from the natural foods store. Their job is to attach to the bad crap that has gone into a body over the course of a life, and expel it. I am not cleansing along with her. I haven’t decided if I want to. I think I don’t want to.

Black dye is sweating from her pores. As a teenager she dyed her hair black and apparently it went into her body and now, finally, with all these carrots and special water and supplements, is coming out. Her forehead looks sooty. Like she’s gone jogging through a mineshaft. She is wearing a white cotton long sleeved shirt and she swipes her sleeve across her face like an athlete and a charcoal smear appears in the folds around her elbow.

“Look at this shit,” she says. She is still chewing. I can see carrots bits in her mouth. She plucks the rubber tube from its hook on the shoulder strap of the backpack, takes a pull, swallows, rehooks it, and points at the schmutz on her shirt. “That’s my insides.”

     —from “Fontanel” (Unstuck #1)

Marisa Matarazzo is author of Drenched: Stories of Love and Other Deliriums. Her fiction has appeared online and in literary journals such as FiveChapters, The Nervous Breakdown, Faultline, and HOBART.

Interview by Allie Werner

UNSTUCK:  After I read this story for the first time, I went back and looked up the title and found that a fontanel is the soft spot on a baby's head. Did the title come before the story, or vice versa?

MARISA MATARAZZO:  The title came after. The narrator in the story is questioning or examining his or her brain, is worried something's gone wrong with it. Feels that it's not been protected from the world, or life, or feelings/experiences. Much like I imagine the soft spot on a baby's head—it leaves the brain vulnerable.

UNSTUCK:  I find that "his or her" in your response illuminating. On a first read, I assumed that the narrator was male, but later realized that the story never revealed the narrator's gender.

MARISA MATARAZZO:  Yes, the narrator's gender is never specified.

UNSTUCK: Did choosing to keep the narrator's gender ambiguous affect how you conceptualized him or her as a character?

MARISA MATARAZZO:  I think the gender-ambiguous narrator can be an exciting choice because it leaves room in the reader's mind to project his or her understanding of the situation, or to identify with the narrator. My experience as a reader is to cast the characters I read, as I read, assembling a play in my mind. And I guess who I cast is representative of my familiarity with and interpretation of the world. First-person narrators can lend themselves to gender ambiguity because that narrator is "I" and not "she" or "he.” English is tricky, because we don't have any gender-neutral pronouns for people. Except, of course, in the first person. And there's fun to be had with that.

UNSTUCK:  How did this story originate?

MARISA MATARAZZO:  I don't really remember. Which is probably how it originated.

I was noticing I was not remembering moments/events/stories, and as a writer, I thought, that's what I've got—a memory. And if that becomes so unreliable, that's a problem. Slap the panic button. But then it became an interest. A narrator who couldn't remember important things. That seems like a decent problem to examine, or try to solve. And doing that in a story engaged me.

UNSTUCK:  What's the most important thing you've ever forgotten?  And then, of course, remembered that you forgot it. Otherwise it'd be very difficult to answer this question.

MARISA MATARAZZO:  I feel like there are some important things I've forgotten then realized I've forgotten them, then re-remembered them, and hopefully handled them...  I'm sure they were traumatizing. And the result is I've blocked them out. I'll probably remember one of them tonight or tomorrow.

Sometimes I'll think about something, something I want to tell someone. I'll think about it enough that at some point, I'm not sure if I've told the person or maybe dreamt it. Then I'll tell the person and have to ask if I'm repeating myself.

UNSTUCK: I actually almost forgot we were having this interview today. Then I miscalculated the time zone difference and was convinced for about five minutes that I was two hours late.

MARISA MATARAZZO:  I love that you thought you were late for our interview. I rather like that experience. The rollercoaster drop that happens in the stomach. And immediate sweatiness. And then realizing everything's okay. And it's like the nicest breeze blowing by.

UNSTUCK:  Memory is notoriously unreliable. I noticed that in “Fontanel," the narrator relies heavily on the people around him or her to confirm what did and didn't happen.

MARISA MATARAZZO: Yeah, detective work. Eyewitness accounts that are equally unreliable.

UNSTUCK:  Have you ever embarked on a cleanse, or known anybody who did so? I was fascinated by the narrator's girlfriend walking around with her bowl of carrots and backpack full of specially distilled water. There's something very new age and ritualistic about cleansing trends.

MARISA MATARAZZO:  I've never done a cleanse, but I have friends who have. I live in L.A. Cleansing seems really popular here. And that bit about sweating out black hair dye came from high school—I remember talking to a woman years and years ago about a cleanse she did and she claimed it was so deep that her high school hair dye resurfaced through her pores. That image stuck with me.

UNSTUCK:  I found that scene to be one of the story's more surreal moments, so it's unsettling to imagine that actually happening to someone. It reminds me a little of those notoriously quackish foot cleansing detox pads that supposedly turn black by drawing toxins out of your body while you sleep. (It's actually  just oxidation of certain substances in the pads.)

MARISA MATARAZZO:  Yes! I've seen those commercials. And after the commercial I always want to purchase and use those pads! But not now, though. Not that you've told me what all that gunk is—that it's not actually internal life and body gunk at all. I'm disappointed.

UNSTUCK:  I think those products always have a strange kind of appeal, though, even when you know they don't really work. It's the idea of reversing one's past, almost.

MARISA MATARAZZO:  Yes, exactly. Or even taking account of one's past. Looking at the debris.

UNSTUCK:  What are you reading right now?

MARISA MATARAZZO:  I've been reading the collected stories of Lydia Davis. She floors me. I like to read her during moments of mind-quiet. When my brain is calm, her stories wander around in it so nicely. I've just started THREATS by Amelia Gray (who is also in Unstuck!) and am enjoying it. A story called "Toast" by Matt Sumell is in a recent issue of The Paris Review and it is delicious. I'm reading Ramona Ausubel's debut novel No One Is Here Except All of Us and Ismet Prcic's debut novel Shards. They are wonderful. I went to UCI for grad school with Matt and Mona and Izzy, and while these recommendations might come across as pluggish, the truth is, they're what I'm reading right now. And I'm finding it's really fun to read work by writers I know because I like to hear the actual sound of their voices in the prose. It feels so intimate.

UNSTUCK: Where can we find more of your work?

MARISA MATARAZZO:  You can read my book Drenched: Stories of Love and Other Deliriums. It's a collection of interconnected off-beat love stories. And hopefully soon I will have another book—I'm working on a piece now that has got my interest in its fist.

*   *   * 

Allie Werner is a graduate of Reed College. Before joining Unstuck as an Assistant Editor, she read slush for Tin House and interned with American Short Fiction. Her first published story appeared in Storyglossia last summer. She can be found online at A. is A. In her spare time she enjoys coffee and comic books, preferably simultaneously.

Interview: Joe Meno


Once we aped a couple fighting on the bus. Mary pretended to be the girl and I aped the guy. The girl was wiping her wet eyes and saying, “No, I don’t believe you. No,” and so Mary repeated the same thing. They didn’t notice us. The guy said, “What do I have to do? What do I have to do to get you to believe me?” and so I asked the same thing. We made faces at each other like people who were people trying to stay in love. It took a while for the couple to actually figure out what we were doing. When they saw the scene we were making, the guy grabbed me by the front of my shirt. He started yelling. “What the fuck are you doing? What the fuck are you doing?” I went limp, but Mary kept on going. “What the fuck are you doing? What the fuck are you doing?” she shouted, grabbing onto my shirt, too. The guy turned to her and pushed her and she fell down but by then the bus driver had stopped the bus and we ran off, stumbling into the night air, laughing.

     —from “Apes” (Unstuck #1)

Joe Meno is a fiction writer and playwright living in Chicago. He is the author of six novels, including The Great Perhaps and the just-released Office Girl, and two short story collections, including Demons in the Spring. His short fiction has been published in journals like McSweeney’s Quarterly Concern, One Story, Swink, LIT, Tri­Quarterly, Other Voices and Gulf Coast, and has been broadcast on NPR. He was a contributing editor to Punk Planet, the seminal underground arts and politics magazine.

Interview by Allie Werner

UNSTUCK: Way back in 2005, you gave an interview to Bookslut in which you discussed your belief that independent publishers were going to start majorly outshining and outmaneuvering the big publishing houses.  Now that we're here in the future, do you feel like that's already happening?  What do you find most exciting about independent publishing today?

JOE MENO: I still feel pretty strongly that small, independent publishers are a lot more willing to take risks in both content and form. If you look at the kinds of books Grove Press or McSweeney's or Akashic put out, there's a distinct feeling of daring.

I feel like Office Girl [Meno's latest novel] is daring in how slight and how quiet it is, and how pretty normal the characters are. That, believe it or not, doesn't fit in with what most contemporary literary publishers are putting out. Most contemporary novels are really interested in telling these epic stories, or dealing with contemporary events. Novels have become a lot more about information and how the world works than about people and how they relate to other people.

The fact that Akashic let me work with two great artists is also pretty bold. I've experimented with the relationship between the text and the actual layout in other books like Demons in the Spring and The Boy Detective Fails, which were both books Akashic published. They have a willingness to allow the writer to follow his curiosity. I've had these long conversations with Johnny Temple, the publisher, about what a book can do in the 21st century that other media can't.

UNSTUCK: I'd like to talk a little bit more about the drawings and photography in Office Girl, and your work with Cody Hudson and Todd Baxter. How did the collaboration with these other artists work?

JOE MENO: They're both good pals of mine. I finished a draft of the book and realized how central art was to the story and asked what ideas they might have, Cody immediately suggested certain ideas, then Todd suggested others, and we all began to agree that the artwork should reflect the tone of the book. We decided pretty quickly on small black-and-white drawings, to reference Odile's graffiti, and black-and-white snapshot photos. We wanted to create a sense of intimacy and also to connect to the zine tradition which is referenced in the book. Basically, make a book that was a zine or a kind of Jean-Luc Godard movie in book form. Again, that's pretty risky for a publisher to put out there.

UNSTUCK: Yeah—as I was reading the book, I often felt like I was reading a very long zine. Not just in regard to the multimedia content, but also to the choice of font, typesetting, and the actual physical size of the book.

JOE MENO: Cody and I looked at a lot of different fonts, experimented with different sizes,
colors. We wanted the actual physical shape, the font, to reflect what the book was about. Which was these brief moments that occur and then disappear. And how we spend a lot of
time trying to capture those moments. Which is basically writing. Or any kind of art. So we wanted all the design elements to have this small, temporary quality. Again, other
publishers I've worked with do not want to have these kinds of conversations. They want to hand you a cover and say, "this is your book."

UNSTUCK: I was wondering how much control you had as an author over the design of the book, because the physical design reflects its content so well. And it seems like you had quite a bit of input!

JOE MENO: That's one of the great advantages working with a smaller, independent publisher. For someone like me, who's looking at the relationship between form and content, it's a huge deal. I believe books, if they're to continue in printed form, have to offer an experience you can't get anywhere else. They have to be intimate. They have to be art objects. It was Cody's idea to add the actual zine insert into the book. Which, again, seems something so uniquely connected to the story and what a book can do.

UNSTUCK: I liked how the pages actually changed color to indicate the zine insert. It did make it seem like an external object had been stapled into the middle of this novel.

JOE MENO: Again, we were trying to find ways to make the experience of reading the book unlike other narrative experiences in film, television, or theatre.

UNSTUCK: It was strange for me to read a new book set in the late 90s, because I was born in '88 and the 90s are the first decade I have any memory of. What made you decide to set Office Girl in this particular time period?

JOE MENO: There're a few reasons it's set in 1999. I was in my mid-twenties in 1999, which is roughly the same age as the two main characters. There was something about the particular historical and cultural moment as well, where it felt like the entire planet was waiting for something important to happen—the end of the millennium, the end of Bill Clinton’s presidency, the end of the world—but that also felt oddly insular or safe. I feel lucky to have become a young adult in the 90s because there was nothing to worry about but art and music. Also, I have no idea how young people fall in love in the twenty-first century. There's all this technology now. I just wanted to focus on the characters.

UNSTUCK: It's interesting that you mention technology, because it really stood out to me that neither Odile nor Jack seemed to have a home computer.

JOE MENO: I didn't in 1999. I had this Radio Shack word processor that had one program on it. Though Jack is pretty contemporary in a lot of the ways he moves about the world. He constantly documents the world around him using his tape player. It's pretty much the same as texting or Facebook. It's digital graffiti.

UNSTUCK: Exactly. The relationship between the characters, their situations, and their mannerisms all felt very contemporary to me, which is why differences in the forms of
technology and documentation are what made me go, "This is a sort of period piece."

JOE MENO: Yeah, like I said, I was twenty-five in ‘99 and it usually takes me ten years or so to write about what was happening to me.

UNSTUCK: I noticed you included a list of theme music in the back pages of Office Girl, and I really liked that little addendum. Do you often listen to music as you write? Do you find that music informs your writing, or does what you're writing reflect your music choices?

JOE MENO: I can't listen to music while I'm actually writing. But I try to capture some of the same tone or mood from a group of artists. I've done this for all the novels I've written. I try to identify the sound, the mood of the book through music and then translate it to words. It's like taking something abstract and trying to give some kind of form. Cody Hudson and I actually sent some songs back and forth as we were figuring out the design elements.

UNSTUCK: So how did Office Girl originate?

JOE MENO: It started as a short story, then it was a play, and then I wrote it as a novel. I've done this for a number of my other novels. Writing it as a short story helps me get it down. Writing it as a play helps me figure out the characters and scenes. And then when I develop it as a novel, I'm looking at the relationship between form and content.

UNSTUCK: "Apes," the story of yours that appears in the debut issue of Unstuck, seems to address some of the same art and performance issues that Office Girl does. Gorilla/guerilla art.

JOE MENO: Ha! Gorilla/guerilla. I never thought of that. Over the last three years, I wrote about five or six stories about young people, people in their twenties. In some way, they all had something to do with art and sex. This is usually when I realize, “Oh, this is all probably going to end up as a novel.” So “Apes” was one of those. It definitely has a darker feel than Office Girl and some of the other young "art school people in love" pieces I wrote. But the idea of two people doing these public exercises, and how that affects their relationship, is pretty consistent with the book. To be honest, I'm really proud of the ending of “Apes.” I have no idea why.

UNSTUCK: It’s a bit of a surreal moment, but in a way it feels natural and plausible.

JOE MENO: I really like that he goes off with the weird, Christian girl. I feel like I know a lot of people like that. People are desperately looking for someone, anyone, a little stronger, a little more ambitious than them. It's how the punk kids I used to know all became Born-Again. They went from one dogma to another.

UNSTUCK: Yes, there's this interesting, almost invisible power struggle going on between Mary and the Christian girl on the bus. Where the girl is being mocked, but she's trying to avoid being hurt.

JOE MENO: Yeah, the Christian girl wins. Because she's nicer. There's no meaning behind that, other than the narrator is kind of weak and knows at some point Mary is going to be through with him.

The soundtrack for that story would be This Bike is a Pipebomb's "Mouseteeth."

UNSTUCK: In "Apes," the two main characters spend most of their free time imitating other people. A good portion of the aping sessions in this story seem to take place on public transit. Why do you think public transit works so well as a setting in short fiction? What's the strangest encounter you've had while riding the bus?

JOE MENO: That's a good question. Short fiction is all about compression. Compression of time, event, dramatic arc. And most important of all, the use of opposites. So public places work well, because there are usually lots of different kinds of people forced up beside
each other. There's Flannery O'Connor's majestic bus story “Everything That Rises Must Converge.”

As for the last part of the question, I don't take the bus. I take the subway. For some reason, at least in Chicago, there's a very different atmosphere on the El. The bus—and this is terrible to admit—is way more like a doctor's waiting room. There is a sense of frustration, confusion, disappointment, and rage. Most people who ride the bus are not doing it because they want to, which lends it the place to be particularly dramatic.

UNSTUCK: Office Girl, meanwhile, features a lot of bicycles. So, bikes versus public transit. Which is the superior form of literary transportation?

JOE MENO: For a sad story about ruined people, the bus. For a love story, bicycles.

UNSTUCK: What are you reading right now?

JOE MENO: Stanley Elkin's Criers and Kibbitzers, Kibbitzers and Criers. It's a short story collection. He was this major post-modern, extremely imaginative powerhouse. He won the National Book Critics Circle prize twice and he's all but forgotten now. He's really a progenitor of what you guys are doing in Unstuck.

*   *   * 

Allie Werner is a graduate of Reed College. Before joining Unstuck as an Assistant Editor, she read slush for Tin House and interned with American Short Fiction. Her first published story appeared in Storyglossia last summer. She can be found online at A. is A. In her spare time she enjoys coffee and comic books, preferably simultaneously.

Interview: Judson Merrill


Whatever the guards sent in smells strongly of cardboard and fish. Fish. That’s a smell from back home, from when I was a boy.

The smell is so strong that for an hour I am disoriented. I have to rely on my hearing. Even my body makes a noise, like any running piece of machinery. At night sometimes I climb to the administrative wing, the top of the T. It’s quiet there and I can listen to my skin growing, sloughing off, growing. I can hear my heart pumping—that’s loud—but also my blood rushing. If I’m close enough, my noise and my body heat bounce off the walls. It’s vision of a sort, maybe like a bat’s.

In the kitchen, putting rolls in my pocket, I hear the thing they sent in after me. It scuttles past, over my head, in the ducts. It sounds like it has knives for feet. If it finds me, it will kill me.

     —from “Inside Out” (Unstuck #1)

Judson Merrill’s work has appeared or is forthcoming in McSweeney’s Internet Tendency, dispatch, Used Furniture Review, and Stolen Island Review. He is a regular contributor to Electric Literature’s blog, and is the author of the novella The Pool.

Interview by Allie Werner

UNSTUCK:  Where did the idea for "Inside Out" originate?

JUDSON MERRILL:  The original thing I wanted to write about was a prisoner who escaped his cell but was still in prison. But I think that first draft was set in a regular, on-Earth prison. And all the stuff about his senses slowly withering, that came along as I sat there trying to imagine what it would be like to live in the walls. But, yes, originally, it was a normal prison and there was more hope that the narrator would break out. I think there might have even been a fight with the warden.

UNSTUCK:  One of the interesting things to me about the setting of this story is how many layers of imprisonment the narrator is functioning under. He's in the walls, in a prison, in a city, under a dome, on another planet. So I thought it worked very well that his "escape" basically involved moving towards a deeper interior, as opposed to escaping outside. There isn't really an outside to escape to.

JUDSON MERRILL:  Yeah. Pretty grim. That's part of why I started adding the outer space setting. His initial escape goes so poorly, it seemed like a good idea to pile on and basically make it so even a successful escape would be fruitless.  I like the idea that life in the walls might actually be the best outcome for this guy. I really like stories where people figure out how to do things, where we see someone learn about and gain control of something extreme. So I get a kick out of figuring out how someone might make a . . . maybe not a happy life, but a functional life in the walls of a space prison.

UNSTUCK:  And maybe make friends with a giant land spider.


UNSTUCK:  Speaking of giant land spiders, I'd like to talk a little bit more about the setting. You mentioned you partially chose the space colony setting to make the idea of escape particularly impossible. What fictional or non-fictional influences did you draw on while constructing the setting for this story? What drew you to a bleaker, as opposed to a more utopian, vision of space colonization?

JUDSON MERRILL:  I am fascinated by our relationship here on earth with oil. We've spent a century finding new ways to get it out of the ground. Increasingly elaborate. Now with shale gas and tar sands, we're digging up oil we never could have accessed before. I want to believe that technology can swoop in and provide clean and renewable energy, but I think human nature is more likely to steer technology toward maximizing the resources we already use, digging up more and more remote fossil fuels. So! Eventually we'll go do this in space. Or, at least, that's a useful exaggeration of our current attitude. So once I set this story in space, it made sense to me that the colony would be in the extraction business. What else could be worth the expense of going all that way? I also had a space prison I had to justify and that implied a sizable number of malcontents. And I wasn't really interested in my guy being in prison for a personal crime. That's a different sort of prison story. Something political seemed better.

UNSTUCK:  I'm going to bring up the land spiders again, because I really liked the land spiders. This story managed to make me feel sympathetic to a giant spider. Why do arthropods get such short shrift in fiction?

JUDSON MERRILL:  Yeah, the land spider's a big hit. Which is nice, because I like him, too. Over the past few months, I've wandered through several discussions about the role of animals in fiction. Are they props or people in disguise or mirrors or can they be their own characters? I'm not sure how I feel about it. I guess it's possible that in order to make a land spider interesting I just treated him like a silent person. I also suspect the phrase "land spider" just has some inherent appeal. What do you think? Can animals ever function like animals or are they always working in some other way?

UNSTUCK:  Hmm. I think especially in short fiction, every element has to be fairly carefully chosen and placed. So if an animal appears in a story, we expect it to do some sort of work for the story.  I've noticed a trend lately towards the avoidance of anthropomorphism, though, in the sense of seeing more fictional animals act like animals, even as they perform some needed role or foil for the human characters.

JUDSON MERRILL:  Ooo, interesting. Do you have any examples at the tip of your mind?

UNSTUCK:  Well, I interviewed Lindsay Hunter about "You and Your Cats" the other day. One of the things we talked about was how the protagonist is more "cat-thropomorphized" in the story than the cats are anthropomorphized. I felt something similar while reading "Inside Out." The narrator doesn't truly anthropomorphize the land spider; he avoids naming it, etc. But by living in the walls, he develops in such a way that he almost resembles the land spider. There's a great part where he notices how good the spider is at squeezing into small spaces, and it echoes his comments about his own abilities. I particularly liked how much detail went into rendering how his senses changed over time, and his reliance on tactile and auditory cues.

JUDSON MERRILL:  That's a great way to think about the story. I love that. And maybe it's why the land spider works. He has a lot in common with the narrator. Senses other than the visual are not a strength of mine. I don't usually get so grounded in smell, and feel, and sound. This story was a little challenge to myself. Take away sight and see what I had to do to compensate.

UNSTUCK:  One of the conflicts in this story relates to the dome that separates the colony from the rest of the planet. The narrator argues that lowering the dome will expose the population to a bevy of alien diseases, and his dissent is what lands him in jail. Which disease, fictional or otherwise, would you least like to catch?

JUDSON MERRILL:  I'm not sure if it's a disease or a condition, but Fibrodysplasia ossificans progressiva sounds horrible. Essentially, your ligaments and muscles ossify and turn to bone. I also find Ebola particularly chilling. But I would never find myself in the position this character does. I'd be out front, cheering for the bubble to come down. I'm not much of a disease worrier.

UNSTUCK:  What's the ideal hiding place?

JUDSON MERRILL:  We had a cat when I was growing up. He was always an adventurer and he went missing several times as a kitten. We'd put up posters and offer rewards, the whole deal. But he always turned up. Once, he was missing for a day and we were all getting ready to go through another neighborhood search. But before we did, and hours after he'd gone missing, I opened the fridge and he was in there. Hanging out, eating some sliced turkey, happy as can be. Pretty good hiding place for a kitten. Until the oxygen runs out.

UNSTUCK:  So, what are you reading right now?

JUDSON MERRILL:  I just finished Elizabeth Bowen's The House in Paris. I liked it very much. Great, great child characters in that book. (They can be as hard for me as animals.) But now, nothing. The New Yorker. I'm revising a novel, which normally dulls my appetite for fiction a bit. But I do love me some long form journalism.

UNSTUCK:  Where can we find more of your work?

JUDSON MERRILL:  I have an e-novella out in the ether: The Pool. You can get it at Amazon or on Smashwords. It's about some young folks working for the summer at a water park. It's got lots of drinking and sex and, for fans of the land spider, a weird, unsettling creature that takes over the main characters' lives. 

*   *   * 

Allie Werner is a graduate of Reed College. Before joining Unstuck as an Assistant Editor, she read slush for Tin House and interned with American Short Fiction. Her first published story appeared in Storyglossia last summer. She can be found online at A. is A. In her spare time she enjoys coffee and comic books, preferably simultaneously.

Interview: Helen Phillips


It came swift and sudden up the row, moving fast against the cool dirt, a snake three feet long and as large around the middle as Roo’s arm, greenish scales glimmering poisonously. A scattering of strawberries, an overturned pail, we ran, not looking back, crushing strawberries, leaping over rows, down toward the stream where the thin man strolled with his murderous knife, we landed in the thin man’s arms, pressed ourselves into his chest so hard that if he’d not had his uncanny sturdiness surely we’d have knocked him to the ground. But as it was he held us and smiled upon us with red teeth. He murmured things, I forgot to mention the snakes, my apologies, Roo, my apologies, Rose, they’re harmless, overgrown garter snakes, a byproduct of the experimental strawberry plants, don’t worry, they’re everywhere, you’ll get used to them, all the while holding the half-moon knife in his left hand. I backed out of his embrace a few seconds before Roo. When I turned and looked back at the strawberry field, I saw that it was alive with snakes. It was shocking we hadn’t noticed them before. The whole field undulated, dull green bodies slithering among bright red strawberries.

Finally we returned to the strawberry field, our stomachs taut with cold water from the stream. We picked strawberries, filled pails. I attributed my stomachache to the snakes that slid by with repulsive frequency; only much later would I attribute it to the sight of the thin man stroking my sister’s hair extensions. Late in the day, when almost all the pails were full, a snake slid by yet again. Roo reached out and let the snake slip beneath her fingertips. She grinned and giggled. My nausea swelled and overflowed. I vomited red water onto a strawberry plant.

     —from “R” (Unstuck #1)

Helen Phillips is the author of the collection And Yet They Were Happy and the children’s books Here Where the Sunbeams Are Green and Upside Down in the Jungle. Her work has been featured in BOMB, Iowa Review, PEN America, Brooklyn Magazine, Mississippi Review, and Sonora Review, among other publications, and in the anthology American Fiction: The Best Previously Unpublished Short Stories by Emerging Authors. Her story “The Messy Joy of the Final Throes of the Dinner Party” will be featured on NPR’s Selected Shorts this fall. She received her MFA from Brooklyn College, where she now teaches undergraduate creative writing and administers the MFA program.

Interview by Allie Werner

UNSTUCK:  "R" follows Rose and Roo, a pair of identical sisters who begin to falter in their identities after they are moved from the city to an isolated farm. Do you feel like the relationship between siblings is distinct from the relationship between very close friends? Have you had any sibling-like friends, or friend-like siblings?

HELEN PHILLIPS:  My younger sister is very much in the friend-like sibling category for me; I consider her my closest friend. I do think there's something unique about the sibling relationship that can't quite be achieved in any friendship; your siblings understand as no outsider ever can the inner dynamics of your upbringing. When you're close with a sibling, it's a closeness that is born of a deep understanding.

UNSTUCK:  Rose and Roo are initially so close in this story that they function like a single unit. What made you decide to write from Rose's point of view instead of Roo's?

HELEN PHILLIPS:  Rose's journey in the story is a dark one, a journey toward solitude, while Roo's journey is a bright one, a journey toward love. I suppose it's always more interesting to explore the darker journey.

UNSTUCK:  "R" has a few science-fictional elements to it (climate-controlled parks, giant garter snakes), and your collection And Yet They Were Happy draws from fairy tales. In "R", the fantastic elements are fairly subtle, but they still make the sisters' world feel different from our own. Do you think about the world you're building before you begin constructing a story, or do you let the world develop as you write about it?

HELEN PHILLIPS:  Yes, much of my work is set in a slightly alternate reality, one which resembles our world in many ways but contains elements of science fiction. In a sense the setting of "R" is one that I've been developing in other works over the course of many years. I find that this science fiction quality gives me permission to make metaphors literal. The climate-controlled park reveals their lack of freedom; the crazy snakes are the first thing that divides them.

UNSTUCK:  I loved those crazy snakes. I actually think garter snakes are quite cute, but the description of the giant ones really repulsed me.

HELEN PHILLIPS:  Oh, good—I'm always happy to repulse!

UNSTUCK:  Which animal would you least like to see a giant version of?

HELEN PHILLIPS:  Hmm . . . I believe it would have to be an insect. Probably a cockroach. But then again, I do love Gregor Samsa, even when he's a large insect, and I recently wrote a story that's essentially a love letter to the first cockroach my husband and I ever saw in our apartment. I write about animals a lot.

UNSTUCK:  What do you think it is about giant animals that makes us nervous? I'm more likely to spare tiny spiders than large spiders when I find them inside my house.

HELEN PHILLIPS:  I think oversized animals, like the snakes in the story, make us feel out of whack in terms of our place on the power pyramid.

UNSTUCK:  That makes sense. I have a pet lizard, and I'm very aware of the fact that he would probably eat me if I was tiny or he was truck-sized.

HELEN PHILLIPS:  Yes, and house cats always seems just like lions to me! They'd kill us if they could.

UNSTUCK:  I think dogs would maybe spare us. Depending on the dog.

HELEN PHILLIPS: Yes, that's what makes dogs so charming.

UNSTUCK:  Here's another question relating to “R.” Have you ever encountered a doppelganger, or been mistaken for someone else?

HELEN PHILLIPS:  Well, that's an interesting question in my case, as I'm a rather unusual looking person—I've been bald since the age of 11, when I lost my hair due to the autoimmune condition alopecia areata.

That said, there is a certain similarity among all bald women, though there aren't so many of us, and I've had people swear they saw me in a neighborhood I've never even been to. I'm sure they just saw their local bald woman and assumed it was me. It's striking me now that there's something of a preoccupation with hair, and with artificial hair, in "R."

UNSTUCK:  Yes—the sisters' artificial hair extensions are an important element in the story.

HELEN PHILLIPS:  I wore wigs for many years, then graduated to scarves, and now I go bald all the time, so I spent a good bit of time dealing with the logistics of fake hair! I still sometimes wear wigs to parties or for fun—it's very interesting how much one's appearance changes based on hair. I do think I might act a little differently when I wear a blonde wig.

UNSTUCK:  Interesting! I dyed my hair some unnatural colors in high school, but I'm fascinated by how wigs make hair like clothing—something you can change at a whim, or in the middle of the day.

HELEN PHILLIPS:  Yes, wigs are delightful that way! The girls' loss of their hair extensions marks a change in them.

UNSTUCK:  It also emphasizes the growing differences between them.

HELEN PHILLIPS:  Yes, the loss of the doppelganger!

UNSTUCK:  What are you reading right now?

HELEN PHILLIPS:  I'm reading Philip K. Dick's Do Androids Dream of Electric Sheep?, which is delightful. For someone who uses many science fiction elements, I'm under-read in the genre.

UNSTUCK:  Where can we find more of your work?

HELEN PHILLIPS:  My website,, has many links to publications. My book And Yet They Were Happy is available from Amazon/B&N or (better yet!) your local indie bookstore. And my children's adventure novel Here Where the Sunbeams Are Green is forthcoming from Random House/Delacorte Press in November.

*   *   * 

Allie Werner is a graduate of Reed College. Before joining Unstuck as an Assistant Editor, she read slush for Tin House and interned with American Short Fiction. Her first published story appeared in Storyglossia last summer. She can be found online at A. is A. In her spare time she enjoys coffee and comic books, preferably simultaneously.

Interview: Rachel Swirsky


The sailor is clean-cut cute in his brand new World War II double-breasted blazer. He smells vaguely of gun powder and deeply of salt and sweat. Fine blond stubble dusts his upper lip.

He tries to pretend he’s not interested, sea blue eyes cutting toward the linoleum. Rainbow pushes through the herd of bleating goats and presses her glittery thigh against his knife-creased pants.

“Who do you think you’re fooling?” she asks, full flirt. “What are you, a singer in Sunday choir?”

Pink cheeks redden like tomatoes on the vine. “They call me Harry.”

She strokes his collar. “May I snatch a little purity?”

They marry at midnight, standing on the counter between the cash register and the display case, miniaturized so that the whole wedding party could fit in the cashier’s palm.

      —from “Death and the All-Night Donut Shop” (Unstuck #1)

Rachel Swirsky holds an MFA from the Iowa Writers’ Workshop. Her short fiction has won the Nebula Award and been nominated for the Hugo Award. Her first collection, Through the Drowsy Dark, a slim volume of stories and po­etry, came out in 2010.

Interview by Allie Werner

UNSTUCK:   “Death and the All-Night Donut Shop” follows a flurry of ghosts who gather in a late-night doughnut shop in order to find temporary spouses in the afterlife. How did this story originate?

RACHEL SWIRSKY: I was writing a lot of little flash pieces at the time, about 300 words each. There had been a contest for them and I discovered it was fun. This story started as one of those. I was giving myself vague prompts as starting points and in this case I had decided to write about an actual all-night doughnut store and wedding chapel which I'd heard about: Voodoo Doughnuts. From there, the idea of ghosts being involved amused me, so that was the germ of it.

UNSTUCK: I used to frequent that very doughnut shop when I lived in Portland. It does seem like a good gathering place for ghosts.

RACHEL SWIRSKY: I've been there once! I had a doughnut, but I don't remember which kind. I remember that everyone looked bored.

UNSTUCK: The maple bacon bar was always my pastry of choice there. What's your favorite variety of doughnut?

RACHEL SWIRSKY: I like chocolate old-fashioned doughnuts, which I have no particular justification for, except that they have chocolate, and are kind of crispy in places, and allow you to break off bits and eat them separately. All in all, it's fairly clear that this preference was formed when I was very young.

UNSTUCK: One of the things that I really enjoy about “Death and the All-Night Donut Shop” is that the ghosts are inhabiting a space of the living, but it isn't a locale that people usually think of as being haunted. We're more likely to look out for ghosts when we're in a dilapidated mansion, or hiking through the misty moors. What are some other non-traditional places that you think would be fun for ghosts to inhabit?

RACHEL SWIRSKY: I have another story about Princess Diana as a ghost who is haunting the condo of a gay couple in  Florida. Non-fictionally, I have a friend who believes her car's electrical system is haunted by her deceased father. The sky's the limit. (And there could be lots of ghosts in the sky.)

Oh! And kitchens. I have a story about that. I was staying in this hotel in Anchorage, Alaska, that was across from a cemetery. I wanted to know if there were any ghost stories connected to the cemetery, so I looked them up. I didn't find any ghost stories—the city's not very old, so perhaps there hadn't been a lot of time for really good stories to develop—but I did find a message board where people were posting ghost stories from personal experiences. One of the posters was a woman from Anchorage. Some of her stories were generic—like, she felt a PRESENCE when she was driving around a sharp corner and WHAT IF SOMEONE DIED THERE. But she also had this fabulous story about coming downstairs to the kitchen in a new house and seeing a ghost at the sink, like, preparing breakfast. "Excuse me," she said, "would you mind going? This is my house." And the ghost politely popped off.

I love the idea of a ghost that's, you know, really intent on making an omelet, but doesn't want to be rude. I'm writing a middle-grade novel about it.

UNSTUCK: The ghosts in “Death and the All-Night Donut Shop” don't seem particularly interested in interrupting the activities of the living. They're much more interested in living their own afterlives.

RACHEL SWIRSKY: In some ways, it's rather self-absorbed of us to figure that the dead would care about us. There would be a lot more of them than there are of us and most of them would have been dead long enough that being alive would be like vague memories of being in a crib.

UNSTUCK: Many of your stories include some element of the fantastic. While reading your short fiction, I've encountered ghosts (of course), artificial husbands, and gods. Have you always been interested in writing about the fantastic? What draws you to these subjects?

RACHEL SWIRSKY:  Interestingly, most of my fiction that has no fantastic element in it is about sex. I have always attributed this to the idea that I like writing about weird things. Fantasy and science fiction are a bit weird. Sex is very weird. I respect and enjoy realistic fiction, but I think there's something very interesting in the disjunctive and surprising, and that often the introduction of a fantastic (or science-fictional) element can allow us to get a fresher look at something we previously thought we understood. As an artist, if you're doing a sketch and you want to see if you've made an error, you can turn it over, and the new perspective of turning it upside down can often let you see what you couldn't previously perceive. I value art that can turn the world upside down, or even just make it a little strange.

UNSTUCK: What are you reading right now?

RACHEL SWIRSKY: I am reading romance novels! I was staying in a friend's hotel room this weekend while she was attending the Romance Writers Association convention in Anaheim. She went to business meetings; I went to Disneyland. Romance novels are not something I inherently understand, so I feel the need to poke at them and see what makes them vibrant, what makes them sing for people. I'd like to write one for much the same reason I like to work in a lot of different genres—there's something about the challenge of trying on a different set of expectations and constraints that I find exciting. Also, romance novels are such a huge part of what's out there in novels, and a lot of women read them like they'd eat calorie-free candy. There must be something going on. I haven't figured it out yet, though.

UNSTUCK: Where can our readers find more of your work?

RACHEL SWIRSKY: I have a collection of stories (many non-speculative, most about sex) called Through the Drowsy Dark, which came out from Aqueduct Press in 2010. All of my award-winning  or award-nominated stories are available online for free as well as in various anthologies. They're Google-searchable: "The Lady Who Plucked Red Flowers Beneath the Queen's Window" (fantasy), "The Memory of Wind" (retelling of the beginning of the Trojan war from Iphigenia's perspective), "Eros, Philia, Agape" (science fiction), and "Fields of Gold" (more fantasy about ghosts). "The Memory of Wind" and "Eros, Philia, Agape" are also available as Kindle singles for 99 cents. One of my favorite stories that readers who are interested in weird things like sex might like is "Defiled Imagination," which originally appeared in my collection but is also online in PANK Magazine

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Allie Werner is a graduate of Reed College. Before joining Unstuck as an Assistant Editor, she read slush for Tin House and interned with American Short Fiction. Her first published story appeared in Storyglossia last summer. She can be found online at A. is A. In her spare time she enjoys coffee and comic books, preferably simultaneously.

Interview: Julia Whicker


Colored streamers everywhere, ten thousand more than she’d ever seen, flapping as she walked with Mr. Capulatio across his carnival, which was huge, which had risen in two days like an enchanted crop. Crawling with people who moved, built, sliced, hammered. A clockwork masterpiece, this camp, with massive tents and a stage flanked by booths where the customers would buy their heads come summer. And a metal cage, encircled by lanterns still glowing in the bottle-blue dawn, and people inside with faces tightened by fear. People she knew. When they saw her with Mr. Capulatio, when they looked at her like that, their hands on the bars, she tried to hide behind him, she thought: don’t look, I can’t help you, but he was walking ahead, wearing red pants and a tan shirt and carrying that knife. His hair was long and flashing black like a seabird, topped by a felt hat with an aigrette thrust through the hatband. He did not hold her hand. She followed him anyway.

The birds were singing as Mr. Capulatio mounted the stage. Loud as tin-cans tied to a spit in a storm. The people gathering about the stage were louder still, and she felt so alone, ringed on all sides by this oceanic land—she wondered wildly if this place was the root of her nostalgia, this country of surging grasses and wind that looked somehow like tides and waves. Then the first ray of true light split the horizon. All she could see was the block at the center of the stage, hideous-smooth and stained black. A servant directed her into a booth where three crones in face-paint offered to hold her, in case she fainted when the time came. They draped a shawl over her shoulders and one whispered Cover your eyes if you need to, while the other said, I don’t see why she’d need to, and the last marveled at Mr. Capulatio’s new costume. At the first execution of the summer—which this was; had she known? wasn’t she honored?—Mr. Capulatio was always resplendent, the old women said, with his unchopped hair and his knife made of pearlescent metal from the shuttle launch site.

     —from “Wonderblood” (Unstuck #1)

Julia Whicker is a fiction writer from Richmond, Virginia. Her work has appeared in The Yalobusha Review, Lurve Magazine, Specter, Word Riot and The Millions, and has been nominated for a Pushcart Prize. She received her MFA from the Iowa Writers’ Workshop.

Interview by Allie Werner

UNSTUCK:  "Wonderblood" takes place in a post-apocalyptic version of the United States. What attracted you to that particular setting?

JULIA WHICKER:  I think it was—and this is going to sound ridiculous—a line from that Conor Oberst song “Cape Canaveral.”  I'd also been thinking a lot about how different the land is here in Iowa compared to Virginia. So I was thinking about spaces that are empty/becoming empty—and also about the fact that the space shuttle program was coming to an end. So I chose to make the world more empty.

UNSTUCK:  I definitely got the sense of vast, empty spaces from this story.

JULIA WHICKER:  Thank you. I was nervous to set it in Iowa because before that I'd mostly written about the South, which is where I'm from.

UNSTUCK:  I grew up on the East Coast, went to school on the West Coast, and experienced the middle of the country for the first time when I drove through it on my way from Oregon to Texas. I was completely blown away by the empty flatness of the land. I'd never seen anything like it.

JULIA WHICKER:  I know! I moved my sister out to L.A. a couple of years ago, and I think that experience of spending days and days driving through nothing was very formative.

UNSTUCK:  You mentioned that you were thinking a bit about the space shuttle programs as you were conceptualizing this story. One of my favorite moments in "Wonderblood" occurs when we discover that a character's preferred magical incantation is the names of the space shuttles all blurred together: "Columbiachallengerdiscoveryatlantisendeavor!"

Do you have any thoughts about the current state of the space program?  What do you think about the fact that the Mars rovers have their own Twitter feeds?

JULIA WHICKER:  Ha—I didn't know that about the Mars rovers. I guess, when I think of the space shuttle programs, I think of something that seems utterly insanely impossible but is nonetheless possible—to go in that little craft away from the world—and that really does seem like magic . . . and how easy that would be to mythologize in a different time. I recently got into a discussion with a friend about the merits of the space program, and he was of the opinion that he would go to space if given the chance but he thinks it's silly. I feel like I would have a mind-break or go space-mad if I were actually off the planet, but I think the idea of going into space retains some kind of weird hope, and it seems like a natural human inclination.

UNSTUCK: There's also an interesting tension going on in "Wonderblood" between science and magic, in which science seems to be viewed as a particularly potent, possibly dangerous kind of magic.

JULIA WHICKER:  Yes. My husband is a doctor and I have always been very interested in the dogmatic side of the medical profession. In that respect, science can seem very similar to religion, and I think in this story I wanted to explore that a little.

UNSTUCK: The story prominently features the taking and preservation of severed heads. Were you inspired at all by real life headhunting? What sort of research went into writing "Wonderblood?"

JULIA WHICKER:  I had recently read In the Time of Madness, by Richard Lloyn Parry, which is about violence in Indonesia, and there were several descriptions in that book (I think from his travels to Borneo, specifically) wherein he spoke about seeing heads on tables at the entrances to villages, but noted that the headhunters weren't after him, so he never really felt afraid of them—and that image was pretty heavy in my mind when I was writing this. Also, I remember driving in Myrtle Beach and seeing a truckful of teenage boys streaming confederate flags out the back of their truck, and it made me think of carnivals, and streamers. I think when I write, I mostly assemble lots of images/ideas into something hopefully cohesive.

UNSTUCK: What's your favorite Aleister Crowley fun fact? Why do you think Crowley remains such an influential figure?

JULIA WHICKER:  Oh gosh, I think he just seems like such a difficult man, and he was probably insufferable, and lots of fun, too. I always think about the story I mention in “Wonderblood,” which I'm not even sure is true because I read it in a Colin Wilson book and I know he is not the most reliable source, but I love the story in which Crowley stands in front of a mirror and tries to make his reflection disappear, and supposedly he succeeded. I think it took like three days or something. I think Crowley remains intriguing because he was ridiculous, and kind of fabulous, and those sorts of people are fun to talk about.

UNSTUCK:  I'd read a few bits and pieces about him before, but after reading your story I dove headfirst into the Crowley Wikipedia page.

JULIA WHICKER:  Yes, he was a crazy bastard. He is in my novel as well, although as an actual historical personage. I've actually been working on getting up the courage to write that part, because writing about any real person seems very very challenging to me.

UNSTUCK:  Oh, yes. Especially somebody like Crowley, who has such a wealth of facts and fictions surrounding him.

JULIA WHICKER:  I know! It is only a small part I have to write about him, but it's very intimidating. But I do like reading his poetry—it's weird and ridiculous. I took a lot of the magic words and things for “Wonderblood” from his poetry.

UNSTUCK:  What are you reading right now, besides Crowley’s poetry?

JULIA WHICKER:  I just finished Not So Quiet, by Helen Zanna Smith, which is a book about women ambulance drivers in World War I. It's a short book but it has a very powerful message of pacifism. Right now I'm actually re-reading Things Fall Apart because my students are reading it, and I'm really enjoying it.

UNSTUCK:  You mentioned you're working on a novel right now. Care to tell us a little bit more about it?

JULIA WHICKER:  It's a historical novel about the construction of the Florida East Coast railway. It's set in the early 1900s, so it's also about lots of other things, like Spiritualism, psychiatry, medicine, and miscegenation. It's long! And nearly every scene is set in a parlor. I hope to finish it this summer.

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Allie Werner is a graduate of Reed College. Before joining Unstuck as an Assistant Editor, she read slush for Tin House and interned with American Short Fiction. Her first published story appeared in Storyglossia last summer. She can be found online at A. is A. In her spare time she enjoys coffee and comic books, preferably simultaneously.