Endowed in perpetuity by the Glenna Luschei Fund for Excellence

Three Questions for Katie Wudel

Claire Harlan-Orsi interviews the PS Spring 2012 Contributor on her short story, "Bad Aim," and other writing matters

Katie Wudel’s short fiction and essays have appeared in Tin House, McSweeney’s Quarterly Concern, The Rumpus, Monkeybicycle, and other publications. A recent writer in residence at Hedgebrook, Katie has taught creative writing at San Francisco’s School of the Arts and the University of Nebraska-Omaha Writer’s Workshop. Her story “Tongueless” was listed among Wigleaf’s Top [Very] Short Fictions of 2011. You can find out more about Katie by visiting www.katiewudel.com.

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You use third person point of view, but Harry's unique (acerbic, vocal) way of seeing things really comes through in the narration. How did you decide on this perspective, and how did you develop Harry's voice?

I’m not sure I officially decided—I started writing Harry’s story and it came out this way. I do think he’s the sort of person who silently stews. Very strong opinions, a rich interior life, but he values restraint and keeping private matters private. Harry wouldn’t make a lot of sense as a first person narrator—you'd never catch him regaling strangers with his life story at a bar.

Something I love about third-person limited is that readers gain just the slightest distance from the narrator—which makes surprises, such as Harry’s response to a painful betrayal—possible. But a more distant third might not be fair to Harry. You see these old guys on the train with their stiff upper lips and maybe you assume they’re real solemn, or don’t have much to contribute.

I was raised Lutheran in small-town Nebraska, so I suppose passive-aggressive personalities come naturally to me! I’m interested in characters who bottle things up, because eventually there’s got to be that release.

"Bad Aim" is quite short but contains a story arc of the type typically present in longer fiction. How did you do this? What, for you, is the value of narrative concision?

Whether the story’s 600 pages or 600 words, each word should do its part to reveal character or move the plot forward—hopefully both. It’s ever more imperative the shorter the story gets. And I believe a piece of writing has to clear a few hurdles before it’s called a story: A status quo disrupted. A little suspense. Somebody’s got to yearn for something and feel frustrated trying to get it, and by the end, we ought to feel something significant has transpired. To me, the best flash fiction is story boiled down to its most potent state. It doesn’t avoid narrative—it’s pure narrative.

In this particular piece, maybe the scope feels wider because we meet several characters moving along their own small trajectories, and through ongoing references to Roger, we get hints of a long and complicated history. There's this term people use when talking about very short fiction, "phantom narrative," that I really like. Reminds me of a phantom limb—not technically there, but it feels like it is.

You do a great job portraying some of the more intimate aspects of apartment living. Do you have any crazy neighbor stories of your own? How do your dwelling places inform your fiction?

My favorite neighbor was a contestant on a reality television show for wannabe pop stars. Our walls were paper thin, or perhaps she had a hearty set of lungs. Either way, she was rather boisterous on the phone, so I heard her career collapse in real time: the failure to find an agent, her botched move to LA. After getting kicked off the show, she remained resilient, rehearsing pop-country ballads well into the middle of every night. I like to think she's out there living her happy ending, maybe in a house where she can sing as loud and late as she likes.

Apartment life is sort of amazing, because you’re witness to even the most cloistered strangers’ secrets: you smell the commitment to an all-cabbage-stew diet; you hear the same sad song on repeat; you notice that somebody lacks the character to scoop their dog’s poop. I highly recommend a bout or two of urban living for any writer, if only for the exposure you get to the many ways there are to be a human being. My neighbors and their quirks show up frequently in my stories, though it’s rarely a one-to-one representation. I suppose I’m a lot like Harry. I make eavesdropping a habit, then conjure up my own version of the rest of the story.