Lindsey Drager talks narrative, space and time in the short story form, and artistic influences outside of prose with associate editor Ben Zelic.

Lindsey Drager’s books have won a Shirley Jackson Award, been finalists for two Lambda Literary Awards, and are currently being translated into Spanish and Italian. A 2020 NEA fellowship recipient in prose and winner of the 2022 Bard Fiction Prize, she is an assistant professor at the University of Utah. A new novel, The Avian Hourglass, is forthcoming in 2024.

Ben Zelic: I’d like to start with “Blackbirds,” the story you recently published in the Fall 2023 issue of the Colorado Review. It seems like short stories often come from some nugget or moment that expands out. I’m curious if there’s any such moment for this story?

Lindsey Drager: That’s a great question. I would say that, to some extent, anyone is kind of mining their own experience for their fiction. I myself had juvenile asthma. That’s probably the nucleus of where this story came from. I was really playing with a variety of different kinds of temporal distances in this story. Time does a weird thing when you’re having an asthma attack (and probably any moment when you’re engaging in some kind of panic type experience). I knew that I wanted to write about the experience of a child having an asthma attack, and that’s obviously speaking to larger themes of chaos and disorder in the character’s life. That experience of not being able to breathe, figuratively and literally, was probably the nucleus of this story.

BZ: Yeah, absolutely. It starts out with the difficulty of breathing and ends with her struggling to breathe again. It’s sort of up in the air whether she leaves the house (I like to think she does) to see if the blackbirds have gone. But the story is bookended by breath or the lack thereof. What struck me most was the voice itself. The narration centers around this eight-year-old girl. It’s really close to her but maybe not quite her, exactly. There are moments where she makes observations that an eight-year-old probably wouldn’t make. It captures her struggle to manage this world and take on responsibilities caring for her brother and filling a motherly role, while also using the repetition and attention to language that an eight-year-old would have. I just thought that was such a hard balance. Was it difficult to get that voice right?

LD: First of all, I should say thank you for publishing the story! Thank you so much for reading so closely and thank you for interviewing me. But yeah, coming back to that theme of time and distance, the narrator is third-person omniscient but super closely focalized through the young girl. I wanted to balance that child logic with what I perceive as the narrator as her as an older person. There are moments when we pop out of her cognition and get almost objective claims, and that was extremely hard to balance during the process of writing itself. I wanted it to feel very much like an eight-year-old. And how I managed that was to focus less on her psychology and more on the action. I was hoping that a lot of the psychology was staying with the narration, and her eight-year-oldness, the child logic, was unfolding through action. Like her dragging the chair to the phone or dragging her finger down the telephone book. These acts that feel very kid-like helped manage that balance between a pretty sophisticated, nuanced voice.

BZ: That definitely came through. I remember the sing-song voice she uses to remember the phone number as she’s calling to fake her own excused absence from school. That felt so absolutely real. We had a landline growing up, and I remember trying to remember phone numbers as you’re typing them in. It captures it well.

LD: Well, thank you so much for saying that. There are these weird moments of uncanniness that I was trying to have filter through. That was one of those moments. Just the technology and disembodied strangeness of a landline, which we don’t really have access to anymore. Like the moment when she’s on the phone alone, with the dial tone, imagining an older version of herself on the other line. I was trying to not just characterize a particular era, which was probably the late 90s, but also very clearly trying to absorb that uncanniness that comes with older technologies like the phone. And I sort of hope that was being echoed between the young girl and the narrator.

BZ: You keep bringing up time. Maybe it’s partly because I just took a class on deep time, but she finds fossils, dinosaurs keep coming up, and there’s talk of how they’ve died millions of years ago but their bones remain. And yet in the story, we have super compressed space and time, and she can’t read the clock. It feels like maybe there’s tension there? Like, the vastness of time around her coupled with her own inability to breathe.

LD: Totally. Yeah, just to come back to your first question, that was really the nucleus of the story: thinking about the weirdness of time and asthma attacks. There were multiple motifs. And you always want to be gentle with motifs as a writer. You don’t want to feel like you’re banging the reader over the head with, “Please, please! Recognize all these concrete messages that are trying to signal something, reader!” You don’t want to do that. You want the writer to allow the story to teach the reader what perhaps you’re trying to communicate. And you don’t want to do that super overtly. I was thinking a lot about fossils and deep time. I was thinking a lot about the third hand of the clock (the second hand). There’s that moment where the girl says something about why they would even need to think about seconds. If life was a race, sure. But life isn’t a race, so why would we need seconds? I thought a lot about that. Also, distance. There’s this overview effect where you’re so far on top of things that you can see everything below, like on a Ferris wheel. Or the birds eye view that I’m imagining a pterodactyl might have, or the blackbirds on the roof. I hoped that was echoing the third-person, omniscient voice above everything. You know, seeing the trees for the forest. The original title of the piece was actually “Third Hand.”

BZ: I think I peeked on the back end of Submittable and saw that it got changed to “Blackbirds” later on.

LD: Yeah, I was thinking about time literally in the title because the third hand was supposed to be an evocation of both the second hand on the clock, but also that she’s the third-hand contributor in the household with her father and mother. Steven Schwartz changed it to “Blackbirds,” which I think is a fantastic title. But that just speaks to your question about how time was really central to this story.

BZ: Definitely. Last year I read We The Animals, the first novel by Justin Torres. I don’t know if you’ve read it?

LD: Yeah, yeah.

BZ: This story reminded me of it. Both have children taking on roles that maybe their parents should be filling but they do it out of necessity. Especially the first time she walks into the room and her mother’s there, unable to get up, and just yells for her daughter to leave. It really reminded me of that novel. Maybe I’m thinking of it since he just won the National Book Award for his second novel, but was there any influence?

LD: I have read that. I taught that novel. It’s been a really long time, but what I remember of it is that it moves between the first-person plural—that we, which to me feels so uncanny. How many are we? Who defines we? What does that voice sound like? Definitely, there’s a parallel there, and I believe there’s also strange moments in that book where we move into a kind of cognition that feels much older than the character themselves. Yeah, that totally makes sense to me. Yell at me if I’m getting this wrong, but one of the things I was trying not to do in this story is to be able to point to any single character as an antagonist. My hope was that it would be either the situation is antagonistic or there are antagonistic forces at work. But I really didn’t want to make the dad the bad guy, the mom the bad guy, the grandparents the bad guy. If anyone, the girl is antagonistic toward herself, though she’s not aware of it. And I remember a similar dynamic happening in We The Animals, where the circumstance is antagonistic. There wasn’t a single character that embodied that force that was working against the protagonist. So that was also very parallel to that book. I’m increasingly convinced that we empathize with characters that try to do everything in their power to succeed or overcome and still somehow fail. I know that’s one of the narrative arcs of We The Animals, with regards to the mother and domestic space that’s created in the book. And I hope that potentially something is going on along those lines in my story, where the girl is hopefully doing everything she can and should and is still failing. This is not a good situation. This is not healthy for anyone, really, and she should probably just tell her father. I’ve struggled to empathize with protagonists who aren’t trying their hardest to do the right thing, and that’s really central to both We The Animals and this story.

BZ: Yeah, absolutely. I feel like one of the tensions in your story is that the girl struggles to figure out what’s normal. There’s that great line about what is rare being elastic. How something that’s rare can become the “new version of every day.” I get the sense that at some point in the future she’s going to look back and say, “Oh, this was a really screwed up situation, but I had no way of seeing it.” And it seems like, as a reader, because the narration is a little bit removed, we can both see this scenario and also her inability to peek around it. That felt like interesting tension to me.

LD: Yeah, I’m so glad that that came through. Something else that I think a lot about when I’m tackling fiction is the balance between who knows what and when they know it. And I think about that on three levels: the level of the character, the narrator, and the reader. Essentially, it’s just dramatic irony. When the character doesn’t have information that the reader does, I think it really, really makes for interesting drama. That’s essentially what I was after in this story. So, it’s great to hear that possibly came through. And this idea that you’re pointing to where she’s not recognizing the full scope of things being unhealthy—that’s along the lines of what I was hoping to gesture toward in the last couple sentences. I probably worked on the last paragraph longer than the entirety of the rest of the story.

BZ: Wow.

LD: Yeah, I really wanted to get that sense of, yeah, there’s gonna be a day where she can figuratively and literally breathe, and she’s going to recognize that this has not been good. So, I’m so glad that came through.

BZ: It’s funny you say that, because I have a copy of the Colorado Review open right now and I underlined that last sentence and commented: fantastic last sentence. I’ll just read it so people online can see: “Only then, with a great deal of distance, could she look back and bear witness to that which once hovered above her.” You know, like all good singular sentences, it’s doing so many things at once. It’s literally true and also speaks to the entire story before it. I feel like just on a craft level, for people who are trying to learn how to end a story, this is a good one to study.

LD: That is very thoughtful of you to say. Thank you so much. And it makes me feel like, “Holy cow, it was worth all that time I spent trying to perfect that sentence.” And too, I think that I’ve often times spent, in various writing communities, more time than I should on motif and theme. I really wanted that final image to be evoking distance, temporal distance. So, the distance of like the Ferris wheel, or the bird’s-eye view, but I also wanted to kind of marry that with time. It’s thrilling to hear that came through for you.

BZ: Absolutely. I might turn beyond the story to some more general questions. You can’t always trust things you see on the internet, but I saw that you are influenced by visual art, and especially Escher. Do you want to talk about that?

LD: Yeah, along the lines of what I was just critiquing myself for, I really identify as a formalist. And I know that formalism has such a bad reputation because it’s sort of linked with this mid-eighties, European, white male aesthetic that’s like, “When we pay attention to form, we don’t pay attention to historical situatedness, or the author’s positionality, or the reader’s role.” I know that formalism sort of has a bad reputation. And yet, it’s been my experience that form is intimately bound up with ideology and the identity of the reader and author. In many ways, a story only is because of the shape that it takes. Because I’m a writer who starts with form, and I’m very interested in themes and motifs (which are essentially patterns) I’m super interested in visual art. And that’s where a lot of the guts of my storytelling begin. They begin with form, or pattern, or some kind of shape or structure. I find Escher extraordinary insofar as he’s really interested in paradox, and that’s something else thematically that I’m always playing with. How can two things be simultaneously true and also not? I love that concept. His work is visually stunning and interesting and paradoxical and inherently narrative. The visual arts are really about space, and the language arts are really about time. He’s able to somehow create cause and effect or sequence of narrative, which is really extraordinary in visual art.

BZ: I’m curious, do you make any visual art yourself?

LD: No, I’m a terrible, terrible visual artist. I often write about visual artists because I’ve failed so fundamentally at that form. I will say, I’m a failed actress. I don’t know if we’d consider theater a visual art, but I also find theater to be very, very much akin to storytelling, insofar as the stage is a fictional portal into a world that might be real or not, and we’re supposed to suspend our disbelief to adopt that whatever we’re seeing in front of us is trying to tell us something about our own experience. That feels like fiction to me, and that’s essentially what a play is.

BZ: You mentioned earlier that visual art is the art of space, and language art is the art of time. Can you expand on that second part?

LD: Yeah, maybe I should’ve said narrative art instead of language art. I don’t want to speak for poets. I know nothing about poetry. I cannot write a poem to save my life. So, I’ll speak about narrative, which I’ll characterize as prose. Whether its fiction or nonfiction is kind of irrelevant. Prose unfolds in time. It has a sequential narrative arc. Part of our challenge as writers is to engage the reader on the page that we’re in and also ask them to desire what’s forthcoming. That’s all about time. You know, duration and getting them to continue to flip pages. But visual art, in large part, is about occupying space. Simultaneity can happen in visual art in ways that are very, very difficult in narrative or other time-bound art forms (like music). That’s really interesting to me, the ways in which the visual is so concerned with space and things can happen at the same time. Your eyes can kind of move across and among. That’s really difficult to accomplish in narrative forms like music or storytelling which unfold, to my mind, over the course of time. And time is operating on multiple levels, you know. It’s not just page time but also how much of the narrative is being stretched or condensed. Like, ten years are going by in a sentence versus a minute is going by in fifty pages. I’ve always been really enamored of and fascinated by how visual art can accomplish simultaneity.

BZ: You know, it’s making me think that in your story the narrative itself takes up huge blocks. There’s not a lot of paragraph breaks, which for me makes time feel more amorphous. Stuff runs into each other. It’s not as segmented or sequenced. I don’t know, I’m just thinking that maybe this gets at what you’re thinking about the young girl’s conception of time?

LD: Yeah. This is not a very elegant term, but this is the formal term in narratology. It’s called chunking. Not just like how you think about scene and episode, but where you give the reader a visual space to breathe. I was really struggling with where the white space should happen, since this is essentially a series of vignettes. It’s chronological, but in large part there’s not a causal connection between the different scenes. I played with order quite a bit, but I ultimately ended up on the numbered sections primarily to evoke the clock and time moving forward. That is something really crucial that we so often push to the margins as prose writers. Poets think about these things all the time. Where does the line break? Where is the white space? How is visual rhyming happening? As prose writers, we’re just pumping out sentences. Taking some time to think really carefully about where I want to give the reader a visual breather or space is really important, especially in short fiction. For long form writers that’s the chapter. In short fiction, there’s no blueprint for that.

BZ: That makes a lot of sense. Are you working on any other short stories these days? I know you’ve published three novels.

LD: Yeah. Yes, I have another book coming out next year, which is really exciting and scary.

BZ: That’s amazing. Is it another novel?

LD: Yeah, it’s a novel. It’s called The Avian Hourglass. I’m chipping away at these short things, but I really don’t identify as a short story writer. I really feel most at home in long form. There’s been quite a big break between this novel that’s coming out and the last time I published a novel. Part of that was the pandemic and having an existential crisis about what we’re doing as humans in the world. But the short form was really a way to keep me writing. I’ve had extraordinary luck with the short form this year. I have pieces forthcoming in the Kenyon Review and Alaska Quarterly Review. I’ve been extraordinarily lucky to chip away at these shorter pieces and actually get people who want to read them. I don’t have a short story collection in mind or anything like that, but I’m continuing to play around with that third-person, omniscient POV. I’m really interested in that.

BZ: This is partly a selfish question because I really enjoyed this story, but for readers who enjoyed “Blackbirds” and wanted to read more of your stuff, where would you recommend we start?

LD: That’s such a thoughtful question. I’m really out of practice with self-promoting. Definitely the most recent book, which is called The Archive of Alternate Endings. There’s a lot of play with perspective, and in particular, it’s a play on theme and variation with time. It’s so occupied with and concerned with time, almost in a meta way. If you dug “Blackbirds,” reading The Archive of Alternate Endings probably makes sense!

Ben Zelic is a current MFA candidate in fiction at Colorado State University and associate editor at the Colorado Review. His work has appeared in the Moon City Review, Denver Post, and Mangoprism. His short story “Roadkill” was nominated for a Pushcart Prize.