Liz Breazeale is the recipient of the 2018 Prairie Schooner Book Prize for Fiction for her first book, Extinction Events: Stories, available from the University of Nebraska Press and bookstores and libraries near you. She holds an MFA from Bowling Green State University and a BA in creative writing and literature from Missouri State University. Liz lives in Denver, Colorado, where she works as a technical editor at the National Renewable Energy Laboratory and teaches at the Lighthouse Writers Workshop. Her work has been featured in the Best of the Net anthology, and is forthcoming or has appeared in Hayden’s Ferry Review, The Collagist, Pleiades, Fence, Fugue, Sycamore Review, Monkeybicycle, Passages North, Territory, and others.
Bailey Bujnosek: I noticed that many of the stories in this collection were first published elsewhere—did you know at that time that they would end up as a book? Were you always pursuing a specific theme in your work, working towards a collection?
Liz Breazeale: This actually started as my thesis in the MFA. I went to Bowling Green State, out in Ohio, and about half of the stories are from the MFA. Probably, a little more than half, actually. I kind of started gravitating toward a theme around the second semester of the MFA—because Bowling Green is a two year program. And then, over the summer between my first and second years, and especially in the first semester of that second year, I wrote a lot of those stories.
It was actually my thesis advisor—the late and wonderful Wendell Mayo, who recently passed—he’d read all of my stories and so he was kind of like, “Liz, there’s a very definite theme here. You’re working with a lot of themes about things that are extinct, things that are going extinct, death, dying.” He’s like, “Maybe that would be a great, you know, sort of theme for your thesis, for you to think about.” And I was like, “Yep, sounds about right!” That’s when that idea started taking shape, and I just kind of ran with it. Then, after the MFA, I stuck with it, because I thought, this feels like a really precious, necessary theme to work with, today. I just couldn’t stop writing about extinction, really. As I kept going with it, I would take weaker stories out, write new ones, put new things in, and it all sort of meshed together because it was a topic I was so interested in. And things, luckily, worked out.
BB: How fortunate! I’ve never heard of a collection coming together that way. So, moving into the stories, and specifically the characters, I was definitely tracking that some of them are frightened by the idea of extinction and disaster, but others are actually drawn to it, which was pretty surprising to me. They see it as something exciting. I wonder what it was like to write those characters, because they have such different approaches to the catastrophes.
LB: I think humans are always sort of, you know, the idea of death both repulses us and frightens us, and also fascinates us, right? Because being alive, we are never going to fully understand it. That dichotomy, to me, is fascinating. And I think that that exists in all of us.
I also think that everyone is fascinated by dinosaurs, right? When I was a kid, I was obsessed with dinosaurs, because they’re so mythic. They loom so large in our minds, in our imaginations. And I think partly why we’re so drawn to them is that they’re no longer here. So I think that human beings are always attracted to, and interested in, destruction and death, and extinction, because we are maybe not fully capable of understanding it. And I think we want to understand it so badly.
Honestly, as for who would fare better, I kind of feel like—if you were in an extinction-level scenario, it would be great to be prepared. Pragmatically, if you had a stockpile, or a bomb shelter, you’d probably be good to go for a little bit. But you have to take something from your surroundings, so I think if you were attracted to extinction you might survive better in the long run—your mental health would be better.
BB: You mentioned being drawn to dinosaurs, and I think that’s something a lot of people can relate to, as well as being drawn to extinction, in general, because it is something that grips humans. Were there any specific works which dealt with extinction, or climate change, or anything in that realm, that inspired this collection?
LB: Definitely. I’m a big researcher. When I get ahold of a story idea, I kind of research it to death—no pun intended. So, with every kind of story I wrote, I did a real deep dive into whatever I was writing about, and one book that was really both, like, terrifying, and really inspiring, to me, was Elizabeth Kolbert’s The Sixth Extinction.
BB: I haven’t heard of that.
LB: It’s fascinating! It’s basically about how there have been five major extinction events in the history of the planet, and we are in the sixth major extinction event.
BB: Oh no!
LB: Yeah, it’s a real happy read. Puts you in a very good place. So, that was massively influential to me to read, because in each chapter she talks about a different “portent of doom.” You know, the bats are going extinct because they have this terrible fungus that’s killing them, and the oceans are rising, and coral reefs are dying. So that was really, hugely influential for me. It completely embodies that mindset of, like, “We’re in it, it’s happening.” And how are human beings dealing with that?
I also read Michael Benton’s When Life Nearly Died, which is about a huge extinction event that happened back in prehistoric times, that basically almost wiped out the entirety of life on the planet.
BB: Going more into the process of writing the stories in this collection, I’ve noticed that quite a few of them, such as “Survival in the Plague Years,” which reads like a flash fiction series, and “The Supernova of Irvin Edwards,” which is framed as a case file, have more of an unconventional structure. What the writing process like, working with those structures?
LB: So, actually, I wrote both of those stories in the MFA, and I think—like, you always want to write what you like to read. I gravitate towards really weird, really risky stuff, so I always want to be taking a risk in how I’m telling a story, whether it’s through format, or form, or language, or subject matter. I’m not drawn to keep writing a story unless I’m doing one of those things.
When I was writing “Survival in the Plague Years,” that was an instance where the story came together very quickly, which doesn’t usually happen for me. I’d been doing a lot of reading about plagues, and what struck me was the entirety of it all. The idea of how humanity has always been beset by plagues and we’ve always had to fight them off, but our first tries at eradicating them are always terrible. They’re always bad. That was a fascinating way in for me: not only were we dealing with these horrible, damaging diseases, but we were also struggling with ourselves, as a species. I wanted to write about a bunch of awful diseases, and then also, like, there are too many stories for that to be told in one traditional narrative arc, for me, because it is so all-encompassing for all of humanity. So that’s kind of where that came from, with the vignettes, because I was like, there’s just too much here, and there are too many stories to tell, to just tell one.
And then, “The Supernova of Irvin Edwards,” that one was a little different. That one I wrote during the first year of my MFA, and, I think that one might actually be one of the most personal stories I’ve ever written. My uncle actually—he passed away a couple years ago—and when he was in his early fifties, he was diagnosed with early-onset Alzheimer’s. So I think that story was a way, at its heart, for me to process that, and understand that, and also kind of explain the way I felt about my uncle, which is that he was an amazing person, and was taken by a horrible disease, a devastating disease, way too soon in his life. And to be a kind of homage to the effect that he had on all of the people in his life. He is obviously nothing like Irvin Edwards in the story, but that’s where that idea came from.
I was actually working at Barnes & Noble when I was in the MFA and I remember having the idea for this story, of pieces of a memory sort of sharding out into other humans. And I remember tearing off a piece of receipt paper from the cash register and scribbling that idea down, being like, this is a really bonkers idea for a short story, but it’s gonna be good if I can pull it off. When that happens, I know that that’s an idea I need to chase, and so, the idea to have it represented as a case study seemed interesting. The idea of studying that theme of, what do we really understand about memory, right? Like, what do we know about it? We kind of know nothing about our own brains.
BB: The emotions certainly come through in these pieces, especially the ones that feel like they’ve been drawn from something closer to home. I think that’s a good segue into the next question, actually. There’s this unexplained phenomena in the first story of the collection, “Un-Discovered Islands,” that technically doesn’t happen in our world—that of islands simply disappearing—but it’s set in a world very, very much like our own, with CNN, podcasts, and drinking games. I was wondering, because to me that does seem like kind of a risk, but also an interesting choice, why you decided to set that story in a reality so close to our own?
LB: Honestly, I really didn’t think about it too much. I had the idea, which I thought was a killer idea, and I ran with it. I tried to make the timeline of that story, and the way that it would play out, be like, well, how would this go if this actually happened? And I think a lot of that came out of the 2016 election, as well, and how traumatic and awful that was. Because I was kind of like, here’s this slow-moving disaster that we have playing out in front of our very eyes. And people are parsing the semantics of a tweet. And so I think that I was very angry, when I was writing it, and I was like, this is not the point. The point is that it’s a horrible disaster.
BB: Another thing that I found really interesting in that story was the idea of language and word choice. When I was tracking it, it seems that the men in the piece—the husband and the CNN panelist—they’re trying to sort of control their environment, and the people around them, with their words, with their word choice. Do you see words as having that kind of power and importance in real life?
LB: Absolutely. I think the words we use are important, and I think—I’m worried about us heading toward a place where, some days, it seems like words don’t matter, and the things we say to other people can kind of be thrown out. The vocabulary with which we discuss our experiences, and even small things like our day-to-day lives, I think, matters very much. They allow you to control a conversation and control a narrative. And therefore, I think, control people’s perspectives, and to a certain extent what people think, or how people frame a particular issue, or event.
For me, language in the spoken word, in that story especially, was important to sort of dissect how different people perceive and speak about certain things. And the words we choose to use and not to use.
BB: Certainly. And then, with the language that you use—and this is kind of switching to a writerly, like, craft question—a lot of your imagery uses the natural world to describe people. Faces “pool with volcanic heat,” and maps come to represent bodies at times. Did you have a specific intention behind those descriptions, on a craft level?
LB: Yeah, this is a fun question. I love talking about craft. I think, for the stories in this collection, especially, it was really important for me, because one of my main intents was to use the natural world to explore the experiences human beings have, and how the cycles that happen in our lives are so similar to the cycles of extinction, and renewal. All these different geological processes that happen in the natural world are so similar to things that we endure in our own lives. And so it was easy to gravitate towards that sort of language, simply because that was the intent that was in my head while I was working on them, and revising them. I felt like it was important to draw those parallels, where I could.
BB: This actually ties well into the next question I have. I saw some of the characters’ situations being mirrored by the natural disasters in each story, especially with “The Disaster Preparedness Guidebook,” which features a volcano and a relationship that is going to erupt. Did you seek out disasters that would reflect the characters’ situations, or were you writing the characters’ relationships and arcs to mirror the disasters?
LB: I did a lot of reading about disasters, especially for “The Disaster Preparedness Guidebook”—that story had a long journey. I had the idea for it when I was on vacation in Hawaii with my family. We were driving up to the summit of Mount Haleakalā. The summit’s at over ten thousand feet, and we were driving along all of these wild switchbacks, and up through this prehistoric forest, at like, seven-thousand feet. And I had this idea that we’re going up all these switchbacks and we’re all in this car together, and we’re on this volcano, and this is so primed for some sort of, like, catastrophic argument. Luckily, none of that happened. But the idea stuck in my brain, about a woman who is so fascinated by this idea of disaster and the inevitability of it, and it’s a huge tension in her relationship.
I get a lot of my story ideas from research. I read a lot of nonfiction about whatever I’m interested in at that point, and it’s usually very dark. So I read something that’s really fascinating to me, and I’m like, I have to write about that! And if I let those ideas sit for a day or two, then I will come back and see, Oh, here’s the story that could be told about that, and go off that.
BB: A few of the characters in your stories are frustrated by their memories of the past, because they’re living in the aftermath of a traumatic event—specifically in “The Supernova of Irvin Edwards,” “How Cities Are Lost,” and “Devil’s Tooth Museum”—but other characters are kind of waiting for it to happen, or they’re living through it. Did you have a specific reasoning behind which pieces are told in “the before” of the event, and which are told in “the after”? Or was it more about what felt right on a piece to piece basis?
LB: Yeah, it’s interesting that you picked up on that, because when this collection was in a very, I’ll say “immature,” version of itself, AKA not as good, when it was my thesis, I actually had sections. I had it arranged completely differently. There were a bunch of other stories in there that I took out, and it was actually arranged in the sequence of, um—I’m forgetting the exact scientific term for an extinction cycle—but it was arranged in that way; before the event, during the event, and then post-event. I think as I kind of went along in developing the collection, writing more stories to put in it, putting it together and organizing it, it became sort of, in terms of each story. It just became, what is the story that I’m telling here? What is the disaster that we’re dealing with, and would it be more interesting to tell it during, or after, or even before?
BB: That kind of pertains to my final question, which was about order. It’s something I’m always curious about with story collections. What was in your mind when you were ordering these pieces to be put into the book? Was it difficult to decide, like, which ones you wanted to keep, were there any pieces that didn’t make it—basically, when it was coming together in that sense, what was that process and what was it like?
LB: In sort of the aftermath of graduating from the MFA, I definitely let the stories sit for a while, and wrote other things. But then when I came back to it, it really was not difficult to cut some of the chaff. And it was not difficult to take out the weaker stories, because, I mean, I am very much type-A and a perfectionist, so I’m really hard on myself. And so that left me with a strong set of stories, and from there I filled in the gaps. I was kind of like, “Maybe I should write something about the ocean,” or things like that, that filled in the gaps. So that was last Spring, Spring of 2018, and I thought, okay, I don’t think I can do anything more with this collection; I’m just gonna have to send it out to contests and see what happens.
I also sent it to a very trusted writer friend, one of my best friends, and was like, “Hey, you’ve read all of these stories by themselves, can you read this as a cohesive collection, and tell me what you think the order should be?” Because at that point, I mean, honestly—I think the thing no one talks about, especially with short story collections, is that by the time you are ready to send it out into the world, and you’re done with it, you truly cannot see the forest for the trees. I could not look at the thing as a whole. I was like, “I don’t know, I have so many feelings tied to all of these stories, I love them all, I have no idea how to order them, because I’m so in it. Please just read these, and tell me where you think they should go!” And I kind of almost had an idea, like, I always knew I wanted “Un-Discovered Islands” to be the first one. But beyond that I think the order completely changed at least two or three different times.
For me, personally, I needed a second opinion. And she gave me a lot of fantastic ways to look at the work, how it intersected, and how the flow would work. Also, because I write a lot of weird stuff, and use some different formats, she was kind of like, “Here’s how I see it,” and “Here’s how you should place these weirder stories.” It was her idea, actually, to put “Experiencers,” the alien story, at the end, and I loved that idea. And I took most of her advice. The collection’s order has a lot to do, in part, with a second opinion, because by that point you are just so, so close to it. You really can’t distinguish between the stories and how well they would go with each other. So, yeah, I had a lot of outside help.
BB: I know I said that was going to be the last question, but something just came to mind as I was listening to your response. You said you were sending this out to contests, and I’m wondering if you were ever considering going the traditional publication route with this, or if you always knew it would work with a small press or a contest. Did you have a specific contest in mind that you thought the collection would be good for?
LB: It’s really, really, really difficult—like, nigh impossible—to get an agent with a short story collection, and I was like, this is my project, it’s what it is. So I definitely knew I was going to go the route of contests. With the Prairie Schooner Prize, I think I submitted maybe the day before the deadline.
BB: Oh my!
LB: Yeah, it was definitely down to the wire. And I submitted to all the big ones, Drue Heinz, Flannery O’Connor. I always had the feeling that that was the way that it would get published. And I had not anticipated it working out so well. It was a real shock.