“A collision between grace and brutality”—Natasha Mieszkowski on capturing childhood in fiction

Natasha Mieszkowski, Burlington Writers Workshop author
Natasha Mieszkowski, author of “Bug,” one of four short stories in The Best of the Burlington Writers Workshop 2016

Our fiction editor, Elizabeth Gaucher, recently had this exchange with Natasha Mieszkowski, author of the short story, “Bug.” “Bug” is one of four stories featured in The Best of the Burlington Writers Workshop 2016 anthology. Natasha lives in Northern New York. She holds an MFA in Creative Writing from Emerson College, and currently is co-editor of fiction for Mud Season ReviewHere’s what Natasha had to say about developing the child character, Bug, and how she uses scenes to advance her story.

Bug is the name of the child protagonist and point of view character in your story. He leapt out at me immediately as an exceptional character, truly unique and compelling. How did you come to create Bug? Did you have any particular inspiration for him?

Bug grew out of a scene I had in my head of a child interacting with a weird cat. Then I was driving home on a winter night and the car ride scene joined with that scene. He’s not based on anyone I know, he’s more a compilation of strange childhood impulses I still remember. I did, however, know the cat [featured in “Bug”]. He never blinked.

You sustain a very tight, intimate world in this story. There are few characters and only two settings we “see,” a car and an apartment. By implication there are other settings, but everything takes place in one car and one small apartment. Did you know when you set out to write this story you would keep it this close, or did the narrative just tell you what it needed? How did you decide to keep things mostly on a car seat, a couch, a kitchen chair?

I try to think of things from a child’s perspective. The whole world is huge, but what is right in front of you means everything. When everything is too overwhelming, you need to break it down into smaller segments.

It helps to compartmentalize it, to isolate and really explore all of Bug’s small moments. What might seem minor and significant to an adult can seem huge to children, can occupy their entire world. The details that are so worn out for us are new to them, vibrant and unexplored. So you don’t necessarily need an expansive territory when writing from a child’s perspective. A car seat can be an entire universe.

There is an unseen character in this story, Bug’s father. Yet he is profoundly influential and ever-present. How did you go about creating this character, one who in some ways drives all the action and yet never appears or speaks?

Silence and absence can really help you punctuate a story. By writing around a gap you end up revealing so much about it, and the present characters, just through how they behave, react, and remember. It’s the elephant in the room, and it carries a lot of weight.

There is always an ‘outside’ affecting our decisions and our lives. The father character is both an ‘outside’ and an internal presence for Bug. For me, this story has always pivoted around the bar of soap, a tangible representation of a person Bug both misses and fears.

As the literary community knows, Harper Lee passed away this year. Her general readership adores To Kill a Mockingbird for its social justice messages and heroic father figure. Most writers, though, admire this work for its consistent narration by a child. It’s incredibly difficult for an adult writer to establish and maintain a child’s point of view. How did you go about structuring this story and keeping everything in Bug’s POV? Were there special challenges in your early drafts?

The challenges always revolve around vocabulary, and characters’ awareness. Would Bug be able to understand the meaning of the phone ringing? Am I using the right words to communicate his experience to the reader? It’s about striking a balance between a raw world of unarticulated emotion and adult reality.

It’s kind of like puppy-proofing a home. You just get down there on the floor and see things from their eyes. The scale of everything becomes different. A puff of dust is a mountain. It’s challenging but incredibly refreshing.

What special value do you see in the child narrator/POV?

Children have a unique way of seeing things. In a sense they have a great amount of freedom in how they express themselves. At the same time, they lack the vocabulary and social knowledge to respond in the way adults might. They are subject to all of the emotions and circumstances that adults are exposed to, yet have a limited set of skills in terms of how they can react.

I feel this gives a pure lens into human experience. Childhood can have a raw, unfiltered take on things, which can drive a story toward the most primitive and pivotal emotions.

Childhood, for me, has always been a collision between grace and brutality. We lived near woods and a river when I was growing up, and I remember once our family dog came home carrying what I thought was a stick. It was a deer’s leg.

It is this juxtaposition between innocence and a pragmatic knowledge I am reaching for.

You are very good at writing scenes. “Bug” hums along with some amazingly well-wrought scenes, and it’s clear that you are skilled at avoiding expository writing. Has that always been the case? Is it natural for you to write in scenes or is it something you have developed over time? Any tips for other writers?

When I start a story it usually begins with one image. This is why I struggle with plot. I have an image and the story takes off from there. I am attracted to very small moments, and want to see what I can extract from awkward intimacies. Writing is awkward and painful. I tend to keep things condensed into scenes because that is what makes sense to me. Interactions between people are often just microscopic happenings, that don’t seem important at the moment but ultimately mean everything.

So I guess I just stack the scenes on top of each other like building blocks, and try to tie them together to make a sound structure.

Own what you feel, and visualize it. The world you write should be the world you live in, for the moment. Let everything else around you disappear.

How did you come to write fiction? Do you mostly write short stories? What do you like about fiction writing?

I actually never thought I could write fiction. I used to write poetry when I was a kid, but was eventually pulled away by art forms that were a bit more social in nature. Then one day a theater friend boasted he was the better writer, and something clicked inside. I took a class at a local university just to prove him wrong. The instructor took me aside one day and told me I should go to grad school.

I write short stories partly because they are the underdog of literature, and I have a contrary nature. Everybody says you have to write a novel in order to get anywhere and that may be the case. But I’m not willing to let go of the short story. It’s an art form that deserves its own significant place and shouldn’t be overshadowed by the pressure to publish ‘the novel.’

How has your engagement with the Burlington Writers Workshop influenced your development as a writer?

The Burlington Writers Workshop has been invaluable to me. I didn’t know anybody or anything when I moved to this area, and this group gave me a platform to express myself, and a community I could be a part of. The workshops are so helpful, and are always aimed at helping a writer to achieve his or her goal. Frankly, if I hadn’t discovered this group, I might not still be writing. It’s a warm, encouraging group of people who just want to see everybody grow and learn in their progress as writers.

The final scene of “Bug” is intense. I’ve heard people call it things like terrifying, powerful, and unforgettable. I admire it for its layered complexity. You leave the reader with a lot of possible interpretations and debates. Without giving too much away, how did you develop that scene?

I wanted there to be a climax that concerned Bug, from his point of view, while bringing in the unseen, hovering presence of the father. I wanted it to be Bug’s scene. He is the one who has to launch himself out of this hurt. But because of his young age he isn’t fully able to comprehend what is happening, the significance of the events, or even his own actions. He’s operating on raw emotion and reaching for something he doesn’t even understand.

What are you working on now?

I’m working on a short story about an empty box of wine. And how to get rid of it.

To hear Natasha and others read their work from this year’s anthology, join us for the Best of the Burlington Writers Workshop 2016 print launch party: Friday, April 29, 2016 6-9 pm at Burlington City Arts (BCA), 135 Church Street, Burlington, VT. RSVP now >

More about The Best of the Burlington Writers Workshop 2016

This book is the fourth installment in the Best of the Burlington Writers Workshopseries. Founded in 2013, the annual anthology features work that is written, selected, and edited by BWW members. The mission of the anthology is to showcase the work of new, emerging, and established Vermont writers while offering Vermonters the opportunity to learn first-hand about the editing, publishing, and book marketing process. The 2016 edition will be available for purchase soon. Learn more or purchase a copy of past anthologies in the series >