When an earthquake hits, the social, emotional, and environmental consequences vary with short-term destruction always present. In her debut collection of short stories, My Pulse Is an Earthquake, Kristin FitzPatrick explores how metaphorical earthquakes, such as loss and deceit, impact our lives. Fitzpatrick, who holds an MFA from California State University-Fresno, has taught a variety of literature and writing courses at Southern California at Cal State Channel Islands and online at DePaul University's School for New Learning. Her writing has been published in Epiphany, Colorado Review, and The Southeast Review, and has been selected for the Gival Press Short Story Award, the Thomas Wolfe Fiction Prize, The New Short Fiction Series, and Stories on Stage. Literary Mama contributor Gina Consolino-Barsotti corresponded via email with Kristin FitzPatrick about her latest work.
Gina Consolino-Barsotti: I enjoyed reading My Pulse Is an Earthquake, and I was intrigued by the title. Having a pulse indicates being alive. Saying that your pulse is an earthquake suggests that the life you have been given is shaky and unpredictable. How did this metaphor emerge and how did that impact the order of your stories?
Kristin FitzPatrick: Thank you very much. The line came from a book called The Diary of Vaslav Nijinsky, arguably the best dancer that ever lived. This was the diary he kept during his nervous breakdown and descent into schizophrenia. His thoughts are scattered, with many sentences contradicting the sentences right before them. His writing is raw, immediate, sad, and terrifying to read. At one point, he says his "pulse is an earthquake" and that he is an earthquake.
After my manuscript had gone into peer review, one of the reviewers suggested the current title. After all, many of the stories in my book are comparisons of the mind, the body, and the Earth cracking up. My original title, Center of Population, came from the geographical term that indicates the planet's midpoint where there are an equal number of people on both sides. In reality, this point is a completely uninhabitable spot in the mountains of Afghanistan, which is where the injured veterans in my eighth story had been stationed. I thought Center of Population worked well to suggest a certain sad kind of irony, as well as to suggest the center of the United States, which is where the stories all take place, and the notion of each character as an everyman and everywoman, the center of our shared experience. However, it doesn't fly off the shelf like the more frantic My Pulse Is an Earthquake could, so I said a quick yes to the new title because I thought it set a tone that is present in all the stories, one of panic beneath a calm surface.
I set the stories in chronological order and edited them so that tension would continue to rise in the first half of the collection and then soften a bit to provide some recovery and calm toward the end. "The Cliffs of Dover" is a collective resolution in some ways, because it includes many of the themes and types of conflicts that exist in the earlier stories, and it ends with the creation of a new order built on forgiveness, equality, and peace. They are moving on into the unknown with a new commitment to helping each other heal.
GCB: Many of the characters in your stories are orphaned in one way or another. Can you speak about how issues of child abandonment became a recurrent element in your writing?
KF: Orphans star in a lot of great stories. When I first started writing these, I was thinking about Frank O'Connor's claim that "the short story is the art form that deals with the individual when there is no longer a society to absorb him, and when he is compelled to exist, as it were, by his own inner light." So, I knew I needed to write about outsiders. I was also doing an independent study on British novels, and most of them featured orphans who were not limited to their parents' socioeconomic positions. They were more upwardly or downwardly mobile than children with parents were, so they had this ironic freedom and opportunity. Tom Jones is one example, as well as the Brontë books, and David Copperfield. Orphans are often unfettered by tradition and, unfortunately, without the protection of adults, they are often at risk of manipulation. That's fertile ground for fiction.
GCB: In your opinion, which of your stories is the most earth-shattering? Some of the characters are revisited in later stories. Would you consider their presence to be aftershocks?
KF: That is a great question. My goal with each story was to shatter the character's world as they knew it and force them to show their true colors as they tried to put it back together or ditch it and make a new world. "Representing the Beast" captures the shattering feeling the most: literally, with the earthquake, but also psychologically in the convergence of breakdowns that Nijinsky, Keiko, and her aunt all have. Because the character is a dancer, her story lives in the body more than any other. Grief lives in our bodies. That's what I wanted to show in this book, how physically painful any kind of heartbreak can be and that we're shattering all the time and won't admit it. It's just a matter of appearing to stay in one piece, like the Raku vase in "Representing the Beast." You see all the cracks, but when you knock it over, it just chips a little bit, and then you turn it a few degrees to hide the imperfection.
Two other stories, "Canis Major" and "The Cliffs of Dover," feel like aftershocks in places where an earthquake of sorts has already destroyed the fabric of the community. "Canis Major" happens in Detroit a few years after the 1967 riots, and "The Cliffs of Dover" takes place in a fictional town where the one industry that employs everyone is at risk of dying if they don't choose a new male heir to take it over. Both stories are told by teenage girls who have the power to calm everyone down and establish an egalitarian system to replace the failing patriarchal order.
The recurrences of characters in some other stories could be considered aftershocks. Of the four stories that have recurring characters, "The Music She Will Never Hear," offers some closure for these characters. Richard, in "A New Kukla," has a mild heart condition that acts up on the night his son is born, and, then, 27 years later in "The Music She Will Never Hear," he has a heart attack. Jace, the stranger who is with him when it happens, has to call Richard's son, Ollie. This phone call helps to broker peace between father and son, as well as between Jace and his girlfriend, Keiko. A short story usually covers the big quake in a character's life, and we always wonder what happens when the aftershocks come, if they'll be ready for them, and who will be there to help. I was really attached to these characters, so I owed them a somewhat happy ending that would bring them all together.
GCB: While glimmers of hope twinkle in your stories, a theme of desolation or darkness permeates throughout. Writers often write what they know. Have any specific life experiences served as impetus for your storylines?
KF: When I started each story, I wasn't consciously thinking about specific life experiences, but I have struggled to find hope in darkness like a lot of us do. Imagination is influenced by experience, by our surroundings, and by the art we're exposed to, but I think it also has influences we can't always trace. For example, "The Lost Bureau" emerged after I heard a radio broadcast about policemen's wives protesting a decision that would allow their husbands to patrol with female partners. "Center of Population" emerged after I attended a Zumba class and became curious about the instructor's life.
A pattern I saw when I decided to use "Queen City Playhouse" and "The Cliffs of Dover" as bookends of the collection was that I'd unintentionally put a lot of teenage girls in sticky situations throughout this book. In those first and last stories, we have 16-year-old girls who are, either in real life or on stage, forced to marry for the good of their communities. I recalled that at 16, I was lonely. My parents separated and my siblings both moved far away. While I was not pregnant or forced to marry, I was asking for trouble by looking to outside people for a new sense of family rather than doing the tough work of bringing my own family back together. It wasn't until the last few years of my dad's life (more than 15 years later) that my family made a lasting peace. In each of these stories, the character is out in his or her own orbit like that, looking for a new galaxy to join.
In hindsight, I can see that what I did with each story without realizing it was to take a seed of emotional experience, plant it on the page, and cultivate it over many drafts so that it would grow into a whole field of loneliness or joy or guilt or gratitude for a character who has a different kind of life than I do on the surface but the same desires and feelings that we all have underneath.
GCB: Will readers become reacquainted with any of the characters from My Pulse Is an Earthquake in future novels?
KF: I don't think these characters will pop up again, although I am currently working on a novel about a Keiko-like character. Both Keiko and my new character are Japanese-American figure skaters who were thought to be destined for greatness until they encountered situations beyond their control that pulled them out of competition for good. Their lives have no dimensions beyond their athletic endeavors, so they are forced to reinvent themselves. They have mothers who push them too far and fathers who are powerless to stop the mothers. When I taught English to Japanese children, I was aware of the stereotype of the "education mama" whose life revolves around her children's academic success, and while I did see glimpses of it both there and here in American mothers of all backgrounds, I also began thinking about the unfairness of that stereotype as well as the unfairness in individual athletes' lives. I wanted to explore how they and everyone around them can be consumed by the decision to spend a childhood competing at high levels.
GCB: Besides writing, you also teach writing in a variety of formats. What advice do you have for students, as well as other mama writers?
KF: The most common struggle I see for students and mama writers is finding and protecting time to write, especially when those around you do not understand this need. One suggestion that I give to all writers in a time crunch is to keep a log of how you spend your minutes throughout the day. How can you spend more of those minutes writing? Pencil writing into your daily routine, and try to do it every day at the same time. Ignore any guilt you might feel about time spent writing and consider it work instead of play. It's okay to enjoy work. Other things will get done, just maybe a little later than usual.
For me, I write during my daughter's first nap of the day. Sometimes it's not a lengthy session, and I get a little nostalgic for the days when I had much more time, but I'm committed to the work, and I'm doing it for now during the same time every day. She's a year old now and still not in a completely predictable routine. I try to trust that the naps will get consistently longer soon so I can finish editing my novel manuscript and get it out the door. So far, motherhood has been a great exercise in trust and patience and in letting go of my perfectionist tendencies.