Tuesday, October 29, 2019

#93 Inside The Emotion of Fiction: THE SHADOWS BEHIND by Kristi Petersen Schoonover

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***The CRC Blog welcomes submissions from published and unpublished fiction genre writers for INSIDE THE EMOTION OF FICTION.  Contact CRC Blog via email at
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****Kristi Petersen Schoonover’s THE SHADOWS BEHIND is #93 in the never-ending series called INSIDE THE EMOTION OF FICTION where the Chris Rice Cooper Blog (CRC) focuses on one specific excerpt from a fiction genre and how that fiction writer wrote that specific excerpt.  All INSIDE THE EMOTION OF FICTION links are at the end of this piece. 

Name of fiction work? And were there other names you considered that you would like to share with us? I’ve chosen to talk about my short story “Hairless Girl Does the Hula,” which appears in my most recent collection, The Shadows Behind.
       I have a strong emotional connection to almost every piece I write, but some connections are stronger than others. I considered my novellette, This Poisoned Ground, because that was written during an extremely dark time in my life, and its creation was both torturous and cathartic—I had to let someone I’d loved very much go. In the end, I chose “Hairless,” because it deals with more complicated themes than grief and loss for me; I was trying to understand the concept of resolution, and it took nearly a decade for me to be able to reach closure so I could finish the story. In short, my emotional journey with this one was much longer and more complex.
       I also considered the longer project I’m working on right now, but I’m still emotionally “living” there, so I don’t really understand my relationship to it yet, and I can’t really discuss it without ruining my mojo to get it done.

Has this been published? And it is totally fine if the answer is no.  If yes, what publisher and what publication date? Yes. It appears in my short story collection, The Shadows Behind, which was published by Books & Boos Press in April of 2019.

What is the date you began writing this piece of fiction and the date when you completely finished the piece of fiction? I started “Hairless” in January 2008. I pulled it out to work on it several times over the years—in 2009, in 2010, in 2011. I messed with it a little bit in 2013 and in 2015. When I had an offer on the table for The Shadows Behind in 2018, I made up my mind to get it completely finished, come hell or high water, so that it could be included in the collection. The official “finish” date was July 4, 2018, although it went through a couple of rounds of minor edits after that.

Where did you do most of your writing for this fiction work?  And please describe in detail.  And can you please include a photo? Because this story took a decade to finish, it’s been physically penned in countless places, including my dorm room up at Goddard College and a friend’s house in Rhode Island.
But my two favorite places to write are in my home office and on my back porch—the latter I mostly use as an “office” from the first nice day in April through November, and I love it, because it’s a large space that faces the untamed woods (I hate landscaping) and is very private. “Hairless” was completed on my back porch, and I was so excited that my journey with it had ended that I even wrote a blog post about it, which you can read here: https://kristipetersenschoonover.com/2018/07/04/independent-girl-does-the-hula-why-the-writing-life-is-worth-it/

What were your writing habits while writing this work- did you drink something as you wrote, listen to music, write in pen and paper, directly on laptop; specific time of day? How I wrote “Hairless” evolved with how I grew older.  
          Years ago, I used to write with a glass of wine or beer. But as I’ve gotten older, that doesn’t work; it just ruins my focus because it puts me in a partying mood or gets me too relaxed. So now it’s coffee or my favorite diet soda—either Stewart’s Orange Cream or Tab. “Hairless” saw both libations, because I started it when I was in my thirties and then changed my habits in the ensuing decade.
       I also used to smoke in my home office, so there was always a cigarette burning in that ashtray back when I started this story. We no longer smoke in my house, so that’s also a habit that’s changed. Now I only smoke when I work outside.
       If I’m writing in my home office, I listen to music—usually film scores. I can tell you that the early pages of “Hairless” were probably written to the scores for Sideways, Gettysburg, and The Haunted Mansion (2003). When I finished it in 2018, I was sitting outside on my back porch, and my accompaniment was the noise of the twenty-odd species of birds we have in our yard thanks to my husband’s feeders, as well as the distant whine of motorboats on a nearby lake.

       I have a candle burning, no matter where I am. I believe fire powers creativity.
       I almost always write everything directly on some type of typing instrument, because I type 80 wpm and, therefore, it’s much faster than handwriting. “Hairless” was probably one of the first stories I wrote on a laptop—everything prior to 2008 was written on my old Dell desktop that I bought in 2004 (which I still use, actually, for video projects, believe it or not). I didn’t get my first laptop until right around the time I started “Hairless.”
       When I started “Hairless,” I was a night-writer. When I finished it? I was an early-morning/all day writer. Time, though, has never been a factor for me. I write when I’m inspired. Inspiration doesn’t keep a clock.

What scene/excerpt of the book was the most emotional for you to write? This scene/excerpt can be as short or as long as you prefer. Although the flashbacks with Hailey’s father were very difficult—my dad had just passed away when I started this story, and through Hailey’s relationship to him I could see the damage in my own relationship to my dad, and it would often make me cry while I was writing it—the most difficult was the scene at the end, in which Hailey and her love interest, Toke, finally connect.

His apartment building is older, garden-style and only two floors—he lives on the first one, and I am fortunately clear-headed enough to remember which door he’d come out of when I picked him up this morning.
I knock, and suddenly feel like I’m going to pass out. This is your last chance, Hailey; this is the last chance you have to call this whole thing off. He doesn’t come to the door for what seems like forever, and then, I think, what if he doesn’t answer—
—it opens with a click-swish and I’m hit with the smell of beer and cigarette smoke. He’s in a gray T-shirt and navy shorts and seems so much taller than he did this afternoon; then I realize there’s a step up to enter his apartment. “Hailey.”
I nod and force a smile, but I know it’s a nervous one. “Yeah. I just . . . changed my mind, is all.”
“Jesus, woman. You’re practically white. You good?” He motions me inside, and the second I cross the threshold I feel comfortable and . . . safe; not what I’d expected to feel. I set my bag on the floor in the corner and glance around his apartment. It’s not bright and typically Floridian—it’s got walnut paneling. There are two mission-style futons. Gray-and-blue flecked rug. Cheap, badly put-together furniture, like the kind you buy in boxes at Walmart and assemble with flimsy included tools. No colors match: green cushions, maroon cushions, rust curtains, gold raised-velvet wallpaper.
I was right. There are no hula girls here.
I realize I’m not really drunk anymore, probably a combination of fear, adrenaline, and the fact that I’d puked up most of the remainder of the bottle of rum and the last couple of shots of SoCo before they’d had time to seriously take effect. “Fine. Like I said, I changed my mind.”
Terrified I’ll see the hula girl standing in the parking lot, I peer outside before closing the front door.
He motions to the futon. “Come. Sit.”
I do. The cushion is much more comfortable than it looks; I sink into it.
He goes into the kitchenette and opens the refrigerator; I’m close enough that I can see all that’s in it is alcohol, a couple of Chinese food containers, and what looks to be a pile of onion peels or something on the very bottom. “Want a beer?”
I’m not big on beer, but recall with horror that, yes, I had gotten sick, and yes, I hadn’t brushed my teeth. I was going to need something to cover that up. “Sure.”
“Miller Lite, Killian’s Red, or Bud?”
We don’t serve any of that at the Kahiki, so I don’t really know what the difference is. I decide on the most interesting name. “Killian’s sounds good.”
“Woman after my own heart.” He bends over and I hear him slide out a drawer.
For the first time, I notice a long mark on the back of his left thigh. It’s like the amoebas I used to see in my science textbooks way back when, a big white blob fringed in a brown fuzzy ring.
I’m afraid to say anything, so I don’t.
He struts into the living room and hands me the beer, then settles down on the floor across from me. “It’s a burn scar, by the way. Really old. It was back when I first started training.”
I flush with embarrassment. “I—I didn’t mean to stare.”
“Didn’t know you were. Just everybody asks when I wear something short enough to see it, so I figured I’d get it out of the way.”
I bring the bottle to my lips and can barely get past the smell of it—like rug shampoo and cat piss. I don’t sip and say instead, “Weren’t you afraid after that?”
“Sure. Was I supposed to give up? I’d already told myself the fire thing wasn’t something I was going to fail at.” He sips his beer and reaches for his cigarettes. “Every fear you have you can pretty much trace back to the fear of failure. All fear is rooted there.”
I’m skeptical. “Fear of spiders?”
He shrugs matter-of-factly. “Fear of the failure to protect yourself.”
“Okay. Fear of . . . sleep.”
He lights his cigarette. “Fear of the failure to be impervious. When you sleep, you’re vulnerable.”
I think about the hula girls, how they’re a defense mechanism and nothing more. But a defense mechanism—that’s a manifestation of fear. The hula girl who chased me out of my apartment—her, too. But fear of what?
“And you’re sitting way up there. I don’t bite.” He pats the floor. “Come down here.”
I feel a flush. I join him, kneeling sideways.
I can see the bulge in his shorts.
Oh my God.
This moment is here.
I try in vain to suppress a nervous smile.
He shifts closer. “Don’t be afraid of me.”
“I’m just—”
He sets his burning cigarette in the ashtray. “Remember before, when I was talking about fire and water? How they need each other?”
“Yes,” I say. Not that I care at the moment.
“Comes from Hawaiian legend. There’s many variations. But there’s one that says Pele, goddess of fire, was actually married to Kamapua’a, the god of water.” He inches forward.
Our knees are touching.
Small shocks travel up my legs.
“Story says Pele got mad at him, chased him out of their home with lava all the way to the sea.” He reaches out and takes my hands. “But it’s the lava, its collision with the sea, that creates more land. Makes the island grow.”
His hands. I could write novels about his hands, forceful with a fire knife but tender now, rough but gentle as he manipulates his large fingers between mine.
“Chase me to the sea,” he whispers, and then his mouth smashes on mine.
His tongue butterflies in my mouth. I’m overwhelmed by the taste of hops, the smell of beach sand and the white gas they use in his knife. Hot fireworks of want explode inside me in places I never knew existed as he bulldozes me to the floor.
Our beers spill. The ashtray goes flying. Something plummets from the coffee table.
Oh, God my wig. My wig is going to come off.
His weight bears on me and forces the air from my lungs, but I suck hard and sounds I don’t recognize escape the back of my throat because this feels right and wonderful and amazing and all sorts of other words I couldn’t really fathom until this moment.
“I want to be inside you right. Now.”
Nothing excites me more than this. I watch him as he hefts off me and straightens up, wrestles with his shirt, throws it over by the glass sliding door that leads out to a small patio.
In the window stands a familiar figure.
Only it’s not a hula girl this time.
It’s Izzy, her eyes glowing like hot coals.
I scream.
He leaps off me. “Oh God. Did I hurt you? Shit!”
“No, no—it’s not that it’s not that it’s not that, there’s just . . .” There’s what? What the fuck do I say?
She’s gone.
He grins. “Oh . . . you’re a screamer. When you get worked up.”
“Yes,” I lie. Eager to distract him, I sit up and work out of my tank top. I’m not wearing a bra.
He crawls back to me, runs his hands up my legs, using words like smooth and soft and that it’s like I have no hair.
I try to quell the rising tide of fear, but he keeps going, furiously fingering the button and zipper on my jeans. He lifts me off the floor and works them down to my knees, then does the same with my thong and gasps. “You shaved!”
My breath catches in my throat. Oh, shit. “Is that bad?”
“No.” His eyes meet mine, and he looks amazed. “I’ve never been with a woman who shaved and that’s . . . something I always wanted. That’s—” he stops.
He’s looking at me—well, not me.
At the top of my head.
Panic grips my soul. The warm flush throbbing in every corner of me abruptly halts.
“Your hair is crooked.”
“Um . . .” Tears well up in my eyes. I can’t stop them. “It’s—it’s a wig.”
Under my tense fingers I feel his arm muscles have gone taut and still.
There’s a long moment. The only sound is the whoosh of the central air kicking on and the quiet hiccup of the tears I’m trying to control.
“It’s okay.” He shifts slightly off of me, puts his head down on my shoulder and wraps his big arms around me. “It’s okay. Cry it out. When you’re done, you can tell me.”
When I open my eyes between jags I see Izzy in the corner, but I know she can’t get to me because he’s between us. I want to tell him the whole thing, everything, but I can’t, not now when I know that the best I can hope for is these last few moments before it’s a sure thing that this won’t finish, that I’ll have to leave and go back to my apartment, forced to hold on to only a few tactile memories and the fear that he’ll tell everyone. That I’ll become some backstage failed sex story shared with the other performers over a few beers while Izzy tortures me in every waking moment, in every hula dancer glass, clock, picture frame and bathing suit in my house.
I’m finally cried out. “I’m sorry.”
“No need to be.”
“I have—it’s alopecia. It means I have no hair. Anywhere.”
Stillness again.
“This is a bad thing because why?” His hand pets my shoulder. “Don’t women spend fortunes on Brazilians? Razors? Nair?”
“But I’m bald.”
“I don’t care,” he says. “Personally? Can’t stand a hairy woman. This guy right here? Left women ’cause they were too hairy. I know. I’m a bastard. Just a thing I have.”
I let this sink in. “What?”
“Can I see it?”
“Can you see what?”
“You. Bald.”
I bite my lip. This is the one step I’m not sure I can take.
He lifts himself, rolls off me, and sits up. “Take it off.”
Something comes over me, a peace I’ve never felt before.
He holds out his meaty hand. “Come on. Take it off.”
I do.
He gasps and for one second I think it’s in horror. He reaches up and touches my head. His fingers tickle and it’s sensitive—no one’s ever touched it before. I don’t know whether to scream or wince.
“You’re perfect.”
I blink in surprise. I’m not sure I’ve heard that correctly. He can’t mean that, can he? What the hell is going on here? Is he real? Is this actually happening? “Really?”
“God yes.” His breath is hot in my ear. “Bed.”
He stands up and yanks me to my feet and into the adjoining room, eagerly splays me naked on the bed, mounts me. I wait for the pain—like the stabbing of knives—that Izzy told me girls have when they have sex for the first time. Strangely, it doesn’t come. All I feel is an odd sense of fulfillment, completeness.
I see Izzy in the doorway. Glaring.
But the whole world is different now. He’s inside me, pounding, using words like tight and I feel beautiful and bold. I peer over at his shoulder at her and feel remorse; that trophy, now, seems like a meaningless trinket, its value squat. It should’ve been hers. I never should’ve taken it from her. Never should’ve done what I did. “I’m sorry,” I whisper.
Toke hesitates for only a second. “What?”
“Nothing.” I shift so I can look into his eyes, wide open and boring straight into mine, unwilling for even a softening of her malignant stare to miss the thrill ride that is Toke.
There is fire and water, and no more fear.

Why is this scene/excerpt so emotional for you to write?  And can you describe your own emotional experience of writing this specific scene/excerpt? That scene’s specifics were taken from a real experience which had happened a dozen years prior, in 1997. Things were ripped, word-for-word in some cases, from the detailed journal entry I’d written about it. I had to relive that painful day all over again, and see—especially in 2018, 21 years later, when that scene was finally completed—what had actually been going on between me and this other person. Trying to take that raw, painful memory and shape it into a scene that was meaningful and made sense for the story was like being stabbed with knives; it was about acceptance and self-love in an environment where there wasn’t any in the real world. It was like taking my own personal tragedy and putting a happy ending on it, even though, in the end, no one wins, and there are no happy endings. I’d say now it’s probably why the damn thing sat in a drawer on and off for a decade: I simply wasn’t ready to deal with the truth.

Were there any deletions from this scene/excerpt that you can share with us? And can you please include a photo of your marked up rough drafts of this excerpt. Oh my, yes. That scene had about four or five different ways it was going to go, and I had no idea how it was going to end—essentially, it’s the end of the story; there’s just a brief tag after that, but that was a decision that was made later (I did not include how the story ends in the excerpt I provided). I’m afraid my mark-up photo isn’t going to show much, because I mostly do it on the fly, typing over the old draft, fixing it as I go. But this screenshot of an old PDF I saved from two days prior to finishing illustrates that the dialogue, and who was doing what, was completely different from the finished version. It also looks like the appearance of the ghost is in a different spot.

Other works you have published? I’ve been published in many magazines and anthologies over the years, and some things were back before the days of the Internet, so they’re completely out of print.

My main works include this most recent collection, The Shadows Behind, which is about the monsters that chase us from within; my short story collection, Skeletons in the Swimmin’ Hole: Tales from Haunted Disney World; my novel, Bad Apple; my novellette, This Poisoned Ground; and my novella, Splendid Chyna, which appears in The Terror Project’s Three on a Match. All of these are available on Amazon and other places books are sold, as they’re with several different publishers.

Links to short stories of mine that are still available in online magazines for free are here: https://kristipetersenschoonover.com/where-to-read-me/. I’d recommend giving “Wailing Station,” “King of Bull,” and “A Bone to Pick” to get a sense of my style.

Anything you would like to add? One of the most important things about writing, at least for me, is to be able to let yourself go while you’re doing it. 

          I have had times when I’ve cried or laughed writing a certain scene, times when I was just devastated or inebriated by what I was feeling. It’s hard to allow yourself to go to those extreme places, and that’s why some people avoid it. But when you are truly engaged in the emotion of what you’re creating, it breaks through to the page without your having to work at it. 
          I’ve read so many short stories in my lifetime, and I can tell the difference between ones that were guided by eviscerating emotion and passion—and ones that were simply there or “cranked out.” Clarity, truth, your message, what you’re trying to say to the world—that’s not superficial. It comes from deep within. When you’re creating, don’t think about I can’t sell this or this sucks or nobody’s going to understand this.
          Just let it flow, let it come out. If the raw material of emotion is there? It will be there when you shape, revise, and craft later on. Feel it in the draft. Don’t stifle your feelings when you’re working, or you might just find you’ll have nothing but a bunch of dead words. Writing is as much about your personal journey as it is about entertaining others. If you are being truthful and honest on your journey, some reader out there will be very grateful that you did.

          Kristi Petersen Schoonover has always wanted to take hula classes. Her work has appeared in many magazines and anthologies, and she’s the author of the collection The Shadows Behind. She curated the Ink Stains anthology Volume 7, was the recipient of three Norman Mailer Writers Colony Residencies, and holds an MFA in Creative Writing from Goddard College. She serves as co-host of the Dark Discussions podcast and lives in the Connecticut woods with her husband, Nathan.
Follow her adventures at www.kristipetersenschoonover.com 


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