Issue 032 author interview: Hannah Sternberg and “Goners”

Got a hankering for a time-bending tale set on the beach? Author Hannah Sternberg‘s tale “Goners” in Luna Station Quarterly‘s Issue 032 is right up your alley. Go read her story, then come back here for our interview with Hannah.
LSQ: Where did the idea for this story come from? Do you live near the ocean in North Carolina, or have visited?

Hannah: I have an aunt who lives in the Outer Banks and I’ve visited her a few times. My family also goes to the Delaware beaches a couple times a year, and there are a lot of similarities–blustery, old-fashioned Atlantic shore towns with busted-up signs and locals fishing for dogfish right off the beach. We usually go to the beach in early spring or fall, so my mental image of the beach is a sweatshirt day where the sky is gray and the ocean is gray-green, except where it washes up over the sand and looks like faded teal over tan. I do a lot of daydreaming there, so I guess a lot of my stories make their way to the beach, too.

LSQ: In a way, I was relieved that James seems to accept his fate at the end. What are your thoughts on this?

Hannah: I went back and forth on the ending. I wrote the story a few different ways, and it changed a lot in each draft. Earlier versions end with a heroic escape attempt, though I never quite defined whether they made it out or not. But I think James is the kind of guy who drifts on the wind. He has a rebellious streak, but ultimately he goes where the current pushes him–that’s how he wound up there in the first place. I don’t really want to interpret his choice for the reader too much, though. I think different readers can have different pictures of his emotional state in that moment–and I want them to; I want them to experience his moment in the way that they empathize with most. For example, I didn’t necessarily feel relief at the idea of his accepting what has happened–but that doesn’t mean it’s wrong that you (one reader) did. I want you to experience that moment your own way, and think about why it makes you feel like that.

LSQ: What is the most important thing you’d like readers to get from this story?
Hannah: Ten minutes of escape from the news and a good shiver. If it makes you think about friendship and kinship and the loss of childhood and the inexorability of time, that’s cool. But mostly I’d like it to give you a mild case of the willies.
LSQ: Sometimes, stories that incorporate time changes can be hard to write and for the reader to keep straight, although your piece does it well. What was the most challenging part of writing this story? Was it hard to keep the details straight and unravel the time mystery in such a way that you don’t lose the readers?
Hannah: Hopefully I can describe it in a way that doesn’t give away too much of the story! It was pretty challenging to write the shifts in time in this story because I wanted to show them through events, instead of just explaining it through the narration–especially because I wanted the reader to feel in the present moment with James and he, of course, has no idea what the hell is going on. In addition to unique timeline problems created by the supernatural setting, there are the flashbacks to James’ and Jimmy’s childhoods. Those were a lot easier to handle because if you write long enough you’re going to write flashbacks and know how to fold them in and make things clear with transitions and verb tenses. To describe the supernatural time that passes and re-passes in the story, I had to do a lot of rewriting. I didn’t really have to timeline it because the story isn’t that long and the looping events aren’t complex, so it was more a matter of figuring out how to demonstrate, through an action that could occur in a relatively short period of time, the supernatural effect on time this place has.
LSQ: Do you have any advice for new writers?
Hannah: Keep writing. I teach a class in D.C. called Writing Games and one of the biggest points we go over is how, with so many other arts, it seems obvious that practice makes perfect; you wouldn’t pick up a guitar for the first time in your life and expect to be stellar at it. But sometimes people think that if they’re meant to be a great writer, they’ll be great from the start and if they’re not great immediately, it means they weren’t meant for writing, and they give up. Practice writing like you’d practice guitar. When I play music, I pick songs I really, really like–even if they’re hard–and I practice on those because I know they’ll challenge me to learn a new technique and build my skills. But for whatever reason, a lot of writers feel like they have to hold on to their “good ideas” until they’re really good–they don’t want to waste them–so they spend their time practicing on stories and ideas that fall ever so slightly short of what they want to be writing. That’s like only practicing songs you don’t like. You’ll get discouraged and bored and all your hard work still won’t culminate in playing the song that made you want to pick up guitar in the first place. So start with the song you want to know, even if it’s really hard. Start with the story you’re afraid of ruining. Write the story you actually really want to write, and just keep practicing at it. You will get better. Will you become great? I don’t know. Ditch the idea of greatness. Just have fun and see where it goes, and make something you can feel proud of.
LSQ: What are you reading currently? Does what you read influence whatever you are writing at the time? Who are some authors that inspire you?
Hannah: I’m usually reading five or six books at a time, settling on one once it grabs my attention fully enough to pull me to the end, and otherwise just chipping away at them in rotation. A sample of the ones highest on my bedside table stack are Lost Girls: An Unsolved American Mystery by Robert Kolker, The Lottery and Other Stories by Shirley Jackson, and World War Z by Max Brooks (yeah, I know I’m late to the party). Shirley Jackson is a big inspiration due to her way of writing around the ephemeral moments that define her women’s lives. There’s always something seething just under the surface–something futile and sad and maybe a generation later, maybe with some air, powerful. I also love Ursula Le Guin, especially The Left Hand of Darkness. Lately I’ve been into a mid-century suspense/horror author John Wyndham, who wrote surprisingly (and possibly, sometimes, unintentionally) feminist and extremely realistic disaster stories. I love ghost stories and eerie, weird fiction.

LSQ: Do you have any other projects you’re working on at the moment and can you tell us a bit about them?
Hannah: I’ve taken a short break from working on books to focus on music for a little while. I’m the bassist and co-songwriter for Daamsel, a gritty, emotional rock group, and we’re hoping to record our first demo early in 2018; we’ve been writing very rapidly and playing as many shows as we can in the D.C. area. In the meantime, I’ve been working my way through a stack of short stories I’ve written over the years and dramatically revising them–that’s how “Goners” landed at Luna Station Quarterly. I’m hoping to have a few more out on submission soon.

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