Issue 039 Author Interview: Renee Bibby and “Don’t Stop”

It’s a busy, wonderful day here at LSQ. We’ve released our latest Issue 039, have had a delightful chat with our cover artist, Corinne Reid this morning, and now get to share with you all a behind-the-scenes peek into one of the featured stores in this issue, “Don’t Stop” by Renee Bibby. Could this day get any better?!

LSQ: There’s an underlying current of unnerving tension throughout this entire piece. Can you speak to how you were able to continue that tension so nicely from start to finish?

Renee: A friend of mine wanted to see the Northern Lights, so we set off on a trip to Alaska. In the very tiny coastal town of Seward, we figured the way to see them was dark sky away from the lights of town. We drove out close to midnight on winding roads into darkness. We pulled over at some point, stood in the blue and coldness and marveled at the natural world. The darkness is unbelievably rich and epic in Alaska. But, even as we examined the beauty, I started to imagine horrors, you know, as one does. My mind cycled through a variety of options, dismissing many, trying to find the thing that would terrify me the most (because, apparently that’s what my brain does with any beautiful moment).

I landed on the idea of something just on the edge of not right—the unheimlich of the known world. To me, leaning against the car and looking up at the blue spill of stars, the most horrifying thing I could imagine wasn’t a terrible beast or a terrifying unknown phenomena, but a human. Something that couldn’t easily be dismissed, shaken off, or abdicated. I turned to my friend right then and said: “I just figured out a story I’m about to write, and also, I’m pretty freaked out; want to go back to the hotel?”

Back home and safe in nuclear-bright Tucson, every time I tackled the story I wrote to freak myself out. I would imagine the dark, the aloneness, and then imagine the pull of humanity that would force a character to stay within that space. In one draft of the story Moira had veered so far into the strange that it would have strained Keesha’s credibility to help her. I had to reel that back in, bring Moira back into a human so that the uncertainty would also keep Keesha in the truck, willing to help, but similarly if it ever veered too pedestrian, if my own hackles weren’t raised by what was happening, then I wrote towards the ambiguity of what was going on with Moira—leaning into that uncanniness that is unsettling but not straight horror.

I essentially overshot and underplayed the tension many times in many drafts, until I found balance for myself of being creeped out but not horrified. I used my own fear to calibrate the tension of the story.

LSQ: In a way, this story centers around two choices that Keesha has to make: first, whether to try to help Moira or not and second, whether to leave with Them or not. What do the decisions she makes say about her character? Did you know she would make these choices when you started the story, or did she choose herself as you wrote?

Renee: Once I decided on the creepiness of the story, I had to cast the roles, so to speak. Because my initial primary engine for the story was fueled by the creepiness of the situation, my early iterations of the story had Keesha as a foil and not a character; she was some “every person” who Encountered Something Creepy. She was a stand-in for the terror all of us might feel in the situation.

It took a minute for me figure out that wasn’t particularly interesting. I’d built out the story of the creepy woman in the dark, but, as you point by the very question, how a person reacts to a situation is character revealing, yet I hadn’t built out the person who responds to the creepy woman in the dark. Not everybody would stop to help Moira. Other people would push her out of the truck pretty soon after she got weird.

My next step in building the story was to envision a person who would stop, even with a supposed superseding edict to not stop. Keesha’s life and interiority became my primary focus for several drafts; the only thing I worked on was building Keesha’s backstory. It went rather smoothly at first, because most decisions she had to make weren’t “hard.” She had a moral motive to help Moira, and selfish motives—she fears the repercussions of people finding out she left an old woman on the road (wouldn’t we all consider that?). I had to work backstory carefully into the balance of the tension, but I was pretty confident that she was on track. For nearly every version of the ending, the last scene was Them telling Keesha to leave Moira and drive away, and Keesha does. Nice and neat and easy.

But, again, easy isn’t interesting. I advise my students, “Don’t go easy on your characters, because that’s not how life works or good storytelling.” I’d made the same mistake of being too kind to her, which saved me the grief of torturing a character I liked but made for a pretty flat story. I had to take my own advice and make it more painful for Keesha. That second choice, of staying or leaving, came in very late in the process, the second to last draft.

As soon as Keesha was at the crossroads, I’ll admit that I wasn’t sure what choice she would make. From a narrative and character perspective, it felt feasible to push the story either direction. She was positioned to be like Moira—a woman who escaped the harshness of her life and earned what could perhaps be considered well-deserved freedom—or a woman who chose to tackle something she didn’t really want to. I flirted with the idea of making it really dark and slightly more supernatural by her choosing to leave, but just like I had a creepiness barometer that helped me balance the unsettling tension of the scenario, I likewise had a barometer about Keesha’s morality, which dinged: it would be going too far, if she chose to leave; that if I were the reader of the story I would be very upset if she made that choice.

I’m not afraid of darkness in story; one of my most recent published stories is about a woman who has to decide if she’s going to kill her own son. I do like a dark, fermented narrative, but writers have to maintain fidelity to character. Keesha was and is lonely, despite her protestations otherwise to her sister, so it felt too cruel take away an opportunity for her to really end her loneliness. A chance for her to build out a new life that would include a person who would care enough about Keesha to pack her some snacks for the road. But for that to work out in her life, she had to choose it. Taking care of a kid, when it was thrust upon her made it a burden but choosing to take care of her niece made it an opportunity.

So, in the end, framing the difficult choice became the only real way for the character to move forward.

LSQ: The physical description of Them is not expected, and you even state they are not “little green men” in the story. What made you choose their features?

Renee: My original intent with this story was to ride the line of creepy-but-plausible all the way until the end; the aliens in the story were meant to flicker back and forth between normal and unreal so that as she drove away, Keesha, and maybe even the reader couldn’t be 100% sure it was aliens. In early drafts, different members of my writing group argued They could be read as witches, or government agents, or paranormal creatures. I really loved that ambiguity and the potential for misdirection. Just like it was with Moira, I delighted in the almostness of Them.

Don’t get me wrong—I’m a big fan of a classic alien story, with big-eyed, creepy, humanoid figures, with flying saucers. But as a storyteller, I’m more interested in the frisson of ambiguity. I do enjoy inducing perplexity and dread.

In that way, They worked well. However, as I began to write more into character, I understood they couldn’t be a cipher within the larger story. I had to do “world building” in my own mind about who They were and what They may want. Earlier versions were certainly more unsettling because They were much more inimical and ill defined; the original ending was much more antagonistic. While I loved Their vagueness, Their flickering along the lines of what is normal, in order for Keesha to be truly tempted by them, They had to be kind. Keesha had to not be too terrified by them and believe they could deliver on what they promised. That provided the parameters for how I wrote Them: credible enough as humans that Keesha would stay, but also reveal themselves as more powerful so that she would be tempted by what they offered.

LSQ: What was the most challenging aspect of this story to write and why? 

Renee: Sometimes when I’m writing I wonder if I’m really meant to be making movies. I can envision so precisely the panning of angles and colors and lights, the pauses between words that I can sink way too deeply into the act of description. Some stories feel less like challenging because the visual experience of the story isn’t as vital to the story itself, but this one felt very much like a dark black well I fell into. I wanted to describe the ribbons of saliva in Moira’s mouth and the crust in her eyelashes. I spent a lot of energy reigning it in—checking myself to see what served the mood and not just the beautiful framing of a single horrifying image.

I work as a graphic designer in my day job so my interest in the visual impact of narrative makes a lot of sense. But, also … calm down with the gruesome details, right? An elegantly framed shot in a film can provide maximum impact in ten seconds, but a framed shot in a story can take up pages, so no matter how cinematically operatic one of those long drawn out descriptions can be, they can very quickly bog a story down. I sometimes had to talk myself off of details, like, “nobody wants to know what her fingernails look like.” I was lucky that my writing group was good at being, like, “this is too much!”  I would then go home and rave like a mad scientist for days about nobody understanding my vision and then calm down, because, right, nobody wants to see everything in a story or they’d be watching a movie, instead.

LSQ: Are you working on any other writing projects at the moment? If so, can you tell us a bit about them?

Renee: I always have stories cooking! My process is: a story I’m writing by hand, a story I’m actively rewriting, a story I’m stewing on, and a few stories I’m working to get published.

Right now, I’m writing a love story about vampires in space; it’s a fantasy science fiction blend, because I do love mashing up genres. I fear this one may swell into a novella, but I’m keeping it under control (it’s not under control) and not adding too much description (there is so much description).

My rewrite story is about a woman whose rowing machine comes to life and acts as a conduit for her social isolation and familial frustrations. This one will go live with Splice later this year, so the bulk of the rewrites has been done; now it’s about reshaping single sentences and words.

Then my lizard hindbrain is chewing on a story about witches of the Southwest. The original character arc, about female power and hierarchies, is dependent on the concept of literal female power, which, without thinking too much about it, I immediately slotted into the dominant model of witchcraft we have in the United States, which has origins in Old World European tales: dark gothic forests, wolves, cold weather, and protagonists who are white; yet as these flashes of character and bits of dialogue started coming to me, I re-examined my own assumption that I would need to set my story within this dominant narrative. None of those landscapes, animals, or version of witches align with my experiences or heritage. With this particular project, a kernel of a story that I’ll have to water and grow over the next year, I’m interested in doing some world building that explores southwestern people and mythos of power as a more appropriate and interesting setting for these characters. Given how slowly I work, this story will be in the world about two years from now.