Issue 046 Author Interview: Gillian Parrish and “City Light”

We have one last Issue 046 author interview for you, dear readers! Our next issue is on its way, but you can come back and read these fantastic stories any time you like. To wrap things up on this quarterly, we have Gillian Parrish here discussing her thoughts on her story “City Light“.

LSQ: What a pronouncement, for the boy to hear his name and that he had died in the park! Not only did it come as a shock to him, but it also confirmed to your readers that there was something different about his interaction with Chandra. How did you decide to wait until the halfway point to share this information with us? 

Gillian: I should say that I set out to write a ghost story as that was the task I set for my MFA students taking part in a Halloween flash fiction festival last year. In making my ghost, I found that what I was interested in was the experience of dying, particularly the denial of it. And so the timing of the reveal that the boy is dead was not about writing a story with a twist, but about getting close to the experience of the shock and denial of death. We are seeing denial play out at a vast scale right now with the pandemic and with the climate crisis. We fear change; we fear the unknown. And, thanks to the optical trick of aging in time—for at 25 or 85 we don’t appear as we did at five—death is our greatest unknown, and so tends to be our greatest fear. Chandra’s talent is helping ease the rough passage, to introduce death to the dead as less of an ending and more like a new dream.

LSQ: Chandra really has the feel for how to reach the boy and for trying different things through the tone of her voice and the pace with which she approaches him. She has obviously been doing this a long time. How is this boy different from the others she has helped?

Gillian: This boy is cut off from others. Hurt. Unheard. He’s not someone used to using his voice or being listened to—and this brings me back to your remark about how she approaches him, gains some trust, in part through her tone of voice.

To share something that writers may relate with: This story had a mind of its own in a few ways. For one, I tend to prefer to read and write fiction with lean dialogue, the kind of fiction that may even do away with quotation marks and embed the dialogue, winding dialogue in with the subtle actions or description of place such as the quiet of a room.

But stories are like wild horses, live, free-thinking things that wander off in surprising directions. This one decided it wanted to unfold through dialogue, which annoyed me greatly at times. I worried at points that it was too much of Chandra speaking, and that the boy is too passive. But, that passivity just really fit this addicted kid—he’s been shut out and shut down so long, on the nod, someone who has slid into a life of silent suffering. I think that his habitual silence worked with the loudness of the “ghost noise” that he was unconsciously unleashing on the neighborhood. Which is a question you ask me next….

LSQ: Tell us more about your fascinating concept of “ghost noise”. Beautifully descriptive examples from your story include, the “buzz of hunger up and down the street”, “maddening mosquito whine of his need”, and “metal scraping metal”.

 Gillian: That ghost noise is about how what we feel ripples out, affects others. Interpersonal neurobiology is revealing the physical “how” of what has been known to many older cultures: we are woven together in an unseen web. Chandra and Andee are people tuned into the even more invisible parts of the web, where the living walk out of the frame of our sunlit world.

LSQ: Chandra helped the boy ride the old spirit of the drug and let go into the wild of the afterlife before turning back to her grandmother in the orange chair. 

Gillian: So to address the idea of riding a drug: I want to be very careful with this idea. I have wondered (more like worried and hoped) that this story does not anywhere seem to romanticize addiction. Opiates or any sticky addictive substance, is not a helpful spirit, though it may seem like it at first—such is the way of harmful spells. In my author’s note, I credit a mentor, the indigenous psychologist Eduardo Duran, for his way of talking about addictive substances as spirits. Andee’s remarks on the drug having “a mind of its own” echoes Duran’s words.

But Chandra needs to reach this kid, to meet him where he is, as teachers say. And where he is, or has been, is addicted to the stuff. So he’s been living in a particularly narrow tunnel, a single-minded blindness. And we have a clue that he’s holding a lot of pain in, as that “ghost noise” he is transmitting is so loud and chaotic, and so it feels that he might freak out and shatter and get even more stuck.

So she’s trying to ease him into death, and even better, as hospice writer Stephen Levine often notes, she’s trying to help him heal in the process. She’s trying to help the kid mourn and connect to love and then let go into death from there. But he’s far from all that. What he is close to is this drug, which has a momentary, sometimes sadly fatal, and false letting go in it. It also has a false bliss in it, a bliss with hooks and teeth, wrenching folks into the agony-anxiety of addiction. Again, bad spells.

Chandra works with what she can—first the false letting go, to give him some confidence. Then she has him think back to a moment of real bliss, a memory of deep connection, of love. I’m reminded here of a book that I have not read, but have heard the precis of and tend to agree with, Gabor Mate’s In the Realm of the Hungry Ghosts, about how disconnection is the ground of addiction and psychospiritual unrest in our world today. And from that restless, hungry psyche, well, we can see the collective mess we are in, what with the ocean on fire and all. And that brings us to grandmothers, wise children, witches…

 LSQ: How does Andee’s presence weave through the story and what is her significance at the end?

Gillian: Andee, Chandra’s grandmother and teacher in this ghost-whispering lineage, is part of a linked fiction collection that features wise children and witches. I’ve always loved such characters, and it feels like the world needs such stuff now more than ever, stories that put forth new-old ways of living more deeply together and in our home places. So Andee points to this kind of life with her garden and her laughter and her love. Chandra does too, growing up with a ghost-tending talent that might have led her to her work as a nurse, work we see glimpses a few times in the story.

As for Andee’s appearance in the chair at the end: Well, that’s another instance of the story having a mind of its own. This is one of those moments for us writing geeks to think about authorial choices. I had that ending two ways for a while and felt fine with either one. One version ended with Chandra going inside alone. In the other, Andee appeared in the chair. I chose the latter for its odd openness. It felt playful on my part or to put it more truthfully—it felt trickster’ish on hers—how she was suddenly sitting there so casually in that orange chair. I think the chair itself swayed me a bit in that direction too, as orange exudes suddenness and aliveness and warmth, all of which remind me of Andee.

To return for a moment to what I called the openness of that ending: Something that always interests me in fantastical fiction for the logic of the magic to feel real, to be true. And so that raises the question of how Andee’s ghost gets to be there in that chair, while other ghosts need to be helped to move on. I liked the idea of Andee as a conscious ghost, not the shocked, unconscious dead, but rather someone who has developed, over years of midwiving the dead, an understanding of the web of life enough to resist dissolution for a time until her tasks are done. (After all, she does have parts to play yet in the linked collection.)

In the end, I went with that ending because it disrupted neat closure, removed a wall we didn’t know was there. In that way, rather like the ghost boy moving out of sight, out of our frame, Andee’s appearance gave the story its own life, its own late-night conversation the two characters would keep living out, even as the story finished for the reader.