Issue 049 Author Interview: Sarah Dropek and “Swallow It Down”

And so we’ve reached our final Issue 049 author interview. We hope you’ve had as much fun getting to know our authors as we did! Sarah Dropek is here with us today to wrap things up with a discussion of her story “Swallow It Down.”

LSQ: Whoa! This story was a huge surprise to me, in the best and creepiest kind of way! I did NOT see that ending coming. When you started writing this story, was that the end you had already envisioned, or did you have to start more slowly and let it come to you as you went?

Sarah: I’m so glad you liked it! Endings and titles are the trickiest of things for me. I’m still doing a lot of learning about writing and about my own process with each story I begin, so I don’t have a one-size-fits-all method to any of my ideas. I’ve started stories with the end in mind (though it often changes as I go) and I’ve discovery written my way to endings that were mysteries to me until something clicked, and it came together.

This story began with a desire to write a relationship between two family members where, by the end, neither person could be considered “the good guy.” From there, the characters took shape in my mind quite quickly. Since Catherine’s big driver was to get as much distance from her mother as possible, I knew I needed to find a way to push them as close together as I could. So I cajoled my plot to necessitate they live in the same house. Once I had Catherine brushing her mother’s hair, I knew I wanted to linger on that moment of care for someone she disliked so much. And then hair sparked the next evolution of the story.

In the house I grew up in, there was a snag of hair in the corner of the attic door on the ceiling right outside my bedroom door. I never succeeded in convincing myself it belonged to anyone in my family and since then, hair has always unnerved me a little. The way it feels to see a stranger’s strands of hair somewhere you don’t expect, how it always seems to make frightening pictures on the shower wall, or how it tickles until you have to check if a bug is on your neck. That attic did a number on me. Once I knew I wanted to use hair somehow to push Catherine even closer to her mother, the ending felt like it fell into place with its own agenda.

LSQ: The dynamic between Catherine and her mother feels age-old, and part of what made me so surprised was the lack of surprise at how Catherine was feeling as the story went on. Even her acts of consumption were both a shock and not. The biggest clues seem to come from Brianna, but I only realized that in hindsight. The tension is just delicious—a bite-sized thriller. What sort of journey are you trying to take a reader on as they go through “Swallow It Down”?

Sarah: Being in a family can be amazing. It can also feel impossible sometimes. I’m always curious how we push and pull at each other in this group of people we didn’t ever ask to live with.

With Catherine and her mother, I wanted to explore the idea that maybe there is a distance in familial relationships between who we are, who another person is, and what we wish they might be, that will always mean we misunderstand each other, make missteps, or put someone in a box they don’t want to be in.

I think that at some point, every kid has felt that their parent doesn’t ‘get’ them or wishes they were different. I wanted Catherine to embody that visceral frustration against her disappointed and sniping mother. I wanted a reader to rally behind Catherine.

But I wanted to show that her mother suffers the same misunderstandings from her daughter, too. When Meggie takes over Catherine’s body and steals her life with a vivaciousness Catherine didn’t have, the question is which woman was right, which was wrong. But my hope is that the answer is neither. My hope is for the real answer to be that these are two people, giving up after struggling to coexist when they were too different to ever succeed.

It doesn’t sound like a very hopeful outlook, but I think there is also freedom in letting go of trying so hard for a closeness that isn’t possible. And it’s probably a reach, but maybe through reading Meggie and Catherine’s story, we can do better than them simply by beginning from a place of tenderness towards that difficulty of understanding and being understood in any relationship.

LSQ: The hint of the supernatural is intriguing here. I both want and don’t want to see what happens next—does Meggie lose her job because she doesn’t know how to code, does Brianna ever wonder to herself “What on earth was that?” Did you rely on any particular inspiration when it came to deciding how the swap came about? Is this something you enjoy reading as well as writing?

Sarah: I love a good story where no one wins and that was decidedly my plan for this one! The future for Meggie is pretty bleak in my mind. Maybe she gets a few good days in, but her own hubris in thinking she could live her daughter’s life better than she had catches up with her and things fall apart pretty quickly. Job loss for sure, I imagine Brianna would get pretty suspicious at “Catherine’s” change in demeanor and report it somehow. No one really comes out unscathed, and there’s quite a lot of regret to share among the three women.

I don’t think I’m alone in gravitating towards writing and reading things that really twist the knife in deeper. In a world where good and bad things happen in a way that can feel both inevitable and completely random, I like to read fiction that mirrors that. It’s a salve, I think, to my brain that’s always trying to make sense of things, when there is often no sense to be had.

I do love reading a happy ending every once in a while, but too many of them in a row can make reality hard to stomach. So, there’s something strangely soothing about a dark and brutal story that can hold my fear and also help me better notice the glimmers of light in the world