Issue 050 Author Interview: M. J. Garland and “Chokeleaf”

We have another Issue 050 author interview for you today, dear readers! M. J. Garland is in our hot seat talking with us about her poignant story “Chokeleaf.”

LSQ: This is such a complex, moving story. It led me down a tangle of emotions and potential scenarios and finished by giving me what I desperately hope is a metaphor for the main character. She, and the chokeleaf itself, are fascinating. Where did you get the idea for this story?

M. J.: My roommates and I have a garden, and I’m always impressed by the tenacity of unwanted plants. Some weeds are almost magical in their ability to spring up and overshadow other plants overnight. I‘m easily distracted or overwhelmed by excessive background noise at home or at work, so the idea of a plant engineered to absorb sound appealed to me. Chokeleaf is an improbable organism, but I like imagining improbable or even impossible things. Once I had come up with this plant that absorbs sound, I began to imagine how the invention could go awry. I pictured the plant taking over and blanketing the world in silence. The response to this crisis would likely rely on underpaid and untrained workers, so I came up with an AmeriCorps-style group of young people tasked with removing this invasive species from national parks. The sound-absorbing qualities of Chokeleaf inspired me to think of a character who has a complicated relationship with silence, someone who has cultivated silence to protect herself but at the same time yearns for expression and connection.

LSQ: I didn’t even think of the environmental implications of a semi-magical, sound-absorbing plant until one of the Trailblazers mentioned it, and then it really sank in with the imagery of the bird. If a thing like this existed, where do you see it being useful, outside of dorm rooms? Where would it be a menace, like it was in the wild?

M. J.: I’m interested in adaptations that can be advantageous and destructive. A plant that absorbs sound could be helpful for people living in noisy environments. At the same time, if it spread uncontrolled, it could have deleterious environmental effects, including preventing animals from hearing the calls they depend on for mating and communicating danger. My main character has also cultivated silence as an adaptation, by not expressing her pain or attraction. This has helped her avoid attracting negative attention, but it’s also prevented her from connecting with others.

LSQ: Not to spoil things for readers, but I just have to ask—where do you see the arc of this story going for the main character? Have you thought about a potential future for her, and what it could look like?

M. J.: I don’t have a clear vision for my main character’s future. I do think she will find the other Trailblazers and make it out of the woods. Before the events of the story, she opened up to her roommate and a therapist, and as a result was placed on a medical leave which she viewed as more of a punishment than a support. It can be incredibly hard to be vulnerable again after an attempt at reaching out results in a worse situation, but I think her experience with the Chokeleaf will inspire her to make new attempts at communicating with others, including reconnecting with her former roommate. I think her journey will have ups and downs, but I do see her life improving.