Interview with 2012 Barthelme Prize Winner Josie Sigler

Josie Sigler

Melissa Dziedzic: What is the inspiration behind your prize-winning short fiction “The Compartment"? Did it start as a piece of short prose or was it originally intended to be a longer piece, or even a poem? You move very comfortably between genres, and I'm wondering if you begin with a genre in mind or if that comes later.

Josie Sigler: In most cases, the shape and feel of a piece arrive on the same wind as the first line or sentence. Sometimes I get bits of idea and don’t know what they’ll become; then, I put the idea in one of my notebooks so I’ll encounter it again while transcribing. I like to flash things at myself again, to see if any new connections or purposeful disjunctions come up. In a few cases, I have written both a story and a poem with the same opening line—though there is usually quite a bit of divergence in what these pieces end up being about, their feel. The idea of shoulder blades being wing-nubs is an old idea, and I don’t remember it’s exact origins. Looking back at the snapshots of “The Compartment” in my Scrivener file, it’s easy to see now that it was going to invent its own genre that was neither/both prose n/or poetry—the drafts look more like me composing a poem despite the fact that the ideas came in sentences rather than lines, which made me initially work with it as prose. Usually, after I have a few paragraphs of prose, I start to know what a story will be “about” and how it might resolve or unravel. This time I didn’t know. I waited for the right narrative to come. I read about the murder of a young transgender woman in Honduras; it seemed possible that the particular compartment of the story would be that of a young witness, but I never pursued that idea (which doesn’t mean I won’t someday). It sat awhile. When I came back a few months later, I saw that it might be a poem, and I played with line breaks. Some new images from that session: the wrinkled hide of the elephant, the thick summer day. A few months later, the tight-margined justified form appeared. I had to keep adjusting things to get them to fit on lines the way I wanted them to. In that iteration, the best inventions in the final piece came in, wing-thiefs and doubters and force-feeding. I’ve since used some of the ideas in this piece in similar pieces that emerged after I wrote it. So in a way, you could say that this struggle to find form was the genesis for a potential longer project.

MD: I noticed that you are not shy about using the second person in your stories. In “Ms. Pacman” your reason for doing so as stated in the story is that it separates the narrator from an earlier version of herself. Would you say that there is similar reasoning behind your use of second person in “The Compartment” and “The Watcher in the Woods"?

JS: “You love second person, though it took you a long time to figure out how to use it. It can cause some crazy tense problems, and you have to be really careful.” Just kidding. Yes, in “Ms. Pacman” and many of the other stories from that manuscript, the narrator is an adult “I” talking to that “you,” giving voice to the complexities of a life the younger girl narrattee living it can’t yet articulate. In “The Compartment,” I’m hoping that the first use of “you” makes the reader actually remember their own encounters with the image they’re being shown: the place on a child’s back where the shoulder blades look like wing-nubs. Since they’re at the beach, it’s not so strange. But the second “you” is then a bit of a punch, introducing the idea that the reader might be a “wing-thief.” Whatever that is, it doesn’t sound too good, and also introduces a kind of contingent threat: regardless of whether the reader is a wing-thief, s/he clearly walks among these wing-thiefs, and clearly, the piece might reveal that what they do is something really awful. It’s the first sign we’re in a weird world. In “Watcher,” it’s more colloquial, part of River’s internal monologue, meant to make the reader feel she’s including them in a casual way among the people who might have gone or consider going into this vast Oregon wilderness she’s entering. There I hope it highlights or causes a bit of tension around the fact that her situation is marginally different from most people’s, but not so different as in “Ms. Pacman,” while “The Compartment” has a whole different world.

MD: Each of the three stories of yours that I have read deal with youth and the loss of innocence at a young age, is this something that you find yourself to be very concerned with as a writer?

JS: Yes, the loss of innocence is a major theme in my book of short stories, too, and perhaps in much of my poetry, and I am interested in a critical approach to the idea of innocence and its loss in general. I think that’s part of what I was hoping to get at with “The Compartment.” While the narrator seems to engage with the reader in the form of a very earnest lecture, that voice also pokes a little bit of fun at adults for thinking they might be able control what happens to children, that watching all the time can keep someone safe—people who have a lot of choices often think of themselves as making a lot of sacrifices in order to be “safe” or keep others safe and part of life is that we just can’t guarantee safety for ourselves or others. And what does being safe mean? (Besides having to practically get naked to be allowed to get on a plane? Besides dropping bombs?) Does it mean you might not fully see the person you are trying to protect? The young boy playing on the beach disappears. The piece slowly shifts toward the implied readers, who are constructed by the language as adults, having to encounter their own intangible compartments, which they presumably gained as children, and put themselves in one of the camps, believers and doubters, perhaps. I hope this piece calls out the process of loss of innocence as a very richly complicated thing. It’s not one minute you’re innocent, in the next you’re ruined. It takes years to put meaning to the events that constitute a “loss of innocence” if innocence even existed in the first place. In a way, life is a constant shucking off of innocence, both in the sense of “virginity” and in the sense of “having done no harm.” In the end of this piece, how believers and doubters feel about the compartment is how they feel about innocence and its loss, I’d say.

MD: I have to ask, are the specifics from the video game you use in your story "Ms. Pacman" the result of years of personal experience or just very extensive research?

JS: Both! I played Ms. Pacman like mad as a kid. But I did have to do some research, as I didn’t know beyond intuition and memory why the ghosts in “Ms. Pacman” didn’t move like the ones in Pacman, why they were far more complex. I was lucky that this guy Jamey Pittman who is a gamer and musician had written a “Pacman Dossier” that gave me more of a sense of programmers’ language; I’ve always meant to thank him publicly, so there it is. Also, I didn’t really remember the racy overtones of the lady Pac on the cabinet and original Atari ads, etc. When I saw those I realized just how well those images matched the story of the mom being a sex worker. There’s an iPhone version of Ms. Pacman that’s exactly like the old Midway version; it’s tons of fun. While I was writing the story, I played it constantly. I’m nowhere near as good now as I was back then. But the breathless cornering thrill of the warp-tunnel-close-call makes it pretty hard to tell the difference between then and now, which is part of how the narrative approach I took in that story came to me.

Melissa Dziedzic is a Senior Editorial Assistant for
Gulf Coast. She is graduating with a B.A. in Creative Writing and will be attending the MFA Program at Eastern Washington University starting in fall 2013.