Charles Tan Interviews Maria Dahvana Headley

Maria Dahvana Headley’s short story “The Traditional” is a 2013 Shirley Jackson Awards nominee.

Charles Tan: For “The Traditional”, how did you develop the story? Did the apocalyptic setting came first, or the characters?

Maria Dahvana Headley: The characters came first – particularly the narrator, but then her boy came into focus too. The apocalypse came from that feeling you sometimes have when you’re falling in love, that none of it could possibly be real, that you could not be this lucky. So the apocalypse in this story is love’s opposite, and the love the two characters build is as realistic as I could make it. Also the apocalypse setting came from the notion that love, even real love, is a helluva lot of hard damn work. This is one part O. Henry, one part Ballard, on purpose. Love is messy and full of crazy offerings. Like, you know, body parts given as anniversary gifts.

Charles Tan: For a lot of your fiction, whether novels or short stories, they tend to be compact and precise. What’s the appeal of this style for you?

Maria Dahvana Headley: Hmmm. Compact and precise is flattering! I feel a little sprawling usually!  But yes, that’s part of the pleasure of writing a short – seeing how much information you can press into something quite tinily, using emotional shorthand and phrases that mean more than one thing. It’s a structural challenge. This story has the pleasure of taking place over six years, which means I could encapsulate whole years in descriptions of the anniversaries.

Charles Tan: What was the most difficult part when it came to writing “The Traditional”?

Maria Dahvana Headley: The final showdown between the narrator and the giant worm. I wanted to do something that would call back to a lot of different B movie monster battles, while being itself as well – the fact that she kills the worm with a bone comb made of her boy’s hand? Maybe that’s something we haven’t seen before. But we have seen people dive off cliffs in order to fight big monsters. That balance was hard to achieve. We’ve seen so many movie monster battles! I rewrote it a few times, but finally, I was like, sue me, she has to dive down the worm’s throat and kill it from the inside. I have a fondness for the classics.

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