I wrote this story because I was homesick for Little Rock. I had just moved to Michigan, where in the winter the sun set at 5:00 p.m. and the snow banks climbed two or three feet high by February. I missed wide rivers, muggy heat, stormy nights. I wanted to write something that captured a piece of Arkansas, something of its magic, and I especially wanted to write a fairy tale.
Around this time I had just read Kate Bernheimer’s “Fairy Tale is Form, Form is Fairy Tale,” published in The Writer’s Notebook: Craft Essays from Tin House. In the essay, Bernheimer identifies “flatness, abstraction, intuitive logic, and normalized magic” as four elements that characterize the fairy tale form. A longtime writer and admirer of speculative fiction, I was already familiar with the concept of normalized magic—where magical happenings are simply understood by characters and readers—but I was intrigued by the idea of painting characters in very broad strokes and telling a story in associative leaps from image to image, rather than in the more familiar cause-effect plot. The fairy tale form seemed like the perfect way to explore the things that drew me to writing—images, situations, and atmosphere, not necessarily well-rounded characters or intricate storylines. It also seemed like a form particularly suited to flash fiction. I was (and still am) interested in flash fiction, its ability to communicate entire worlds in a tiny space. I’m also frequently challenged by the different set of concerns it brings, often more on the line-level than in terms of overall structure.
All these ideas contributed to the story’s creation, but the more specific shape of the story, a dictionary definition, emerged from a prompt: “use the same word to mean as many different things as possible.” I chose the word rock because it’s a verb and a noun, and because it appears in the name “Little Rock.” Thus, the story’s setting and initial inspiration would also shape its structure. Building the story around sample sentences for a definition meant that each part of the story had to be somewhat self-contained, short, and evocative, but the parts also had to collectively build to a satisfying conclusion. It was a fun challenge, especially to play with language so the repetition of rock didn’t become too tiresome. It was also fun to discover the different places one could find the word rock—at a concert, on a boat, by a river, etc.
Finally, the catfish woman. Why her? Because catfish are significant to popular culture in Arkansas, and a mermaid from Arkansas would probably look something like a catfish. And because mermaids are emblematic of the liminal, the in-between, where the magical meets the more familiar. She always stood for the particular kind of magic I sought to create with this piece.
AUDREY BAUMAN is an MFA student at Northern Michigan University and Managing Editor of Passages North. She has been published in Paper Darts, Jellyfish Review, and HAD. Her tweets can be found @haylin42.