Author’s Note about the Author’s Note: It is supremely hard for me to talk about myself or my craft. (Tough for me that this piece is now publishing in CRAFT, a lit mag known for its deep exploration of writing craft.) Like most people I can subscribe meaning to my work after the fact, but most of the time if someone has a really good question or theory about something I’ve written, they have a way better answer in just their asking of the question than anything I could ever come up with in the answer. As for general craft knowledge, I really have none I would feel good about handing out wholesale. The only piece of advice I would feel comfortable giving out kind of makes me sound like an ass, but I think it’s true. (The advice: Disabuse yourself of the idea that anybody knows the right way to do this thing called craft.) So, again, we’re in a bit of a hard place. I think what we’re going to do is use a little trick I’ve used in an interview or two. Instead of just talking about my approach to the story I’m going to be interviewed by myself. Interior Second Sam Berman (ISSB) will interview me, Original Samuel Berman (OSB), and I think together we’ll have some fun!
ISSB: Long time no talk?
OSB: Ah yes, you’re referring to trying to finish my first novel, moving across the country in the heart of winter, and still planning a gigantic literary festival with more than twenty-five events over five days from fourteen hundred miles away even though I’d never planned a single event, on a single day, like ever before? Like, never ever before?
ISSB: You’re talking about Storyfort.
OSB: Yes. But hey! I pulled it off. And we had so many amazing writers, and I think everyone had a really fun time. That being said I slept about ten hours over the course of five days…they’re some things I would have done to pace myself a little better—but there’s always next year!
ISSB: Yeah, bud. You need to check in with yourself a little more.
OSB: Copy that. I’ll send you a Google Meet invite. Are you free for a half hour, eight months from now? December 10 sound good?
ISSB: Funny guy. Trying to differentiate yourself with this little self-styled interview is very, VERY clever.
OSB: Courtney (Harler, CRAFT’s editor in chief) thought it was a half-decent idea.
ISSB: Well, she’s a brilliant lady. But let’s honor the journal’s entire ethos here and actually talk a little bit about writing, can we do that?
OSB: We can always talk about writing.
ISSB: Great. Okay. This story is written with a lot of pop and verve, but the subject matter is about as dark as it comes. Can you talk about where you got the idea for the story? And how you decided on some of those more playful structural elements you use throughout the story?
OSB: When it comes to where it came from—that’s a two-part answer. The first and unfun part: I’m thirty-one years old and I have been inundated with news stories about violence against young people in this country (committed violence and accidental violence and self-inflicted violence) for as long as I can remember. I don’t want to go on some long-winded rant, lord knows there’s enough people online echoing this sentiment, but some (awful) guy on Vanderpump Rules cheats on his (slightly less awful) girlfriend and it’s on the CNN homepage two days after a girl walked into a Colorado school and took five lives. I think about desensitization a lot. I have a real interest in the way as a nation we’ve dealt with collective trauma since the 9/11 attacks. I think a lot about the way we put these really awful realities and disasters in a little box and stash them at the back of the closet; I think about how people just do that a lot in their day-to-day lives as well. We kind of spend our whole lives stuffing our mess under the bed and pretending it’s not there. It’s probably not the healthiest thing.
OSB: Dude, I know! But I’ll say this: “The Ten Deaths of Mrs. Haverhill’s Second-Grade Class” is a different type of story from that type of story. It’s not a school-shooting story. What it does do is tap into this anxiety I felt as a young person, and that I imagine other kids struggle with too, and it takes that fear and it literalizes it the way fiction can in this what-if way. I loved exploring the way death is in lockstep with the main character throughout the story, and that it’s completely indifferent to her demands, fears, and calls to action. And the fun part to this answer is that this story is like the literary version of Final Destination, a movie wherein a group of teens survive a plane crash, one I love so much it makes me feel bad for other movies because they’re not and never will be Final Destination. It’s such a primitive and perfect idea for a horror movie. It puts a smile on my face just thinking about it. I think a lot of the fun I have on the page might come a little bit from thinking about that movie. Just me trying to lean into some of the absurdities around death. The whole story is so morose. I think I’m definitely someone who deals with traumatic realities, like death, by looking for some humor or beauty in it. It’s really hard to think or talk about. And I think in this story, in a way, I’m looking right at what’s happening to these kids and trying to imagine how some of them are able to go on in the world and have lives. And families. And just keep moving forward despite this awful, scary cloud hanging over them.
ISSB: Movies inform your writing a lot?
OSB: I’m not joking, they’re as important to me as books. It’s like 52% (books), 48% (films). I want to pitch a podcast wherein every week, me and another writer break down a movie that’s in need of a serious major literary adaptation.
ISSB: That seems highly specific.
OSB: It is. Finding high-concept movies based on original screenplays and not novels or comic books or stage plays is harder than you might think. But when you find a good one, you’re just like, god, I wish Steven Millhauser had just written this movie as a story.
ISSB: Can I ask a couple more questions?
OSB: Your time is my time.
ISSB: I’ve heard you talk about reading before you write as a way of “getting into the mood.”
OSB: Yes. I also light candles and eat an avocado! Brain food! But yes, I do read before I write.
ISSB: Who were you reading when you were working on “The Ten Deaths”?
OSB: That’s funny. You can probably see bit of all of them in there, but I’d just finished Fraternity by Benjamin Nugent, which has some great examples of a single narrator interspersed with a collective “we.” A trick I used quite a bit. Then I had two books going at once: A Visit from the Footbinder and Other Stories by Emily Prager (do yourself a favor and go buy this book) and I had an advanced copy of Aesthetica by Allie Rowbottom, which was actually super instructive for me when editing later drafts of this story. I think in earlier drafts I was leaning into some melodrama, trying to create stakes that were unnecessary. And I think that has a lot to do with trying to pin down character motivation. And I figured out from reading Allie’s book that I couldn’t have my character’s motivation throughout the story just be, I really don’t want to die and feel like I’m going to die at any minute. That needs to be the subtext of the motivation. The character’s motivation needs to be, I want to go drink with my friends, I want to have sex, I want to do things kids my own age are doing, while the whole time as a reader you have this dread—or maybe understanding is a better word—that everything this character is doing is motivated by this fear and exhaustion and anger that she’ll probably die like her classmates. But that couldn’t be the character’s understanding of herself the whole time. Dramatically there’s nowhere to go with that. And I think that’s something Allie Rowbottom does amazingly well in Aesthetica. There’s a ton of boots-on-the-ground character motivation. I was lucky to be reading it at the time—it felt like I was cheating off her homework.
ISSB: You take anything else from her book?
OSB: Just to not push. Because she’s like a pro’s pro. It’s sorta unfair. She and I are basically the same age and even if I had sixty years to catch up, she’d still be a much better writer. She has that thing you can tell about great writers like Claire Vaye Watkins, Lauren Groff, Kelly Link, Karen Russel, and Samantha Hunt. I think of all them as being the next generation in a lineage of writers so good, so incapable of writing poorly, that all of their work has to be reckoned with. Allie’s simple sentences hit harder than my big swings. Where I’d stretch for some twice-removed metaphor she just has the correct, elegant, much better line. So, when I was working on my own story I was just trying to take as much of her steadiness as I could.
ISSB: Your narrator is a young woman in this story.
OSB: Yes, has to be.
ISSB: Why’s that?
OSB: The character needs to be smart. And aware. I don’t think I even realized I was actually going to die one day until I was like, I don’t know, twenty-six?
OSB: I wrote it the way that felt the truest. I’m not the most dogmatic or political person; if someone told me I missed the mark on something in this, or any other story I had written, I’d try to be open to looking at that and talking it through.
OSB: Yeah, I mean, I like to think if I was alone—the last man on earth—I’d still be writing something. But I can tell you for sure what I wouldn’t be writing: second drafts. So, everything I work on after the first draft is meant for consumption. If I come by a character honestly and with a clear mind, I think I can write all different types of people and places. But also, if I write something that doesn’t pass the smell test, then I hope someone lets me know I’ve stunk it up. I hope they tell me if they see me flying too close to the stinky sun.
ISS: Yeah, man.
ISS: Thank you.
OSB: No. Thank you.
ISS: No, no, no. Thank you.
SAM BERMAN is a short story writer who lives in Chicago and works at Lake Front Medical with Nancy, Andrew, and Reuben. They are terrific coworkers. He has had work published in Maudlin House, Northwest Review, The Masters Review, D.F.L. Lit, Hobart, Illuminations, The Fourth River, and SmokeLong Quarterly, and recently won Forever Magazine’s Unconventional Love Stories Contest. His work was selected as runner-up in The Kenyon Review’s 2022 Nonfiction Competition as well as shortlisted for the 2022 Halifax Ranch Prize and the ILS Fiction Contest. He has forthcoming work in Expat Press and Rejection Letters, among others. Find Sam on Instagram @sugarcainberman.