Every story in this short collection, The Missing Girl (Black Lawrence Press, 2017), is strong, evocative, and terrifying. Jacqueline Doyle gives us a prism: eight stories with eight different approaches on the continuing issue of misappropriate, dangerous, and often deadly behavior toward women.
Jacqueline Doyle’s flash collection The Missing Girl won the Black River Chapbook Competition at Black Lawrence Press, and was included in “Best Books of 2017” lists at Paper Darts and The Coil. She has published recent flash in Juked, Post Road, Hotel Amerika, and Wigleaf, and recent creative nonfiction in The Gettysburg Review and New Ohio Review. Her work has earned two Finalist listings in Best Small Fictions, four Notable Essay citations in Best American Essays, six Pushcart nominations, and numerous prizes (including first place in Midway Journal’s 2017 flash contest, judged by Michael Martone). She lives in the San Francisco Bay Area, where she teaches at California State University East Bay.
Gay Degani: In “The Missing Girl,” “Hula,” “The Victim,” and “Let’s Play a Game,” you use second person. Three others, “You Never Know,” “Something Like That,” and “Nola,” are written in first person. “My Blue Heaven” has multiple narrators. Some viewpoints are from predators, others from prey, creating a chilling and compelling mix. How do you view the importance of POV?
Jacqueline Doyle: Long ago I wrote my PhD dissertation on Edgar Allan Poe and the American modernists; Poe’s compact, horrifying stories depend heavily on the unreliable first-person narrator, which has always fascinated me. With an unreliable narrator there are always two stories going on: the story as the narrator understands it, and the story as the reader understands it. I love the complexity of that interplay, how the reader puzzles out the truth by reading between the lines, and how the author’s gradual disclosure of the truth creates suspense.
I’m also fascinated by the way that second-person narrative point of view can shift from something very innocuous and general (for example, “You see her posters on telephone poles all over town” in the opening story) to something sinister and specific (“You drive this way a lot, wondering where he picked her up, where he took her, what he did, whether she liked it,” later in that story). I often play with POV when I’m writing. “Let’s Play a Game” was originally written in the third person, but felt more immediate and visceral when I changed it to second. I enjoy novels with multiple first-person narrators (Louise Erdrich’s, for example) and loved applying that technique in a flash. “My Blue Heaven” unfolds in increments and also circles around the absent girl, whose voice is largely missing. Missing and unheard voices became thematically and structurally important throughout the stories.
GD: “You Never Know” is a story within a story and it’s a lesson to any writer on how to build tension. On a plane, an obnoxious woman tells the narrator how she escaped a “not-so-near” death experience, and he follows with a story of his own. The structure in this story and in the others in this collection make a powerful impact. How do you go about shaping of a story?
JD: I think my best stories are unplanned, where I just start with a character or a situation or a first line. “Hula” started with just the opening line, “He said his name was Philip,” and I had no idea where it was going, only that “He said” was already potentially disturbing (more disturbing than “His name was Philip” would be). I’m not sure I know where “Hula” is going after the last line either; I like that about flash. You catch a glimpse of a character’s life, but that’s all.
“Something Like That” started with a character I wanted to understand better. Rolling Stone had recanted an article based on the apparently false testimony of a young woman about a rape at a college fraternity party. The story wasn’t about the case, but I was interested in why a girl might lie about something like that, and how a lie might be based on a truth. Again, the first lines set the story in motion: “I don’t know why I lied. Maybe it’s because someone finally believed me.”
The seed for “You Never Know” was a college friend, a theater major, who used to make up stories about himself on the train ride between college and home. I was intrigued by the situation. I didn’t know what the narrator’s hidden story would turn out to be when the two characters started talking. Writers often quote E.L. Doctorow, who compared writing a novel to driving in the fog: “You can only see as far as your headlights, but you can make the whole trip that way.” I’m not sure I can imagine writing an entire novel like that, but a flash, definitely.
GD: “Something Like That” gives us an unreliable narrator, not one who is lying, but one who can’t remember or doesn’t want to remember. The previous story featured a man who is lying and this next story begins with the line, “I don’t know why lied,” which makes for a seamless transition. Each of the stories seems to meld into the next. How did this collection come about? Did you set out writing these pieces with the theme of abuse to women or did you cull them from your catalogue of stories? How does this theme play out in your other work?
JD: I’m so pleased to hear that the transitions work for you! The organization was very loose and intuitive. I didn’t conceive of the stories in The Missing Girl as a collection until I wrote the last one, “Nola.” I culled the other stories from many flashes I’d written over the previous four years (most of them not this dark).
The themes in The Missing Girl are obsessions really, and they recur in my work, most recently in flash about young girls and women that came out after The Missing Girl in New Flash Fiction Review, Fictive Dream, Bending Genres, and Wigleaf.
I often look on the margins of society for my subjects, and my current flash project-in-progress— part nonfiction, part fiction, part memoir—focuses on nineteenth- and twentieth-century “lunatics.” So many women were silenced and locked away in workhouses and lunatic asylums; their voices and histories are lost and can only be reconstructed through the imagination, so a lot of the flash I’m writing are fictional. But I’m captivated by the historical figures I’ve run across in my research as well. Two of the historical flash pieces from the project (tentatively titled The Lunatics’ Ball) will be published by The Collagist later this month.
GD: Everything about “My Blue Heaven” works: title, structure, human condition: our weak, blinded selfishness. While it’s effective on the first read, a second read allows for a full appreciation your authorial skill. This is a “second-hand” accounting of a tragic event and is the powerful because it sneaks up on the reader more than it would if told as a straight story. In “Nola,” the imagery is particularly fine, the story is crushing. On my notes from first reading it, I only wrote the word “Wow.” There’s a definite “To Kill a Mockingbird” feeling about this piece. What authors have influenced you the most?
JD: There are so many writers that I love. Some that particularly influenced my stories in The Missing Girl: Edgar Allan Poe, Emily Dickinson, Shirley Jackson, Jayne Anne Phillips, Sandra Cisneros, Dorothy Allison, Toni Morrison, Joyce Carol Oates. If I had to choose a primary influence for The Missing Girl, it would probably be Oates—stories like “Where Are You Going, Where Have You Been” and her devastating novella Black Water. The cruelty of the girls in Margaret Atwood’s Cat’s Eye might have been a subconscious influence when I wrote “Nola.” I taught literature for many years before I began to teach creative writing: surveys on American literature from the beginnings to the present, on women’s literature, on the short story, on memoir. I’m sure there are many, many influences that I’m only half aware of!
Gay Degani, a resident of Los Angeles, has had four flash stories nominated for Pushcart consideration. Along with Pomegranate Stories in 2009 (Prometheus’ Forge), her full-length collection, Rattle of Want, was published by Pure Slush Press in 2015 and her suspense novel, What Came Before by Truth Serum Press in 2016. She occasionally blogs at Words in Place, wordsinplace.blogspot.com.