I love the layers in this one. The style is light and easy, but the world and characters feel rich and fleshed out. How do you balance the level of detail in shorter pieces like this one?
I tend to work by alternating between two methods: either agonize for days/weeks/months over every detail, or manage something similar to surrealist automatic art, almost a trance. This piece is the result of the latter, a two-or-three-hour exorcism in a small bar in a small town on the Oregon coast. Working that fast, there’s a pretty substantial risk of producing incoherent messes or hitting dead ends, but it solves my usual problems of overthinking and getting stuck on minutiae. Those rare occasions when it works, I treat it a little bit as if I’m transcribing a film, letting scenes unfold in my head, transcribing what seem like the most pertinent details. If the characters are clear in your head, there’s a natural way they want to interact and a natural course for the story to take. The trick is turning yourself off a bit and trusting the world to happen. A few particularly bizarre events in the right places can give a reader’s subconscious fuel to develop the world on its own.
There’s a trope that beings of power never grant wishes for free, and because of this they might be shady or self-interested. Is the witch in this story a benign helper, or more of a wild card? Was there something in it for her?
This is a trope I think about a lot. The life of those beings always seems to be one of isolation, as if exile is the cost of great power or knowledge. A genie is trapped in a lamp. A mad genius is trapped in their own head. Even if they don’t literally leave society, they can’t help viewing themselves as separate from it. There’s an essential schizophrenia to it. If you viewed yourself as totally apart from literally everyone you met, you’d have to at least seem a bit shady. And if the power has a high cost to begin with, isn’t it natural for the boon to have a cost? Maybe this is just a more mundane truth, that nothing is inherently positive or negative, everything’s a wild card.
With the witch in particular, there is a possibility that I’ve started writing more stories set in this world to explore just how benign she really is, so I could write a novel at this point. She has been alone in her cabin for an indefinite amount of time. At the time of writing this story, I didn’t have an exact idea of how long she’d been alone. It felt like decades. The man pretty much has to trust her prognosis blindly, but this is someone that can turn a tree into a fully functioning prosthetic limb, so it’s hard to believe she couldn’t have patched up whatever damage yanking out the arrow would have inflicted if she felt like it. Maybe she was just messing with him, entertaining herself by watching him hop around on one leg for a few years. Maybe she long ago made some sort of decision to never do anything the quick or easy way. Or maybe after all that time in isolation she wanted some company.
The witch makes a distinction between helping someone and fixing them. What’s the difference?
People long for overnight cures. Sometimes that means pills, relationships, tidbits of wise advice. They come in all shapes and forms, and the main thing they have in common is that they almost never actually work. Our surface-level problems are easy to focus on but are rarely our real problems. The witch probably learned that at some point.
On the surface, the man’s most obvious problem is that he has an arrow in his leg. Take that away, you have someone who has, as far as we know, either failed at or run away from everything he’s tried. If the witch patched up the leg on day one, there’s just a bumbling war deserter stranded in a magical forest, which could also be a decent story, but the man’s chance of survival would have been even more far-fetched than what I came up with. We can’t peek into the heads of others and fix or solve or enlighten them, but we can provide a space for them to work themselves out over time.
I loved the rapport between the characters, and the way they turned his difficulties into inside jokes. How did you go about constructing the timeline and the role of time in this story?
Again, with how quickly I wrote the story, the passage of time was something that happened more by not purposefully constructing or forcing it. We’d all like to mythologize our lives, for the most important moments to be monumental and easily defined, like weddings or graduations or funerals, and beyond that, to have a lot of important moments. So-called “full lives.” I haven’t yet met anyone for whom that’s true in practice. Finding joy in real life means—and this comes from someone not in a constant state of bliss, so take it with a grain of salt and let me know if you’ve got a better idea—but it means finding value in apparently inconsequential moments. The most significant-feeling moment I can think of in the months around writing this story, a period in which I had traveled to something like seven different cities and reconstructed my entire life from scratch, was an hour talking to a stranger I would never see again about French fries and puzzles. It was natural for little moments like that to make up the story. At each interval, I tried not to overthink what happened in between, whether or not the man and the witch had any encounters with crazy beasts or skeleton armies or the like. I just thought of how much the arrow might have grown, and how much time flies, and then it flew by, and the moments grew around that.
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