Ryan Habermeyer earned his MFA from the University of Massachusetts and is currently pursuing a PhD at the University of Missouri. His fiction has twice been nominated for the Pushcart Prize and has recently appeared in or is forthcoming from Cream City Review, Los Angeles Review, Fiction Southeast, Chattahoochee Review, Cincinnati Review, Black Warrior Review, Dislocate, Mid-American Review, and others. His story, “Ellie’s Brood,” appeared in Carolina Quarterly 65.3.
CQ: In “Ellie’s Brood,” you highlight the violence inherent to life–how birth and death may both entail struggle and beauty. Describe your writing process for tackling this difficult subject.
RH: I really admire Italo Calvino’s work and in his essay collection, Six Memos for the Next Millennium, he writes about the origins of his stories as some arresting image that imprints on his mind and how he follows the spontaneous logic of that image to craft the story. Something similar happened with “Ellie’s Brood.” I had this image of a man living out in the countryside trying to raise turkeys and the turkeys just wouldn’t die. It was weird and unsettling, which I find is always a good sentiment to pursue in fiction. I didn’t set out to write about the beauty and horror that accompanies birth and death—in fact, I don’t think it crossed my mind until very late in the revision process. Unconsciously, I probably channeled some personal experiences. My wife and I have four kids, so we’ve been through the struggles and wonders of pregnancy. Thankfully, nothing like poor Harvey and Ellie! But there is something beautiful and terrifying about pregnancy. It’s so fragile. So full of anticipations and crushing sadness and incredible joy. As the story developed, that’s something I tried to capture.
CQ: In addition to describing the evolving relationship between the two main characters, Ellie and Harvey, you also include many descriptions of nature. How did you research the background info for this narrative–particularly the turkey details?
RH: I have no experience whatsoever in raising turkeys. Thank heavens for the internet! I read a lot of published scientific literature on turkey breeding. There’s a surprising amount of it out there. Mating rituals. Instinctual behavior. Great stuff for a Friday night. And I read brochures and what I could find from farmers. I had to get the lexicon right. For the story to be accurate you’ve got to have the right vocabulary. Harvey can’t call it a “bunch” of turkeys—it’s got to be a “rafter” because that’s the proper name. Some of the vocabulary and some of the breeding habits described are, of course, invented. I like doing that too. You’re not writing a science manual. It’s necessary to be imaginative. You can borrow from reality, but you have to build reality as well.
CQ: I understand that this short story will appear in your upcoming collection of short fiction. How does this narrative fit in with the other stories you’ve written?
RH: So, “Ellie’s Brood” is part of my collection, The Science of Lost Futures, which just won the BoA Editions Short Fiction Prize and will be published in 2018. If I had to label it (which I’m somewhat loathe to do), I would say the stories fall into that category of what we call speculative fiction or (and I really dislike this term) magical realism. So there’s a story about an enormous foot that washes ashore in a small town. Another about a woman growing a black hole on her shoulder and trying to navigate her love life. I’m really interested in the grotesque, both as a fiction writer but also from an academic point of view. I’ve studied the aesthetic history of the grotesque in art, literature and philosophy and it fascinates me tremendously. Many of the stories in my collection explore the grotesque in one form or another, and “Ellie’s Brood” is a natural fit in the collection. I think the story explores and questions what is and what is not grotesque and the various inflections of that term.
CQ: What was your goal in writing this piece?
RH: This is a tricky question. It sounds so official, right? A goal. Like we’re in the board room seeing if we’ve reached quarterly projections. Honestly, I’m not sure if I ever have a goal when I write anything. I hope I’m not the only writer who thinks that way. So many of my stories fail before they make it to the end and are abandoned that I gave up long ago the idea of reaching any discernable goals with a story itself. It’s such an enigmatic process, writing stories. Sometimes they work, other times they fall flat. I wanted the story to succeed as an exploration of the weirdness of human relationships. The strangeness of trying to make a baby. How bizarre it can be to live out in the middle of nowhere. The ridiculousness of pursuing a task against all odds of sanity. I think life is very weird. Human beings have done a remarkable job trying to ignore that, trying to reduce life to a prescriptive series of normal behaviors. Sometimes, when I think grandiose thoughts of myself, I see the point of my fiction as a chronicler of weirdness in all its manifestations.