“Walk With Me Along a Crumbling Cliff…” – A Conversation with Jonathan Wlodarski

img_2555-copyJonathan Wlodarski is the author of “The Cake,” a deliciously disturbing short story from our Winter 2017 issue that we nominated for the Pushcart Prize last month (and is now freely available to read on our site). Our senior editorial consultant Maria Pinto spoke with Jonathan about his fascinatingly twisted tale, as well as first-person plural narration, dystopian fiction, and Fabergé eggs…
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MP: I will never hear the old cliche “a piece of cake” in the same way again. What was the germ of your chilling, Pushcart-nominated story, “The Cake”?
 
JW: The genesis of this piece came from a question–it’s a tradition to eat cake at weddings, so why isn’t there an equivalent for funerals? I scribbled the words “funeral cake” on the margins of another story I was working on and let the idea bubble and simmer for a few months.

MP: The narrator’s “we” takes a subtly sinister turn in the story so that we find ourselves held hostage inside a lonely, claustrophobic perspective. How did you achieve this unique voice? Were there aspects of the writing of this story that you found difficult?

JW: The use of “we” as a narrative perspective was sort of an accident. In my earliest draft, I wavered between a “we” and an “I,” so the narrator was more obviously individual, but in revisions I realized that the collective–or the false collective–was an important aspect of this story. The most challenging part of writing it was reckoning with the ending, when our town has dwindled to one person and our “we” is really just an “I.” I really struggled to express what that person would sound like and there were lots of verbose, grandstanding monologues that got written and cut.

MP: This is how dystopias are often made or exacerbated in the popular imagination–the thing that brings a population together or eases its pain also catalyzes that population’s ruin. The cake starts out as a palliative for death, but ends up wiping out the town. Is there a real-world problem onto which this pattern maps, for you? What is your relationship to dystopian fiction as a genre?

JW: A conceit central to my fiction is concept-as-metaphor, and in this instance, my concept (the cake) is a metaphor for, at its core, addiction. I suspect that’s the undercurrent thrumming at a lot of our popular dystopian fiction: addiction to power, addiction to normalcy/equality/sameness, addiction to obedience/submission. There are more explicit kinds of addiction in dystopias, too–addiction to virtual reality/the internet seems to be one perpetually on our minds–but I think it’s usually way more subtle.

As for my relationship to the genre, I’d say it’s fairly average. I don’t go seeking it, but I’ve read and enjoyed it. My favorite is Lois Lowry’s The Giver, which surprises and frightens me each time I read it.

MP: Do you have an audience in mind when you write?

JW: My hope is always that the audience that reads my writing is, if nothing else, willing to take a walk with me along a crumbling cliff from time to time.

MP: Who comes to your fantasy dinner party of authors and artists, alive and/or dead?

JW: Jasper Fforde; Viola Davis; Judy Garland; Alexander Chee; Aimee Bender; Sor Juana Inés de la Cruz; Alissa Nutting; Sarah Ruhl; Laura van den Berg; Rebecca Makkai; Whitney Houston

MP: What are you reading right now? What books do you come back to over and over again, especially while you’re writing?

JW: I’m reading Alexander Weinstein’s short story collection (Children of the New World) and the March graphic novel trilogy. I have a near-claustrophobic fear of not reading enough, so I rarely read a book more than once, even if I adored it. One exception to that is The Song of Achilles (Madeline Miller), which amazes me for finding new ways to devastate me emotionally each time I read it. It’s a great example of a book that weaves a complex, subtle tapestry of feelings without demanding the reader feel anything.

MP: What’s on the horizon for your work? Who or what can we look forward to encountering in your coming stories?

JW: I’ve been working for about a year and a half on a collection of linked stories about people with made-up diseases (stomach acid turns into mother-of-pearl, man coughs up spiders, etc.)–I’m wrapping up the first draft of the last piece, so after that it will be a constant spiral of revising and submitting. Ghosts have been on my radar for awhile, so I might crank out a ghost story or two. Something that’s been fascinating me for about a year now are Fabergé eggs, as evidenced by my author bio, so I decided it might be a fun exercise to write a poem about or inspired by each of the eggs the Fabergé workshop made for the tsars.
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