“Cool” by Becky Hagenston
Volume #3, Issue #31 • June 18, 2015
Becky Hagenston’s first collection of stories, A Gram of Mars, won the Mary McCarthy Prize; her second collection, Strange Weather, won the Spokane Prize. “Cool” will appear in her third collection, Scavengers, winner of the Permafrost Book Prize, forthcoming in 2016 from the University of Alaska Press. Her work is also forthcoming in The O. Henry Prize Stories 2015. She lives in Starkville, Mississippi, where she is an Associate Professor of English at Mississippi State University.
Here’s what I discover the evening after my mother leaves: if I throw a pebble into the air, bats will swoop after it. They dive toward the ground and then back up to the sky—every single time. It’s like they never learn their lesson. “They think it’s a bug,” my father tells me when he sees what I’m doing. I didn’t even know we had bats in New Hampshire. I thought bats existed only in horror movies and comic books—though I once heard my mother say, “I must have bats in my belfry,” and I laughed, but my father didn’t.
“Stop it, Carlene,” my father calls across the lawn. The sun is almost down and he’s a shadow under the porch light. It’s a hot summer evening; the air is foggy from the exterminator truck that just chugged through the neighborhood. “Don’t be mean to them. They’re going to get you.”
I throw another pebble; there’s a silent swooping of wings. Sometimes one bat comes, sometimes two.
“I’m serious,” my father says. “They’ll get you.”
“I find that highly doubtful,” I say and throw another pebble.
Q&A by Patrick Ryan
Where did the idea for this story come from?
My husband tells the most entertaining stories about growing up in New Hampshire. One of these stories was about the time he taunted a bat by throwing rocks in the air, despite his mother’s warning that the bat would get him. Sure enough, later that night a bat flew into his room. Hilarity ensued as he and his dad put on snowmobile helmets and started swinging at the bat with racquetball racquets. (His mom was in the next room, not rehab!) Also, my husband once went to an Aerosmith concert with a friend and the friend’s mom. So those two elements had been drifting around in my head for a while. And I’ve always wanted to go to Hampton Beach Casino Ballroom—every time we’ve driven past it, some awesome eighties band has been playing there.
You actually have two stories in one: the story about the events that led up to Carlene’s mother’s checking into rehab, and the story about Carlene and her father dealing with that after the fact—and dealing with a bat that gets into the house. Was it always your intention to pivot back and forth between those two narratives, or did you ever play with a different approach?
When I first started—and this is the way it works with all of my stories—I only knew the present action and problem: the bat. (And in the first draft, the main character was a boy!) I knew it wasn’t enough to have a story about a girl and her dad chasing a bat out of her room. Something else was happening beneath the surface, and I had to find out what. I like the present-past-present-past structure for stories, partly because writing that way helps me figure out the story beneath the story, the events that led to the current problem.
Do you think the reader should sympathize with the mom? Do you sympathize with her? (She isn’t 100% awful, is she?)
I do sympathize with the mom. I think she loves her daughter very much, and I think she probably married too young and is clinging to her youth in a panicked, destructive way. What she wants more than anything is not to be a cool mom, but a good mom. She just isn’t sure how to do that yet.
What kind of relationship do you imagine Carlene and her mom having in, say, ten years? Estranged? Close, having weathered the storm of Patty’s wildness?
I think they can get through this. They do love each other, after all. I don’t think Carlene’s parents will stay together, but I do think she’ll have strong relationships with both of them when she’s older.
We killed a hamster in our last story. (Not really; it was dead before the story opened.) Can you tell us the fate of the bat just beyond the spot where your story ends? Thumbs up, or thumbs down?
I don’t know for sure what will happen, but I’m rooting for the bat! I just hope there isn’t a neighbor cat prowling around that night looking for woozy bats.
What are you working on now?
I’m always working on a lot of things at once, because that’s the most fun for me. I’m revising a children’s novel about evil (yet delicious!) candy that comes to life. I’m also working on a new short story collection. I usually have about three stories going simultaneously, in different stages.
What is the best bit of advice about writing you have ever received?
This is very practical advice every writer has heard. It’s so simple and so difficult at the same time: Write every day. Every single day. Even if you feel like you have nothing to say; even if you have only five minutes to spare. This is the only way I can get anything accomplished.