The Mt. Adams varsity softball team warms up in right field, throwing yellow balls back and forth in sunny arcs. They try to be quiet, but they cannot stop their chatter as their shoulders loosen. The field is a good one. The grass is close cut, the bases bright, and the brick dugouts painted red and navy, the home team’s colors. It is nicer than the Mt. Adams ballpark, with its outfield full of divots and dugout full of weeds and half-eaten sunflower seeds. The girls like to see how far they can spit the uncracked shells, sucking off the salt first and then aiming them through the diamonds of the fence, the best shots flying over the first base line.

It is a perfect day for a game except that everything is wrong. All week, adults have plagued them. How do you feel about playing Mar Vista? Do you want to talk about it? It’s so soon—and in this pause fall all the words they don’t say.

Gwen E. Kirby

Gwen E. Kirby’s stories appear in Guernica, Mississippi Review, Ninth Letter, New Ohio Review, New Delta Review, SmokeLong Quarterly, and elsewhere. A proud graduate of Carleton College, she has an MFA from Johns Hopkins University and is finishing her doctorate at the University of Cincinnati. She won the 2017 DISQUIET Literary Prize for Fiction and has received a Pushcart Prize special mention. During the summer, you can find her in Tennessee working as fiction faculty at the Sewanee Young Writers’ Conference and staff at the Sewanee Writers’ Conference.

Patrick Ryan on “Mt. Adams at Mar Vista”

Our new issue, “Mt. Adams at Mar Vista,” was sparked by a conversation the author had with a group of friends following a school shooting that had been in the news. The fact that she now can’t recall which school shooting is as chilling as the story she’s written.

No one dies in this story. There’s no bloodshed, there are no weapons, there’s no mass evacuation. We’ve recently seen what an amazing force young people can be when they’re galvanized by a tragedy—and what’s all the more impressive about them is that they’re kids. Brave, angry, focused, articulate kids. In its way, “Mt. Adams at Mar Vista” underscores that by investigating what it’s like when kids in a similar situation try to get on with the business of being high school students.

As Gwen E. Kirby says in our Q&A, this is not “an explicitly political story.” At the same time, it revolves around a topic that, against all reasonable thinking, has become politicized. When what happens to one of us can happen to all of us, when what happens to some of our kids on an average school day can happen to any of our kids on an average school day, and we disagree on whether or not that matters—our definitions of winning and losing need to be redefined.

Q&A by Patrick Ryan

PR: Where did the idea for this story come from?
GK: My friends and I were sitting at a bar this past fall. There had been a school shooting, and they are so frequent now that I actually don’t remember which one, which is horrifying in itself. We were talking about whether we thought we could write a story about a school shooting, and I said I absolutely couldn’t. The emotions would be too overwhelming. I am a teacher. I don’t want to describe students being shot. It’s too much. Then I told an anecdote I hadn’t thought about in a long time, about how when I was in high school, my JV softball team played a team from a school that had had a school shooting, and we all felt weird about it. And I thought, huh. I could write that story. So I did.
PR: I know it’s obvious to point this out, but it’s impossible not to read this story through the lens of current and very politically-charged events. Do you consider “Mt. Adams at Mar Vista” a political story? (Do you consider all stories political?)
GK: I don’t consider it an explicitly political story. No character yells out, “ban automatic weapons!” It describes but doesn’t proscribe a specific action in response. However, I think it is political in that it asks the reader to look at and respond emotionally to this horrible thing that has happened. It asks us to empathize, to imagine what it would be like to be these girls, to be Mt. Adams and Mar Vista, and I think once you do that, you have to ask, why did this happen? Why should it be allowed to happen? As for whether all fiction is political, I think it is in the sense that all fiction should remind us that we are human, that we share that experience with everyone around us, and that we owe each other empathy and aid because being human is wonderful and completely impossible.
PR: This is one of the shortest stories we’ve ever published. I’m always in awe of writers who are able to write stories that are very short and yet very powerful (in part because I don’t seem to able to keep myself under What is the most interesting fact you learned while writing this (about the world, not yourself),000 words when I write a story). Was that part of its original design? Do most of your stories tend to be on the short side?
GK: My stories do tend to be on the short side, often between 2,000 and 3,000 words. I wish that I wrote longer stories! The length was part of the original design in that I was only interested in the moments before the game, when the girls are trying to figure out how to behave, where they are all in their own heads, before the moment of coming together and letting play take over. I’m trying to capture a moment and so it just couldn’t be that long.
PR: And was it always your intention to keep the point of view bouncing from person to person? The narrative eye of the story is like a softball traveling from one character to another.
GK: The point of view just sort of happened! I can’t claim that I thought about it a lot before I began writing, but I suppose I wanted to capture what it feels like to be on a team, being an individual and part of a group that has learned how to act as one under pressure. This story is about a shooting and how we react to tragedies that aren’t directly our own, but it is also about the pleasure of sports, about the ways in which sport is a series of movements you do over and over until they are second nature, a ritual almost. I’m not religious so perhaps I turned to softball as a space where ritual and coming together is healing. Also, sports are joyful, or should be, and I wanted something joyful to put up against something so sad.
PR: Given the state of things in this country, there have been multiple school shootings since this story was written. If you were to embark on writing the story now, post-Parkland, post-March For Our Lives, do you think you would approach it or the subject matter any differently?
GK: I wonder if I would have the courage to write this now. I hope I would, but I think that I would feel more pressure to make a statement, like, this is my let’s-regulate-guns story! I think I might get tangled up in what the story ought to do or say, rather than simply telling the story I wanted to tell.
PR: Finish this sentence in just one word—the word you think best captures it: “This story is about __________.”?
GK: Connection.
PR: What are you working on now?
GK: I’m finishing my short story collection! And beginning a novel! And finishing my dissertation! It’s a busy time.
PR: What is the best bit of advice about writing you have ever received?
GK: The best piece of advice I ever got about being a writer was “expect to receive nothing but rejection until you’re thirty.” That way, when I got yet another rejection, and oh did I, I could tell myself, “Right on schedule!” and keep pushing on. The piece of advice about writing I have most in my mind right now is something my friend is always saying: “If you’re going to be a bear, be a grizzly.” Which is to say, don’t hold back. Don’t worry if your story is too much, goes too far. You can always pull back later when you edit, so don’t let a story down by chickening out.