It’s nearly Independence Day, but Aunt Sylvia wears all black, which you think is dramatic. Her eyes are little more than dark smudges—makeup from today and yesterday and maybe the day before—and her face is starting to shine with sweat. My sister the drama queen, your mom used to say.

You’re wearing a purple flower in your hair. Your mom would have liked that.

Your dad is twenty-three minutes late. Your mom didn’t keep photos of him around the house and you haven’t seen him since you were four, but when he finally shows, you know him right away. Your thighs stick to the seat of the IHOP booth where you’ve been waiting.

“Nice of you to come,” Aunt Sylvia says as he sits down. She tells him he’s twenty-three minutes late. He says it’s only twenty-one—his watch is quartz—and she squeezes your hand and stares at him.

Aunt Sylvia has a good stare. She sits on your side of the table and stares and reminds you of Courtney Love or that girl from Garbage whose name you always forget. You like her because she’s a badass, though you wouldn’t say the word “badass” in front of an adult.

Laura Ender

Laura Ender earned her MFA in Fiction from Eastern Washington University. Her stories have appeared in Indiana Review, Bellevue Literary Review, and elsewhere. “Violets” is part of a novel-in-stories, in progress. For more information, visit lauraender.wordpress.com.

Q&A by Kerry Cullen

KC: Which came first, “Hamlet” or “Violets”? Did you decide that you wanted to write a retelling of “Hamlet” and “Violets” was what emerged? Or, did you begin writing “Violets” and realize it was or could be a retelling of “Hamlet”? If “Hamlet” wasn’t the seed of the story, what was?
LE: I had no intention of even referencing Hamlet when I set out to write this piece, let alone to retell it (if that’s what I’ve done). “Violets” actually started as a bridge between two other stories I’d already written. I think it was during a thesis meeting in grad school when I realized I’d unintentionally written two stories about the same character—one in which she was eight years old and another in which she was fifteen—and I needed to fill in some gaps. Most importantly, I needed to explain the fact that when she was eight she lived with her mother and at fifteen she lived with her dad. I could have easily gone through the later story and switched the word “Dad” to “Mom” a few times (parents aren’t major players in that one), but a story started to blossom in my head. I suppose it was influenced by Shakespeare long before Hamlet came into it—I studied his work pretty intensely in undergrad and dreamed of acting in all of his plays—but I didn’t intentionally work Shakespeare in until I remembered that in the first story, the mother’s favorite color is purple, and I heard the line “I would give you violets, but they withered all when my father died” in my head.
KC: You’ve mentioned that Violets is part of a collection of linked stories. Can you talk a bit more about the other stories in the collection? Did you have to revise Violets to make it a more stand-alone piece before you submitted it?
LE: Only a few of the stories are finished so far, and only one other is published (“Shoplifting,” in Phoebe online), but I’m working on quite a few pieces that take place throughout this character’s life. Right now I’ve got bits of text that show her at eight, ten, thirteen, fifteen, twenty, and twenty-eight. I’m doing my best to make them all stand-alone short stories that illuminate each other instead of relying on each other. I’m sure the more I write, the harder it will be to keep them separate, but that’s the challenge I’m giving myself. We’ll see if I succeed.
KC: Did any of your characters surprise you throughout the story?
LE: The narrator. Constantly. It’s like she has a mind of her own.
KC: How did you decide to write the story in second person?
LE: I was out for a walk one night when the opening line of one of the other stories ran through my head: “You decide in the third grade that you want to be Diana Ross.” I ducked into a coffee shop and wrote it down, plus a few paragraphs more. I considered changing it to the first, but the second person seemed to work well for what I was doing, so I ran with it. After that, I used second person a lot, using it mostly as a variation on the first. Honestly, I could have written this story in first or third, but both stories from this character’s perspective were in second, and that seemed significant—it’s like she’s so introspective she’s telling herself her own stories.
KC: Throughout most of the story, the narrator is alone. You’ve mentioned that you feel like childhood loneliness is underrepresented in children’s and young adult literature. Can you speak a bit more about why you wanted the narrator to be lonely, and tell us a bit about how you created such a genuine lonely mood in this piece without letting it overpower the story?
LE: I’m well acquainted with loneliness. My family moved from a very small town in the Sierra Nevada mountains to the San Diego suburbs in the summer between sixth and seventh grade and from then on I had very few friends. For a long period in high school I had no best friend at all—just a group of equally unpopular kids to eat lunch with outside the library. For whatever reason, after elementary school I had a hard time connecting with my peers, and it’s taken a lot of work to get through my social anxiety. Because loneliness has been a big part of my life, I think it comes naturally to me to write lonely characters. I think the key is to understand that loneliness doesn’t mean being alone. It’s very difficult to write a scene in which there’s only one person present; it limits the potential for conflict, dialogue, and all that. Which is probably why few authors take it on. Laurie Halse Anderson did it beautifully in Speak, but I can’t think of any other books that tackle teenage isolation so poignantly—though I’m hardly an expert on YA lit. When I defended my thesis at Eastern Washington University, one of my readers asked me a similar question regarding mood, and I sat silently for a moment because I really didn’t know. I shrugged and she laughed. She said (though I’m not sure I believe her) I was the first student she’d read for who credited the muse. I’m a pretty cerebral person—I often think too much, actually—but when it comes to the mood of a story or the heart of a character, I really feel my way through it.
KC: What is the best bit of advice about writing you have ever received?
LE: Write what you want to read.