Back in Issue 12 of Apeiron Review, we featured the story “Baby” by Shawn Campbell. It’s a heartbreaking piece about a family of obese individuals where a daughter pleads for permission to get gastric bypass surgery in order to help her control her weight. The mother, a frantic and overbearing woman who expresses her love by constantly feeding her children, gets hysterical every time the subject is brought up, and we see the tragedy of uncontrolled obesity play out in a display of literary fatalism.
I recently spoke with Shawn regarding “Baby.”
First off, tell me a little about yourself, beyond what’s included in your bio.
Well, I had a bit of an unusual childhood growing up on a cattle ranch, which led to a lot of facing some stark realities fairly early in life. After all, it wasn’t like when my dog died my parents could just say that it had run off to live on a nicer farm. Being twenty-three miles away from the nearest gas station certainly had its disadvantages, but one of the advantages it had was that I had plenty of time to write.
What did you write back then?
A large part of my late childhood and early adolescent years were spent filling spiral notebooks with fantasy stories and Star Wars fan fiction that was exactly as good as you might imagine. Whatever dreams I had to become a writer I abandoned in high school to pursue pressing hormonal urges, though I did fill a journal with some angsty poems which I’m glad to say I burned soon after graduating. I did a write a little in college, but most of my time was spent somehow both getting an education and acting like a complete moron at the same time.
When did you start writing seriously?
I didn’t start writing seriously until 2010, most of the early stuff being venting about a bad break up, which for some reason no literary review wanted to publish. Go figure.
No comment, but carry on.
Eventually, I shifted to writing about other things, which lo and behold, despite more rejections than I’d care to think about, started to lead to some publications in various literary reviews starting in 2013, Apeiron Review among them. Well, that’s me in a nutshell, or at least the writing end of me. You can’t give everything away in the first few paragraphs.
Now before I dive into my questions surrounding “Baby,” tell me about the inspiration for this story.
The basic plot of “Baby” is derived from a story told to me by a friend concerning some people they knew, which included the O. Henry finish. When it comes to basic plot ideas, sometimes you have to sit around and wait for inspiration, and other times life just dumps something right in your lap.
I was so taken by the dark twist at the end of my friend’s story, that when I got home that evening I went straight to writing, and ended up staying up pretty late to finish it. To fill in the details, I did my best to imagine what it would be like to be in such a situation, and also added in snippets from other stories I had heard from various people over the years, such as the fireman incident. Mixed all together, out came “Baby.”
And what about your larger literary inspirations?
I would have to say that my overall literary inspiration is to create a feeling of sympathy for every character. I think stories should be like life. In reality there’s no protagonists, antagonists, or bit players, there are just people, some of whom we get to examine closer than others.
I like a lot of uncertainty in stories, an ambiguity between the lines that creates a complex narrative. I want how a story is interpreted to say more about the reader than it does about me as the writer. I don’t think a good piece of writing has to leave us satisfied. Instead, the goal should be discussion and debate, even if just within our own internal monologues. When reading, I don’t think we should just be asking ourselves why we identify with certain characters. Rather, we should also be wondering why we don’t identify with the rest. I firmly believe that it is an author’s duty to write in ways to create the greatest opportunities for this to happen.
All right. Now the mother is perhaps the most interesting character in this story. Her twisted love feels at times like a hostage situation; she almost pushes obesity onto her children to keep them captive. She almost celebrates her daughter flunking out of college to return home.
For my own mother’s sake, I should probably say right off the bat that the mother in the story is not based on her. My mother has always been very supportive. Okay, with that out of the way, back to the question.
I agree that the mother is one of the more interesting characters, but I don’t know if I agree that she basically pushes obesity on children to keep them captive. For instance, when writing the scene where Baby flunks out of college and her mother bakes a cake, I didn’t see the cake as a sign of celebration, but rather the mother’s attempt to show sympathy and make somebody she loves feel better the only way she knows how.
Ah, I see.
The mother was in a difficult position. She’s a single parent who has struggled financially to the point where at times she couldn’t even provide the most basic necessities. What kind of challenges might she have faced? How might such an experience affect someone?
When writing the mother, I pictured food in many ways to be how she showed her love. By providing all the food her children could eat, she was in affect making amends. As a single parent, the mother’s food choices were undoubtedly limited by her finances and by how much time she had available. Given these constraints, she might not have been able to provide the best quality or healthiest of food, but at the very least she could always make sure there was more than enough of what she could provide. All parents want to see their children be happy, in many ways the mother was just trying her best to meet this goal with the few options she had available.
I’m fascinated by the sympathy you have for her.
This is of course not to say that the mother didn’t have her problems. I think there’s a strong difference between understanding somebody and condoning their actions. Baby’s problem is obviously one that grew over time, and in many ways it feels like a chicken or the egg type of situation. Is Baby fat because too much of the wrong type of food was provided, or was too much of the wrong type of food provided because it was what Baby wanted?
Oh, I didn’t think of that! Interesting.
Now, undoubtedly, it is the responsibility of a parent to try and teach their children good eating habits. However, at what point do we have to expect that child to start to take agency?
One of my favorite sayings is that we are not defined by what happens to us, but rather by how we deal with what happens to us. I think the central theme of the story is the question of how do we balance the necessity of being sympathetic and understanding of another’s situation with our expectations regarding the importance of pursuing self-improvement in the face of adversity.
The mother, as you describe her, is most certainly unreasonable and irrational. Even if we can feel sympathy for her, it does not make her actions in any way okay. However, in the end she is just a roadblock. Everyone has experience with such people or things. In the end we can’t control the world around us, only how we choose to react to it.
I think overall what drives somebody like the mother in the story is a complex combination of love, selfishness, and their own unexamined issues. There’s a lot to unpack with such things. On the one hand, I think the mother is genuinely scared by the possibility of Baby dying while in surgery. This is not an uncommon thing with mothers. However, on the other hand, if the mother accepts the idea that things have gotten to the point where surgery is a necessity, then she will likely have to face and question her role in Baby getting to such a point. After all, what kind of a mother would let such a thing happen?
Follow-up. Do you think the mother was just a bit of a nutcase and didn’t see the harm she was causing, or do you think she might have been deliberately keeping Baby in her place to prevent her from leaving?
I think the mother was aware of her role in things, at least subconsciously, but the mind is an interesting thing when it comes to self-preservation.
Our brain wants to protect itself, and will go to amazing lengths with denials and warped perspectives in order to safeguard our views of ourselves. I think needing to see herself as a good parent is one of the major drivers in the mother’s life. It’s of course a natural maternal instinct, but it’s kicked into overdrive by the fact that the mother feels that she failed to meet such expectations when Baby was younger.
For the mother, providing more than enough food wasn’t just a matter of love, it was also proving to both herself and the world around her that she was in fact a good mother.
Ooh, another good point. I love the discussion here! So there’s a bit of proving herself?
However, over the years this behavior contributed to Baby’s obesity problem, leaving the mother in an increasing state of denial. It’s not that she wants to see herself as a good mother, it’s that at this point she needs to see herself as a good mother. Baby’s want to have surgery subconsciously threatens the house of cards upon which the mother has built her feeling of self-value. Is it any wonder that her brain’s response is to attack?
Let’s talk food. For a story about obesity, we don’t get many rich descriptions about food. I would guess that’s deliberate, as the characters didn’t get fat eating luxurious foods, but by consuming too much simpler foods. What are your thoughts behind that?
I don’t know how much of that can of worms I want to to open. I will say that my decision to not include rich descriptions of food had less to do with the quality of the food, and more to do with the assumption that people rarely get fat eating food they don’t like.
Personally, there are days that I’ve enjoyed eating a bag of Doritos more than anything else in the world. Taste in food is such a personal thing, but I think one big factor in what we crave is what food we have available given the constraints of time and budget. Food is such a strange thing in the developed world, where never before in history has it been so plentiful or so affordable. Things like famine, or even malnutrition, are almost entirely unheard of in the United States and countries like it.
However, at the same time obesity rates have never been higher, with the worst afflicted being those on the lower end of the economic scale. There are just so many questions and thoughts to unpack with this issue that I know I can’t do it the justice here that it deserves. However, in line with the theme of the story, I think a very good question is what is the correct balance between the responsibility of those who provide the food compared to the those who consume it?
A very good question. Now let me ask you a personal question.
Considering the subject matter, have you ever struggled with weight and eating? I sure have. In all honesty, this story hit home for me; I’m definitely fitter than I used to be, but at one time I did get a story published on the subject of overeating. Regardless, considering how great the obesity epidemic is in this country, as you mentioned, do you have any larger thoughts or commentary on these topics?
I’ve actually been quite lucky in the genetic lottery when it comes to food and weight, though like anyone, as I’ve gotten older changes in metabolism have forced changes in eating habits. I was also lucky in that I grew up in a household where staying active was encouraged. In this way I’m privileged when it comes to such things, something I always try to remember when thinking about them.
I think maintaining a healthy weight is like a lot of things in life, how much time and effort we put towards it shows how important to us it actually is. There is a big difference between dreaming about something and actually trying to achieve it. That being said, we all must recognize that the amount of effort that goes into achieving something is very different for each person. When it comes to maintaining a healthy weight, there are so many things involved; genetics, background, and the availability of time, just to name a few.
The amount of effort I have to put in to maintain a healthy weight is very different than somebody who has a lot more knocks against them in that department. I think it all comes down again to finding that balance between recognizing that it’s a lot harder for some people to get the same results while still expecting people to take ownership of their own decisions.
I think everyone who reads this story roots for Baby’s initial efforts to research the surgery, verify insurance coverage, and argue with her mother about it for so long. A lot of people share similar struggles surrounding weight loss as Baby did: genetics, environment, learned habits, etc. Yet it seems fate was just against her here. It’s what makes the story tragic. What are your thoughts surrounding these almost hopeless struggles?
I think the most tragic thing for me in the story was the fact of how close Baby actually was to at least getting started on improving something she didn’t like about herself. In the end, there was nothing physically or economically stopping her from getting the surgery, it was all mental.
Sure, her mother was most definitely not supportive, but at the same time, Baby was a 31-year-old woman when she died. Beyond the emotional, there was little Baby’s mother could actually do to stop Baby from getting the surgery. There are often things that get in the way of us making ourselves better off, sometimes very real things, but how often is the only thing standing in our way just our own inability to convince ourselves to try?
A great point surrounding the struggle of weight loss. Now, I want to discuss the narrator, Baby’s little brother. Why tell the story through him? Granted, since Baby dies we need a way around that, but I found it interesting how he voices general helplessness regarding his mother’s ways.
Even in that moment when he wants to pat Baby on the shoulder, he feels it would be pointless. It’s all just so grim. Was the lens of hopelessness simply just something that made sense, or was it a deliberate choice? Tell me about that.
For me, the narrator represents all of us, the outsiders looking in. I think pretty much anybody who reads the story can agree that the brother would’ve been a better person if he had spoken up for Baby or at the very least shown her some support. However, I don’t think it’s fully fair to judge the brother too harshly for his doing nothing.
First, it is probably safe to assume that the brother has his own battles he has to fight when it comes to his mother. Second, the brother has spent his entire life in the household, watching Baby grow fatter and presumably his mother become more neurotic. How many years could any of us watch such a dynamic before we tuned it out?
Excellent point. We all eventually stop seeing things in our life.
The first break in these long-term trends is Baby bringing up the surgery after experiencing a traumatic event. However, despite bringing it up repeatedly, and even making plans for it, she does nothing, and the ending the brother has undoubtedly predicted for years comes to pass.
Who knows what might have helped Baby? Perhaps someone sticking up for her, someone offering some encouragement, or maybe even just somebody saying a kind word? However, can any of us truly say that we’ve never written off someone to what we believe is an inevitable end? How often do any of us want to wade into another person’s problems?
By the end of the story I tried to convey a sense of the brother’s regret for doing nothing to help Baby. Treating Baby’s fate as unavoidable is a way for him to forgive himself. I think if we’re being honest, that’s something we can all relate to.
All too true. Let’s end on a happy note. Tell us about any new projects you might have going on.
I’ve been quite busy since getting “Baby” published in the Apeiron Review a year and a half ago. At the time it was my tenth short story to be published, and since then I’ve published a further ten. I’ve managed to keep up on a rule of writing at least one short story a month since September of 2012, so it has been pretty exciting to see a lot of my work starting to get out there.
In addition, I recently put together a short story collection of my earliest stories, An Unsated Thirst, and finished my second novel, Papaya. The short story collection is available on my website and I’m currently shopping Papaya out to agents. Other than literary fiction, I’ve also been working on a snarky history blog called Professor Errare which has been up and going since early 2016.
To the Apeiron Review, I’d just like to take a moment to say thank you for publishing “Baby” and for taking the time to put it back out there again along with this interview, which for reasons that are entirely on me, for some reason took me longer to do than writing “Baby” itself. I look forward to at some point hopefully getting another story in your fine literary review.
As for you intrepid readers, thank you for reading, and if you would like to read more of my writing, please check out the website below.
Shawn Campbell was born in Eastern Oregon. He currently resides in Portland where he works as an economist and lives with a house plant named Morton. His first novel, The Uncanny Valley, and his first short story collection, An Unsated Thirst, are available for purchase on Amazon, Barnes and Noble, and Kobo. You can learn more about Shawn and his work at https://www.shawnwcampbell.