In the latest issue of Apeiron Review, we featured Zebulon Huset’s “Rain,” a story about a young girl named Sarah who loses her father, her brother, a close friend, and to some extent, the woman her mother used to be.
We see Sarah playing happily in the rain as puddle-splashes cause her to reflect on her life. She manages to keep her innocence and imagination through these hardships until she comes across a dead body; the young girl is unharmed, but the finality of the sight cements the fact that a part of her life is now over.
It’s a beautiful and bittersweet tale, so I reached out to Zebulon to discuss the piece.
Tell me about what inspired “Rain.”
This will be tough, as the original writing of “Rain” was something like 15 years ago now. It began with the location, which is a real place (ironically, the oldest Google street view is of the corner while it’s raining) near where I grew up. My friends and I would go there back in middle and high school to splash around in the waist-high deep water during heavy rains when the storm drains had backed up.
More than once we pushed cars out of the slough when they didn’t realize how deep it was and tried to brave the elbow. Not the cleanest water—I know in retrospect—but it was fun and I survived.
When I wrote this story I was a bit homesick. I’d moved to San Diego when I was 17, pursuing a career in the aggressive inline industry—rollerblading—and also to get out of Minnesota for awhile, which has extended through the present (yes, I still old-man rollerblade on the streets and in the skateparks, and I still f*&^ing love it).
So this piece speaks a little to your childhood?
Tornado sirens are also a vivid memory from my childhood, we’d hear them a number of times each summer, but usually it didn’t actually bring tornadoes to our door. That was the chrysalis of the story—while the tornado sirens were whirring and that specific location.
I pulled a few other memories from the area to give the place a sense of reality. The Coon Rapids Dam is an amazing location to see as a kid, the turbines are terrifying, but the place itself can be quite peaceful. The Arby’s is right there on the frontage road with the Library a couple buildings further. My siblings and I would race leaves and pine needles in the gutters, small touches like that came naturally when I thought of the place and the heavy rain.
And what do you think influences your writing on a larger scale?
I guess reading has been a huge influence, although that’s pretty standard. So let’s say, advice I’ve been given, combined with close reading to identify what I like and why.
In fiction I love Kurt Vonnegut, Amy Hempel, Cormac McCarthy, Denis Johnson, etc. I very much strive for concision without sounding like a robot. “Dialog shouldn’t be how we speak, but how we think we speak” is one bit that a teacher said that has stuck with me, which also plays into a bit of advice I got on a rejection letter when I was only about a year into submitting my writing.
In that familiar red ink I read that my poems would be better with 10-15% fewer words. At the time I felt insulted, but it’s really helped me since then, after much rumination.
I think we all have to learn those annoying lessons on our writing journeys.
In a grad school workshop I tried to give the advice in a slightly less blunt fashion to a really talented poet named Peter and I think it still came off as insulting, but I hope eventually it was understood not as an insult but as a… well, a criticism, but a constructive one regarding concision and how it affects a piece’s tension and pace.
It happens to the best of us. Now, when the story starts, I immediately wondered why no one was watching this child, and the story unfolded well to explain that situation. Up until the end, I feel that, as readers, we have a better understanding of Sarah’s situation than she does, and I like how that creates some dramatic irony.
It’s a great way to tell a story, and I think you did a great job balancing what Sarah understands versus what we the readers understand. There are just so many errors that can be made when writing from a child’s point of view. How do you go about writing from that viewpoint?
I think that a lot of people look at what kids understand and what they don’t in the wrong way, and not just in writing but in real life.
Kids are very perceptive of things, what they don’t always get are how those things are connected to other aspects of their lives. They do understand how some things are connected which is the best way to explain things to them—and when you’re trying to write from their perspective, relating patterns to something they’re familiar with is very important.
Interesting, interesting. Okay, so loss is a key theme in this story; first a father, then a brother, a close friend, and then a familiar setting (Sunday School), all while the mother is growing more distant. And while Sarah clings to the hope of her father and brother returning, despite this growing loneliness she comes to love being outside in the rain when the stores are closed and no one is out. What do you make of that?
Solitude has always been a good refuge for those unsure of their surroundings. For someone who feels like the things she loves/likes keep being taken away, it is the safest place.
And kids like being where they feel safe, so they learn to make that place as enjoyable as possible, like, in “Rain,” when Sara is waiting for Ms. Johnson and she plays imaginary hopscotch because it keeps her occupied. She’d learned long ago that entertaining yourself is important if you don’t have others you trust around to keep you entertained.
And for someone who feels safest in solitude, the outside world can be a scary/imposing place when populated. During a “tornado warning” is one of the few times when the outside world is almost entirely deserted— like when the guy wakes up in the movie 28 Days Later. It’s eerie, but to the right person it is also very peaceful.
“Eerie, but to the right person peaceful,” that’s very profound, I like that. Continuing on this thread, Sarah seems to cope with her growing loneliness through her imagination, both practically in finding ways to entertain herself, and tragically through her belief that her people will return.
Do you feel that as she comes to accept her reality, her imagination will fade away as she essentially learns to stop believing? On a larger scale, what are your thoughts on how children can lose that spark over time?
Will she lose that belief? Will her brother not return? It’s the whole “you can’t prove a negative” ideology that keeps a lot of people pushing forward. On one hand you want to try to explain the percentages to them, yet on the other hand, you want to believe in that lottery-chance.
Sarah’s brother might have gone off and become a millionaire, he might have made a name for himself, come back and rescued her like in one of her choose your own adventure books. And Sarah is at-the-moment trying to live in a Choose-Your-Own-Adventure book which goes from action-adventure to drama—to real.
As far as losing the spark, I think that’s really an individual thing. While your baseless faith in things may disappear (like Sarah’s dad and brother returning), it’s possible to maintain an optimistic outlook as you come to understand how things are connected.
Losing your spark often involves seeing things as binary: black/white, good/bad. There are few things that have such a clean cut dichotomy, and maintaining your spark requires one to be good at searching for those bright spots in dark situations. It is certainly a difficult thing to do.
That’s good to hear. I know Sarah isn’t real, but I want that kid to be happy. Moving on, water is a recurring element in this piece, which also helps guide the narrative. Sarah is playing in the rain, her father tells her he’s leaving when they’re by the river, and her brother Timmy disappears after going to the dam.
Now there are a few ways to interpret this; maybe big bodies of water represent the unseen and hidden things we push away, perhaps Sarah feels a connection to water, or maybe the allure of something below is there. But I want to know, what was your intention, if any, with the use of water?
Water is essential to the story. I mean, the rain, the river, the flooding—it’s as much the scene as a metaphor. The energy of the story comes from the rain much as the energy from the dam comes from the river. The theme of constant flow is something I try to work into all of my works. If something is static that isn’t a norm – it’s usually amazing or terrifying.
That’s a good way to look at it. The flow of time just pouring down on us and Sarah is playing and splashing about. I like that. That and the hope for future optimism makes me like this story even more, because I have to be honest…
Maybe it was just me, but when I first read this piece I had an awful sense of foreboding for Sarah. I was worried something bad would happen to her, and in a way it did. Did you mean to hang this cloud over her, and if so, tell me about that decision.
To be honest, I’m still on the fence about if what Sarah experienced was good or bad. On the one hand it’s good because she has been confronted by a sort of Russian nesting doll of loss, and here she is confronted with the ultimate loss. It is a cathartic moment because, like I mentioned, kids do understand a lot of individual things, like someone being there, and then not being there.
I also have always liked stories that aren’t misleading, but covetous of their details. I don’t want to be tricked, but I love discovering pertinent details when they organically occur in the current narrative. It’s a fine line of the author manipulating the reader, and the story unfolding in a natural fashion.
Sarah’s scolding of the body with the words “There’s no coming back” again and again was just heartbreaking as she realizes her situation. It’s a very personal moment for her, and like all her moments in the story, it’s alone. I briefly want to jump on this theme of isolation.
How do you think experiencing these important moments of growth without any assistance or support impacts a person? What do you see for people like Sarah who have had to carry their struggles in silence?
I think experience affects everyone in their own way. Whether they have people there to help them along or not, it’s always a mess of impulses and chemistry. It is also very rare for a child to have another person that understands them, and what they can understand at that stage enough to communicate effectively large, abstract concepts like loss or forever.
So kids in particular have a bit of a tougher time dealing with these things?
I think the best way to be there for a kid is to know their world, so that you can analogize what they don’t understand using things they do understand. Few kids have people that can do that for them, so they discover their own connections and test their veracity through trial and error. It may be worse having people constantly assume they get what you’re going through, too.
I think we all can say we hate that. So it’s really about connecting properly?
Good communication also often leads to better articulation, larger vocabulary etc., and also to more empathetic little beings, because they have spent time thoughtfully considering things other than themselves. Note, this doesn’t work for all kids. Which gets back to the first point. Everyone is their own entity.
Also, and, I hope this doesn’t sound like a point of pride, but merely a point of fact: Silence is just how a lot of Minnesotans struggle.
I think it’s a Scandinavian thing, but we’re both notorious for being nice to people, and for being positive by indicating not the positives, but that it could be worse. Some have dubbed it the Minnesotan Negative. It’s not exactly a healthy attitude, but aren’t we charming?
I have to say, I’ve learned a lot today. To wrap this up, tell me about any other projects you may be working on.
I am working on an online Exquisite Corpse project. While I’ve long been interested in collaborative poetry, I feel like I’ve finally hit on a way to make the exquisite corpse game convenient to do online. I love the process because it is a great way to generate unexpected juxtapositions.
I’ll be posting a mini journal with the best of the results soon. The first batch is closed and the composition is almost concluded, but a new round opened in February for anyone interested.
I also run a writing prompt blog called Notebooking Daily where I post all kinds of writing exercises, prompts, sometimes essays on craft or on publishing. And finally, my flash fiction submission guide was reposted at The Review Review with their flattering title: “An Extremely Helpful, Incredibly Comprehensive Guide to Flash Fiction Submissions”.
You sound very busy! Thanks for your time and best of luck with all your projects!
Zebulon Huset is a writer and photographer living in San Diego. He received his MFA from the University of Washington, and his writing has recently appeared in The Southern Review, Louisville Review, Meridian, North American Review, The Cortland Review, The Portland Review, The Maine Review and The Roanoke Review among others. You can learn more about him at www.notebookingdaily.com, and on his Instagram @TheZebulon.
Rain was first published in Issue 15 of Apeiron Review.