Wednesday, September 19, 2012

Stefanie Freele on Disasters Evoking Inspiration

In the 29th in a series of posts on 2012 short story collections entered for The Story Prize, Stefanie Freele, author of Surrounded by Water (Press 53), talks floods and unexpected blessings.

The house is rocking, shuddering due to a barge of downed trees and debris building up along the upriver corner as the water rises. The sinister pile of flotsam wedged to the house can be seen with a flashlight. The word rain is too dainty a description for the dumping of water coming from the dark sky. The cars have already been moved to higher ground; the first an easy move, a slow walk in boots, water sloshing onto wet socks. The second car, an hour later, is evacuated while wearing hip waders. The third, moved just now, after swimming out in a wetsuit.

The downstairs neighbor soon will have water in his living room. The river is about three inches below the top of eleven steps. It is 5:30 in the morning. He answers his door blurry-eyed and annoyed; there is nothing he can do about the river. He too is surprised at how fast the water is rising.
Someone will need to get a chainsaw and cut up those tree pieces. If not, this house on stilts, on sandy riverbed, may go swirling downriver.

The flashlight on the garage reveals that the unlocked door rose and subsequently the garage contents are floating away: coolers, kickboards, pool-floaties, the Adirondack chair, all that wood stacked to build a bookshelf and, damn, there goes the almost-finished hand-carved bench.

The house trembles.

I’ve experienced three floods first-hand along the Russian River where I live in Northern California. All three informed my short story “While Surrounded by Water,” which thankfully won the Glimmer Train Fiction Open Award.

“While Surrounded by Water” is a story that takes place an enormous storm, a “tempest” as one of the characters calls it.

I’ve had 12 feet of water in the yard, garage, downstairs. I’ve kayaked along rooflines. I’ve evacuated from a shuddering house. The kindness and generosity of strangers and neighbors during a flood was astounding.

One of the unexpected beauties that happens during a catastrophe is a certain phenomena: Strangers meet; neighbors who never notice each other collide. “While Surrounded by Water” is a story of both isolation and unexpected friendship during a crisis.

Surrounded by Water, the collection, deals with floods and catastrophes in other ways: floods of emotions, explosions, environmental pollution, pain, revenge, growth, gluttony, and fixation.

I believe that an unexpected blessing occurred: Living through these storms made me a better person and, hopefully, because of my observation and witness to the enormity of detail, a bit of a better writer.