Toast & Finches

An Interview about “Fledgling”

Two zebra finches snuggling on a twig

Writer Keith Lesmeister has a blog called “Life as a Shorty.” Each week he picks a short story and uses it to talk about craft, either by exploring some aspect of the piece or interviewing the writer. Earlier this month, we talked about my short story “Fledgling,” which recently published in Rappahannock Review. You can read the story here.


Keith Lesmeister: The story starts out with this horrific, nightmarish scenario, which draws readers in immediately. And while I had thought initially that the story would be about the parents who lost the child, it wasn’t about that at all. Did you know, upon starting this piece, that that would be the case? Was this always going to be about Mary Beth?

Susan Pagani: Yes, it was always Mary Beth’s story. There was a draft where I began with Mary Beth and the finches, thinking that would help the reader understand it was her story and create more of a build to the actual accident. It didn’t work as well for me. I felt the accident needed to be first, and for the reader and Mary Beth to travel away from it, in order for things to go awry as they do.

KL: The piece takes place in Minneapolis, which endures intense, relentless amounts of snow, similar to what I’m staring at right now out my kitchen window, these huge heavy snowflakes. The snow and cold in your story plays a central role throughout. I love these lines: “She liked the quiet of snow, how you could hear the scrape of a leafless branch against a house or the thin whistle of a chickadee, and then the distant sounds of freight trains and industry. She was attentive to the light, so soft and yellow on a day like today, so far down into the trees and full on the houses, giving everything the look of paper, two-dimensional and flimsy.” Can you speak to setting and how, generally, it plays a role in this piece and your work overall?

SP: A lot of my stuff starts with setting — not setting alone, but it’s a part of that first image. Winter in Minneapolis is so intense: snowy, sub-zero, interminable. It can be isolating if you’re not careful. Mary Beth is lonely to begin with, but because the story takes place in winter — when everyone is inside, rather than out working in their yards — she is even more separate from her neighbors, even more alone with her sadness about the girl. But this scene is also about her comfort with the cold and isolation. I think she likes that all her neighbors are inside and the wintery street is her own.

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