Sharon Wishnow in conversation with DW McKinney
Sharon J. Wishnow is a writer from Northern Virginia. Her fiction writing has earned an honorable mention from Glimmer Train’s final fiction open, appeared in The Grief Diaries, UC Denver -The Human Touch Journal, Everyday Fiction, Coffin Bell, Chronically Lit, and The Dead Mule School of Southern Fiction. She has an MFA from George Mason and is represented by Ann Leslie at Dystel, Goderich, and Bourette.
What intrigues you as a fiction writer?
I am most interested in science and the natural world and how people interact or are changed by their surroundings. Though, I confess, I think I only write fiction because I love to research. An idea, scenario, or fact will come my way and I’ll begin to dig. Usually the first interesting idea is forgotten for the rabbit warren of the web or wandering the library stacks, pre-COVID.
You write with a sharpness and quick wittedness that really lends itself to flash fiction. Is this a skill that’s natural to you or is it a product of time and daily practice?
Oh, totally natural – not! I have two speeds with fiction, flash or 90k+ word novels. I do write daily, but not always fiction. Flash and stories a smidge longer, 1200-1300 words, require writers to cut the fat from stories and develop characters that pop. You can’t waste words with flash. Readers also have short attention spans. Instead of bemoaning that, embrace it. Say more with fewer words.
Tell us how your idea for “The Bird Avenger” came together.
It started as a thought exercise. What is the craziest action a woman who lived a life like a Muzak song on repeat could do to make her life feel alive? I developed a list that would raise some eyebrows if you didn’t know I was working on a story: Arson, kidnapping, petnapping, carjacking. I liked the idea of vandalism and breaking into a forbidden place. Jean breaks in because she’s trying to break out. She takes to graffiti because she wants something of her to be seen. The setting of the chemical plant is the antithesis of the beauty of the beach town where she lives.
The story’s opening line reads, “Numbers are a random way to measure life.” Then, the number thirty repeats in the following sentences and again throughout the story. Thirty is often associated with life cycles. It’s also seen as a natural transition point into young adulthood, which seems to be what’s happening to Jean. Does the number hold greater meaning in your story or is it truly random?
The number 30 is not random. It represents that gut squeezing “Oh no!” sensation many people experience when the calendar flips and a new decade begins. At least it did for me. This is where we meet Jean and all her 30s.
Jean seems to be carried away by what’s going on with her life. It’s not necessarily because she’s lost control, but things are happening and she’s going along with them. It reminds me of a certain point in adulthood—perhaps it’s a rite of passage—where you stop resisting and just let life happen.
Jean as I see her has always let life happen to her and this is another series of events. The notoriety she experiences for the first time is what wakes her up and pushes her into adulthood. She has to accept her punishment, but not the Bird Avenger moniker the public gives her. She’s not sure of her identity, but something is growing inside her yet to be discovered. Like all of us, Jean’s a work in progress.
As a former environmental studies major, I connected with themes of environmentalism in your story.
Yay! That makes so happy.
It’s something that you also focus on in your book, The Sea Sheller’s Daughter. Is environmentalism a topic that you raise in all of your works? What is its significance in your own life?
The environment and science are forces in a majority of my stories and longer works. I see climate change as the biggest challenge humanity has ever faced. We are in the age of Anthropocene – a time in history when human activities have changed our world and not for the better. It’s hard to consume the idea that destroying the Amazon Rainforest has caused a bloom of seaweed that has grown into a 5,500-mile raft from the coast of Florida to the African continent chocking everything in its wake. Yet, I can tell a short story about birds falling out of the sky due to pesticides.
In my own life, I regret I didn’t pursue science – specifically marine science. I was in school at the age when there weren’t a lot of female scientists or researcher role models. I chased my other passion, writing. I’ve done extensive science writing and I currently have a non-fiction middle grade marine science book out on submission. I love the idea of putting a book into the world that inspires kids at the same age I was when I still believed I could explore. Now I explore through words.
Our interview comes at a time when protests are raging across the United States. And it should be noted that “The Bird Avenger” was written well before this time. Historically, protests have been an outlet for revolt, for expressing displeasure with traditions and systemic oppression.
In “The Bird Avenger,” those that don’t have a voice—the dead or dying birds, the main character Jean—eventually find one: “For the first time in thirty years, I had a voice. The pain I felt from my invisible life flew away. From nothing to something. An anonymous celebrity. Maybe a religious zealot. The faithful feather lovers found a figurehead.” Jean’s protest becomes the voice she’s always wanted, and it also becomes a medium for others. Though this was not Jean’s original intent, how does this discovery shape her act of protest? Does that have implications for protest on a larger stage?
Jean the main character and the Bird Avenger has no intention to be a protest leader or instigator, but in the course of searching for her own voice and identity, others in the community have been alerted to a problem that has been simmering below the surface. Jean is a catalyst to a change and a movement. Just like Katniss Everdeen in the Hunger Games, she is pulled into the whirlwinds of change. She can embrace it and her role as part of her growth or evolution or she can hide. Jean is testing the waters of this movement, literally on the beach during her community service. She chooses not to walk into the ocean, but rather to accept her punishment and see where it takes her. I think this is how leaders are sometimes born from fire and strife, people who make brave choices or stick to their morals and beliefs when they are tested.