T. J. Hunter

T.J. Hunter lives in Birmingham, AL and studied at the University of Montevallo. He has written for Time Inc. Studios and others.

Our Web Resident, DW McKinney, spoke with Hunter via email about his short story, “I’m Here for Fish.” Read their conversation below.

“I’m Here for Fish” is a short story that tugs on a sensitive thread of the human experience. What made you write this particular story?

I didn’t have a particular calling or urge to write the story, it just poured out one evening—the first draft at least. I liked the idea of internal struggle set in a modern, not too distant future coupled with realism. And I hadn’t read anything like it, so it seemed like I was onto something.

It can sometimes feel a bit profane tapping into the parts of human life that we like to keep hidden or don’t want to address. What was difficult—if at all—for you to write this story?

Yes, it is profane, I think. There’s this sense that certain subjects are dealt with alone, or at least they seem to be. Maybe it’s embarrassment, or just being different. I’m not sure. Whatever it is, these subjects are internalized, which, of course, doesn’t help the problem. But I think subjects like depression are becoming more common to talk about. And it isn’t so much of opening up and saying, “Hey, friend, I’m thinking about hurting myself,” as it is a self-recognition of what’s happening in your brain, then a generalization like, “I’m struggling with anxiety or depression.” Or, “I had bad postpartum.”

I’ve observed that it’s easier to open up if it’s something in the past because it distances you from it and provides a sense that it no longer affects you, or it’s been overcome. So, there’s trepidation in the early stages of opening up, which is probably true for most things. The story seemed more interesting as an internal struggle rather than the main character opening up to another character though. Or, at least that’s the way it came out. As far as being difficult to write, no, not in the sense you mean.

The beginning siphons your breath, just pulls it out of you and doesn’t let you breathe until the end. What techniques do you use in crafting tension?

The tension is there. It’s a horrible feeling the main character is going through, which captures what I think it’s like to live with depression. The narrator never calls the main character by name, which I think is consistent with what someone struggling with depression would agree with. They aren’t even worth their name. But I didn’t use any techniques in the conventional sense to craft tension, I think it flowed organically in the beginning and I just followed what I had. Then fine-tuned and tweaked here and there, threw in a touch of realism with an idea of what the scene may look like in the near future and the story was done. Or, as done as I could write it.

There’s a turning point in the story, where we get the title, when the narrator says, “It’s just in my head. Let go. I’m here for fish.” What was it like writing that moment?

They’re important lines. He’s battling himself, pleading a return to the present moment. It’s the reason he’s in the parking lot at all. The people I’ve talked to often rely on the present moment to break up spiraling thoughts, be them anxious or dark thoughts. The present is this sobering thought, a place to come back to, a reminder of what really matters, what they can control. A purpose even.

With all good writing, readers can find relevancy and meaning beyond the author’s intent. What struck me while reading “I’m Here for Fish” is that despite being written before the global pandemic, it addresses fraught hopelessness and an urgency to keep going, both of which are so prevalent, and in the latter case, necessary, now.

“Fraught hopelessness.” I like that. And yes, of course to keep going despite having this seemingly daily struggle. In the main character the will to live is strong. Probably more so than someone struggling with depression. He’s trying to talk himself out of suicide and hopelessly trying to reason with the unreasonable, but he’s trying nonetheless. And to be overly simplistic, maybe that’s relatable even if you’re struggling for a cup of coffee. Or, as of today, struggling with quarantine and what comes with it. Isn’t it funny how stories can have a different effect given the time in which they’re read?

How does your own life inform the stories you choose to write?

I have ideas, so many ideas it seems. And I’ll try to pursue them all, but they’ll certainly outlive me… And being ok with that is something else entirely. Observation plays a large part in the stories I choose to write. If I feel I can be authentic to what I’m trying to say, then I’ll pursue them based on what I observe. The authenticity plays into the setting a lot too. I always try to be authentic to the surroundings, or what I think the surroundings will be one day.

In what ways is “I’m Here for Fish” representative of your larger body of work? What are your favorite plot lines or scenes to write?

I’ve been called southern gothic, which I think is pretty close to what I’m trying to do. Although most stories tend to just come out that way. Most of my stories seem to follow some kind of dark realism, the stuff known but hoped against. All of which are set in, or connected to, Alabama because it’s an area I know.

What would you want readers to take away from this story?

Well, I think stigma is a tragic thing. And a very real thing. Maybe this story helps the conversation of mental health come up every now and then. Outside of that, I hope the story is at least entertaining.

Do you have any last words to share with us?

None that come to mind right now. Thanks very much for your time, DW. And thanks to The New Southern Fugitives. I look forward to following the voice of the New South.

T.J. Hunter lives in Birmingham, AL and studied at the University of Montevallo. He has written for Time Inc. Studios and others.

DW McKinney, 2020 TNSF Web Resident, received degrees in biology and anthropology. She gave up working in an office to nurture her love for storytelling then went back to the office when she wasn’t making any money. Her work centers blackness, womanhood, identity, mental health, and motherhood, as well as the fantastic and magical. She recently won Boston Accent Lit’s “Wicked Short” Nonfiction Contest and is the reviews editor for Linden Avenue Literary Journal. She lives in Nevada with her husband and two children. Follow her on dwmckinney.com.
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