Shawn Rubenfeld’s fiction has appeared in such places as Permafrost, Columbia Journal, and Portland Review. He has a Ph.D. in English and Creative Writing from the University of Nebraska-Lincoln, where he is currently a lecturer. His first novel, The Eggplant Curse & the Warp Zone, is forthcoming in 2021 from 7.13 books.
Shawn’s story “Moses Walk on Water” appears in our Summer 2020 issue and seems especially poignant in a year that’s been heavy on disasters of all kinds. Shawn was kind enough to chat with me about the story, his writing process, and his forthcoming book.
Q: “Moses Walk on Water” is an incredibly striking read. What was the inspiration for the story?
A: This story emerged from a few different places. The first—the biggest—was from my wife’s grandfather, Gary, who told me of the time he and his family were stuck at a horse show in Moses Lake, Washington when Mount St. Helens blew. He’s a great storyteller, and I remember thinking then and there now that’s a story. I loved the fact that they were stuck in Moses Lake because I immediately started thinking about the Book of Exodus, though I wasn’t sure yet how it could all tie together organically. I took a few notes and asked him a few questions, but it still sat in my queue for about two years before I was ready to occupy that space and explore what, if anything, I could do with it all.
What was your writing process for this story like?
It was different from my typical writing process, for sure. I had these great, haunting images Gary had left me with from his own version of events that I wanted to include, but I also needed to take my own creative liberties in order to make the story work, which meant I had to leave out some of the very details that originally drew me to the story. I rewrote the last one-third about seven times before I felt like I was on track again.
Also, I started with the title, which kind of just danced off my tongue one day, at least a year before I started writing. It was more idea-based than my other stuff, which I take pride in discovering along the way. Most of the time I start with a voice, a character, an image, but this was much more conceptual and it felt like I spent two years waiting for something to click. Then, I was doing research one day, which was mostly unrelated, and happened upon work that tried to contextualize the Exodus historically, ultimately claiming that the plagues—specifically the darkness—and also the parting of the Red Sea could be explained historically by a massive volcanic eruption. It was exactly the push I needed to get this one off the ground.
This story made me think of the members of the LPR community (e.g., Marlena Chertock, Anthony Moll, Ned Tillman) who have been exploring climate fiction and poetry. How do you see this story participating, if at all, in the conversation about climate emergencies?
Since the Romantic Period, volcanic eruptions have had an impact on literature and have nudged some of the most notable writers from that period (Shelly, Byron) to explore the post-human. Of course, for the Romantics, this was less about the human influence on climate, which is now well past its breaking point. While I can’t say that I specifically write a lot of cli-fi, I do admire how the genre and the authors working in it force us to confront the urgency of climate emergencies through imagined (though more and more less so) futures. Even though my story is based on an actual event as remembered by people who were there, I still hope it serves as a reminder that climate catastrophes can happen at any moment, forcing us into these alternate universes where the world as we know it is unrecognizable.
If you write yourself into a wall, you can write yourself out of it. It’s the great thing about this power we wield.
This year has been challenging, to say the least. How are you keeping up your creative energy?
For a while I wasn’t! I obsessively read medical journals and stared at charts and graphs. I fretted over every sniffle, every cough. I felt myself slowly disappear. Then, I turned to things that brought me comfort: movies, music, video games, books. I learned to find meaning in creativity, in my intense anxiety, and used it as fuel to bring me closer to the work I had set out to do before COVID-19. Was it still needed? Was it still important? That wasn’t for me to decide. But if sitting in the chair and writing my guts out could keep me sane, could keep me going, then it’s what I had to do. And that’s where I am now.
Your first novel is due out next year—congratulations! Can you tell us a little more about it?
Thank you! The novel, The Eggplant Curse & the Warp Zone, is a quirky little comedy about a retro game collector and Ph.D. dropout who moves from New York to Iowa to teach at a boarding school for twice exceptional students. Prone to brushing things aside, he haplessly teeters between the real and the surreal as he negotiates his new life in Iowa, concocts panicked lies that challenge how others view him, and pursues and tries-not-to-pursue a new love interest, all while strange occurrences pervading his digital life manifest in his real one. It’s a novel about reinventing oneself, the pervasiveness or intrusiveness of our online culture, and fandom and communities. My hope is that people have as much fun reading it as I did writing it. It will be out in March 2021 from 7.13 Books.
What’s your favorite piece of writing advice?
If you write yourself into a wall, you can write yourself out of it. I like to spend some time each semester while students are drafting their work to check in and see how it’s going. Inevitably, a student or two will explain that it was going well, but that now they’re stuck. Sometimes, surviving the story is as easy as re-grouping, as using your inventory—leaning back on what you’ve already established to keep the narrative moving physically, one sentence at a time. Other times, though, you do write yourself into a wall. You kill the story. You end all its momentum. But even then there’s no need to panic because if you write yourself into a wall, you can write yourself out of it. It’s the great thing about this power we wield. You can hit reverse and then push yourself through it. You can take a few big steps to the left and sneak around it. You could build a door, a window. You can dig a tunnel. Or, you can blow up that wall as if it didn’t exist.
All that matters is that you get to the other side, that you find a way to keep the story moving, to keep the story alive.