ORIGINS: Tara Laskowski

BystandersIn today’s ORIGINS at jmww, author Tara Laskowski discusses the origins for her short story collection Bystanders, which published May 2016, by Santa Fe Writers Project.

It’s harder to pinpoint the origin of a short story collection than it is a novel. Because thinking back, there were many origins—each story has one. Some of them I honestly cannot remember where the pin of light started to break through the black. They are mysteries to me, and they probably evolved through time like most writing does.

Others I know exactly where the initial idea came from: a terrifically bad relationship with a sociopath, a random anecdote my coworker told me about friends of hers from childhood, a key I found in a junk drawer, the spooky way people look through a baby video monitor, winter Sundays eating supper at my grandmother’s house.

The bigger question is when did they all gel together to be this collection. For many years, I was puzzled by the idea of putting together a short story collection. How did you figure out what to put in and what to leave out? Stories that are written over many years are distinct in their own way. You’re trying out different things—finding your reach, experimenting. The only thing my stories seemed to have in common was that they didn’t have anything in common at all.

And then, suddenly, they did.

It took a long time. I needed to write a lot of stories to start to see the themes emerge. And then finally, a few years ago, I realized what my weird obsession was: writing about violence on the periphery. Many of my stories seemed to be interested in what happens to you when something bad happens to someone else. It was stronger and more obvious in some of the stories: a car accident, a murder, a violent newspaper strike. In other stories, the violence was quieter or more psychological: the damage of an affair, the legacy of an abortion, post-partum depression.

When I started to see this theme emerge, I collected all the best stories I’d already written. And then I wrote four new ones to fill it out, to make it complete. I made sure the book had a mix of points of view, male and female narrators/main characters, and a range of styles.

I wanted the first story to immediately introduce readers to the theme of this collection: witnessing violence. Here’s the first line of “The Witness”: “The boy’s body hit the hood of the Toyota, slammed off the windshield, and then slid out of sight from where Marie stood.” Aha! A bystander, right there already on the first page.

From there I tried to build on that image and put the stories in an order that would allow them to reflect off each other or introduce new tones or themes to the experience. I had to create the hardest playlist I’ve ever done.

Many of the stories in the collection are dark, but I wanted to leave the reader with a sense of hope as well. I chose the last story in the collection because of the image it ends on. In “Death Wish,” a woman becomes obsessed with her coworker’s murderer. She’s in a new town, and she’s lonely and doesn’t have many friends. She’s worried her life might be meaningless, boring, and she starts to wonder what it would be like to be in a relationship with a murderer. At the end of the story, she reaches out to him impulsively by writing him a letter. She’s terrified, but also invigorated. Here’s the last line: “Racing back to the apartment, coat billowing behind her, Sandra wondered briefly, elatedly, how she must look, and hoped there was someone watching her run.”

I think that feeling is similar to how writers feel about publishing their books. We’re terrified and also excited to send our babies out there into the world. Worried but relieved. Nervous but thrilled. But like Sandra wants someone to see her, like she senses the danger in that but craves it anyway, writers above all just hope people pay attention. That someone will emerge from the shadows and want to snatch up our words.


Tara Laskowski grew up in Northeastern Pennsylvania and now navigates traffic in the Washington, D.C. suburbs. She is the author of Modern Manners For Your Inner Demons (Matter Press 2012) and the forthcoming Bystanders (Santa Fe Writers Project 2016). Her fiction has been published in the Norton anthology Flash Fiction International, Alfred Hitchcock’s Mystery Magazine, Mid-American Review, and numerous other journals, magazines, and anthologies. She was awarded the Kathy Fish Fellowship from SmokeLong Quarterly in 2009, and won the grand prize for the 2010 Santa Fe Writers Project Literary Awards Series. Since 2010, she has been the editor of SmokeLong Quarterly.

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