Image: “Cieli ad alta quota (High Skies),” by Alighiero Boetti, 1993.
Liz Cettina: How did you start writing “Impact Zone”?
Will Bellamy: The plane crash in the story happened in my neighborhood in Brooklyn. I remember walking with a friend a couple years ago, and he pointed out that on one specific intersection, the buildings on three corners were all made up of pretty old-looking architecture while the building on the remaining corner was brand new. And he said it was set up this way because of some plane crash that happened back in the 60s, when two planes collided in midair and one crashed into this exact corners. So I had that in the back of my head for a couple of years and I would think about it every time I would pass by the intersection. Gradually, I started doing more research on it, first because I wanted to simply know more about it and eventually because I wanted to write a historical fiction piece centered around the crash. I’m in Cliff Chase’s Merging Forms class this semester, and our first assignment was to write a piece from three different perspectives, so originally I wrote a piece on the event with three different sections. Then, as I started editing more, I thought that the piece was incomplete with just three, and so did Cliff, so I just expanded it out and made it into seven, then cut it down to what it is now, which from what I remember is five.
Emma Raddatz: Which three characters did you start with and which did you add in this version?
W: The opening two are still there in the story, and then the third one was the one that I cut out, plus a couple more that just didn’t fit. I decided to get way far away from the event in that original third one, so I made two people play Ping-Pong and watch the smoke rise from a skyscraper in Manhattan. I originally wanted to do three because I wanted the first to be sort of inside the event—inside the plane—the second to be the closest to the event, and the third to be the farthest away. I also wanted to have the middle part be where all the ambiguity happened, where you don’t really know if people are alive or dead, whereas the beginning and ending sections have clearer outcomes. And then Cliff suggested that I add more sections and expand, so I started doing that—and that expanded version is the one that’s in the magazine now.
L: Can you talk about the narration?
W: The first narrator is a kind of detached third person, as nobody inside the plane could’ve written out their own narrative—in real life, nobody in the plane survived, and I wanted to convey that through the more omniscient voice. The narrator then varies from first to third after that. I wanted to have characters telling their own stories, but also characters that didn’t feel like telling their stories either, as is the case with the nurse, I think.
E: Was this your first time writing historical fiction?
W: Yeah. I’ve written regular fiction for a while, but in the past few months I started getting interested in historical fiction as I started getting more into history in general, and how history is told. I thought that I might as well combine the two interests.
E: What are your perspective majors?
W: I’m definitely going to be an English major, but I might do a double major, and if I decide to, I’m thinking of History, Philosophy, or American Studies. So I’m trying to figure that out, but I know I’ve still got some time.
E: How did you first start writing?
W: I always read a ton when I was growing up, and still do, but I never really wrote—or at least never really wrote fiction. Senior year I took a short story workshop class, so I started writing a good amount then, as the teacher pushed me to get ideas out and refine my work. I’d always seen fiction as something I could only absorb rather than do myself, but when I started writing, this whole new world opened up. I started just taking everything down with a pen that I thought worthy of putting into a story. Because I had simply read and admired a good deal of authors for most of my life, I was also heavily imitating already published works. Most of my work was pretty contrived then, but I could see a little crack that I could get possibly wedge my way into and do my own thing. So I’ve been writing a great deal ever since, and I think I’ve moved away from the more imitative stuff—or at least hopefully.
L: Which writers were you drawn to at first?
W: I was really into George Saunders when I first started writing. I loved his stories—they’re witty, hilarious, and always have a sort of heartfelt feeling running through their underbelly. One of the pieces that I’m most proud of, which I think also sling-shotted me into writing, is very much like the stuff that George Saunders writes in collections like Pastoralia and CivilWarLand in Bad Decline. In New York, you can find dog walkers with about seven leashes in each hand with dogs all around them, and I decided to do a kind of sci-fi, dystopian twist this and turn it into a story. So instead of a dog walker, I wrote a piece about a guy who walked fish in these little glass balls called TankRollers. It was silly and kind of stupid looking back on it, but I ecstatically wrote the first 35-page draft in about 24 hours. That made me realize that maybe I had a knack for this, and if not, it made me realize that writing fiction was just plain fun. I was interested in short stories after that simply because I wanted to make my own, and so I got super into Alice Munro, and then later Lydia Davis, David Foster Wallace, and Borges and Cortázar too. There was a period after that short story class in which I just stopped reading long-form work and was mostly just reading collections of shorter pieces.
E: Are you reading anything right now?
W: Mostly things for class. I just finished a Diane Williams collection that came out recently—she writes exceedingly short stories as well, but I see them as a lot weirder and more avant-gardy than those of Lydia Davis. I had trouble getting through a lot of them—they were like nothing I’d ever read before. I try to keep at least one collection or something to read on the side. Right now I’m kind of hopscotching through James Baldwin’s Notes of a Native Son, which I’ve read before but always like returning to. Baldwin gets smarter and more enlightening every time through, it seems.
L: Can you speak to the length of this piece?
W: Most of the stuff that I’ve written usually ends up on the longer side, but this piece I wanted to make shorter because I didn’t want readers to feel that they were in the world for a long time. So that was something new for me. I felt that if I tried to make it longer I would’ve lost the punch of it. And I was also thinking about New York in general, and how most tragedies that happen in New York stay in your mind for a long time but aren’t physically there for more time than is necessary. The city is frighteningly quick at cleaning up—it’s kind of incredible. Even with 9/11, I remember that there was sort of feeling that stuck with everyone for a very, very long time—in some sense a feeling still felt today in the way people move and conduct themselves in the city—but the physical evidence of the attack was gone within about six months. This goes for Hurricane Sandy as well, I believe. And I find this interesting—the city is so quick to make things at least look like their back to normal. So I wanted to make the piece feel quick too as if I was sweeping something under the rug so that readers could go back to their normal lives as quickly as possible. The truth is always the opposite, though, as sweeping it under the rug always makes the event even more eerie and worth thinking about. I hope that the piece had that sort of effect.
E: Why did you use time stamps for each section?
W: This was an organizational choice, and something I did last minute. I didn’t want people to feel disoriented between the sections—I wanted people to feel more disoriented while something was happening within the section, instead of them asking ‘Well, what does this section have to do with this section? How does section one connect to section four?'” So I think the timing helped ground the strings in between each perspective. What I was hoping for was that once the reader actually got into the section, it would be kind of messy, slightly confusing, but then there would be a quick break as the reader took the straight string into the next one. This is how I saw the times—as strings.
L: What is the value of writing different narratives centered around this one event?
W: The title relates to this, I think. People will be more impacted by an event depending on how close they are and in what ways they are emotionally connected to it. Everyone is in their own little zones of an event, whether it be a tragedy or a flash mob or a conversation. So I just wanted to explore this idea in terms of the perspectives and the way in which you can kind of end up in a specific place at a specific time. Every character is centered around this one event, but all at different radii. I wanted to explore how different characters respond to the zone when they’re put into it: how vision and thought gets blurry, and how first instincts kick into gear.
L: Were you at all concerned that people would think you’re writing about 9/11?
W: Yes, completely. I saw this concern as a both a drawback and an opportunity, though. I originally had the date—December 16th, 1960—in the last section, and I remember when I workshopped the piece someone had said that they thought it was 9/11 until the very end, when the date popped up. This clued me in to something that was happening in my readers’ heads: that most would immediately associate planes, New York, and tragedies with 9/11. Instead of trying as hard as I could to rip this association away from 2001 and put it into 1960, I thought that I could show people that, in a way, history repeats itself, and that tragedy and horror can occur in all sorts of ways, but the emotion will always be on the same sort of wavelength—that wavelength of fear, confusion, and, eventually, moving on.
E: Can you talk about the last scene with the ‘chewing’?
W: I didn’t really intend for it to be this kind of digestion scene, but then I decided to go with it more when I got it down on the page. Time goes on, so there’s a sense that you have to digest it from any perspective that you are seeing it from. Even though the last section is the only scene where someone is actually chewing, the act is universal—it is what ties all the scenes together, because each character must digest.
L: How did you choose the characters for this piece?
W: Originally, I thought about New York and all the different people that I’ve interacted with, which is, of course, a pretty well-explored idea. So I thought it would be kind of cliché to go for this NYC-is-so-diverse idea, and instead wanted to think of each character not so much as fully-realized people, but more as pawns in a kind of game. So yes, every character does have a gender and age, but I sought to portray each character as representations of thought processes rather than people that readers could imagine separately. Each character is sort of an experiment to me—I would plop them down in a specific place and see what I would do with them, see what outcome I could get. My hope in doing so was to have readers reflect in how they themselves would react in each situation, and have them imagine themselves as that same experiment.
E: Are you writing anything right now?
W: I’m still in Cliff Chase’s Merging Forms class, and I just finished a longer piece that’s assigned as a sort of capstone for the course. There’s nothing really concrete that I’m working on right now, but I try to force myself to at least get two pages down on paper every day. I can’t always live up to that, though. And most of those two pages end up as crap.
E: What was your long piece about?
W: I was reading this Alice Munro story a while ago called “Progress of Love,” and the narrator—a young girl—was explaining that she had always thought of her mother as Mom, and not as her real name, which was Marietta. When she thought of this supposed real name, she started imagining what her mother did as a child—she thought of her as Marietta and not as Mom. So I started thinking about people imagining things about people they don’t know, and how they can construct their own stories and fill in the blanks with fictional details and scenes. I started writing about a manager that knows nothing about his own boss, and after years of neglect and teasing and aggravating conversations, finds out that the boss’s real name is Charlie. With this new information, he begins to construct his own boss’s story, and finds that, in his imagination, he can do whatever he wants with the boss—the boss becomes his puppet, a figment of his imagination that he can toss around however much he wants. I remember reading a Paris Review interview with Nabokov, and the interviewer asks him if once he creates his characters, they kind of work on their own and get out of control. Nabokov dismisses this idea completely, assuring the interviewer that his characters are galley slaves. Then, in my own story, I started thinking about control and power, and how despite the reality that the manager has no control at all over his boss, he can switch the scales and have total control over the boss in his own mind, where he becomes free to do whatever he wants with the boss. So I guess in the end, the story boils down to freedom of imagination, which is, I think, the only freedom that nobody ever gets to intrude on.