Admit it, part of you enjoys this, enjoys the warnings and watches, the text message alerts, the evacuation orders, the smoke, the planes dipping in the water, the flashing lights, the breaking news updates. The times when, idly scrolling through Twitter or Facebook or TikTok or Instagram, burning through the hours you’re supposed to be sending emails or in meetings, you notice a tweet or update or photo, something that signals: tragedy, disaster, calamity. You, who wanted always to believe that the world was not thoroughly terrible. You, who have held on to thin tendrils of something like hope, something like beauty. You have told others that you do, you have told them stories where beauty and hope percolate. Like the time in fourth grade when the train car broke free from the trestle, spilling giant cans of Folgers coffee in the small lake below. How your grandfather woke you in the patchy pre-dawn to help him drag his boat to the edge of the water. How you clambered into the boat, cold and oddly exhilarated: at being awake so early, at the quiet around the house, the yells you heard from the trestle seeming small and far away and not at all vital. You and your grandfather went back and forth between the trestle and the shore, ferrying the red coffee cans, your grandfather laughing at the good luck. You took turns rowing out, then scooping the bobbing cans. In the half light of early morning, the cans reminded you of the fishing bobbers you’d watch diligently when you were five, six, fishing on the same shore you’re now dropping cans of coffee on. When you tell this story of beauty, you always include this detail. You explain how your grandfather stored the coffee cans, dented, then years later, rusting, in the pantry and garage and even the attic. How each time he opened one, he’d look up eyes half closed, and say “Thank you, Union Pacific! Thank you, thank you!” You tell this story with the punchline about how your grandfather made you hurry to get the cans inside, told you others would come for them, too, that maybe even someone might be mad that you both took them. Everyone laughs when you say this, “Folgers coffee,” they say, eyes creased shut with glee. Your grandfather died before he could even use half the coffee stash. You never tell the story the way you actually remember it—that the cans were beautiful, the way they dipped below the surface and then rose again, how the dawn was always your favorite time to be awake and about. And how your grandfather held his finger to his lips each time the boat approached the trestle. How, when you looked up, you could see the canted train jutting from the track, could hear yelling, screaming even. Then your grandfather gestured to the cans, and you each began loading them while above you disaster marched on. You remember the house, still loaded with Folgers coffee no one wants. You’ve always known the world was meant to burn.
3 Questions for Heather
What was your process for creating these pieces?
“Admit It” came after I told a friend that part of me was glad that the West was seemingly always on fire because it felt, for the first time, that maybe the rest of the country would start to take the impending climate apocalypse seriously. In the West, we’ve always had wildfire, but it’s been getting worse since I was a kid, but getting a lot of people to understand that has often felt impossible. The piece came out in blur in about an hour and with minimal revision—something that almost never happens for me.
“Presented with Complaint” was something I wrote when I was part of a writing group in 2018. The “rules” for the group were that each of us would write a flash fiction piece every month, email it to each other by the last day of that month, then vote on our favorite without any discussion. All four of us had been in the same MFA program some years earlier, and it was a way for us to commit to a writing practice with a small amount of accountability to each other. We did this for a year, and it was a tremendous way to keep writing and to generate a lot of flash fiction, something I’d never really tried my hand at before. This piece in particular was one the group liked a lot. I wrote the piece one month, submitted it, then put it away for a while. This was a few years before Covid, so I wasn’t even considering that we might, in our immediate lifetimes, experience limited human contact the way Aquella does. When I read it again a year after the first lockdown, I was struck with the echoes of what we’re going through now.
What is the significance of the forms/genres you chose for this work?
My current work explores how forms considered outside the normal bounds of literature can be used to create story and narrative. I initially became interested in this idea when texting a close friend. We, like all friends who text regularly, had created a language of emoji particular to our friendship. I thought a lot about the life in those texts and the way the form we were using shaped our relationship (since all language shapes the way we conceive of the world). So much of our lives are dictated by forms, especially in our current landscape, yet those forms aren’t allowed much space in literature. I started wondering what parts of our lives aren’t reflected in the art we consume. This seemed worth exploring, since so many of the ways we communicate and make meaning remain unexamined within that art. The trick is giving the form muscle in the story, which takes a lot of work. Sometimes I start with a particular form and idea, then find that the story doesn’t need it and so abandon the form. But other times, it becomes indispensable to the story I’m telling.
What is the significance of this work to you?
Both stories are essentially about the climate apocalypse and its effect on us. I find climate-related disasters increasingly entering my work, even when I don’t mean for them to. I’ve only every lived on the West Coast, so I remember being a child in northeastern California and watching in my front yard, through binoculars, a wildfire consuming the forest. I was afraid then, even though my parents insisted that the fire was far away. Of course, it never got close to us, but I often think of that now and wonder how much more would that fire burn if it started now in these new conditions. Would it have made it to our house? I live in north central Washington state now, and that reality in our little town is ever-present during fire season, and with that is a specific body of knowledge: what Level 1 Evacuation means versus Level 3, how to make a go-bag and what to put in it, what kind of mask to wear when the AQI is terrible. Until recently, I don’t think people outside the West fully understood what it is like to live in wildfire country. These stories come out of the desire to show that reality.
Heather Ryan earned an MFA in Fiction from the University of Oregon in 2006. Her creative non-fiction has been published in the Los Angeles Review, Salon and NPR, among others. Her fiction has been published in the Western Humanities Review and the Southern Humanities Review. Her essay 'En Passant' was short-listed for the Best American Essays anthology in 2016. She teaches college writing at Wenatchee Valley College in north central Washington State and, like everyone in the state, loves hiking and gardening.