Trisha M Cowen is a PhD student at Binghamton University where she studies American literature and fiction writing. Her work has been published in The Portland Review, 2 Bridges Review, Bitter Oleander Review, among others. She’s currently working on a historical fiction novel and teaching Early American Literature in Zhenjiang, China.
Amoskeag: Your narrator is intelligent and mature enough to understand certain things, such as the fact that “Mama ain’t coming back” yet she remains inquisitive and mildly hopeful of the world around her. How did she get to that point in her life? Why does she see the world the way she does?
Trisha: My narrator, essentially, has had to raise herself. Her mother leaves her and takes a barn cat instead of taking her, and her father isolates her emotionally. She is a realist in that she knows her mother won’t be back for her, but she’s also still very much a child. She has not given up on love, nor has she given up on her father. She sees love displayed in the world; for example, through the family of barn cats. She knows love exists, although she has yet to find it.
Amoskeag: Why did you begin with an image of the father beginning to play the harmonica? What made you begin “there” and what inspired you to shape the narrator’s “daddy” as an intimidating and potentially violent being?
Trisha: I began the story with an image of the narrator witnessing her father play the harmonica because it is the first time she sees her father in a different light. She has had one image of her father, assumingly since the departure of her mother, and observing her father play a musical instrument makes her question her idea of who her father is and was. The seemingly mundane moment is pivotal to the narrator’s conception of who her father is as well as her own identity. She is in such disbelief that she thinks her father may eat the harmonica, instead of play it since, to her, he’s always been better, metaphorically, at taking the music away. Unbeknownst to her, he is capable of creating something beautiful.
I shaped the narrator’s “daddy” as an intimidating figure because I wanted to emphasize how isolated the narrator is. The narrator is a girl-woman simply searching for love, especially from her father who doesn’t pay much attention to her due to his own pain. As she watches her father play the harmonica, she realizes that there may be something about her father that she overlooked, and that he may have been different before the narrator’s mother left them. The story culminates in her silent realization that her father used to play music for her and, perhaps more importantly, that he used to display his love for her.
Amoskeag: Did you see the ending coming, or did it suddenly surprise you? How did you prepare for it?
Trisha: I knew the ending before I wrote the rest of the story. As a writer, I tend to work in a very non- linear fashion. In the case of this story, I knew I wanted to write about making maple syrup. Making maple syrup with my own father was one of my favorite activities growing up. Of course, I am very lucky to have a wonderful father, unlike the character in my story, but the story’s roots came from my own childhood memories of making syrup with my father. I was always afraid that the great vat of sap would overflow and be sucked back into the earth before we could finish it. I don’t remember this ever happening; however, the memory of my own fear as a kid is where the ending of my story is derived.
Amoskeag: Is your narrator’s view of the world in any way reflective of the way you see the world? Or were you surprised by what they saw and how they felt?
Trisha: I like to take readers to unfamiliar, unexpected places because as a writer I like to also be taken down a path of unfamiliarity. I write best when I write about what I do not know—yes, this may be the opposite of what the average creative writing textbook will tell you but, for me, this holds true. My world view is quite different from my narrator’s but, for a moment, I was able to imagine what it would be like to be a girl on the cusp of womanhood, trying to negotiate her identity devoid of healthy models of what it means to be an adult. Was I surprised by what she experienced? Sure was. But that’s what made it fun to write.
Amoskeag: Even though there is no dialogue, the words and ideas of the narrator flow evenly and without interruption. What advice would you give to other writers in success of the writing process?
Trisha: Thank you. My advice for writers is to first know your characters. We must constantly ask ourselves: how would our characters see the world, and how would they tell you about it? To me, character is the most important craft element. Once I am able to dislocate my own voice from my character’s voice, I know I’m ready to start writing from another perspective. This piece is driven by voice, so until I could hear my character’s voice in my head, I was unable to write this piece. As writers, we must have the capacity to “hear” our own writing, as well as to trust in the unfamiliar. As my favorite writer Toni Morrison once said, “The ability of writers to imagine what is not the self, to familiarize the strange and mystify the familiar, is the test of their power.”
Amoskeag: What makes the last line, “I think and decide that maybe, at one time, he thought me beautiful, like the sap that will turn to sweet, sweet sugar if he just don’t let it boil over” so significant in this piece?
Trisha: I believe this is a pivotal line because in this scene the narrator juxtaposes herself against the sap. She watches her father tend and care for the sap as it matures and transforms into sweet maple syrup while, at the same time, her father ignores his daughter’s maturation. The narrative suggests that, at one time, her father did watch her and play music for her but he let her metaphorically “boil over,” as he neglects to tend to her any longer. In this scene, the narrator mourns for the love that is only offered to the sap. Now, this is my interpretation of the final scene. I welcome other readings.
Amoskeag: How do you feel when a piece gets accepted and readers that you don’t know are now going to complete the story that you worked so hard at to shape? What do you hope to achieve through your writing?
Trisha: Once I write something and send a piece out, I have accepted that the work is no longer mine. I’ve labored over it, and now it’s someone else’s turn to be taken captive by the voices in my head. (I do mean that in the sanest way possible.) I encourage others to find their own interpretations of the work. Good stories make me work for the meaning, but give enough so that I can create interpretations from the text.
Through my writing, I do hope to make people think. I want to place layers into the story, so that if they read it again, they will notice different things. But most of all, I want to make readers forget they are reading. A writer truly must work to weave the strings of a story just so; one minute the reader is reading the story and the words are there and the next moment the words disappear and the characters come alive. That is what I aim to do as a writer.
Amoskeag: What’s next for you as a writer?
Trisha: Currently, I’m working on my dissertation to complete my doctorate degree at Binghamton University. I’m writing a fiction novel about sexual slavery during World War II Japan. I’m currently teaching in Zhenjiang, China and plan to travel to Japan to do more research for my novel while I’m in Asia. When I graduate, I plan to apply for university teaching positions in both contemporary literature and creative writing.