Beth Colburn-Orozco earned her MFA in fiction from Southern New Hampshire University in 2013. She lives in Southeast Arizona and teaches writing at the University of Arizona and composition at Cochise College.
Amoskeag: In your story, Stolen Grief, your main character, June copes with the death of her husband by stealing sentimental objects from each of her friends. As upset as they for losing these things, June continues to steal from her and never confesses. How did she get to that point in their life? Why does she see the world the way she does?
Beth: I wanted to explore grief. How does someone fill the void after losing their spouse? I don’t think June sees herself as a theif, rather she finds solace in taking things. The items calm and ground her. As the story progresses we learn that she is stealing these things for Edward. It keeps him alive in a way that may not make sense to the rest of us.
Amoskeag: Your story starts with a description of the teardrop ruby earrings. What is their significance and what made you start here?
Beth: Beginning in a scene was important to me. Watching June navigate her first night out after her husband passes away seemed like a good place to start. She is with friends at a dinner party. It is something she has done a hundred times, yet without her husband, she is lost. The brilliant red of both the ruby earrings and the strawberries appear bold against such an ordinary setting. If she is caught with the ruby earring there is no denying what she did.
Amoskeag: Did you see the ending coming, or did it suddenly surprise you? How did you prepare for it?
Beth: I rarely see the endings to my stories. The characters guide me through. In an earlier draft, June comes clean and gives back the things she has stolen. I had envisioned that ending before I began writing the story, but June wasn’t ready to that. Sometimes our stories, like our lives, are not tied up in a nice bow. I was surprised to see that June had not reconciled with her grief. I still wonder if the ending works.
Amoskeag: Is your character’s view of the world reflective of the way you see the world? Or were you surprised by what they saw? How they felt?
Beth: I grew up in the suburbs outside of Milwaukee where people belonged to tennis clubs and country clubs and where families vacationed in Florida in the winters and “up north” in the summers. I always felt on the periphery of that kind of lifestyle. I think people looking in thought we all had it together. But that wasn’t the truth at all. My best friend’s father committed suicide. Another friend’s mother embezzled money from a school district and they had to move. A friend of mine was killed in a car wreck, another on a motorcycle. I had boyfriends who did a lot of drugs and drank themselves silly and girlfriends who got hit by the boys they loved and went into the city for abortions. June is in there somewhere. A woman with a seemingly perfect life until it isn’t perfect anymore. The question is, what do you do then?
Amoskeag: June has a lot of built up frustration and nobody quite understands her. “Please Melissa, I wanted to say. Leave me alone. This isn’t something a stranger or pills can fix. I miss your father. That is all.” How did you construct the language of the piece? How did you come to hear and record the feelings of your narrator?
Beth: The language for this story was fun to immerse myself in. This is how the people I grew up with spoke and how they spoke was a reflection of who they were. Like everyone else, their beliefs and ideas about the world were closely tied to language. Earlier I mentioned that people went “up north” for the summer. These two words might not have much meaning at all for someone who did not grow up where I did. Or, depending on where they are from, may have an entirely different meaning. For us, going “up north” meant you would be staying in either some huge mansion your family had on a lake in places like Door County, Rhinelander or Hayward or spending two weeks at a resort where kids had free rein. Language and feelings are intertwined. Using this same example, if someone less fortunate said they were going up north, we pitied them. This meant they would be camping in a tent and eating out of a cooler.
June’s frustration comes from the fact that her life fit the mold. She had it all, but then her husband dies. The people in her circle don’t want things to change so the pressure for her to act “normal” is too great and she finds an outlet. Instead of screaming, “I can’t handle this!” she quietly implodes and steals from her friends.
Amoskeag: June reflects on the relationship Rose has with her husband and the photographs taken from their Hawaii trip. She says, “I need to go to Hawaii where I would never look at a sexy younger man to fulfill my desires because my husband did that. Edward did that.” Why does this line matter in this piece?
Beth: We learn so much about June in these lines. She loved her husband dearly. But we also see the fissure of her grief begin to expand. “Edward did that” is finite. Edward took care of her. He would have never done anything to disappoint her and she’s angry because he’s gone. What she is really thinking about Rose is, “You have everything and you’re screwing it up.”
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?
Beth: I think it’s wonderful. I want people to bring their own “up north” to my stories. I so appreciate when a reader writes and tells me they were surprised at an ending or want to know what happens next. My characters remain alive and vibrant if readers are wondering about them and are caring about them.
Amoskeag: What’s next for you as a writer?
Beth: Right now I am finishing the final draft of my novel, “At River’ Edge” which I hope to find a home for. I am also working on a collection of memoir stories about living in Latin America and a few short stories that are in various stages of revision. My big project is organizing the Cochise Creative Writing Celebration that takes place here in Arizona at the end of March. I’m meeting incredible writers and learning so much about putting together this event, I seem to have little time for anything else. It’s the journey, not the destination, I imagine.