Sunday May 26

DonnaTrump Donna Trump’s work has been published in Ploughshares, Mid-American Review, Ars Medica, and Chautauqua, among others. Her short story, “Wolf Notes,” was nominated for a Pushcart Prize. Donna’s education includes degrees in Biology and Physical Therapy and a host of writing classes taken and taught at The Loft Literary Center in Minneapolis. Honors include a Loft Mentorship with Sandy Benitez and Peter Ho Davies, mentorship with Benjamin Percy, and a MN Emerging Writer grant.
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Donna Trump interview with Karen Stefano


“A Singular Certainty” haunted me for days.  It’s an example of why fiction matters so much in this world.  I could have read a dozen well-researched nonfiction articles on the complexities of caring for long-term severely disabled adults and children, the attendant moral and ethical medical dilemmas, all the complexities and undertones experienced by caretakers –and still I would not have FELT their experience, I would not have had such a visceral experience of insight.  This story made me LIVE in the shoes of one such woman.  It made me FEEL, with so much intensity, that I was often on the verge of discomfort.  So many lines deliver this experience with striking skill:


“Neda has learned, with great difficulty, the power of silence.”

“Dale has remained, to Gil, as reliable as grief.”

“The young woman folds back the edges of the quilt. ‘I heard,’ she says, ‘you might give my daughter a chance to die.’”

“Neda is less influenced by ubiquitous messages of the inviolability of life than she is the feel of muscle and bone under her own hand, the animation of a smile, the terror of an isolated soul. She also knows what she doesn’t know, which is practically everything.”

“We all look out of our heads through two eyes but they might as well be one-way mirrors. There’s no certain, God-given or profane way to know what anybody else thinks, or wants, or wishes. And maybe that’s a sanctity of its own kind.”

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Donna, what inspired this viscerally stunning, deeply textured story?

In a previous life (in truth, this life, many years ago) I was a physical therapist with a special interest in neurologically-involved patients. At one time I worked almost exclusively with head-injured adolescents. I knew many young Gilly’s, and many of the fine people, like Neda, who did their best to care for them. I also worked for several years with developmentally delayed infants and children.

Some of the head-injured patients did very well (one young man I treated was in a coma for 9 months and ended up fully employed). Some did not do well, like the 16-year old girl whose brain was severely damaged in a horseback riding accident. She, too, was comatose for months, but did not regain consciousness. I recall performing range-of-motion and other exercises with her in a closed treatment room, all the while pleading, out loud: Just give me some sign that you’re in there. She didn’t. I have no way of knowing what she heard me say.

As for the babies, their parents’ suffering was, in the end, more than I could bear. One mother often left, in tears, half-way through her very disabled infant daughter’s physical therapy sessions with me. Another staggeringly honest woman wondered if the time and energy and financial costs of treating her three-year-old developmentally delayed son were worth it.

It is hard not to be moved by such suffering. These experiences stay with me, often in very specific images. The intensity of the memories has only increased having had children of my own.

I should mention here that “A Singular Certainty” is one of my darker stories, a reflection on not only all of the above, but disillusionment with the church I grew up in as well.


There are so many layers to this piece.  What was your process?  How do you go about creating a work of fiction?

My short stories usually start with a single question, or a single image. In the case of  “A Singular Certainty” the question was this: How on earth is anyone to know what another human being--and maybe in particular a disabled person, or a child--wants, let alone decide for them? In my previous most-recently published short story, “Seizure,” (Ploughshares, Spring 2014), it was an image: that of a person riding a bicycle in the middle of a traffic jam in the middle of a snowstorm.

My process for short story writing is terrifically influenced by Ben Percy and the expertise he shared with about ten of us at the 2011 Tin House Writer’s Workshop. A short story is a snapshot, Ben Percy says. The focus is acute and narrow; not only can the background fade away but even the foreground is best considered over a short period of time. (I cannot say I always adhere to his “No back story!” rule but I keep it in mind.) I try to construct a story, as Ben suggests, such that certain events close doors, making it so you can’t go back. I like Ben’s preference for characters who work. Neda has a job, and aspects of her job fill the story.

So: I start a clock—“x” has to happen in “y” amount of time; I make up people with specific jobs; I put them in situations where there is a certain finality to decisions of increasing stakes. And I try to make turning points happen in real action, in scene--not just in somebody’s head.

There. I guess that’s my process, with many thanks to Ben Percy.
      

Why do you write?

I’ve been thinking about this question for a few days. I think the best answer is that I write because I read. I have long been transported by fiction--by an excellent story, by characters who suffer, by beautiful word choice, by feeling something unaccustomed, by feeling something intensely familiar, by learning about a period of time or a specific place in the world. In midlife, I asked myself if I could possibly do the same for a reader. I’m still answering that question.
    

What writers have influenced you, both as a writer and as a human being?

I used to feel self-conscious about questions like this, worried my answers weren’t sufficiently sophisticated. When I learned that a writer I respected praised “And Ladies of the Club” by Helen Hooven Santmeyer, I realized there is no point in pretending to be something I am not. Here, then, (in addition to HHS, above, for her re-creation of a time long gone) are writers who have fueled my desire to write, and write better:

  • Anne Tyler, for her ability to make compelling story from every day life;
  • Ann Patchett, for the exacting structure of her work and her beautiful prose;
  • Elizabeth McCracken, for wit;
  • Ben Percy, for action and drama;
  • Sandy Benitez and Alison McGhee, for heart;
  • John Irving, for being afraid;
  • Toni Morrison, for courage;
  • Leif Enger, for miracles and Heaven.   

Do you think fiction writing can be taught? Or are you more of the school, “you either got it or you don’t”?

I definitely think anyone can write better fiction with good instruction. I challenge any fiction writer to read “Writing Fiction,” by Janet Burroway, and NOT get better. One thing a fiction writer must do is read a lot of fiction. Actually, read a lot of everything. If a writer is not a voracious reader, then I think maybe they don’t really have what it takes.
    

Do you “market” or “promote” yourself as a writer?  If so, how?  And how do you feel about it?

About a year ago, thinking that I might soon have a book published (an eventuality about which I am still doggedly optimistic) I decided to do three things: create a website; write a weekly blog; and get myself a Twitter account. I probably would have done none of the three if I weren’t interested in promotion of myself as a writer.

Much to my surprise, I have loved all of it: creating and updating my website, writing each week about whatever I want (my stats are low enough that I continue to feel free to experiment--how’s that for optimism?), and tweeting. Twitter is Facebook for the attention impaired. I have about 20 people I follow closely; I truly enjoy both the staccato conversations and the links that take me places I might not otherwise have discovered.

If you’d like to check out my website you can find it hereFollow me on Twitter @trumpdonna1 with #connotationpress and I’ll follow you back.
    

What are you reading right now?

“My Brilliant Friend,” by Elena Ferrante.


Donna, thank you so much for sharing your work with us, and for sharing yourself so openly. Connotation Press is absolutely thrilled to feature you in this month’s issue!


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