I came across, a number of years ago, Joanne Avallon's "All This" in Micro Fiction: An Anthology of Really Short Stories, and recently found her on Facebook, introducing myself, I think, with "Are you the Joanne Avallon who wrote that amazing story in that micro fiction anthology?" She was the Joanne Avallon. Today, Joanne talks about the story's meaning to her as a writer. But first, the ever-amazing "All This."
Your arm and hand cock back instinctively, although they have never moved like this before, because your firstborn has taken a piece of your thigh between her two year old sharp and white incisors, and it surprises you to find your arm in this position you who dress her naked dolls so they won't look cold, but her teeth take deeper hold and drive everything out of your head except, oddly, your own father saying "silly bitch" when you were five and left your bike out in the rain and also the sound, so compelling, of skin hitting skin and, even more oddly, something your aunt told you about your grandfather boxing your father's ear so bad it bled rough red stuff from the eardrum--all this, even the love you feel for both these men, rushes through you so fast you understand for the first time--as your hand descends--the phrase "seeing red" and the only thing between your hand and your child is your puny intellect scared shitless in some corner, so that just before your hand hits the tender part of her thigh, the part you had kissed just twenty minutes ago when changing her diaper and before she screams, your daughter looks at you first in disbelief and then in complete comprehension, as though, perhaps, she knew these stories all along, and you wonder, with terror, as you've never wondered before, if this is the history you've been trying to write.
Joanne Avallon on "All This"
Pam Painter introduced me to short-short stories while I was earning my MFA at Emerson College. At the time, I was thirty-five and my first child was close to two years old. Writing and parenting both consumed me, heart and soul.
"All This" ended up being a perfect storm of those two enormous challenges. While the story is fictional, it addresses what I was feeling as a parent: that as good as my intentions were, I was born into a flawed history--aren't we all--and that history, in moments when I am most vulnerable and least guarded, owns me. That revelation terrified me. I knew the story needed to be in second-person because it did two paradoxical things at once: (1) pulled the reader immediately into the story as the actor and (2) distanced the narrator enough from the action that she could tell the story. In Catcher in the Rye, every time Holden Caulfield gets too close to his own emotional fragility, he switches to second person. I needed to express that same sense of fear, only more of it, in my narrator.
I don't think I would have been able to write this story had Pam Painter not been a steady, encouraging voice, telling me, always, to find the emotional truth of a story. Fiction, she said, is how we know what it is to be human.
I was very surprised when Jerome Stern asked to put this story in Microfiction, the anthology he was editing for Norton. He had already published it in Sundog which was as far as I though "All This" would go--and that was plenty far enough. I wasn't and still am not particularly comfortable with this story. I have trouble reading it aloud. Yet, it draws readers to it. In addition to Randall contacting me on Facebook to ask me if I was its author, I was contacted by a translator in Tehran who loved the story and had translated it for an Iranian audience. I have been asked to read it at several short-short events as well. So flattering, yet there is a part of me wondering if I will be known as the author who wrote about child abuse.
For the record, my daughter is a well-adjusted human being and Pam Painter is still one of my personal heroes. I have had other work published, but nothing has gotten the attention which "All This" attracted.
"All This." A remarkable piece. Thanks to Joanne--and all of you--for coming by to talk flash.
For Further Reading
"All This" in Margot Mifflin's (Entertainment Weekly) review
"All This" in Singularity :: Criticism
A look at Victoria Redel's "Talking Angel," from the archives
A look at Ron Carlson's "Grief," from the archives
A look at Jeff Landon's "Flying," from the archives
A look at Tim Jones-Yelvington's "Painted Faces," from the archives
("All This" -- Joanne Avallon, reprinted with her permission)