Overstaying My Welcome: Writing ‘A Conversation with Oma, 1968’ / Emma Venables
Emma Venables discusses the creative process behind her short story in Issue Thirteen.
‘A Conversation with Oma, 1968’ is taken from a short story collection I’ve recently finished writing in which I explore women’s experiences of Berlin in the years 1945-1990. The collection stems from my PhD in Creative Writing in which I researched representations of German women in fiction about the Nazi era. At the end of my PhD I had so many more questions and avenues to explore: What were women’s experiences of post-war Berlin? What were the experiences of their daughters and granddaughters through division and reunification? How did they interrogate and interact with their relatives’ actions, or lack of action, during the Third Reich? ‘A Conversation with Oma, 1968’ takes the latter question as a starting point for a conversation between a grandmother and granddaughter; it’s also an exploration of the key themes that underpin my writing: female relationships, war, trauma, identity, and memory.
I don’t tend to make copious notes when writing short stories, and the notes I do have are often abstract. For example, one of the few points I’ve written about this story in my notebook is: ‘Granddaughter questions grandmother re: actions under Nazism.’ I prefer to meet and question the characters, the story, the setting, on the page. Often I’m surprised by what I learn – the granddaughter’s binge eating of potatoes, the grandmother storing photographs of her son beneath a cushion, the steps it takes to navigate from living room to apartment door – and enjoy the texture they add to the world of the story and the dynamics between characters. These details take the reader on detours, but I’m always conscious of bringing the focus back to the present moment of the story: a granddaughter and grandmother, a difficult conversation, in an apartment in West Berlin. I look for the lapses – the needless journeys – when editing.
Another note I’ve written is: ‘Told from Oma’s POV or granddaughter’s POV?’ A crucial question. One I don’t answer until I begin writing and the words flow from the unnamed granddaughter’s perspective. I’ve naturally gravitated towards the first person these past few years. I relish the intimacy and intensity, the fury and frustration, that comes from telling stories this way. I sink into the character’s skin, inhabit their thoughts and attentions – the cracks on the ceiling, the soundscape of West Berlin outside the open window, the gap between chair and cushion. From this sinking in, this all-encompassing approach, I find I increasingly use the pronoun ‘you’ in my short fiction, addressing my narrator’s antagonist. I like this directness, the way it draws the reader into the story, heightening the tension and emotions running through the piece.
The story is obviously about the conversation between granddaughter and grandmother, but it’s also about the unfurling and permanence of silence, about what isn’t said: the potential for avoidance and ignorance, of questions unanswered. Another snapshot from my sparse notes concerns how to end the story: ‘When [the granddaughter] hears info, what does she do? Does she leave or Oma return to bedroom? Allusion to silence is important.’ In the initial version of the story I submitted to The Lonely Crowd I overstayed my welcome: I lingered with the granddaughter as she took the fifteen steps from living room to apartment door, as she opened the door and contemplated its creak. When guest editor, Jane Fraser, emailed me to say my story had been accepted, she suggested that I end the story a few paragraphs earlier with the grandmother returning to her room and sitting on her bed ‘contemplating the new-found quiet that has fallen’ between herself and her granddaughter. When I re-read the story, stopping at this point, I found it left a deeper impression, inviting the reader to inhabit this silence, to consider the aftermath of this conversation.
Emma Venables’ short and flash fiction has been widely published in magazines and journals. Her short story, ‘Woman at Gunpoint, 1945’ was a runner-up in the Alpine Fellowship Writing Prize 2020. She has a PhD in Creative Writing and has taught at Royal Holloway, University of London and Liverpool Hope University. Her first novel, Fragments of a Woman, will be published by Aderyn Press in 2023. She can be found on Twitter: @EmmaMVenables.
Photo by Jo Mazelis.