The March/April 2013 issue of Orion features “Cartography,” a short story by Bonnie Nadzam. It’s a particularly short short story—it spans just two magazine pages—but manages to unfurl a lush fictional world in a handful of well-crafted lines and paragraphs. We spoke with Bonnie about her story, the effect of fiction on the heart, and how, in a way, we’re all mapmakers in the big, big city.
“Cartography” is a story told in second-person; the narrator speaks to a protagonist who, it seems, is also the reader. Who is the narrator, as you imagine him or her?
This is such a hard question for me. It’s been my experience in recent years that as something of an artist (and not, by contrast, as a scholar), there are certain narratological questions that I just need to ignore—philosophical questions about fiction and fictionality that I just have to bypass in order to get on with the work and remain true to the feeling or impulse that it began with. Often these questions manifest just as you’re sensing: Who is the narrator? Why is he/she telling us this, and from where/when? I just don’t know.
The city in this story is a kind of ethereal place, its borders out of sight and its distances vast. What is your experience of cities, and how do they work on your imagination?
I’ve lived in some serious cities (Cleveland, Phoenix, Los Angeles) and in some pretty remote places: (Telluride, CO; Cataldo, ID; in a boat at sea). But here’s a funny thing: both Telluride and Cataldo are Superfund Sites. In the boat, I was collecting, counting and documenting plastic in the Sargasso Sea (and saw, for example, hundreds of miles from the coast, an entire and intact bright orange Tide detergent bottle float past). Practically speaking, ecologically speaking, and in terms of our responsibilities and quality of life, urban places like Los Angeles don’t really have borders. Not metaphorically or figuratively but quite literally, then, we live in one big city.
I was feeling some of this when I wrote “Cartography,” but not in an altogether gloomy way—also and perhaps more so in an empowering way. Humans (myself included, I can tell you…) are both good enough and horrible enough to do anything. Well then, what do we choose to do? I don’t mean in the future, or in terms of a career or a goal, but like right now—in this very minute.
Where did this story begin for you? With an image and a voice, or with an idea you wanted to explore?
An idea: I’ve been slowly unraveling a long essay about creativity, and in the process of researching, found a spiritual text that refers to “creativity as birthright.” The idea started working at me. “Creativity” seems to be one of those dozen or so tremendously misused and overused words these days—so much so that seeing it makes my eyes glaze over and practically dismiss whatever it is I’m seeing. And of course, that’s not right, to dismiss the whole concept because it’s become something of a cheap corporate/marketing buzzword.
This idea of creativity as birthright seems somehow intuitively right to me, and instructive, as well—though I’m still not sure about what it means. In any case, it’s got me thinking about truly creative rather than destructive or simply imitative capacities, and that we really can’t subtract our thoughts, speech, or actions from the fabric of the world—either what it is or what it is becoming.
Stories have a way of creating atmospheres through which the reader must travel. Does fiction work this way for you? When you set out to write a story, what kind of experience do you have in mind for the reader?
As a reader, the fiction that originates little shifts in my perspective and that stays with me usually does so emotionally or viscerally more than intellectually. This is no different really than how phenomena of everyday life change and affect me: my brain is usually the last to know. The life-changing messages, even very little or subtle ones, hit me first in the stomach, or across the face—i.e., in the body.
Since it’s still National Poetry Month I’ll just add that poetry is especially wonderful in this way: often the “better” the poem, the more it affects me without my intellectual understanding playing a role. I love Sarah Vap and Ariana Reines’s poetry, particularly, for this reason, and recommend it. I don’t know if I write fiction in this way, myself, but I aspire to.
Your novel, Lamb, was published in 2011. What are you working on these days?
I’m finishing a strange novel and a story collection, and, perhaps of interest to Orion readers in particular, have begun a collaborative, somewhat nonfictional work on climate change ethics/ethics for the Anthropocene with one of my dearest friends on the planet, the eminent environmental ethicist Dale Jamieson. We’re excited about the project.