Claire Shu tied for 3rd place in the One Month of Solitude Writing Competition with her piece Community Values.
AE: What was the inspiration for “Community Values?”
CS: The One Month of Solitude writing prompt was so unique in that it encouraged using elements of magical realism to tell a story in 500 words or less. I had actually just finished reading 100 Years of Solitude when I saw the prompt, so magical realism was fresh on my mind. I kept mulling over how to create a world where the supernatural is accepted as ordinary and how to related it to topics of isolation and community.
With such little social interaction due to social distancing and self-isolating, I had been thinking about how I value socializing. It’s certainly an important part of my life, but so is time to myself. Then I thought about the value of socializing not only to individuals, but to society. Would society prefer us to socialize? How big are the societal repercussions from a lack of socializing? Social contact seems like such a fundamental aspect to being human, and surely it has some unseen benefits for society. As an Econ major, I’m hard-wired to think about how incentivizing people makes them act a certain way. I wondered what it would look like if the state incentivized socializing as an investment in productivity and overall health. In this world that literally rewards social interaction, how would an introvert fare? How could she discover her own inherent value?
AE: Your story is an excellent example of genre-bending. Can you talk about how you weave elements of science fiction and fantasy into otherwise “real” worlds?
CS: In my Intro to Fiction Writing class, we read a short story that was totally normal with a plot and straightforward characters, except for the world was overridden with cavemen. They were pests. The best part is that the story is not about the cavemen at all. It’s not a story of the apocalypse and the war against the half-naked invaders. The cavemen work as a crutch to help the writer tell the story they want to tell. The professor, Daniel Wallace, encouraged the class to write stories and create worlds with a characteristic that’s a little…off. The trick is to not dwell on that characteristic, but to just present it as ordinary. Several semesters later and that kind of writing with roots in magical realism is still my favorite to read. It is the kind of writing that challenges you as a writer, but the result is so satisfying. It allows the writer to expand on the world that is presented before them without really changing too much. I’ve explored the genre in a few pieces I’ve written and I have to say that I am hooked.
AE: The narrator has such a distinct and intriguing voice. How did you build that character?
CS: The narrator is so unlike any character I’ve written before. While I knew I wanted her to be a bit more reserved than her friend, Mary, I had to think about what made her distinct and what her value was. Again, drawing ideas from recent reads, I tried to model the narrator’s mannerisms and values off of Kya from Where the Crawdads Sing, another pandemic read. Kya is so unlike narrators I normally read in fiction, and I seized the opportunity to get inside her head and see what someone like her would do in this new reality. She keeps to herself, is strong-willed, and loves her cornbread. I was compelled by Kya’s incessant draw to food and knew that I wanted to include that as a defining part of my narrator’s voice. Other parts of the narrator’s experience are drawn from a slew of other characters in my life. Part of the fun in writing is sticking these familiar characters in new environments and seeing how they respond.
AE: What has been your favorite quarantine pastime?
CS: Quarantine has been a well needed break for me to think about what I actually enjoy doing versus what I feel like I should be doing. I have had time to delve into plenty of pastimes, bread making NOT included, but playing music has been the activity that has stuck throughout these months. I played cello and guitar before the pandemic started, and have recently picked up the banjo. I’m certainly not an advanced player with any of these instruments, but it’s incredible how much you can do with even a limited knowledge of chords or picking patterns.
AE: Talk a bit about your career as a writer. When did you start writing? Who were your best teachers? How have you honed your craft? How has your writing changed?
CS: Writing is something that has been in my life forever, but I only began writing fiction very recently. My mom is a newspaper journalist and my dad is an English teacher, so I have never needed to convince myself that reading and writing is a valuable pursuit. I have always known that it is. I never wrote fiction before taking Intro to Fiction Writing at UNC, but Creative Writing at UNC totally changed how I see the world. When I’m writing a lot, I see the world in stories. I notice the books on a friend’s coffee table. I pay attention to all of my senses, not just sight. I jot down ideas in my notes app. I’m a much more observant and present individual. This attention to the world is present in the evolution of my writing as well. The creative writing classes that I have taken at UNC have been some of my absolute favorites as an undergrad. My professors, Daniel Wallace and Adam Price, create a relaxed and supportive learning environment and my peers have challenged and inspired me to improve. The classes have made me feel heard and have forced me to be a more intentional and attentive listener. It is such a welcoming department that encourages creativity. I am looking forward to continuing my writing journey at UNC and discovering more about myself and the world around me in the process.