Featured Author: Emma Gerden

AE: How long have you been writing and what inspired you to start?

EG: I’ve been writing for as long as I can remember – even before I knew how to write, I’d draw pictures of a story and tell my mom what to write down. I still have those little notebooks, dated by my mother from when I was three and four years old, and the writing never stopped since then. I’ve just always been drawn to storytelling, and I’m grateful for it being a constant in my life.

Headshot of Emma
Emma Gerden, second place Mini Max winner

AE: What inspired you to write this particular story?

EG: For this one, I had actually been listening to some true-crime podcasts on the walk from my dorm to classes. So it just got me thinking about that – disappearances, and murders, and all that fun stuff that ends up in the story. I just wanted to explore that trauma from a different perspective – rather than the view of a investigative journalist, or reporter, like the podcasts, I wondered what it would be like to truly be a part of it. So this story definitely stemmed from that curiously, rather than exploring personal experiences in my life, as other stories I write often do. 


AE: What were your thoughts or expectations when you submitted your story to the contest?

EG: I didn’t have too many expectations when I submitted the story – I’m a first-year here at Chapel Hill, so I still feel quite young and inexperienced in this new setting. So it was a real honor to place in this contest, and it just makes me so excited to continue writing here and hopefully take advantage of other wonderful opportunities like this one. 


AE: What genre would you place your story in – mystery, horror – and why?

EG: That’s a good question – I actually hadn’t really thought about it before. I guess categorizing it as a mystery and crime story would make the most sense, since the plot does revolve around this terrible crime and figuring out what happened. I think it’s more focused on the psychology of the characters though, rather than putting all the clues together to eventually “solve” the mystery. 


AE: You chose to set your story in small-town Maryland.  What influenced your choice of setting?

EG: Setting is definitely one of my favorite aspects in storytelling. Sometimes, I have a very clear setting in mind before I even have a plot. For this story, I wanted to explore how trauma affects a small, close-knit town, as it obviously differs from crime elsewhere, like big cities. How close everyone in the town in, and all the connections drawn to Mary Anne, how everyone has some idea of her in their head – it’s just really interesting to explore. And I think in general, I have a soft spot for small towns in my writing – it really allows for some nuanced characterization and relationships.


AE: Does your story reflect any real-life experiences?  Things you’ve seen or read about, events that have happened in your life or that you are aware of?

EG: Like I said earlier, the idea for this story stemmed from a few true-crime podcasts I had been listening to. But no – luckily, nothing quite like this has ever happened to me in my life. I did, however, attend a pretty small high school, so rumours spread fast and everyone knew a lot about each other. So I think it’s fair to say that kind of environment in the story relates back to my own life. But yeah, thankfully, not the terribly violent stuff. 


AE: Your story is about a violent unsolved crime.  What was it like placing yourself in the mind of a character experiencing the fallout of such a crime?

EG: Since this is a pretty short short story, the maximum being 750 words, I just kind of sat down and got locked in and wrote the whole thing. So it was an interesting headspace, to say the least. And since there is that word max, it was also interesting and kind of difficult choosing what to include. There’s so much going on plot-wise, so obviously there’s a lot going on in this narrator’s head, but there’s also a lot I want him to hide from the readers – it was a bit of a juggling act for sure. 


AE: What was it like writing about a small town traumatized by a crime?  What emotions and thoughts did that imagined environment create for you?

EG: I think that small towns invoke a sense of nostalgia and comfort, just because everything is so expected, whether you’re from there or not; the local schools, the church that everyone attends, the public library and the market and the bank and the diner – it doesn’t even matter if the town is fictional. People just get it immediately. So to totally flip that around, and suddenly this terrible thing happens, nothing is expected anymore. It doesn’t feel safe and comforting and nostalgic like it once did; the ordinary things, the church and the school and everything, suddenly become tainted, and they feel more sinister. So I think for writers, that’s really fun to play around with. 


AE: What was the most enjoyable part of writing this story, and what was the most difficult?  Why?

EG: The details were my definitely favorite part of writing this story. Especially with limited words, there’s something so satisfying about sneaking in little details, and choosing which details to include. The most difficult part was honestly just the doubt that comes after I’ve finished writing, though I can’t say that’s isolated to this story alone – questions like, did this make any sense at all? Is it even any good? But that’s just part of the writing process, I guess. Also – titles! I’m not the best at choosing a good title. So that part was difficult too. 


AE: Which people (especially other writers) have influenced your work the most?

EG: Some incredible writers who have really impacted my writing are Anthony Doerr, Hanya Yanigihara, Toni Morrison, Raymond Carver, André Aciman, Benjamin Alire Sáenz, Tim O’Brien, and Alice Munro. I owe a lot of what I’ve learned about writing to them. 


AE: Is there anything else you’d like to share with our audience about your thoughts on this piece or writing in general or just anything else?

EG: I’d just like to again say how thankful I am to have this opportunity, and I appreciate anyone taking the time to read my story!


Emma Gerden is a first-year at UNC with a passion for creative writing, and she is currently studying English and Communications. She won second place in the Mini-Max, a competition held in the fall semester every year by the Creative Writing Program. Read her story