Erin Campagna is a UNC sophomore and author of stories Everyday Life and Frozen, as published in the short story dispensers. (Links to which can be found at https://unc.short-edition.com/story/1m/everyday-life and https://unc.short-edition.com/story/1m/frozen-2 respectively.)
AE: What was the inspiration for “Everyday Life” and “Frozen?”
EC: So, “Everyday Life” started off in [ENGL] 130, when my professor told us “Write about an event. It can be any event you want.” It was around October. I was at Caffe Driade with some of my suitemates. We were just sitting outside; it was a beautiful day, and I thought, “I’m gonna write about a school shooting.” You know that kind of environment is not conducive to coming with horrible things to write about, but it was just on my mind, and I’ve always wanted to write about something like that. And so it started off as a janitor coming into a school, and so I left it alone. And then when I was writing my final story for 130, I combined that perspective with another one I had written about a character, and it was about a girl who loses her brother. And then I wrote three more, and it was all different perspectives surrounding a school shooting. And the characters were all sort of on the outer circles, and I just wanted to show that when a school shooting happens, it doesn’t just happen. There’s a ripple effect. Even though people in these communities aren’t necessarily related to each other, they do have an effect on each other.
“Frozen” was inspired by my mom. When I was in high school, specifically my senior year in high school there was that period of time when there was a lot of school shootings happening back to back, and my mom would talk about how she’d be driving home from work, listening to NPR about another shooting. And I remember my dad saying to my mom that he had walked my brother to the bus stop and one day he thought, “Is my child gonna come home today? When I’m standing here, waiting for the bus to come, is it going to come this afternoon?” So “Frozen” and the character there is inspired by my parents. Someone who hasn’t had something horrible happen to their child yet, and wondering how do they go about existing in the world when these things are so commonplace.
AE: The last line of “Everyday Life” is so jarring: “He was the best, and he knew it.” Can you talk more about that?
EC: So, what I wanted to show was that school shootings have become so ingrained in our society in the past couple years that an actual position could be created just for the purpose of cleaning up school shootings. And so the technician evolved out of the janitor because I realized I had inadvertently created a bunch of plot holes, as one does when you’re writing, and so the technician is the “school-shooting guy.” He gets calls, he goes in, he catalogs repairs, he has a team that he’s built, he’s gonna make sure that the school gets a good price, he’s gonna be honest and fair with them, and he’s gonna make sure the school is put back together and students can return in a couple days. I wanted it to seem like a machine, a business. Like, oh, school shooting here, don’t worry, I got it. Clean it up. It’s fine. By the end of the story I wanted him to be a bit more callous, a bit more hardened because when you’re doing this day in and day out, sooner or later you’re going to become numb to it. I wanted him to eventually stop feeling the emotion: this is just a job; this is just my life, and that’s why the last line hits home.
AE: What do you want readers to take away from your stories?
EC: I want them to feel unsettled, but I also – my story is obviously very political and reflective of what I see in the world – want people to be motivated and angry about why is this so mundane? Hopefully, people will potentially go vote in the North Carolina primary or in the general election for a candidate who has a good gun control plan because I just never expected that we would end up here. I never thought this would be the world we lived in. And even if my stories only touch one person, or makes someone think for a split second more about what the world is actually like, then that’s enough for me.
AE: How did you become a writer?
EC: By being a reader, definitely. For the longest time, I just liked to read, and I thought, no I am a reader. I am not a writer. I don’t know how to write. I could never write something as good as the things I was reading. And I think reading, especially – you know, middle school’s such a tumultuous time, and so reading your YA fiction, your realistic fiction. Seeing strong girls as protagonists who were also dealing with the same things was very helpful, and honestly that is why I firmly believe representation matters so much. When I was in middle school, I had a bunch of white girl protagonists to choose from. I never really saw YA books where girls of color were protagonists and I think that’s incredibly important because I know those books helped me so much and helped me figure out what kind of person I wanted to be. And so representation in novels, movies – because you find yourself in the products of the social world. I mean you look at movies and what a strong woman does; you look at books and you think this is how I want to be, and you can find yourself in books and representation is so important for that.
And to get back to your original question, it was definitely by being a reader. And I thought, well maybe I can do this, and I had your typical days in middle school, where I thought yeah, I can write about a book, and then I’d quit after ten pages. I think definitely in high school I lost it a little bit because I was in AP classes, I was just writing school essays. I didn’t want to write because I was so burned out from school, and then coming to college, and the English department at UNC is great, and I’ve had some amazing professors. My English 105 professor, Hillary Lithgow, is fantastic, and we wrote some really interesting things, and I decided to give 130 a chance because maybe I would do the whole creative writing thing. Deep down, I’ve always wanted to write a book of flash fiction, and when I heard about the honors thesis, I thought maybe this is something I could do. So then I loved 130, and I loved my professor, and it really was therapeutic, and it was definitely a confidence booster when you write things, and people like them. Because I send my stories to my parents, and they’re always going to like it and be supportive, but to have other people like them, to have your professor like it is a great confidence booster and made me think I could see this all the way to the end with the honors thesis.
AE: That’s exciting. Can you talk a bit more about writing as therapy?
EC: Writing is very therapeutic for me because it really is an emotional catharsis. You take the words that you’re feeling, things that you’re seeing, words that are in your head and you get them out onto paper, and you can breathe easier. I think especially with the school shooting one – I think I got inspired because a shooting had just happened a couple days before – I was very upset about it, angry that we here once again, about children who were never going to grow up and so writing the first version of “Everyday Life” was very therapeutic for me. The first draft was not very good – when are first drafts ever good? – but going back and editing it was just…it made me feel proud that I had written something about the world that had reflected reality.
And also journaling is very therapeutic. At the end of the day I’ll journal about what I did with my friends, how I was feeling, and it just makes me feel better to not have everything inside. I can let it out on paper, and then I don’t have to think about it anymore. So I do think writing, journaling, any kind of expressed form of art can be very helpful, especially for college students, when we’re juggling so many things at once. There’s the big graduation crisis on the horizon, what am I gonna do with my life? Are my parents gonna be proud of me? Am I gonna be a failure? What am I gonna do with my degree? Am I going to be happy? And so that is just this giant ball looming over our heads, and I think that journaling, writing, and writing for me helps with that and helps with my mental health.
AE: What are your favorite books, movies, and authors?
EC: I have so many favorite books. It would literally take an hour if I said all of my favorites, but I love The Book Thief by Markus Zusak. It’s just the way he writes – I didn’t know that people could write like that. And that was what opened my mind up to historical, creative fiction, and I am still in awe with that book. And in keeping with World War II, The Nightingale by Kristin Hannah. It’s about two sisters. One is in the French Resistance and the other lives with a Nazi. I also love The Night Circus by Erin Morganstern. It’s a more altered reality – and I used to be really into fantasy when I was a kid, but I think this is the perfect adult fantasy – my mom read it in her book club – so it translates well to adults. But what [Morganstern] can do with language is just insane. I also really like The Accident Season. It’s by an Irish author named Moira Fowley-Doyle, and that’s also kind of an altered reality set in Ireland. I’m Irish, I’m hoping to go to Ireland, and it’s kind of what you think of when you think of Irish folklore. It’s very mystical. I do enjoy historical fiction, but then also realistic fiction. I like when literature reflects truth. I like when I look at the world around me and see things reflected in literature. And I’m big into short stories as well. I agree with Arts Everywhere that the best short story ever written was Ernest Hemingway’s “For sale: baby shoes. Never worn.” What you can do with so little words and pack such a powerful punch. “Bullet in the Brain,” “The Lottery,” that “Glittery Eyes” story that we read in [ENGL] 206 – I was shocked by that!
I guess I don’t really have favorite authors because I like to keep myself open, but I could talk about books for hours.
AE: To stay in that vein, can you talk about the literary styles or role models that inspire your writing?
EC: Well, I can say that when I was in second grade I read all of the Harry Potter books over winter break and that was kind of my transition from chapter books into actual big books. And I just remember being awed by her because, as an eight-year-old, when someone writes 600 pages of a cohesive story that’s just kind of shocking. And even though I wouldn’t say J.K. Rowling is my literary role model, I do have to give her credit for kick-starting my love for books because I tore through them, and I have reread them so many times, and I think about the adult themes she has incorporated into a fantasy world: bigotry, racism, xenophobia, hatred of people who are different, and created this empire. Yes, she’s a little problematic so we’re just gonna leave it at that.
As for writing styles, I think I admire things in a little bit of everyone. I realize I have a tendency to put a lot of emotion into my stories. A professor once told me that I’m telling the reader how to feel, which is maybe true. So by reading a bunch of different authors and trying to incorporate different aspects of their work, I’m not just a narrow-laned writer. It’s kind of what I’m trying to do right now, and we’ll see how successful that will be.
It’s easy to fall into the trap of writing so one-sided and one-way, because you get used to things. And I think about authors who have churned out dozens and dozens of books. My dad reads a lot of crime, mystery books. But they’re all the same. This author has written the same book so many times and just changed up the characters. So I do recognize that it’s very difficult – once you get into your groove, it’s hard to change that.