Written by: Nicole Catarino
There’s a thought experiment that pops up every now and again on social media websites within vibrantly active writing communities. Though phrased differently every time, the question always boils down to the same idea: to all the writers out there, what do you find yourself writing about the most, and what does this say about you as a writer, and as a person?
The trend tends to elicit a variety of answers from writers who analyze their favorite genres and plot points, explaining the deeper meanings behind their enemy-to-lovers fantasy novels or their gritty, heavily researched historical dramas. But the real curiosity behind the question is more introspective than that. Put simply: When you write, what are you really writing about?
What ideas lie at the very heart of your story? What are the themes you gravitate toward over and over again, to the point where weaving them into your work comes almost instinctively? Do your novels always come back to the power of love in the face of existential horror? Or maybe your poetry often speaks on the terror of life, and why we accept it as a regular part of living? What does your answer say about you—and the messages you’re trying to send to your readers?
It’s a hard question to answer! But it’s one I always love to ask, as someone who loves getting a peek behind the writing curtain. For this blog, I sat down with Long River Review’s own fiction editor, Eileen Sholomicky, to gain some insight into her writing and the stories she tells.
Nicole Catarino: So, first question for you: are there certain themes or tropes, storylines, plotlines that you find yourself continuously going back to in your writing—either consciously or unconsciously?
Eileen Sholomicky: How specific do you want me to be?
NC: As specific as you need to be.
ES: I’ll start specific and go general. There is that one trope where it’s specifically like, “the two characters who are pining after each other going behind enemy lines on a stealth mission.” Also, secret relationships, just because I’m not a person who likes attention; I don’t like when people make a big deal out of anything I do or draw attention to me. It also just feels more intimate that way because I’m very sick of miscommunication tropes. I hate them with every fiber of my being.
ES: Because a lot of the times it could just be solved if the characters sat down and had just like a normal conversation, but it has to be some convoluted thing where it’s like “well I couldn’t tell you because of XYZ” but XYZ is also very convoluted so it’s like, you could have just said something.
ES: So, I think I like secret relationships because it relies so heavily on communication in order to make it work. And also the implicit trust of, “this person has your back no matter what”; you’re not second-guessing your place with them; in fact, they are willing to sneak around to be with you even if it hurts.
NC: Right. Oh, I like that.
ES: Trust is just a thing that comes up a lot [in her writing] because when I was fourteen, I had a very traumatic friendship break-up. So, I like the idea that there is someone in your life—best friend, partner, whatever—that has your back no matter what that you can trust and go to with your issues. I’m also just a hopeless romantic, so most of the time I make it romantic. And then there was another one…. Oh! And betrayal. Because… reasons.
ES: Betrayal is a big one. I think I’ve worked through this specific friendship break-up in several different ways between my writing, Dungeons & Dragons—my first character’s backstory for Dungeons & Dragons was that her ex-best friend was literally out to kill her. So yeah, those are the tropes I’m really into.
NC: Okay, so I guess my second question—taking those tropes into consideration, a lot of what you write into consideration: if you could sum up a common theme, message, or purpose in what you write, what do you think is a common takeaway from your writing?
ES: I think mine is to just be honest with yourself and the people around you, and to give a healthy model of communication. I wrote a story where I had emphasized this whole thing of like, “talk to your partner; talk to your best friends; open up about what’s going on,” because it is impossible for someone to live completely isolated from other people, especially when you’re constantly surrounded by other people. It’s like, you may as well open up.
ES: And I remember getting a lot of feedback that was like, “Yeah, this helped me talk to my friends about mental illness,” or “This showed me a model of a relationship I didn’t quite understand but now I get it,” and that just felt really good that I was just helping people? Because I had wanted to be a teacher when I got to college—but now I’m not going into teaching—
NC: It happens.
ES: It happens. But my thing was that I wanted to be a teacher because I wanted to help kids, because a lot of my favorite teachers in high school had been the ones who would like, stay after and talk to you and kind of act as a second mother or a therapist for free, because they knew these kids didn’t really have anyone else to rely on.
ES: A lot of the media we consume, I don’t think—I think we’re on an upswing, particularly in publishing I’ve seen some improvements—but like mainstream media, the stuff that’s popular, that’s not giving you a healthy model of what a relationship or friendship should look like; it’s all very much based in bullying, or keeping secrets, or reinforcing gender roles. So, I want to show people that there is a different way to do this that’s healthier for everyone involved.
NC: Yeah, that’s really cool. As someone who knows your writing, a common theme I’ve noticed is that you have to learn to rely on other people, especially those around you that you love, because otherwise…you’re screwed.
ES: Yeah! It is an act of love for someone to be like, “Let me help you bear your burdens,” and it hurts both you and the person offering that to you for you to be like, “No, no, no, I can do this myself; I don’t need that.”
NC: So, you mentioned Dungeons & Dragons, and I wanted to talk to you about D&D—
ES: Of course, this was just a ploy to talk about D&D.
NC: This was just a ploy to talk about D&D the whole time! But, you know, you’re a Dungeon Master as well as a player, and D&D is a different way to tell stories that isn’t necessarily done through writing but rather an oral tradition—though obviously, there’s a lot of writing involved if our thirty-page Google Docs are anything to go by.
NC: When it comes to the stories you tell through this medium, what do you go back to a lot and what messages do you try to put out there, especially in a place where you have your audience right in front of you?
ES: I think one of the things I say is: “There is no right answer; there is no wrong answer.” I like to play with gray morality because I think, especially since the days of the Hays Code, there’s been a very black and white thinking [in media]. But that’s not how reality works. I think every situation is just inherently in shades of gray, so one of the things I did with Gauntlet [Eileen’s first campaign] was that all the main NPCs were coming from a rebellion. They were ostensibly bad in the eyes of the law. One of them was banished from his home country, the princess faked her death and joined with the chaos goddess…
ES: There is no right or wrong way to exist in the world. It would be great if every problem just had this one shiny solution where no one gets hurt at all, everything’s fine, the bad guys are punished in some way, and that’s that. But that’s not how it works, and I think a lot of people think that way, so I want to kind of change up that thinking. And also just shaking up the status quo. We’ve all listened to High School Musical.
NC: [laughing] Yeah, exactly.
ES: In a lot of my stories also, the powers that be are usually bad. I’ll focus on criminals, I’ll focus on rebels—and a lot of them are criminals mostly because they acted out in a way that wasn’t universally accepted. Not that they necessarily did anything bad, but again, morality is very subjective and morals are basically set by whoever’s in charge. I focus a lot on ostracized groups because, in a lot of ways, you probably have way more in common with a criminal than the guy in charge.
NC: Very true!
NC: Final question, and you may have already answered this, but when it comes to D&D characters—which are another way to tell a story, but just not in a leading role—are there any themes or plotlines you tend to explore with your characters in their backstory, their personalities, their character arcs…?
ES: I think for my main characters, even for my NPCs too, it’s a lot of me getting to be what I don’t get to be in real life. A lot of my characters are flirts, they’re reckless, they’ll do dangerous things just because it’s funny. If they get yelled at by the other party members, they don’t care that much, it’s just like, “Eh, you’re a killjoy! Get over here!”
NC: Yeah, I get you.
ES: A lot of my characters also start out as lone wolves where they’re on their own for one reason or another, whether that’s by choice or by force, and over the course of the narrative and through joining the party, my characters learn to open up and trust other people and rely on them.
NC: Well, that was mostly all of my questions. I really just wanted to focus on like, what do you write and what does that mean about you, without actually psychoanalyzing you.
ES: What does this all say about me? I need therapy.
NC & ES: [both laughing]