The mold first bloomed in the den. Joel had slept there from the time he was a baby until a few years ago when he moved to a larger bedroom upstairs. He’d always liked the den because it felt like his own—his memories started there—but it no longer looked like a place a person would sleep. The wallpaper was peeling off in sheets, and Frances had packed Joel’s baby clothes and toys into boxes that now sagged from the dampness. When the rain came in March, Frances opened the door and put out pots to catch the ceiling drips. They threw leak water into the yard, into the mud, rather than down the drain where she said it would be wasted. Some snowmelt from the roof dribbled down the wall next to the window in Joel’s second floor bedroom, cold and clear against the paint, and from there it trickled into the living room and soaked the carpet in the corner by the TV. Now, weeks later, a stain appeared, like a spot on stale bread. In the attic, Joel searched for the source of the leak with flashlight in hand, listened for the sound of water, and found nothing.
Richard Mirabella is a writer and civil servant living in Albany, NY. His short fiction has appeared in New World Writing and Passages North. Currently, he’s at work on a novel and a collection of short stories.
Patrick Ryan on Mold
Our new story, “Mold,” isn’t about mold. Yes, there’s mold in it—so much of it that you’ll want to wash your hands after reading. But the story is about a teen named Joel living with a mom—Frances—who acts more like a roommate than a parent. Their life together isn’t exactly conventional; their house, for example, resembles a freshman dorm room more than it does a traditional home. Add to this picture Frances’s new boyfriend, Kyle, and the fact that even while Joel can’t stand Kyle, he also can’t take his eyes off him. Feel the air getting thicker?
Q&A by Patrick Ryan
PR: Where did the idea for this story come from?
RM: The two main characters, Joel and Frances, came to me first. I wrote a ton about their lives, but there was no real story. A lot of scenes went nowhere. I ended up with a big blob of writing I was close to abandoning. Instead, I decided to pull the things I liked out and go from there. When Kyle showed up in a scene, the story came into view for me. The mold arrived a few drafts later, and got worse and worse, and became a kind of motif. But I knew the whole time the story was really about the relationship between Joel and Frances, I just didn’t know how to tell it the right way at first.
PR: Without giving too much away, did you know everything that was in store for Joel, Frances, and Kyle before you started writing it? Were there any surprises in store for you as you wrote?
RM: I rarely ever have fully-formed story ideas. I have to start writing and the ideas come as I go along. It takes longer to write a complete draft, but I’m happier with the result, usually. The mold was a surprise, first just a spot Joel finds in the shower. I never planned on Kyle, and he became the spark that got the story going, so I embraced him, so to speak. But looking back, Joel’s the one who surprised me the most. I thought I knew what he would or wouldn’t do, but I was wrong.
PR: What do you think Joel wants from Kyle? Surely nothing romantic or physical, but he does want something.
RM: I think Joel is totally ambivalent about Kyle, which I love. He’s attracted to Kyle’s body, but he’s annoyed by Kyle’s presence and chipper attitude at the same time (especially at the beginning of the story). When he wants Kyle’s arms around him, he’s aching for closeness, a different kind from what he has with his mother. Not romantic, really, just for someone to be affectionate with him. Joel and Frances act more like friends or roommates; she doesn’t hug him once in the story. Joel’s father isn’t mentioned, and I’m sure the reader will wonder where he is. Joel and Frances never talk about him, but he exists somewhere, if only in memories, and Joel is missing out on that love.
PR: If you could look twenty years into the future, how do you think Joel and his mom will be getting along? Do you picture them close? Distant? Estranged?
RM: As Joel ages, I think his closeness with his mother will seem poisonous to him at times, but I don’t see them estranged. Their attachment is too strong. He might ignore her calls sometimes. I actually think about these two a lot! I’ve pictured Joel running away, getting into some bad trouble, but I’ve also pictured him waking up one day and realizing he could do something interesting with his life. I hope he ends up somewhere nice. Maybe Frances discovers “spirituality” and finds herself living in a rural setting surrounded by crystals instead of boxes of junk. I think she’d be into the tarot.
PR: Your story is positively crawling with mold. The reader can almost feel it grow out of the page. I have to ask—have you ever experienced a living situation where mold was a serious problem? If not, did you do research for this?
RM: I’ve never lived somewhere like Joel’s house. Growing up, our house was always spotless, and we never had mold problems that I know of. Mold can hide! I looked at pictures online and read about what can happen to infested houses, the health effects on people living in those houses. Black mold looks really striking if it’s bad. Google it! I wouldn’t say I became an expert, but it helped to do some research. I’m interested in things like mold and fungus anyway. I like nature trying to get into our safe little homes, at least in stories.
PR: What are you working on now?
RM: I’m always working on short stories, because I love them, and it feels nice to finish something relatively quickly. I’m also working on a draft of a novel, which is inspired by the Grimm’s fairy tale “Little Brother and Little Sister.”
PR: What is the best bit of advice about writing you have ever received?
RM: There’s so much out there! “Read a lot and write a lot” is the best, because it’s the only one that’s always true.
I also like this George Saunders quote: “Don’t be afraid to be confused. Try to remain permanently confused. Anything is possible. Stay open, forever, so open it hurts, and then open up some more, until the day you die, world without end, amen.”
Once, during a Q&A at a reading, I asked Saunders if he knew where he was going when he started a story, and he said he always hoped NOT to know. It’s ok not to know where you’re going right away, then the writing surprises you with the good stuff.
Still, you have to do what works for you, whatever gets the words onto the page. I happen to like being in the dark for part of the trip.