Angelica Baker, author of our new issue, “The Feather Trick,” in conversation with editor Patrick Ryan
Let’s start with an obvious question: Do you have a little brother and, if so, is Benny based on him? Or is Benny based on anyone you’ve known or heard about?
I do indeed have a little brother. There are a few little details in the story that I think he recognized when he read it, but I wouldn’t say that Benny or the narrator are drawn from life, really. We’re extremely close and have been since we were children. But I was more interested in the universal idea of the unique bonds that form between siblings, as separate people who were raised in the same environment.
I wrote this story when a professor gave me a famous Gordon Lish workshop prompt: to write about a time I’d failed someone. The events of the story are fiction, but I found myself lingering on the idea of what it means to be an older sibling, to feel so fiercely protective of your younger siblings. And yet as a teenager you’re trying to navigate the adult world, and it’s hard enough to protect yourself. Let alone someone else. So you naturally end up feeling like a failure, as the eldest. (Of course, this could just be me…) But I wanted to write about that—to feel that it’s your job to care for someone but also feel that you’re inherently designed to disappoint him or her, in many ways. And I also just felt that I hadn’t read very much fiction that really digs into sibling relationships.
What came first: the feather trick, or the story?
I suppose the story came first, but the feather trick made its way in there soon after. The feather trick is actually something my own brother—there he is again—did to me quite recently, as an adult. And as a joke, with no emotional weight to it at all, of course. We were just sitting at a table together, having eaten a huge Christmas dinner.
But when I started writing about the traumatic event in Benny’s life, and his sister’s response to it (or lack thereof), the feather trick worked its way in there. It came as a surprise, but once it was there it felt so central—to the way they’ve learned to cope with the madness around them, and to the way they rely on each other.
You have two instances of Benny’s writing in the story: the letter to his teacher that gets him into so much trouble, and the letter he writes to his sister. His voice is very distinct from the narrator’s. Was it a challenge to switch voices from one sibling to the other?
Benny’s voice might have been easier for me to write than the narrator’s voice, oddly enough. He’s so precocious and so wise beyond his years, which was fun to write. She’s more guarded, which was hard for me to get down on the page.
And she feels a certain amount of self-imposed responsibility for her little brother’s well-being. Would you say the majority of that stems from the conditions of their home life or something inherent in the narrator?
I think this is something inherent to lots of big sisters. But it’s also true that she feels it very keenly as a result of their home life. Then again, I’ve felt it keenly in my own life, and my parents are quite lovely! I do think there’s something about being the first sibling in a family—you’re being sent forth into the world before the others, and it’s your job to report back and help them learn how to dodge anything harmful.
Okay, so without giving too much away, how would you describe the ending of “The Feather Trick”? Uplifting? Sad? Bittersweet?
I think it’s sad! Not that there’s an absence of hope, but certainly sad. I think those are painful moments—when you realize that there was a time when someone needed you, and that you couldn’t do it. Often that window closes. You can try to do better in the future, but by then you’ll be playing catch up. You’ve lost the chance to get it right on your first try. And I think it’s painful when it happens with family, with friends, with significant others. She hasn’t betrayed him, or willfully harmed him, but she was afraid and she withdrew, and now it’s too late to reach him in the same way.
What are you working on now?
I’m writing a novel, if a lot of anxiety and hand-wringing with a dash of actual writing can be categorized as “writing a novel.” I’m finishing up my MFA, so I’ll be turning it in as my thesis. If, you know, I stop hand-wringing so much.
What’s the best bit of advice about writing you’ve ever received?
That’s hard to pick…but I guess, right now, there are two things in particular I’m relying on. One comes from Jennifer Egan, who was once quoted as saying that you have to write every day because flashes of inspiration only show up when they feel like it, and you need to be sitting there at your desk when it happens. And the other came from a professor, Darryl Pinckney. He once told me that I shouldn’t feel, when I’m writing, that I have to “hammer things into place.” He told me that if it felt that way, unnatural and ill-fitting, then I’m approaching it wrong. And it helped. A lot.