| Don’t Write Alone
Interviews A Conversation with ‘Best Debut Short Stories 2021 Author’ Heather Aruffo
“I think medical terminology can be incredibly beautiful and I love integrating it into my work.”
Best Debut Short Stories 2021: The PEN America Dau Prize is the fifth edition of an anthology celebrating outstanding new fiction writers published by literary magazines around the world. In the upcoming weeks, we’ll feature Q&As with the contributors, whose stories were selected for PEN’s Robert J. Dau Short Story Prize for Emerging Writers and for the anthology by judges Nana Kwame Adjei-Brenyah, Kali Fajardo-Anstine, and Beth Piatote. Submissions for the 2022 awards are open now .
Heather Aruffo holds an ScB in chemistry from Brown University and an MFA in fiction from the University of Alaska, Fairbanks. She is an alumna of the Tin House Writer’s Workshop and has received support from StoryKnife. Her work has appeared in The Southern Review and The Laurel Review . She lives in Anchorage, Alaska, and works as a regulatory medical writer.
“Force, Mass, Acceleration” was originally published in The Southern Review. Find a brief excerpt below:
On March 24, 1994, at the age of twenty-three, Ana Mladić shot herself in the head with one of her father’s pistols. She found it in her father’s study, in a cupboard in the Belgrade apartment where her parents lived. You may not have heard of Ana, but you have probably heard of her father, Ratko, former commander of the Serbian army in Bosnia, who was responsible for the siege of Sarajevo and the Srebrenica massacre during the Yugoslav Wars. Of the great despots of the twentieth century, Stalin, Hitler, Mao, Ratko ranks among them. In 2017, he was found guilty of war crimes on one count of genocide and nine counts of crimes against humanity by the International Criminal Court in The Hague and sentenced to life in prison. No one had been tried for such crimes since the Nuremberg trials in 1946. Ratko firmly denies all of the charges.
Where did you find the idea for this story?
This story actually started from a Wikipedia rabbit hole. I stumbled onto Ana accidentally sometime in the fall of 2017, when a lot of the war criminals responsible for the Balkan Wars were being tried. I found her story fascinating, then forgot about it for a while. Then I was in the airport waiting to catch a long-haul flight in the winter of 2017. I was watching TV in the terminal and they were reporting on Slobodan Praljak, a Croatian war criminal who drank cyanide in court after his prison sentence was upheld. I got on the flight thinking about that moment, and then I remembered Ana. Her suicide wasn’t rooted in the same motive as Slobodan Praljek’s was, and that seemed something worth exploring. A lot of Ana’s trauma seemed rooted not only in the war and the world around her, but also in the quiet violence that misogyny inflicted on her across her life. I was pre-med in college and I experienced a lot of that firsthand. It starts destroying you after a while, particularly if you don’t have a strong support network. Because I was on a plane and in this sort of exhausted fugue state without access to a computer, I started handwriting the medical school scenes and jumping around in points of view. It was very freeing.
What was your writing process like for this story?
I had a couple thousand words, mostly from the medical school scenes, in my notebook by the time I got off the plane. I had a paragraph or two from Ratko and Goran’s perspectives as well. Then came the hard process of imposing a narrative onto them. I started out linearly, beginning with early in Ana’s life, and then moved forward. I was pretty aware that the story needed an arc, and that I needed to impose some kind of structure, which still included the history. I love history and I think it’s incredibly important for understanding the context of a story, but I was also very aware that the most important driver of the story was Ana’s emotional arc. I finished a draft that winter, then showed it to a visiting professor who would become my thesis advisor. I made a couple more revisions that spring under his guidance, then left it in a drawer for a while. I showed it to a friend in my Russian class who had been deployed to Sarajevo in the 1990s. He read five pages of the story, told me that I had a lot of my history wrong, then gave me a pile of books on Balkan history. It was a huge revision, and I didn’t feel up to it for months. I read two or three of the books, then went through the piece and beefed up and corrected all of the historical information. Then I started sending it out.
What kind of research went into this story? When working with real events, how did you decide what to fictionalize versus when to stick to facts?
The research process for this story was, as you can imagine, very involved. I started out first by piecing together Ana’s life, which was difficult because there’s very little information out there about just her. There was a Frontline documentary on the trial of Ratko Mladic that I watched. There was also a pretty in-depth article in Der Spiegel called “Portrait of a Man Possessed: A Search for the Real Ratko Mladic” that I read over and over again, an Atlantic article called “ How Ratko Mladic Descended into Madness ,” and a couple others that formed the base of the story. Most of what I found out about Ana I had to glean in pieces from Ratko’s story.
The historical research was another aspect of the piece. I was working on a historically-inspired science-fantasy novel at the time, and I’d made the mistake of almost doing too much historical research to start, where it didn’t allow the story to breathe or focus on the emotional arc of the characters, so I tried to avoid doing much of it, and relied instead on what I knew of Balkan history off the top of my head. That ended up being a problem, since some of what I put in the early drafts was incorrect, so I had to go and weave back in a huge amount of historical research. I definitely had moments where I would think to myself, yikes, I’m literally reading three books for ten sentences over the course of a fifteen-page short story. I also had taken a handgun shooting class in February of 2018 (that was for the novel, not for the story) but that ended up being incredibly helpful in at least knowing how to talk about guns and gunshot wounds.
In terms of what to fictionalize and where to hew closely to the facts, I originally conceived of this story as an essay. So, I tried to stick as closely as I could to what could be verified and lean into details that seemed thematically and emotionally resonant, like Ratko’s father’s death, or the battleship game between Ana and Ratko. Sometimes, facts make for some of the greatest details in fiction and nonfiction, and it was an interesting experience to create a well-rounded character around only a few details. Some of the sources I found disagreed on aspects of Ana’s death—for example, if she really had a boyfriend named Goran who played a role in her death, or the role of her trip to Moscow, etc. The influence of Ana’s boyfriend in her suicide spoke to me the most of the possible stories, and appeared the most often in the sources I found, so I chose to go with that story.
The medical school scenes are of course fictionalized, but since there was no information on her time in medical school that I could find, I didn’t feel as bad about making those scenes up, so to speak, since they seemed true, in that they spoke to the spirit of what she was doing. And again, I tried to hew closely to what medical school in Yugoslavia in the 90s would look like. The medical school scenes were a really helpful device for telling the story, because I could use them to show Ana’s emotional progression and fill in the gaps in research. Ana felt like someone I knew, as far as being a woman in medicine and a woman in a male-dominated field that doesn’t want her to succeed, so I felt like I could extrapolate her character from that baseline. There isn’t much dialogue in this story, which initially was a way to get around the issue of fictionalization. Some of the lines of dialogue from Ratko, like, “Shoot the raw meat,” are taken from pieces of journalism and are real quotes.
In “Force, Mass, Acceleration,” details about Ana’s private life and her dreams of becoming a doctor are presented alongside those of Balkans history and Yugoslavia’s collapse. On a craft level, how did you think of the interplay between these two storylines, and how did your own job as a medical writer come into play?
In terms of the interplay between the two storylines, I think a lot of it is in the way that the story is told—both through the lens of Ana’s character and through the detached, first person narrator. Ana’s character interacts with medicine in an incredibly visceral, violent, and brutal way. She spends a lot of her free time performing autopsies instead of, say, delivering babies, so the way her perspective is layered foreshadows the coming violence and provides some of the subtextual links between war and medicine, while also speaking to the trauma of her situation, where it seems like all she can do to ground herself is cut up dead bodies.
I think the clinical way that the narrator views violence in terms of facts helps to moderate some of the more violent scenes in the story and allows the narrator to move into some of these more horrific scenes, like the Srebrenica massacre, without them becoming too overwhelming. The narrator also couches parts of the story in terms of medical terminology, so the links between medicine and Yugoslavian history are rooted in images and language rather than in true parallels. The early scene where Yugoslavia is described as an old man with congestive heart failure really speaks to that, I think. But there’s a lot of similarities like this between medicine and history. Medicine can be incredibly brutal and traumatic—providers are there during some of the most pivotal and, at times, horrifying moments of a person’s life. Medicine is a great way to show something like a war as well—soldiers and affected civilians will be there, but so will doctors, who will have a job adjacent to the conflict that they will still need to do. It’s great ground for fiction, because you can have your characters do things that are related to the story but not exactly aligned with it.
My job as a medical writer I don’t think necessarily came into the story. In fact, I wrote the first draft of this story before I was a medical writer! But, the experiences that went into me becoming a medical writer, like being an EMT, being an ER translator, and generally having a huge interest in medicine, definitely played into the story. I think medical terminology can be incredibly beautiful and I love integrating it into my work. When you’re a medical writer, your only interaction with patients is through aggregate data in terms of specific study endpoints, and, sometimes, narratives of what happened to specific patients—if what happened is deemed clinically significant. Fiction is very much the opposite of that, where the story of a single person is used to speak to something greater. I’m grateful to have both science and art in my life.
How has the Robert J. Dau Prize affected you?
The encouragement has been huge. It’s incredible to have this kind of support as a writer. It’s introduced me to an incredible community of my fellow anthology prize winners. I’ve always taken my writing seriously, but this has really changed my belief in its ability to reach a larger audience and inspired me to keep going. It makes things like getting a book deal feel a lot more in reach than they have in the past, and makes all those evenings and Saturdays spent in front of a computer feel like the’’re adding up to something. There are a lot of sacrifices involved in going into writing and I’m really glad to see them start to pay off.
What’s the best or worst writing advice you’ve ever received and why?
I had a professor in grad school who was very into what she called “Spock moments,” which were practical moments in a story that didn’t make sense. (For example: Why is this character telling this other character this secret? Why is this character at this meeting?). At first, I found these comments to be a little frustrating and simplistic, but then I realized how important it was, not only in terms of a reader’s sense of belief, but also as a way of setting limits on yourself as a writer and to be grounded in reality. It forced me to think harder about my characters and their actions, and to build those around what was reasonable and what made sense for them, rather than around what was convenient for me as the writer.
Finally, where do you discover new writing?
Probably Twitter, honestly. Larissa Pham’s book Pop Song was something I found out about on Twitter that has been absolutely excellent. One Story , The Alaska Quarterly Review , and The Southern Review are all journals I read to discover new writers as well.