TELL ME WHAT YOU SEE is a collection of ten experimental short stories about coronavirus quarantines, the January 6th invasion on the US Capitol, climate change, and other current events. Three of these stories fall within the thriller genre.
Terena Elizabeth Bell stopped by The Big Thrill to talk about her anthology, TELL ME WHAT YOU SEE:
What attracts you to this book’s genre?
I write across genres, and what a story winds up being is up to that story. Sometimes that means thriller, sometimes it means literary, and sometimes it means sci-fi. That’s why there’s a little of all these in this collection.
Which took shape first: plot, character, or setting?
Form. TELL ME WHAT YOU SEE is an experimental short fiction collection with many of the stories using images as though they were language. Dialogue is often written in emojis, memes, drawings, and photographs. So when I say form, I mean it. These stories are about the coronavirus shutdowns, the US Capitol attack, and similar current events—in other words, real-life occurrences that were insane to live through. So I couldn’t write a traditional story with rising and falling action. I had to write in a way that was a little insane. So I thought of alternative forms, like the use of images, then went from there.
What was the biggest challenge this book presented? What about the biggest opportunity?
In order to write about 2020, I had to emotionally relive it. The third story in the collection, “#CoronaLife,” is about early COVID quarantine in New York City. While “#CoronaLife” is fiction, events in the story like the presidential WHO address or store closures are written on the same day that they occurred in real life, which took a lot of fact-checking. This meant re-reading personal records, pulling up news articles from the time, and looking at picture after picture—in other words, I had to put myself back in that time, which was very difficult on my emotional health.
This collection is called TELL ME WHAT YOU SEE because as a writer, it’s my job to write what I see. For COVID and the Capitol attack, this is particularly important. Like all genres, thrillers have the opportunity to take what the world is going through right now and preserve it for the future.
Was there anything new you discovered or that surprised you as you wrote this book?
How neatly it all fit together. Short story collections are notoriously difficult to order, but all the pieces in TELL ME WHAT YOU SEE just snapped right together.
What authors or books have influenced your career as a writer, and why?
Oh my. How much time have we got?
Flannery O’Connor, Jane Austen, Carolyn Keene, CS Lewis, Robert Penn Warren, SA Cosby, Ursula K LeGuin, Tiffany Reisz, Neil Gaiman, David Nahm, Andrew Shaffer, Gabriela Pereira, Charles Dickens, Edith Wharton, Candace Bushnell, Margaret Mitchell, Jack Kerouac, TS Eliot, Philip Roth, Frank L Baum, T Crunk, Mark Twain, Norton Juster, Ashley Marie Farmer
Some of these authors I’ve just read heavily, which influenced the way I learned to write; others have had a more direct role, like Tiffany, Shawn (SA Cosby), Andrew, Gabriela, Tony (T Crunk) and Ashley by providing encouragement, business advice, blurbs, etc. An exercise from LeGuin’s craft book led to the lead story in my collection, “Welcome, Friend,” a psychological thriller piece. Philip was my first landlord in NYC. I had quit writing for a long time, but living next door to him made me pick it back up again.
So who was your editor?
The absolutely, amazingly supportive Miette Gillette.
Terena Elizabeth Bell is a writer. She has published in more than 100 publications, including Washington Post, Playboy, and The Guardian. Her short fiction has won grants from New York Foundation for the Arts, Kentucky Center for the Arts, and Kentucky Foundation for Women. Originally from Sinking Fork, Kentucky, she lives in New York. Find her on Twitter @TerenaBell and on her website.