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Fiction Contest - Q & amp;amp; A with Michael Elaine Alegria 

by Michael Bowen & r & MB: What's your process? Did you start with a line of dialogue or a particular incident, or did the overall shape of the story come to you at once? & r & MEA: I started with the Post-it note incident. I think I was still feeling pretty sad about how I was let go from a job that I didn't have "closure" on. That's so a "Dr. Phil" term, but it's really true in this case. It just went from there to Jewels, who is crafted after one elderly lady who actually used to escape and think that she worked for our office. I only met her once but she stayed with me.





Did the Post-it note incident actually happen? & r & Actually happened. Sad but true.





Everyone in the story except the narrator is impersonal toward Jewels. Were you intentional about making each one impersonal in a different way? & r & My only intent was not to name each and every character, which in turn made them feel very impersonal. I feel that too many names make it too much work for the reader.





How and at what point did you decide to parallel the story of the two women? & r & "Gloria" has just left her office with that note as a parting gift, which is just an insult. She's about ready to cry when she sees the old woman -- and anybody would have gone up to her. People like that, they want to work and have a job. The woman I used to run into -- it was evident that she had worked in a medical office. She sat at a desk, so she had been some kind of secretary.





But how did the ending -- the paralleling of them at the very end -- come about? & r & The ending came into view for me when she interacts with the security guard, after a succession of people who obviously didn't care about her. That's when [Gloria] realized, 'I have to take her back.' She's finally the only one who -- I don't know if you noticed this, but she gave him her ID badge, as if to say, 'I'm done here.' There's nobody else who's going to step up.





And the "jobs" that Gloria creates at the end? & r & She does that to reassure [Jewels] and herself. I used to go up to [Sacred Heart] every Wednesday myself. I was a medical transcriptionist even then, and I would pick up the tapes there every Wednesday.





To what extent is "Gratitude" autobiographical? The details that really stick with me -- the cream and sugar; the relief that the 911 operator is a woman; the Carnation sign -- are they direct from your life or shaped to fit the story? & r & Most are just observations. The cream and sugar just illustrates Jewels' level of dementia -- I thought, how sad it would be not even to remember how you like your coffee. Relief about the 911 operator ... women are portrayed as warm, fuzzy, caring. Also, I guess every time I've had to call 911, it has been a woman operator. The Carnation sign is more of a personal comment on my life. I remember vividly being alone in the hospital at night (while being treated for asthma -- that was in the '70s, before they let parents stay overnight with their children) and watching that sign over and over and over again.





How much revising did you do? How long did it take you to write the story? & r & The first few paragraphs took the longest. I must have rewritten that part at least 10 times. I tend to get a thought, write furiously, and then stall. The semi-finished project took about two weeks.





In revising, were you conscious of when Jewels is lucid and when she distorts? & r & I saw a pattern that Jewels was more confused when she was stressed. When she sat down with Gloria to have coffee, she was able to give true details of her life, and when she was back in her own room, she was able to recount the events of the past hours.





How did you approach the potential for sentimentality in the ending? & r & Very lightly. I'm not a fan of sickeningly sweet endings, but I knew that Gloria couldn't simply have returned Jewels safely and then walked away.

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