An interview conducted by Sofia Montrone

Sara Kachelman received The Columbia Review’s Spring 2020 Prose Prize for her short story “Friends of the Gyre.” Her story, about a group of people who befriend an enigmatic and terrible storm, first crossed our desk in January, but recent events have imbued the narrative about unlikely social relationships and unbalanced power dynamics with new salience. We were impressed by Sara’s humor, her attention to nature, and her sense of the eerie, and our contest judge, Jordan Kisner, was as well. I caught up with Sara over email last week to discuss her short story, climate change, and the necessity of the independent novella. 

Where are you now?

I’m currently living with family in northwest Alabama. I left my Chicago apartment in March and completed my first year of an MFA program remotely. What I hoped would be a temporary stay has stretched into three months. At times I’ve felt alienated here, from my creative community, my research, and my writing projects. But I am grateful for the conversations I’ve had with family, and for rediscovering the pleasure of growing plants from seed, something I’d forgotten after moving from city to city.

Growing up in a rural area, I felt isolated from political action, but I’ve been excited to see people organizing locally to protest the murder of George Floyd. It is encouraging to see small towns project their voices into a larger conversation about systemic racism and police brutality.

What, or who, are you reading right now? 

I’m reading more news articles than ever before, and little else.

What literary trends excite you?

Novellas! I am always searching for narratives that are minimalist and sharp, preferably less than 120 pages.

American publishers often tack novellas to the backs of story collections, or bind them in sets, but I argue that short novels should be bound alone as a commercially viable form. Many foreign presses embrace novellas with great success. Some of my favorite writers work in this form, like Marie Redonnet, Ágota Kristóf, and César Aira.

Your short story, “Friends of the Gyre,” was just awarded our Spring 2020 Prose Prize. Could you talk a little bit about your inspirations for the piece? 

I didn’t know anyone in Chicago when I moved there, which led me to consider the conditions of friend-making. I revisited Aristotle’s Nicomachean Ethics, in which he outlines three types of friendships: those borne of utility, pleasure, or goodness. The contractual language sounds awkward when applied to something that often develops naturally, but all relationships require a negotiation of power and an ability to communicate and observe boundaries. We don’t tend to acknowledge these conditions unless they are out of balance.

I wanted to write an exercise of friendship that pushed these tenets into absurd proportions. How do you befriend a nonfeeling entity? A hurricane, or a tornado? Many regions of the world have long-standing and increasingly regular relationships with these phenomena. The characters in my story personify the gyre, trusting its good intentions—a human impulse that leads to chaos.

In evaluating “Friends of the Gyre,” our board discussed the piece as an allegory for climate change and the rise of environmental disasters. Was this something that was also on your mind while writing?

Climate change causes sea levels to rise, and for low-lying islands like the one in my story, these effects are an existential threat. Tropical storms erode shorelines, making them more vulnerable to rising waters. Typically, small islands re-form after submersion, but some islands are now failing to resurface.

My characters rely on the sea for food, but the sea takes more and more things in return. One camp tries to appease the gyre with pacifism and song, the other responds with ultimatums and war. Currently, we are seeing political leaders issue a wide range of responses to climate change, from total denial to aggressive action.

The word “gyre” feels central to the piece. Why did you choose this word? What weight does it carry for you?

The word “gyre” famously appears William Butler Yeats’ poem, “The Second Coming.” In contemporary media, it refers to the five major ocean currents where floating marine plastics and other debris accumulate. In both contexts, the word evokes an old-world horror, certainly a disastrous choice for a friend.

Lastly, what is some work that you are really loving right now and would recommend to our readers?

Earlier in quarantine I read several books from the David Zwirner ekphrasis series, a collection of paperbacks exploring topics in art history and criticism. My favorite title was Michael Glover’s Thrust: A Spasmodic Pictorial History of the Codpiece in Art.

Read Sara’s story and more in our Spring Issue.