Estimated reading time: 10 minutes

Andrea Caswell: “Stay on the Line” begins in media res, in a hospital during a medical emergency. What made you decide to start there? With short stories, it can be hard to know where to jump in sometimes. 

Richie Zaborowske: I love short stories. I love how every word counts and is working toward a common goal. I love how, in a matter of minutes, I can have a complete literary experience. With this in mind, when I’m constructing a story, I’m always considering if what I’m writing is necessary to the piece as a whole. Does it move the plot forward? Is it interesting? Is it needed? The opening here isn’t necessarily needed in the sense of the plot or character development, but I thought it helped establish the voice and tone of the piece, and created a vivid scene that readers could immediately latch on to.

Andrea: The story is narrated in the second person, which feels like just the right choice. Did you try other forms of narration before selecting second person?  

Richie: My main concern when writing “Stay on the Line” was that readers have sympathy for the character, which I thought might be tricky. Here is someone experiencing one of the greatest moments of their life (the birth of a child), while also feeling an incredible sense of loneliness. With our second child, the delivery was similar to the one in the story (not as dramatic, but we had some scares). My goal in this story was to convey some of the emotions I was feeling: the fear and joy, but also the solitude. I had a related experience when I was home with both of my children during Covid. I felt incredibly fortunate and wanted to cherish my time with them, but I was also counting the minutes until the UPS driver showed up so I could have a chat with an adult.

To create this sympathy, writing in second person, though I don’t use that form often, came naturally. I think that’s what I started with, and it didn’t feel overly “writerly,” so I just went with it.

Andrea: You’ve combined high and low moments here: the birth of a child and receiving spam calls. I thought I knew what to expect with each situation, but I was wrong, which is what I think good fiction should do: awaken us from our auto-pilot responses so we can experience the human condition anew. How did you develop the trajectory for this story? Did it hold some surprises for you as well? 

Richie: I tend to write a lot of stories where a character is out searching for something: out in the city, or a cornfield, or in this case, a hospital. I like movement and staying in the scene and letting the plot propel things forward, creating a linear experience for the reader. So even though I had an idea for the beginning of the story, when the character left the hospital room I had no idea where they were going. All of it was a surprise for me. And those are the types of stories I like writing best, because it’s almost as if I’m living the story while I’m writing: I’m walking past the window with the snow, I’m discovering the birthday cake in the cooler. All I have to do is take detailed notes of what’s happening and before I know it, the story is finished.

Andrea: What are some challenges you experience while writing? How do you address them? 

Richie: My biggest challenge, by far, is patience. I have none. It took me a long time to realize that only with time (sometimes months, sometimes years) do my pieces improve. I have to let my pieces rest between sessions. If I keep coming back to edit a piece day after day, I notice that I end up rewriting the first paragraph over and over, or making only incremental changes, like switching around sentence structure or swapping words. Instead of making improvements, I’m simply writing. 

If I can put a piece away for a few months, then approach it with fresh eyes, not only do I catch more mistakes, but I’m also able to make bigger changes: cut whole swaths that don’t belong, add where it’s flagging, develop the characters more. I’m not organized enough to have a system, but I find that it helps me to have several pieces going at once. Right now I’m writing a few short stories, some poetry, and nonfiction. This way I’m always rotating pieces, always approaching my work with fresh eyes.

Richie Zaborowske is a dad, librarian, and author from the Midwest. He puts a contemporary twist on traditional library offerings; his monthly Short Story Night packs the local brewery and features trivia, comedy, and author interviews. Richie Zaborowske’s writing appears in McSweeney’s Internet Tendency, Brevity, The Los Angeles Review, HAD, X-R-A-Y Lit, Identity Theory, Jet Fuel Review, and others.

Andrea Caswell runs Cleaver’s Short Story Clinic, offering detailed feedback on fiction up to 5500 words. Whether you’re wondering how to improve a story, getting ready to submit one to a lit mag, or preparing an MFA application portfolio, editorial feedback will be personalized to help you reach your fiction goals. Writers may also schedule a conference with Andrea as a one-on-one workshop to discuss their work further. 

Read more from Cleaver Magazine’s Issue #44.

Cleaver Magazine