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"Apex Predators"

This month’s FLASH on the FIVE comes from X–R-A-Y Literary Magazine, an outstanding online journal that publishes short fiction, creative non-fiction, and even comics, all under 1,500 words. I love how frequently they publish new work, and the stylized artwork is always top notch.

I came across “Apex Predators” by Nicole VanderLinden over the summer, and it has stuck with me ever since. So first go enjoy the story and be sure to come back for a Q&A with the author:

** "Apex Predators" **

FAVORITE LINE: Imagine, I tell her, if our tent was invisible, what we’d look like to them—other animals, too. Lonely pink babies under the cold Tennessee sky.

Okay, I know, technically that’s two lines, but I love the vulnerability that they project in beautiful – albeit frightening – imagery. And for me, that is the heart of the story: fear and vulnerability. Upon first read, the opening paragraph made me think, wow this husband is kind of a jerk. But then I love how the story turns this fear into something exhilarating and wonderful. They return, if only for a brief time, to such a base form, even devoid of names, just items on a food chain. But it is in these moments that they feel most alive, like placing your toes at the very tip of a cliff, peeking over, just to see, just to feel the adrenaline surge. Another favorite line: Her fingers curl around my fingers, and I feel her pulse, or maybe it’s mine, a heartbeat between our hands. Who's ready to go camping?

It was great to hear what Nicole had to say about the writing of the piece. Check it out:

1) I'm always curious about where stories come from, that first tiny seed. What was the inspiration or idea-spark for “Apex Predators”?

That’s a great question. Earlier this spring, I was in a workshop on silence (run by Kate Finegan of Longleaf Review), and we were tasked with using quiet moments to accentuate or diffuse tension. And it just sort of came to me, this idea of a woman in a tent, worried that she’s heard a bear. That was the genesis, and then after, I thought, “And what if there was someone with her in that tent who knew better but was willing to let her believe it anyway?” And I ran with the idea from there.

2) I love how this story celebrates fear and vulnerability, showing how it can be so exhilarating, make you feel so alive. But then I wondered: does this story only work when connected to nature and something primal? Would this same idea and story work if it took place in the city with more man-made fears? I’m thinking no, so why not?

Oh, interesting (and thank you!). I hadn’t thought of that before, but I do see how placing a story like this in the city would complicate matters some, and I think that might have to do, at least partly, with how human relationships would enter into it. If you drum up fear about, say, another person or a group of people, what does that imply about that other person or group? What does it imply about you? And other things in society—technology and disease, for example—feel maybe a bit too close to home, threat-wise. And certainly less primal, like you said, because there’s also something primal in the urge to place yourself (or others) as predator or prey to begin with.

3) As writers, we are constantly making choices. Can you talk to the decision to have the characters encounter an actual bear: did you know they would all along? Do you think the story could still work without that?

Yeah, I wondered about that myself. At first, I wanted a bear to enter in because it felt a little like Chekhov’s gun—the idea of a bear sighting is introduced right in the first line. Ultimately, though, I don’t think that was necessarily an inevitable choice. I’m glad I did write it in, though, because it gives the characters the thing they’ve really been seeking all along—coming together in a moment where they know, together, that neither of them is really (or ever) in control. I think you could still take the bear out, but there’d have to be some kind of culminating moment in its place.

4) This is written with such authenticity, I assume you are an experienced camper/hiker? Any animal run-ins? And do you have a trail name? If not, what might it be?

Ha, no trail name for me yet, but I like the idea! I think my friends would call me Worrier, maybe, or Let’s Have Another Cup of Coffee First. I’m a fairly newbie backpacker, but a few years ago I was lucky to spend a few days on the Appalachian Trail with an experienced friend, and I just fell in love with the whole experience (even if I am, to this day, a little scared of running into a bear). I’ve since been to a couple of other places, but never for more than three or four days at a time. Someday, I’d love to try a long hike, because it really opens something up, being that far from civilization (figuratively if not literally) for stretches at a time. As for run-ins, I swear I heard a bear grunt nearby once, but my friend is less sure, so it remains a mystery.

5) What are you working on now and where can we see more of your writing?

This is such a kind question—thank you. I have pieces up this week (9/21), actually, in Smokelong Quarterly and MoonPark Review. Later this fall, I’ll be in Atticus Review and Aquifer: The Florida Review Online online and in print at New Ohio Review. I’ve felt lucky in this regard, because my last publication before this year was in 2003. These days, I’m turning to a novel I’m writing about a woman who searches for random things that go missing (it’ll be more interesting than it sounds, I hope!).

You can find more info about Nicole and her work at or on Twitter at @vandanicole.

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