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"Shy, Solitary Animals"

November’s FLASH on the FIVE comes from one of the flash fiction stalwarts over the last several years. Since it’s inception in 2013, Cease, Cows has not only consistently put out memorable, important flash fiction, but it also gives Okay Donkey a run for its money for best lit mag name. I love all the stories Cease, Cows has put out this year, but “Shy Solitary Animals” by Kristin Bonilla has particularly stuck with me. So I was excited to be able to dive deeper into how this story came to be. Check out the piece in the link below then come back to check out how this story came to be:

Favorite line: “Why don’t they have an assembly about men stealing girls from their bedrooms,” the girl next to her had whispered.

Nearly every line in this very brief story is a gut punch, but this one—told as an aside, under the breath, from one young student to another—is especially wrenching. And I love, love, love the minimalist style in which this whole piece is told. From the dead girl stolen from her room, to the mountain lion, to the boys hand on her thigh, there is not a single comfortable moment to be had here. And the glaring lack of extra words or descriptions in which the reader can run and hide or find comfort in, is simply brilliant. And when you find out the origin of this story, you’ll get chills all over again:

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

I was thinking a lot about the murder of Polly Klaas when I started writing “Shy, Solitary Animals”. She was abducted in Oct. 1993 by a stranger who broke into her home during a slumber party at her house in Sonoma County, CA. I lived about twenty miles away and was a few years older than her. She was missing for a couple of months before her body was found buried in a shallow grave at the side of Hwy 101. They found her around the time of my 16th birthday. It was all over the news, all anyone could talk about. It was a weird time to be a girl coming of age and dealing with everything that comes along with that in addition to this horrible crime that happened literally down the road from where we lived.

It might seem odd that she was the inspiration for the story given there’s only two brief mentions of a murdered girl, but she’s in the first line for a reason. She sets the tone.

2. I love the multiple story lines -- the teenagers in the car at the forefront with the dead girl lurking in the background, and all the while both are stalked by the mountain lion. Can you speak to the balancing act of all this. It reads effortless, but I imagine it wasn’t. And how do you think the stories play off/impact one another?

Oh, that’s a lovely compliment, thank you! I think the multiple story lines and the way they work with each other is a reflection of how the story unfolded for me. I had a set of images in my mind that kept repeating like short films; the girl driving the car, the landscape with hills and fog, the mountain lion awareness rally at the high school. They played in my head like a movie for some time before I wrote anything down. I didn’t know how exactly they were connected, just that they were in conversation with each other.

Once I started writing, the balancing act was really a question of pacing. I wanted the story lines to be revealed in a manner similar to a good suspense film. I thought a lot about Hitchcock’s “The Birds,” how the birds just keep gathering through the film like storm clouds, how it seems like a story about romance and sexual tension, until it’s not.

3. I love how sparse and paired down the writing is here. The minimalism works so well with the ominous mood of the piece. Can you talk to your process in achieving this? Is it something crafted in revision with a lot of cutting or something you set out to do from the very beginning?

The first draft of this story came together in one of Kathy Fish’s amazing workshops. The exercise that day involved writing while listening to music. I was thinking about the Klaas murder, thinking about these short little films running through my mind, and I sat down to write while listening to “Morning Dew.” It’s a Grateful Dead song but I was listening to The National’s version. For whatever serendipitous reason, it all clicked. I knew immediately that song was the soundtrack for the story that was forming. I listened to it all day as I wrote. The tempo is steady, it’s minimalist yet beautifully layered, and strangely sexy for a song that’s about catastrophic disaster. The song set the terms for the writing, and in that sense, it didn’t change all that much after the initial draft. It started out very measured and careful, and it stayed that way through successive drafts.

4. The last line is killer! (pun slightly intended) It really makes the story linger well after you’re finished reading. I’m assuming readers interpret it differently, but can you give a little peek into your intention with that final line? How do you see it functioning with the rest of the story?

I had no intentions with that line because originally it wasn’t the last line! The line was near the end of the draft I sent out for submission, but there were a few more lines after it. Susannah Jordan (editor at the wonderful Cease, Cows) liked the piece and suggested ending it instead at the line in question. She was right on target. It was absolutely where the story needed to end.

The line itself is an oft-repeated bit of lore from mountain lion safety presentations. We sat through these presentations every year in school. It stuck with me through the years. It seemed like a tragic bit of poetry. That the minute you come face to face with this creature, this sublime and powerful beauty, your time is up.

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

I’m actually working on a longer version of this story. A novel. I love writing short so it feels strange to say it. These characters are still haunting me, so we are spending more time together. I alternate between that and shorter pieces, and you can find a collection of those at:

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