This month’s story comes from a newer lit mag called No Contact. No Contact was born from a couple Columbia MFA writers and out of our sudden move to a quarantined, contactless world. It seems only fitting then that I feature a story from them in March – exactly one year from when we moved from readings, conferences and seminars to Zoom readings, Zoom conferences and Zoominars. All year they have taking the literary world by storm, putting out a ton of amazing work, in various forms, all under 1,000 words. And this particular story – “Tinnitus” by Ross Showalter is a favorite of mine. Click on the link below, enjoy, and come back for a dynamite Q&A.
FAVORITE LINE: My apartment sits in purgatory, blanketed in shades of grey, never direct shadow, never direct light.
I love this line because this story is all about mood and atmosphere, and this is the perfect description of the apartment we are trapped in alongside the main character. Another favorite line “The spot where his guitar used to be is just another corner” deftly shows us this great sense of loss in such a simple image. But ultimately, my favorite part of this piece is what it’s doing with sound. It’s as if sound is haunting the main character just as much as the memory of his ex-lover. Or are the two intertwined? This is just one of the ideas I delve into with Ross in his insightful Q&A:
1) I'm always curious about where stories come from, that first tiny seed. What was the inspiration or idea-spark for “Tinnitus”?
This story is actually the most personal story I’ve written to date. Someone I loved left me in January. When we separated, I felt physically ill for the next week. I felt nauseous, I had headaches, my body ached. I wrote the first draft of “Tinnitus” in that week. The story honestly is me trying to contextualize my grief over losing this person and asking myself, “Why do I feel like this?” Losing someone I care about isn’t easy, and I wanted to acknowledge that this person had impacted me instead of rushing to move on.
2) At first glance, this is a story about grieving a lost partner. But I am also obsessed what you do with sound in this piece. The complete absence of it and at times the overwhelming too much of it. It’s as if sound itself is what’s haunting the character. Can you reflect on the relationship between heartache and sound in this piece and how that relationship formed?
I chose to bring in a typical deaf problem—tinnitus—and distort it, because that brought in a supernatural element without taking away from the main character’s relationship to sound. I wanted to emphasize that there’s no safe space from sound, not even in your own body sometimes. And because there’s no safe space from sound, the expectation of trying to conform to a sound-based world will always be there. I wanted that expectation to be present throughout the narrative.
What this reliance on sound means for deaf people is we have to work harder than most to get on the same level as hearing people, and this applies to personal relationships. If we get in a relationship with a hearing non-signer, we work more. And we invest more because we work more. The flip side of that is: if we work more, then it hurts more when the other person walks away. I wanted that pain and exhaustion to be felt while also reminding both protagonist and reader of why that exhaustion was there in the first place.
3) So much of your work involves ghosts (which I love!) Where does that fascination come from and how do they function within your writing?
I’ve loved ghost stories my whole life. When I was a kid, I used to have night terrors and I even sleepwalked a couple times. Ghost stories just fit the weird stuff that was happening in my head, and I latched onto it and never let go.
From a craft point-of-view, I really love the efficiency of ghost stories. My favorite ghost stories, like Helen Oyeyemi’s “Presence” and Carmen Maria Machado’s “Real Women Have Bodies”, use ghosts as a way to externalize emotions or give shape to societal issues. That was a narrative choice that really excited me. You can bring in something that’s not of this world and assign specific contexts to it, which I do in my own work. Ghost stories can be a really efficient way of giving shape to something that just might not be as efficiently discussed in realist fiction.
4) I saw that in 2020 you made it a goal to write more about d/Deafness and disability. What do you think is lacking most in the lit community when it comes to those topics (whether we’re talking about writers, readers, and/or characters)? And have you seen any changes recently (for better or worse)?
The reason why I made that goal to write more about disability is because I didn’t see depictions of disability I could relate to. A lot of what I found was very sanitized, and I couldn’t relate to that. I wanted Deaf and disabled characters who were selfish, sexualized, impatient, problematic. I wanted people like me to be the villain. I wanted people like me to royally fuck up. I still do. I think right now we’ve started to see a shift in the circumstances of how disability is shown—not just within the confines of a hospital and not just under the lens of pity. I think there’s started to be a shift in seeing disability as more of a diverse community that supports each other, rather than just a medical condition.
I’ve been working as a writer for only two years. In those two years, I’ve seen a push to make space for disabled writers at literary events. We’re starting to have widespread conversations about disability in literature. People ask me what I need to be included in those conversations, and they are receptive to hiring an ASL interpreter and letting the interpreter do their job without interference. I hope it continues, and I hope abled people let Deaf and disabled people lead the charge towards more nuanced portraits of disability.
Overall, it’s been a very encouraging two years, and I’m lucky to be working at a time where people are receptive to what I can contribute.
5) What are you working on now, and where can we see more of your writing?
I’m working on two book projects: one is a novel, and one is a short-story collection. My agent, God bless her, is incredibly encouraging of the fact that I’m trying to write two books at once. We’ll see if they turn out to be good.
You can see more of my writing at my website, www.rossshowalter.com.