Newtown Literary Contributor: William Shunn

Writer William Shunn’s story “Sparkler” was featured in Issue #4 of Newtown Literary. For more from William, check out his author website, his book website, and his Twitter, or hear his story on YouTube. He discusses his writing below:

Photo by Colin Poellot: William Shunn at SingleCut Beersmiths, Astoria, Queens.
Photo by Colin Poellot: William Shunn at SingleCut Beersmiths, Astoria, Queens.

Sparklers in the Ashes

In the wake of 9/11, I felt, as many other writers and artists no doubt did, that I needed somehow to respond—to sort out the jumble of feelings and thoughts suffocating me and make something comprehensible out of them, even if only to myself. I wrote three short stories over the course of the next few months. The first languishes in a drawer, deservedly, never again to see the light of day. The third, “Timesink,” was eventually published in the Fall 2008 issue of the late, great Electric Velocipede.

The second story in this loose thematic trilogy was “Sparkler”. What I tried to do with it was subvert reader expectations by creating sympathy for a scrappy but doomed rebel group who are ultimately shown, from an outside perspective, to be terrorists capable of inflicting massive harm and destruction—but whom we root for because we find ourselves riding with them as they execute their impossible mission. If the story succeeds at all, it’s because the reader is forced to question her assumptions about which side is good and which is evil, or whether those labels even apply.

As a writer, I have a complex relationship with the perpetrators of terrorist acts. While I find their actions entirely reprehensible, I can’t help being fascinated by their motivations and justifications, and by the ways in which they’re used as tools by leaders who direct those activities from relative safety and comfort. This goes back to my days as a struggling young Mormon missionary in Canada, where, in an unfortunate turn of events, I misinterpreted an instruction from my leaders to do “everything in my power” to prevent a fellow missionary from abandoning his post and flying home to California. In my zeal to obey this directive, I phoned in a false bomb threat to prevent my poor friend’s plane from leaving—and I paid for my mistake with a felony conviction.

I know how easy it can be for faith to warp one’s perspective on right, wrong, and morality, and in late 2001 I had already been attempting to wrestle my thoughts on that process into book form for a couple of years. I was nearly finished with my memoir The Accidental Terrorist, and publisher interest in the manuscript had seemed high during the summer. Unfortunately, a side casualty of 9/11 was my book’s prospects in the marketplace. As one editor told my agent afterward, in the prevailing climate a memoir centering on a Mormon bomb threat was “deeply unbuyable.”

So it was that “Sparkler” became an alternate vessel for my ruminations about terrorism, even if its earliest incarnation wasn’t as strong as it could have been. Happily, I was able to pluck it out of the drawer in 2014, polish and revise it, and turn it into something I was proud and delighted to see in the pages of Newtown Literary.

Oh, and The Accidental Terroristthat problematic memoir of mine? It too will get its day in the sun, when Sinister Regard publishes it on November 10th. Both works prove that sometimes good things can rise from the ashes and live again.

Thanks, William!

Readers, mark your calendars:


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