SV: Dragonflies are obviously an important symbol in your book. Could you speak a little bit more about how you started associating them with your mother? What other importance do they hold to you?
AP: Years ago, when my Aunt Sandy died, my mom’s sister, there were a lot of dragonfly connections surrounding her death. It became part of our collective family story, and so when my mom died, the same thing began happening. I ended up doing voluminous research on dragonflies, to help me contextualize this symbol in the book. One of the most surprising things I learned is that when you see a dragonfly in all its full, colorful, splendid glory, it’s at the very end of its life cycle and facing death within a week or two. Most of a dragonfly’s life is spent as an underwater nymph, small and drab, hidden from all the beauty above water. That hit me hard. I suppose if you really break it down, dragonflies symbolize the fleeting nature of our lives, how temporary yet beautiful our time is here on earth.
SV: The subtitle of your memoir is “On Distance and Loss.” Could you expand more on how the physical and emotional distance between you and your mother evolved following her passing?
AP: As soon as I graduated from high school at age seventeen, I left my hometown and never lived there again. After that, I moved to places not just far away, but sometimes oceans and continents away: The Philippines, Vietnam, Hawaii. I had never traveled as a child, and felt I had so much time to make up for. But after a while, I started to understand there was a great cost to that kind of distance. I missed a lot of important, key moments in my family’s lives. I became a separate entity from them, a satellite orbiting around them but not with them. Now that I’m a parent, I can see how hard this must’ve been for my mom. She was a homebody who was happiest when we were all around. I always figured I’d have more time to spend with her later, trips I might squeeze in when I wasn’t so busy, when the kids were older, when things were calmer. It’s painful to think that I was living all the way in Vietnam during the months right before her death—all that time lost that I could’ve spent with her, if only I had known.
SV: On a similar note, what would you say to people who are experiencing a similar loss to that of your own?
AP: Know that people, even people who love you dearly, will forget about your loss pretty quickly. It’s just the nature of life, especially for those who haven’t lost someone near and dear to them. Try not to be hurt by this, even though it can feel lonely. I think people are a little afraid of someone who’s experienced great loss. They want to support you but they really don’t know what to do or say. Grief, therefore, becomes a private affair. Let yourself suffer and cry and do as little as possible for as long as you need. After my mom died, there were days when I would lie rolled up in the quilt she made me for my wedding and just stare out the window for hours.
SV: Location plays an important role in your book, aside from just separating you from a lot of your family. You’ve spent a lot of time in both the Midwest and Upstate New York. How have these locations shaped you as a person and a writer?
AP: I’ve always considered Minnesota my true home. Even though I haven’t lived there for decades, Minnesota lives in me on an emotional, visceral level—the buttery light, the creamy hotdishes and pan-fried sunfish, the utter no-nonsense quality of the people. There’s a humility and kindness to the Midwest I haven’t found elsewhere. Even though I’ve lived in Upstate New York for twenty-one years, it still doesn’t hit me on a deep-down writing level very often. I think that’s always going to be Minnesota for me.
SV: A lot of your chapters, including the very first one, end in mini cliffhangers of sorts. In just one line, you can take such a sharp turn and startle with your subtle, emotional impact. A lot of writers find ending chapters and books to be the most difficult part. How do more impactful endings factor into your book and your writing process? How did you decide on what would be the last lines?
AP: I think part of that “mini cliffhanger” technique you mentioned comes from writing a lot of flash nonfiction for magazines like Brevity and River Teeth, which are both in the 750-word range. I love the challenge of that much compression and story in so little space. I think writing in flash form helped me write endings that are short and concise but that in a larger manuscript can serve as springboards to the next section while still providing closure to the previous one.