INTERVIEW: S.L. Gilbow, Author of “Red Card”

Tell us a bit about your story.  What’s it about?

In “Red Card” Linda Jackson kills her husband in the opening line of the story:  Late one April evening, Linda Jackson pulled a revolver from her purse and shot her husband through a large mustard stain in the center of his T-shirt.  The rest of the story follows Linda and Sarah, her neighbor from across the street, as they go to turn in Linda’s “Red Card,” the license that makes her action not only legal but laudable.

What was the genesis of the story–what was the inspiration for it, or what prompted you to write it?

First, I need to explain that I am a very rational and sane person.  Just ask anyone who knows me, except my wife, of course.  Don’t ask her.

Anyway, the idea for “Red Card” actually came from a conversation I had with my daughter, Mandy.  One day after a driver cut me off in heavy traffic, I pointed to the driver, turned to my daughter and said, “Everyone should be allowed to shoot one person without going to prison.”  My daughter thought for a second then turned to me and said, “Dad, if that were true you would have been dead a long time ago.”

I hadn’t tried writing short stories for over twenty-years, but the idea stuck with me and I started to work on it.  The initial idea was that once in everyone’s life, they are allowed to kill someone without question or ramification, but only once.  As I thought about the idea, I realized the math didn’t work.  Pretty soon there would be no one left.  So I came up with the idea of the “Red Card” which permits a few “lucky” people the opportunity to kill with impunity.

I then put the red card in the hand of the sweetest, nicest person in town and watched what happened.

Was this story a particularly challenging one to write? If so, how?

Every story is a challenge while writing it and easy to write in retrospect.

I spent about six months on “Red Card,” writing in the evening after work, pausing when I got stuck, coming back when I had figured out an answer to whatever problem had stalled me.

Most authors say all their stories are personal.  If that’s true for you, in what way was this story personal to you?

Linda is based largely on my wife, Brenda.  I wanted Linda to be a sympathetic character and figured the easiest way to do that was base her on a person I truly care about.  Certainly I made a few changes to make the story work–Linda, for example, is much more submissive than Brenda.  But essentially they are the same person–in looks, character, and their love for Jane Austen.

However, don’t mistake me for Linda’s husband.  I make my appearance in the story as the driver shot by Sarah’s cousin.

And please don’t give Brenda a red card.

What kind of research did you have to do for the story?

I’m always surprised about what I have to research for a story.  This may sound strange, but I had to research “makeup.”  Linda’s looks make up (no pun intended) an important part of the story and I describe her looks in detail in several sections.  I researched makeup online and had Brenda help me through the scenes in which I describe Linda’s face.  I now know what “blush,” “eye shadow,” “mascara” and “taupe” are.

Even in the final draft I had mistaken eye shadow for mascara and had to make a correction right before the story was published.

What is the appeal of dystopian fiction? Why do so many writers–or you yourself–write about it? Why do readers love it so much?

For me, the power of dystopian literature is in its ability to make the ludicrous and bizarre seem familiar and possible.

As strange as a dystopian society might appear, we are always looking at some aspect of ourselves.  Dystopian literature holds up a mirror to our world and says:

That’s us if we’re not careful.

That’s us, even if we are careful.

That’s us, like it or not.

In a meeting once, I heard one of my fellow teachers say, “My God, it’s ‘Harrison Bergeron’ all over again.”  I knew exactly what she was talking about.  Read the story and you will too.

What are some of your favorite examples of dystopian fiction, and what makes them your favorites?

Every story takes place in a society and that society falls on a scale somewhere between a Utopia and a Dystopia.  Some of those societies fall so much closer to the latter mark that we tend to label them “dystopian.”

The first story I can remember reading (and actually liking) was Shirley Jackson’s “The Lottery,” the mother of all dystopian short stories.

I’m a big fan of Jonathan Swift and believe much of his writing, to include large parts of Gulliver’s Travels, are dystopian as well as satirical (the two being difficult to distinguish at times).

I don’t believe the works of Flannery O’Conner are considered dystopian, but read “Good Country People” and “A Good Man is Hard to Find” and tell me those works don’t fall soundly on the dystopian side of the scale.

And of course my favorite writer, Kurt Vonnegut, has many works easily labeled as dystopian, “Harrison Bergeron” leading the way.

For me, the best dystopian works are strange and familiar at the same time.