A Writer’s Insight: Pallavi Wakharkar

Pallavi Wakharkar’s story, “On Live” appears in the autumn 2023 issue of The Southern Review. Here she discusses creating the nostalgic setting of her story, the evolution of childhood friendships, and the process of revising the piece.

Emilie Rodriguez, Editorial Assistant: In this story, TJ and PJ are brought back to their child and teen selves in the physical space of the basement, and later Amber’s home. Why bring them back to these spaces to have this encounter with Amber?

Pallavi Wakharkar: In writing “On Live,” I was thinking about these characters’ past selves that have been paved over time and time again, and wanting to create a situation in which those past selves can arise, organically and uninvited. When we encounter them at age twenty-five, the boys have been growing apart from years, but I wanted to explore their older, sedimented selves; I felt as though the only way I could do so was by placing them in these important sites from their childhood and adolescence. I was interested in how their grown selves might fit, or not fit, back into these sites, which I wanted to imbue with a strange, nostalgic sanctity. The basement felt like a stale, familiar location in which the boys have convened in the past and continue to convene in the present when they visit home, if halfheartedly or out of habit alone—a kind of untouched shrine to their adolescence, an unused room that TJ’s family might never visit or redecorate. Whereas their bedrooms might be repurposed for guests or somehow sanitized in their absence, the basement, I imagined, would stay the same.

As for Amber’s home, I was thinking about my own childhood friends and their homes, which I remember with such clarity. I haven’t spoken to certain figures from my childhood and adolescence for years, and their families have since moved on from those homes (or even that city), but I can remember such vivid details about those living spaces (the painting of a horse’s eye, for example, was directly snatched from a memory I keep). I imagined Amber’s home as the site of many teenage parties and gatherings, a place without parental surveillance and therefore a place of great adolescent possibility. Bringing the boys back to this house, where they had some of their first coming-of-age experiences, felt like a way to enhance the uncanny, suspenseful aspects of the story I envisioned. Just like how, on those nights of past, Amber’s home was a territory of the unexpected, on this night, the night of Amber’s Facebook livestream, it is a place where the unexpected—and even the magical—might occur.

ER: Why did you choose to have TJ and PJ meet Amber and not just keep her on Facebook Live?

PW: As I was writing, I was thinking about how the story could escalate—how I could use the dwindling Facebook viewers to ratchet up tension, and what might happen when Amber notices the boys watching her. I wanted the boys to experience a flood of memory and emotion about Amber, but also wanted Amber to experience a similar remembrance for them. It felt almost inevitable as I was writing to create a situation in which the boys are the sole viewers of Amber’s livestream, and to have her notice them, acknowledge them. And once she had acknowledged them, I thought to myself, what next? How can I escalate further? To have her invite them over to her house was an intriguing idea that kept me writing. I wanted to know what would happen next, so I created a situation I was interested in plumbing. I didn’t quite know how it would end when I started out. So, in having Amber invite the boys to her house, I was enhancing the story’s mystery to myself as its writer, almost incentivizing myself to finish writing it.

The idea for this story came from a friend sharing an anecdote with me; they’d had a similar experience of sitting around at home with friends when someone stumbled upon a former roommate’s breakdown on Facebook Live. My friend described the oddness of it all, and I found it such an intriguing concept for a story. In “On Live,” I was interested in voyeurism and complicity. I wanted to create a situation in which characters feel conflicting emotions in watching the livestream—interested, yes, and unable to look away, but also sickened and confused over how to react. Did they have a responsibility as viewers to act, to help? It made sense to me to move PJ and TJ from the passive status of bystanders to the more active realm of showing up at Amber’s house, both from a story perspective, but also a human perspective.

ER: What I found especially interesting in your story is the resentment between TJ and PJ that’s also mixed with this incredible tenderness. For the most part, it goes unacknowledged between the two until the end. Why focus on this aspect of their friendship?

PW: Yes, there is definitely a mix of resentment and tenderness between the boys. I was interested in the mismatch between TJ and PJ—how they might not gravitate towards one another and form a friendship if they met as they are now, but how their deep history binds them together. At twenty-five, they’ve each gone to college separately and begun their various careers in different cities, exploring and solidifying who they are without one another, but when they return home, they collide. This collision requires that they confront not only each other, but also their own past selves, the versions of themselves that the other remembers and expects. This collision is strange and perhaps unpleasant, as they’re unable to be who they are now fully, always shadowed by the person they used to be, and always reverting to old dynamics and old habits—TJ being the dominant friend, and PJ the faithful follower. They aren’t who they used to be, but they also can’t escape who they used to be—not if they keep hanging out in TJ’s basement.

Beginning with this initial mismatch and unacknowledged discomfort with one another, I wanted the story to unfold each character and create complexity. I wanted to emphasize how being the only two boys of color in their school during early childhood created a bond between them, and how their familiarity with one another can be a comforting, grounding thing, too. The ending of the story creates an opportunity for them to remember their intimacy and what binds them (and create a new intimacy, too), despite all that has changed and will continue to change.

ER: There’s a conversation about consent and power in your story that’s really compelling, especially when we see PJ guiding his drunk date back to her dorm and he considers how he could do something horrible to her. Why include this?

PW: This brief moment of reflection from PJ about the drunk date was a much later addition to the story that felt like a crucial piece once added. My teacher in graduate school, the writer Tony Earley, read an earlier draft and commented on how the gentleness of the ending is shadowed by the fact that two stoned boys carrying a sleeping girl back to her room is an image full of ominous possibility. In a separate workshop, another early reader of the story, the writer Chris Bachelder, pointed out the “persistent threat of masculine violence” that the story engages.

This was a really interesting example of my readers being able to articulate an element of the story that I was surely cognizant of on a deeper level, but that I hadn’t yet articulated to myself. Writing the ending, I had such a strong knowledge that the boys would not, and never would, harm Amber, but certainly the threat is there. The anecdote about PJ’s drunk date years ago parallels the situation that the boys find themselves in by the end of the piece. I wanted to address this “threat of masculine violence” head-on, and for the character himself to address it—a sickening acknowledgment of the potential to harm, and the refusal to act on this potential.

ER: There’s a reversal of this suspenseful, dare I say spooky, atmosphere you create in your story at the end. Rather than being afraid of the maybe witch and Amber, PJ and TJ are more afraid of their base wants. What compelled you to use this method of telling this story?

PW: It’s interesting, I recently read from the beginning of this story at an event and a member of the audience similarly described the story as “scary.” I experience the story as more absurd and even darkly humorous than scary, and at places in which I expected the audience to laugh, they didn’t (and instead just stared at me in suspense). So maybe the story is far spookier than I had originally realized!

When I was writing and imagining the ending, I wanted to create a space for the boys to finally be truthful and emotionally intimate with one another. The witch’s demand that those who seek her be truthful about or “submit to” their desires becomes a possibility for the boys to do exactly that: to admit to each other what they might never otherwise. Whether the witch is truly there or not is something I wanted to remain ambiguous, but I wanted Amber’s conviction and belief in the witch to be clear—and I wanted her belief to lead the boys to the edge of their own belief. So I saw them less as being afraid of their admissions to one another, and more as being relieved by those admissions. As for what compelled me to end the story this way, I wanted Amber’s breakdown and the potential witch to act as a tool that brought the boys briefly closer to each other. Though whether this intimacy is lasting, I’m not sure.

ER: With two main characters, what was the process of revision like for this story?

PW: I had a difficult time deciding how I wanted to handle these characters, especially when it came to the story’s point of view. When I first began to write with the idea of the Facebook livestream in mind, I thought it would be humorous to explore a large group of overgrown manchildren as the viewers; I wrote in third-person and referred to them in a collective as “the boys,” which is consistent to how the story exists now. But I quickly realized as I was writing that I wanted to complicate these characters, to unfold them and draw them out of their hardened, simplistic exteriors, and this was difficult to do with a large group of “the boys.” So I pared it down to two boys. This choice made it easier to explore the particular terrain of their friendship with one another (and the power dynamics within it), as well as their relationship(s) to their current and past selves.

The story, in revision, has moved between third-person to first-person (from the point of view of PJ) back to third-person, as it exists now in The Southern Review. As I was writing, I found myself naturally more drawn to PJ as a character, and wondered how the story might grow or change if the story was told in his voice. (Indeed, this first-person version of the piece was the iteration originally accepted for publication by The Southern Review!) But in the first-person, though I could explore PJ further, I didn’t have access to the particularities of TJ’s experience, which felt crucial to the story, too. In the third-person, I was able to move between the two characters, collapsing them into a collective when it felt right to me, but also distinguishing them from one another, giving them their own histories and motivations and relationships to Amber. I settled upon the third-person as I enjoyed its expansiveness—the way I could poke fun at the boys with greater ease, but also, the way I could flesh out each of their inner experiences, moving back and forth between them (though I still privilege PJ a little bit).

ER: What projects do you have coming up?

PW: Thanks for asking! I’m steadily revising my short story collection, though most of my writing energy currently is funneled into the third draft of my novel. It’s tentatively titled Housesitting and follows a young Indian American woman through a series of back-to-back housesitting gigs in New York City. The novel is structured around the varied homes she occupies in a year’s time. In this project, as my narrator is an immigrant, I’m interested in drawing parallels between immigration and housesitting, two acts of making a home inside a place that is by definition not one’s own. I also explore my narrator’s attempts to find a sense of belonging, both within herself and within a community.

Pallavi Wakharkar is a writer from Phoenix. Her short fiction has been published in The Southern Review, swamp pink, The Iowa Review, Joyland Magazine, and elsewhere. In 2021, she received The Iowa Review Award in fiction for her short story “Simple Animal.” She earned a BA from the University of Pennsylvania and an MFA from Vanderbilt University. Before arriving at Oberlin, she taught at Colgate University, where she was the Olive B. O’Connor Fellow in Fiction.

Emilie Rodriguez is a Latinx writer, originally from San Diego. She is the editorial assistant for The Southern Review, an MFA candidate in Fiction at Louisiana State University, and the former editor-in-chief of the New Delta Review. Rodriguez won the 2023 Patty Friedman Writing Competition in the short story category. She is also a 2023 Sundress Academy of the Arts Resident. Her work is forthcoming in the Peauxdunque Review. 

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