Christine Pivovar’s story, “Love in the Time of Communists,” appears in Vol. 33.1 of The Southeast Review. Purchase the issue here.
Tell us a little bit about your story, “Love in the Time of Communists,” and what inspired it.
When the tram creaks to a halt at the last stop before it crosses the Vltava River into the tourist center of Prague’s Old Town, an automated woman’s voice calls out the name of the station, “Malostranská,” in a deep, rich timbre, trilling off the “str” and drawing out the final “a.” I loved that sound when I visited a few years ago. More than the smell of snow in the air and the muted view of fog hanging low over red rooftops, it was that sound that stuck with me and made the dark, wintered city feel a little more friendly. I wanted to write a story about that sound.
A lot of my short stories take place in European cities. I can’t tell you why, exactly, except that since I was a child, writing for me has been a way to play make believe—imagining what it might feel like to be in a completely different time, circumstance, or country; to live lives I couldn’t experience any other way. And then, after I got to do a bit of actual traveling, setting stories in places I’d been seemed like the perfect way to meld my instinct to document what I’d found there and my desire to continue exploring. So I wanted to be a writer of place.
I found, though, that even if you can decorate your setting description with pretty words like the pastel-frosting trim on fairy-tale buildings or throw together a collection of quirky characters and outlandish happenings, it takes some digging to find a real story. “Love in the Time of Communists” is one of my favorite pieces, maybe because it was so difficult to get right. It took a long time to coalesce because for a long time I couldn’t articulate to myself what I wanted to say, or more importantly, what these characters’ deals were.
Most of what I learned as a writer between the time when I started this story and revised it into its finished form was how to balance place with character. I learned to let the setting move the characters through the story rather than writing a plot that simply moves characters through a setting.
I needed to know what desires and ideas and interests moved the characters, and in order to do that I had to learn more about what I was trying to do with this whole writing stories thing. I had become interested in Central Europe through my own family history, and so the backstory of this piece became a way to play with some ideas about family stories and the way the past of a place bleeds through to the present. From the outset, I knew I also wanted to say something about our current world and the anxieties it comes with. The final development of my process was to connect the past we romanticize with the present that can seem mundane or flat in comparison. In the end, I think I’m suggesting that, as separate as they feel, the past and the present are more similar and more connected than we often realize.
Christine Pivovar grew up in Denver and Omaha and now lives in Kansas City. She is a regular book reviewer for the Kansas City Star, and her writing has been featured in Stymie and Hot Metal Bridge. Areas of expertise include college baseball and dropping James Joyce facts in everyday conversation.