An excerpt from beloved Los Angeles author and teacher Colette Sartor’s new short story collection, ONCE REMOVED, plus a Q&A with writer and AFLW contributor Luis Garcia Romero, in which the author delves into her generations of influence, from her strong, smart and ‘difficult’ Grandma Sartor to her own mother’s bookshelf of true crime and horror. Along the way, we get a close look at how a collection of stories becomes a thematically and structurally unified work of literature.
After Hannah finished scraping the decorative border from the nursery walls, she placed an ad in the university housing office. Summer break had just started, but within days someone called. Rune was her name. “Like the fortune-telling alphabet,” the girl said, her voice throaty and low. Hannah imagined thick black bangs veiling the girl’s eyes, a mouth tense with secret sorrow.
In person, there was nothing mysterious about her. She came to see the newly painted room when their quiet Cambridge neighborhood was shimmering with midday heat. Clive was at a lunch meeting. Hannah kept glancing over her shoulder as she led Rune upstairs. The girl’s petite frame made Hannah more aware of her own body, still unwieldy with baby weight. Tucked under the girl’s arm was an orange motorcycle helmet. Her short hair was spiky, inky roots giving way to shades of red. Henna tattoos snaked from beneath her jacket and encircled her slender fingers in ornate flourishes. She was remarkably chatty, hurling questions at Hannah in a breathy contralto. How long was the walk to campus, to the nearest bank and grocery store? Could she have overnight guests? And could she pay half the rent on the first and half on the fifteenth, just until school started and her financial aid kicked in? Hannah’s head started to pound.
When they reached the room, the girl strode past her, craning her neck at the crown molding. “Female students only,” Hannah had been careful to note in the ad. No dirty boxers piled everywhere, and a female tenant felt less intimidating. At the last minute she’d dragged in a wing chair from Clive’s office to angle by the window. A perfect study spot. Any college girl would love it.
“I guess this’ll work,” Rune said, tossing her helmet on the chair. She sat on the bed and bounced, as if testing the springs, then gazed at the wedding ring quilt, her lips curled in a half-smirk. Hannah pictured the quilt stuffed in the closet, replaced by a threadbare coverlet that smelled faintly tangy and unwashed.
Rune flopped back. “Stars and moons would be nice up there. Bishop and I had them. They glowed in the dark. We made up constellations. Cat eyes in the north, a witch’s wand in the south.” She rested her cheek on the quilt and stared at Hannah.
“My fiancé. Ex-fiancé.” There was the slightest hitch in her voice. She brushed her arms up and down, as if making angel’s wings in the snow. “He got the apartment. I got the scooter. He doesn’t know it yet.”
Downstairs, the front door opened. Clive’s footsteps thumped up the stairs.
“Come meet Rune,” Hannah called and stepped into the hallway. He stopped on the landing. “Who?”
“Our new tenant.” Like that, she’d committed herself. She hadn’t meant to and wouldn’t have if not for Clive’s knee-jerk frown. She itched to give him a little shove.
“Professor Jacobs, hi.” Rune stood in the doorway, her fists balled in her jacket pockets. “I didn’t know you lived here.”
“Have we met?” he said in his lecture voice. He smiled politely.
“I was in your urban myths class last fall.”
Hannah watched his expression glaze. Students passed through so quickly, he often complained, that he’d stopped trying to remember their names.
“I’m sorry,” he said. “You don’t look familiar.”
Rune waved her hand dismissively. Her tattooed fingers flickered through the air like butterflies. “I sat way in back.”
He peered into the room. “Is that my chair?”
“I left the other one,” Hannah said. Clive stared at her until she looked away.
“I guess we’ll be seeing more of each other,” he said to Rune and marched down the hall. His study door clicked shut, an unfriendly, obstinate sound.
Later that evening he leaned against the doorjamb between their bedroom and the master bathroom while Hannah brushed her teeth. From the television in the bedroom she could hear a program blaring about a teen rescued in March from her family’s handyman, who’d kept her captive for months. Hannah had been following the story, aching when the parents pled on the news for their daughter’s safe return.
Behind her, Clive said through a mouthful of something, “Did you check her credit or ask for references? Something’s not right about her.”
She stared at his reflection. He clutched a candy bag to his gut. His face had a ruddy tinge. She spit out her toothpaste.
“For God’s sake, she’s a college student. One of your students.”
“So she says. What do we know about her, really? She could steal us blind or shoot us in our sleep. I can’t believe you didn’t think about that.”
He sounded like his old self, vehement, impassioned, as if a circumscribed sliver had been dislodged, one that she had been yearning to butt up against. This was a man who could fend off regret, calm the memories that still ambushed her. She had been in the home stretch, then suddenly the emergency C-section. A morphine drip had burned in her arm; restraints had cut into her wrists. So briefly hers, the boy and the girl, with tiny, bluish nails and fluttering chests.
In the bathroom mirror she could see the bedroom TV flickering with images, first a sweet-faced blond girl, then the wild-haired, unwashed handyman turned kidnapper. These true crime shows, reporting the darkest events: day workers abducting little girls, children poisoning parents to collect on insurance policies. Husbands and wives drifting apart, unable to grasp the parameters of each other’s grief, the private rules of the other’s recovery. They needed this tattooed girl. Already she was getting them talking again.
“Clive, don’t you see—”
“Why would you take such a huge risk?”
“I’m trying to put us back on track.”
Instantly his expression went blank. “Right,” he said. “Business as usual.”
He turned away, shoveling more candy into his mouth. She wiped out the sink and pretended not to notice.
Excerpted from ONCE REMOVED with permission from the author.
Pandemic Survival, Writing Through Divides and L.A.’s Literary Community: Q&A Between Colette Sartor and Luis Garcia Romero:
Luis Garcia Romero: Your new collection includes several stories in which strong women strive to maintain or develop relationships, even as they struggle to decide if those connections are beneficial to them. What draws you to that conflict?
Colette Sartor: I was raised in a family of strong, smart women who, if they had been men, would have been celebrated as driven visionaries. Instead, they wore one of two labels: “difficult” or “emotional.” Being difficult was by far preferred. It meant you had a shot at making it in a man’s world, where, according to my family’s motto, “if you piss like a puppy, you can’t play with the big dogs.”
Being emotional meant you pissed like a puppy. You let people see you sweat. You showed when you were hurting, or, god forgive, you cried in public.
Difficult women like my paternal grandmother played with the big dogs. Grandma Sartor—who was the inspiration for Rose DiCorscia, a recurring character in ONCE REMOVED—was ambitious, manipulative, aggressive. For 25 years she owned a sweatshop where 25 Italian women sewed snowsuit and sportswear pieces that were assembled elsewhere into finished products and sold worldwide. She was an active leader in local unions and local politics, serving for years as a Bergan County committeewoman. She was also feminine, handsome instead of beautiful and exquisitely dressed, her nails done, her hair coiffed, as if she wanted people to think she was just another demure woman; as if she wanted them to underestimate her. When they did, she found ways to best them, then pay them back tenfold. She believed in revenge as well as grudges, the harsher the better.
Her emotions, though, she kept close. Satisfaction and anger were acceptable, even happiness if it didn’t make her appear weak. Everything else she repressed, which made it difficult for her to form close friendships, especially with women. She viewed them as her competition. But she also was incapable of offering the vulnerability that true friendship requires. She feared being vulnerable; being a puppy.
The source of that fear was her family’s poverty and loss instigated by the 1918 flu pandemic. She was 9 years old when she watched three siblings die from the flu, probably at home in their shared beds. Soon after, her devastated father drank himself to death, leaving her mother alone to raise the four remaining children and manage the small dairy farm. There was no one to help. My grandmother’s grandparents had disowned her mother when she ran away to the United States with her husband, the family’s gardener. So my grandmother’s mother was the sole source of her children’s survival. That burden made her demanding, distant, unforgiving. My grandmother no longer felt like her child but instead like a worker commandeered to claw the family out of poverty. She and her siblings, all under the age of 10, helped with everything on the farm, including milk deliveries before dawn. On especially cold mornings, they bundled themselves in coats lined with newspapers and shoes wrapped with burlap. When her mother deemed them old enough, they each left school—a luxury they couldn’t afford—to find jobs that would bring in more cash. My grandmother was a smart, observant child who loved school. Still, she traded sixth grade for a factory job. She also learned to trust no one, to depend only on herself, to achieve success by any means.
My grandmother’s history—and her unconditional love of me and my identical twin sister, who were her first grandchildren—made me more accepting of her negative traits, like her penchant for lying and spreading rumors to get what she wanted; like the cruelties—small and large—she wrought on my mother, whose mere presence she resented and whose name she mangled for almost 50 years. Still, I forgave her. I knew what she had suffered, how those experiences had hardened her, made her into someone she might not have been otherwise.
But I would never be her. I wasn’t as driven or single-minded. I couldn’t fathom making some of the less savory sacrifices she’d made to succeed. I also couldn’t hide my emotions the way she did. Because that’s what I eventually understood. It wasn’t that she lacked empathy or sadness or the ability to grieve. Rather, she learned to hide any emotion that left her vulnerable and threatened her survival.
Now, more than a century later, I find myself amidst a deadly pandemic, worried about keeping my family safe while staying afloat financially. I dread that we will wind up where my grandmother’s family did: ravaged by loss, fighting to rebuild in the outbreak’s aftermath. I remind myself during sleepless nights that I am far more privileged than my grandmother and her mother. I have an excellent education, a job that allows me to work from home. My husband also works mostly from home and our son does his schoolwork online. When we’re forced to venture into the world, we wear masks, arm ourselves with hand sanitizer and disinfectant wipes. We’ve banked a small emergency fund, and we have extended family and loved ones to rely upon.
Now, more than a century later, I find myself amidst a deadly pandemic, worried about keeping my family safe while staying afloat financially. I dread that my family will wind up where my grandmother’s did: ravaged by loss, fighting to rebuild in the outbreak’s aftermath.
Even so, I’m not sure I would have the temerity to rebuild myself the way my grandmother and her mother did. Maybe privilege has made me too much of a puppy, too emotional and hesitant to grapple with hardship and (mostly) win. I pray that I’m not forced to find out. Not now. Not during these times rampant with disease, racism, violence. I can’t control whether that prayer will be answered any better than I can predict how I will react if disaster descends on my home and loved ones. What I can do, though—what I have an obligation to do—is to keep myself and family safe while also finding ways to safeguard our community. Our country’s current, chaotic circumstances—an unchecked, deadly pandemic, racial violence and systemic corruption so overt and horrific that it has spawned an age of protests our federal government seeks to thwart by any means—are largely a result of the “me first” attitude perpetuated by our administration. So, even as I shelter at home, I have an obligation to protect and better our community. I can wear masks in public, always; I can attend protests, write postcards and letters to politicians, educate myself about my own unconscious biases; listen and really hear when Black people and others of color talk about how their lives have been shaped and savaged daily by fear and hate.
And I can write. I can explore different scenarios in which my characters are tested to stand strong in their principles and to embrace what they don’t understand. I can challenge their tendency toward complacency by putting them in circumstances that force them to confront their own failure to see the world as it really is, with all its ugliness and oppression.
LGR: Rose, the great matriarch of the book, often cautions about the Italian superstition known as “Il Malocchio,” the Evil Eye that brings misfortune to those it befalls. It seems fitting then that many of your stories sustain a sense of looming menace. Do you have an affinity for stories heavy in tension, or do you simply allow your characters to dictate the tone of the story?
CS: I love that phrase, “sense of looming menace.” Thank you. I do have an affinity for suspense-filled stories that leave me tense and unsettled. I get that from my mom, who was a journalist and had her own PR firm for decades. She loved to tell stories, especially about the haunted house where she grew up. She also was a voracious reader. Our bookshelves were a jumble of literature, horror, true crime. The horror and true crime books—Carrie, Children of the Corn, Sybil, The Exorcist, Helter Skelter—fascinated me most, even though I was too terrified even to touch them. Still, I wanted to understand what made them so scary and why my mother loved them.
For a while I settled for Nancy Drew and Agatha Christie mysteries, comfortingly predictable but not at all frightening. Then, one day, when my twin sister and I were about 10, my mother dropped us off at the local library while she ran errands, which was our favorite way to spend an afternoon. (This was when people still dropped off kids at the library, the movies, the park without worrying about abductions.) While scouring the shelves for something new to read, I discovered Daphne Du Maurier. I sat down in the aisle and devoured most of Rebecca. Much tamer fare than The Exorcist yet fascinatingly tense. I worked my way through Du Maurier’s novels and moved on to other romantic, noir-ish ones. I discovered it wasn’t the horrific or gruesome aspects of stories I found most compelling. It was the suspense and tension.
From there, I sought out anything mysterious or fraught, first getting hooked on Stephen King—I’m still a fan, though I prefer books like The Stand and 11/23/64, which are more suspense than horror-driven—then expanded my tastes to include other thrillers, mainstream and literary alike. These days, I’m an avid fan of Tana French, Megan Abbott, Kate Atkinson, Sarah Waters and Ian McEwan. They’re writers who all have an astonishing ability to make me fall in love with complex, often dislikable characters and then devastate me by allowing terrible things to happen to those characters. I aspire to nurture that ability in myself.
As for the second part of your question: although I’m drawn to tense stories, I try not to force that affinity on my characters. Instead, I follow their guidance and allow them to tell the story they want to tell. It helps that they usually want to tell stories about times when they’ve been pushed to the limits of their patience or fears. Those limits don’t always include life-threatening events. They’re often quiet, commonplace catastrophes. But I’ve discovered that those moments can give rise to as much suspense, grief and anxiety as the darkest thriller. So if those are the stories my characters want to tell, I’m happy to help tell them.
LGR: One of the most compelling aspects of your book is the reappearance of characters in later stories, and how those reappearances alter the resonance and meaning of an earlier story. How did you decide when and how to reveal new story threads to give your collection its full effect?
CS: This collection developed over the course of many years and didn’t start out being closely linked. In fact, I didn’t set out to write a short story collection at all. I returned to short stories after abandoning a terrible novel in graduate school. I wanted to teach myself to tell a better story so I could write a better novel. Consequently, I wrote the oldest stories in ONCE REMOVED not just because I loved the characters and the conflicts they faced but also because I wanted to explore a particular aspect of craft. For instance, I wrote “La Cuesta Encantada,” the final story in the collection, to teach myself to weave together different plotlines and time periods so that they eventually converged in a meaningful way. It took me years and countless drafts to finish “La Cuesta,” which was always about Althea’s marriage to Owen as well as her friendships with Irene and Beatrice, but which originally took place in a Sedona gift shop over the course of a few days. It wasn’t until I visited the Cambria area and fell in love with elephant seals and Hearst Castle that I decided to set the story there and to explore three different storylines during three different time periods that spanned decades. My model was “The Year of Getting to Know Us” by Ethan Canin. It’s one of my favorite stories, with an ambitious structure that pays off handsomely. “La Cuesta” needed to sit for years (probably 15, to be honest) until I developed a better understanding of craft and could figure out the middle storyline as well as how to successfully bring all three storylines to fruition in a way that resonated in present day, which, ultimately, is the main storyline.
After several years of pretending I was writing stories solely to improve my writing craft, I admitted I wasn’t just writing stories to help me be a better novelist; I was writing them because I loved the puzzle of putting them together, and because they suited my characters, who needed some breathing space before venturing into other stories, which I discovered they wanted to do. It was fun having them pop up in each other’s worlds and reveal more of themselves. Even so, I wasn’t sure why certain characters kept reappearing. What unfinished business did they have, and why were they usually supporting characters instead of main ones? Instead of addressing those issues when I finally decided to create a story collection, I just put whichever stories felt finished in a single document, came up with a title that didn’t make sense even to me and started entering the manuscript in contests.
Many rejections later, I forced myself to analyze what connected my stories and characters. I took myself on a solo DIY writing retreat back east a few years ago, where I mapped out a timeline of my stories, both the standalones and the linked ones, to figure out how they fit together temporally. I found that I had to jigger and rejigger the timeline, not just because the recurring characters aged as the stories progressed, but also because there were thematic connections that wouldn’t make sense unless the stories appeared in a certain order and were rewritten to better capture those connections. For instance, during that trip, I made the connection that Kyle and Aiden, the father and son in “Daredevil,” were also the father and son in “Once Removed,” in large part because their bond presented a particularly tough obstacle for Sylvie, the narrator of “Once Removed,” whose own intimacy issues made her hesitant to make room in her life for a child. That connection led me to realize that Aiden and his mom, Grace, the main character in “Daredevil,” needed to recur at least once more midway through the collection so that readers would see Aiden develop over the course of the book.
Maybe the best organizing principle for the collection came from Matthew Limpide, a wonderful editor I consulted near the end of assembling the collection. I’d been using ONCE REMOVED as the working title for quite a while, but it was Matthew who suggested using the phrase’s definition to help organize the collection. His idea was to start with a story in which the characters were most distantly related by blood and then to work toward the middle with stories where kinship and intimacy were more intertwined, then, from midpoint to the end, work toward the final story where kinship wasn’t at all blood-related but instead based solely on the intimate ties the characters have chosen to build over time.
The penultimate story, “Malocchio,” however, didn’t follow this rule. That one I purposefully placed near the end, after its main character, Rose, was cemented in previous stories as a strong, willful personality, someone whose background deserved exploration. Rose can be such a destructive character that I wanted to humanize her by allowing her to show some vulnerability. I knew she wouldn’t do that as an adult, especially in the first-person point of view, so “Malocchio” became a story she tells about herself as a child.
LGR: Your stories primarily are set in New Jersey and Los Angeles. How do those disparate cultures inform your work and life as a writer?
CS: I grew up in New Jersey, where I was steeped in Italian-American culture. New Jersey is heavily Italian American, and both my parents are second generation Italian Americans whose own parents clung to Italian traditions. Plus, Mom and Dad have large extended families—uncles, aunts, too many cousins to count—who also live in Jersey and rarely miss the opportunity to gather and celebrate some event or another. Consequently, I’ve been surrounded by that culture from the minute I was born, when my mother had to argue the grandmothers out of piercing my ears, a tradition they insisted dated back centuries in Italy. Italian culture is so integral to my identity that it permeates much of my writing. The food, the lore, the family history can’t help but seep in.
Still, I wound up in Los Angeles largely because I needed to escape that same culture, which expected me to prioritize being a suburban mother and homemaker over all else. I wanted more: a career in a big city with great restaurants, movie theaters and museums around every corner. I wanted outdoor space and a car (that’s the suburbs brat in me). I especially wanted the anonymity of living in a densely populated area where not everyone knew my business and had opinions about it. I could have all that in Los Angeles, a city known for its car culture as well as its superficiality.
I’ve also become more active in L.A. writing communities that have moved online, especially Women Who Submit, an incredible organization whose mission is to empower women writers and encourage them to submit their work.
What I’ve come to appreciate after decades of living here is that, despite its rap as a disconnected culture, L.A. actually provides plenty of opportunities to forge unexpected relationships, even for emotionally cautious people like me. It takes effort and pushes me outside my comfort zone in the best possible way. I’ve also worked hard to create a strong community of friends and like-minded writers. I’ve pushed myself to become more outgoing and open, to become the kind of person who checks in with her neighbors and stops to chat while walking the dog. I’ve become a regular at my local Peets, where I have coffeeshop buddies to gossip with daily—at least, pre-pandemic, I was that regular with coffeeshop buddies.
Even now, though, when most of the usual opportunities to connect aren’t available during L.A’s ongoing Covid lockdown, I push myself to reach out and create the sense of community I’ve come to rely on. When I run into people on dog walks, I still stop to chat, though from opposite street corners, my mask firmly in place. I trade recipes with neighbors and share herbs from my husband’s garden. My longtime writing group is still going strong on Zoom, as is a newer, smaller group. I’ve also become more active in L.A. writing communities that have moved online, especially Women Who Submit, an incredible organization whose mission is to empower women writers and encourage them to submit their work.
These may seem like mundane accomplishments, but they’re major feats for me. I’ve pushed myself beyond my comfort zones. I have to if I expect it of my characters. So maybe that’s why Los Angeles appears so often in my writing: it’s the place that has best taught me to test my limits, an experience I, in turn, can pass on to my characters.
LGR: Are there any authors that haunt your writing, either by inspiring and guiding you or by making you wary of their influence?
CS: Alice Munro and Jhumpa Lahiri immediately come to mind as authors who inspire and guide me. Their richly realized characters are so driven by desire that I feel deeply invested in their every move, and I’m devastated when bad things happen to them. I strive to achieve in my own work even a fraction of the emotional impact on my readers that those authors’ stories have on me.
I try not to fear any writer’s influence, though I live in terror of being a melodramatic, sketchy writer who leans on plot-driven stories with characters motivated by authorial desires instead of their own.
LGR: What projects are you currently working on, and what can we expect to read from you in the future?
CS: I tend to work on several projects at once. That way, when I’m stuck on one, I can move to something else and feel like less of a failure. Right now, I’ve got two main projects going. One is another short story collection, Tell the Bees, inspired by various oddities, including: the cloning of Trakr, a search-and-rescue German Shepherd who discovered the last 9-11 World Trade Center survivor; a phone booth in Japan where people make pilgrimages to call dead loved ones; and the “Tell the Bees” exhibit at the Museum of Jurassic Technology, which depicts folk remedies from world cultures like eating dead mouse toast to cure bed wetting. Most of these stories are in their early phases, and at least one of them involves some of ONCE REMOVED‘s recurring characters, who clearly have more to say than I realized.
These new stories are evolving in ways I hadn’t imagined as the seeds of current catastrophes plant themselves and take root. Usually, I find it difficult to incorporate current events into my work. I need time to contemplate, to draw connections and reach conclusions. But with the confluence of events right now—the pandemic, the spectacle of our federal government’s complete lack of leadership in the face of Covid and systemic racism and brutality, the surge of the Black Lives Matter movement and outpouring of protests and demands for change—I find myself incorporating into these new stories my fury, my helplessness, my desire to effect on my own some small measure of change while also joining forces with others to produce bigger, more radical changes.
The same is true of my other big project, Piecework, a novel based on a murder my grudge-holding, sweatshop-owning Grandma Sartor helped cover up in the ’70s. In the novel, Connie DiCorscia’s already tumultuous life is upended when a lockbox discovered buried beneath a patio makes her question what her mother, Rose, really knows about the decades-old disappearance of Rose’s best—and only—friend, Vida, a Columbian seamstress who worked in Rose’s shop in the ‘80s.
The book is set in Fairview, New Jersey, and switches between the early 2000s and the 1980s. The ‘80s were particularly fraught with racism, especially in Jersey, where immigrant factions worked in powerful opposition to each other. That history of racism has a profound effect on my novel because of the bond between Rose and Vida. The friendship between them would have been rare back then. Rose was racist, consciously so. She wouldn’t have crossed the racial divide between her and Vida unless forced to do so. Vida wouldn’t have wanted to involve herself with Rose either. She would have been suspicious of Rose’s motives, rightly so; she would have known that to befriend Rose could leave her open to harm. Yet, in Piecework, their relationship evolves into true friendship, the loss of which Rose grieves across decades.
Normally, to depict the evolution of such an unlikely friendship in an authentic way, I would do online research and rely on memories of my grandmother, as well as discussions with friends and relatives who lived through those times. Now, though, I understand I need to do more. I can’t simply present Rose as a product of her times. I have to examine my own unconscious biases and microaggressions and how they influence the stories I tell. I have to populate my fictive worlds with the diversity that surrounds me—and would have surrounded Rose and Vida and do so in an inclusive way. I have to educate myself by reading books, attending protests and seminars, finding some way every day to understand what it is to walk through this world without the privilege of my skin color. Only then will I be able to write a novel where Rose’s grief over the disappearance of Vida, her one real friend, sings with authenticity and deserves to be read.
As for what to expect from me next: my goal is to publish more short stories while I’m working on both Piecework and Tell the Bees, which will keep me motivated to write. The potential to publish is a great motivator. Every writer wants to be read by someone other than family members, and it’s (usually) faster to publish individual stories than novels. Besides, I can’t seem to stop writing short stories. Characters outside of Piecework keep clamoring for a chance to voice their opinions. Who am I to say no?
Colette Sartor’s linked short story collection ONCE REMOVED (UGA Press) received the Flannery O’Connor Award for Short Fiction. Her stories and essays have appeared in, The Chicago Tribune, Kenyon Review Online, Slice Magazine, Carve Magazine, Colorado Review, Harvard Review, and elsewhere. In addition to the Flannery O’Connor Award, she has won a Writers@Work Fiction Prize, a Glenna Luschei Prairie Schooner Award, a Reynolds Price Short Fiction Award, and a Truman Capote fellowship from the Iowa Writers’ Workshop, where she completed her MFA. She teaches at the UCLA Extension Writers’ Program, as well as privately and is an Executive Director of CineStory, a mentoring organization for emerging TV writers and screenwriters.