Navigating Post-Pandemic Writing: Chris Vanjonack Opens Up About “Open Spaces”


In the following interview, author Chris Vanjonack discusses his writing process for “Open Spaces,” featured in Volume 73.1 of Shenandoah, as it relates to loneliness and isolation felt during the COVID-19 pandemic. Read “Open Spaces” here.



What inspired you to write this piece? What specifically inspired the pandemic setting of this story?


I was in my first year of my MFA when COVID hit, and, with practically my entire world suddenly online, that summer I moved back to my hometown of Denver, Colorado to be closer to my family and friends, many of whom had also just returned on account of it feeling like the world was ending. For as awful and scary as it was to live alone through the pandemic, I was never really lonely during that period, in part because all of a sudden I was able to see all these people that I loved all the time—on distanced walks, or in backyards, or six feet apart from each other in public parks, or on Zoom happy hours or late night Discord calls whenever it was too cold to meet up outside. Obviously I was in an incredibly privileged position to experience the pandemic in this way, and it was really unsettling to notice that, in the middle of this horrific period of death and loss and isolation, there were elements of my weekly routine that felt comfortable or even pleasurable, so much so that, for as excited as I was to get vaccinated and resume some semblance of normalcy, there was a part of me that was really nervous about it. I thought there was a germ of an idea in that feeling, and so that ended up being the basis for the narrator’s arc throughout “Open Spaces.”



What sort of research was done in this process?


I forget how this started, exactly, but at some point during the winter of that first pandemic year, I got in the habit of staying up very late with some friends over Discord and going down weird Wikipedia rabbit holes about local urban legends. The alleged lore about Cheesman Park that appears in the opening scene of the story is 100% true—although it’s likely just conjecture that it inspired Poltergeist—and I remember being fascinated that this park I had spent so much time in had this sordid history.


All through the pandemic I’d been wondering about what it must have been like for people who had just met via Tinder to have their first couple dates in a public park six feet away for another, and I thought, well, what if that first date was at Cheeseman? And what if it started raining? And what if the rain brought some buried bones up to the surface? The premise of story blossomed out from there, and I started spending those late nights making a directory of all the public, state, and national parks across the United States I could find that were rumored to be haunted. There’s no master list available online, if you can believe it, but if you Google individual states and add the phrase “haunted park” to the search, you end up on these pretty silly local websites that catalogue some of these places. I ended up compiling a pretty large Excel spreadsheet of about one hundred allegedly haunted parks, organized by state, with a couple sentences on the lore of each given park. There were some that I couldn’t fit in that really wish I could have found a place for, particularly Cave-In Rock State Park, out in Illinois, where you can allegedly hear ghostly moans echoing all throughout the cave system.



Was there a reason behind the order of travel through the US? What were your reasonings behind the ending?


In terms of deciding the route that they would take, it was mostly just a matter of looking at a map and trying to think through what an actual route might look like if someone were to actually try and take this road trip to hit all these different haunted parks. There are definitely liberties taken with the route, which is one reason why the story is organized by geographic region. Setting a great deal of the action in a sort of nebulous lyric time of their experiences in each part of the country gave me a bit more flexibility with regards to the order that parks would be presented in. As for why the narrator ends up in the South at the end of the story, there wasn’t any real reason for it, other than that made sense geographically as the last part of the country he’d visit along his journey, and also because as soon as I read up about the alleged haunting of Grandfather Mountain State Park—an old man hiking up and down a trail all day long—I knew that was the image that I wanted to end the story on.



This story seems to have one in reality and one foot in fiction, where did you find yourself taking creative liberties and playing off of your research?


With maybe a handful of creative liberties, almost every haunting that we see in the story is representative of the lore associated with whatever park they’re visiting. That being said, what mattered most to me was the arc of the story and making sure that it fit with these characters and the resolution that I had in mind for them.


If someone reads the story and has a moment of recognition when the story passes through their neck of the woods and a park that they may be familiar with, I think that’s great, but it’s also not even remotely the most important part of the story, so I never really felt too beholden to the research.



How does working within a literary magazine influence your own writing style or the pieces you choose to submit to others?


I’ve read for a couple literary magazines over the years—Ninth Letter, Quarterly West, No Contact, and Electric Literature—and what all those experiences really emphasized is the importance of the first couple of pages and making sure that you’re really putting your best foot forward immediately. Most literary magazine readers are doing so as students, interns, or volunteers, and they’re combing through such a herculean amount of material in the slush pile that, if that first page isn’t engaging, it’s probably getting skipped over in the Submittable queue. I think in some ways this is true of general readers, too, and so in my short fiction I really try and make sure that the elevator pitch is present in the first page or two.



How do you go about choosing a concept and submitting it to various different magazines? Do you consider if the magazine aligns with your story?


I usually end up submitting the stories that I’m passionate about, which is to say that, for the most part, I end up submitting the stories that I finish. A lot of journals will say that the best way to get a sense for what they’re looking for is to actually read a full issue of the magazine, and although I’m not sure if it’s entirely realistic for writers to read entire issues of every single journal that they’re submitting to, I find it helpful to read at least a story or two so that I have a sense if my work aligns with their aesthetic.



Where do you see the main character of the story post pandemic? If you could extend the story, what do you think his life would look like?


I usually try to end my stories in a place where you might have kind of an idea as to what comes next for the main characters, even if you couldn’t really really say what the specifics of that might look like. For a lot of people, the pre-vaccination phase of the pandemic feels a little like an incredibly vivid dream by this point, and regardless of how much better or worse things end up going for the narrator, I think that’s probably how he looks back on his experiences in this story.



The vaccination seems to be a prevalent theme in the story, and it seems like Sarah is more open to the idea and holding onto that one string of hope for the vaccination, whereas Sarah is his string of hope in this dark time. How did you characterize the two in terms of how they felt about the pandemic and how they reflect upon each other?


Even though COVID-19 is not directly named in the story, I wanted what we see of the pandemic’s trajectory to mostly mirror the arc of the how that first year of COVID really went down. In using that framework, it was helpful at the time of writing to have the promise of vaccination as a built-in landing point for the story, this looming inevitably that Sarah views as a godsend, and the narrator views as this sort of existential threat to their status quo.



We’d like to open the floor for you to tell us anything else.


I do want to say that I’m curious as to how fiction writers are going to navigate telling stories about the pandemic moving forward. I think for the most part, it’s not something that audiences are particularly interested in reading about, and, truthfully, without the supernatural element, I don’t know that I would have been all that eager to write a story about social distancing in the first place. The stakes in “Open Spaces”—loneliness and isolation, primarily—now feel much more solipsistic and much less urgent to me than they did back in 2021, and I wonder about how we’ll write and think about that period the further we get away from it. That being said, we’re still very much living in the pandemic, and the virus—and our government’s refusal to meaningfully address it—has ended and disrupted so many lives. I think it’s a real failure of imagination to pretend for even a second that it’s the kind of thing that writers can just ignore entirely.

Chris Vanjonack’s fiction and creative nonfiction appear or are forthcoming in One Story, Barrelhouse, Electric Literature, Ninth Letter, DIAGRAM, and elsewhere. He holds an MFA from the University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign, and he writes and teaches at the Ohio State University as a Post-MFA Scholar. Find him on Twitter @chrisvanjonack.