This summer, I had the privilege to speak online with writer Cora Ballek to discuss her story “The Last Snowfall”. We discussed everything from content and form to inspiration and art as a dialogue.
The following interview took place via Zoom and has been edited for clarity.
Cora Ballek is a sophomore studying Environmental Policy and Music at UC Davis. In her free time, she writes prose and poetry, composes and records music, beatboxes, and builds with Lego. Her work has previously appeared in Open Ceilings and The Palouse Review.
Berkeley Fiction Review: Okay, first question last snowfall is sort of a comforting dystopia. What was the inspiration inspiration for this piece?
Cora Ballek: So, I first started thinking about this concept in senior year of high school, which is like three years ago now, as we were reading the Morikami short stories, very typical thing to read in high school, I think. His short stories are all kind of like, they’re mostly ordinary, but then one really weird thing happens. So, my initial concept kind of went off of that and it did not look great. I mean it just, it was fine but it wasn’t a particularly good story so I let it sit for several years until I finally had the idea to revisit it, doing what I did in the final version. Looking at the same idea from a bunch of different angles. Yeah, I’m curious why you felt that it was a comforting dystopia.
BFR: Just the tone, to me felt like it wasn’t like sudden and aggressive. It was comforting in the tone but dystopian in the content and, obviously, you know, what was going on. I don’t know, I just really enjoyed the way you wrote that because it didn’t really throw me into some state of, you know, panic. It made me feel okay with like a horrible situation, I guess.
Cora Ballek: Hmm. That’s really interesting. I really appreciate hearing about that and thank you. Yeah, I think it’s interesting because I didn’t mean for it to be particularly comforting. But I mean, it is what it is, it’s kind of out of my hands now how readers perceive it.
BFR: Oh, I mean everybody perceives it differently so that was probably just unique to me. But yeah, I was very curious, I know you said that you got the inspiration for this in high school, but just the dystopian themes that were running through made me wonder if the pandemic had any influence on it. If it like made you want to rewrite that or revisit that concept.
Cora Ballek: Um, consciously, no, subconsciously, probably. I mean there’s no way it couldn’t have influenced my writing somehow. I think that pandemic, it’s just a really concrete example for everyone of “you don’t know what you have until it’s gone.” You know, we don’t exactly realize how great it is to just, like, be near people and talk to people without masks until we have to wear masks and social distance. And, and the same thing is true for all these. For example, snow, although that’s more of a metaphor, but the same thing is true for all manner of environmental things happening right now.
BFR: Yeah, absolutely.
Cora Ballek: In our time, There’s this big sense from all sorts of different angles of we’re losing things that we didn’t know we valued, and the pandemic just like expanded that sense by several.
BFR: It’s definitely been a year, especially with all the fires last year in Australia and all of that it’s definitely been kind of insane. But I was also wondering, the style of last snowfall is so, so amazing and I think it really works with the story. What made you decide to write that way or what did you draw inspiration from?
Cora Ballek: So this is interesting, I can’t take full credit for the kind of kaleidoscopic or multi modal, approach, where I retell the same thing over and over again but different. I’m obviously not the first one to do that. I first saw that was in “The Ones Who Walk Away From Omelas” by Ursula K. Le Gwynn, and not the story itself, It was a response to that story. I don’t know who the author is because it wasn’t signed, I was never able to find who originally posted this online. I just I found it, and it did something much like this, much like what I did, where it took scenarios from the short story and then it would just put a bunch a different spins on this concept of, there’s one child who suffers so that nobody else has to suffer. What if there’s actually 10,000 children suffering but everyone has shown a different child? What if you take the child away and nothing happens? What if you take the child away and everything is worse in some weird unmeasurable way that’s not easily quantifiable, but technically true? It just explores all these different concepts, and I remembered that late at night while I was already in bed, I was like this, this will work for The Last Snowfall story. I did do it, I did a wind up approaching it quite differently. So, that’s where I got it from, but it is very much my own take on the idea.
BFR: Yeah, I love the way you described it as kaleidoscopic. I think you put it very beautifully. Was there any specific message you wanted your piece to can convey or any feelings you wanted to provoke in the audience?
Cora Ballek: I think so. I mean, while I was writing it I was just really intent on the actual text and I wasn’t thinking much about the messaging behind it, but I did want to communicate this idea of like, the fact that we’re living in an age of lasts as much as an age of firsts. We’re constantly losing languages and species and whether it’s shifting. For example, I grew up in Germany, and I mean they used to have regular snowfall every winter and now it’s much more sporadic. It does it hasn’t gone away, but you can’t necessarily count on it — oh gosh, if that’s wrong, it’s gonna suck, because I haven’t actually been there in winter in a while — but, I mean, this is definitely a thing where places that usually would get ample amounts of snow in winter are no longer necessarily getting those. So, I don’t think we’ll ever actually have a last snowfall on Earth. If we did, we would have, way bigger problems. Just the idea that we’re constantly losing stuff and we’re not even really aware of what we’re losing at any given time until we’ve lost it. Yeah, I think that’s tied into that.
BFR: I think that’s a really powerful message, but yeah, continue.
Cora Ballek: That was kind of on accident, too, I just I wrote the final line and I was like, oh, that’s what the story is about!
BFR: Sometimes I feel like that’s how it has to happen.
Cora Ballek: The other idea was also just, there’s a real sense of uncertainty in the story I think, because once you catch on to the concept of it, you never know what the next scenario is going to be: is it going to be something innocent like, oh, the parents let their kids play in the snow and let them live joyfully, or is it going to be nature wiping out humanity? Those all happen in the story. And that’s, I mean very much a real thing: we had Texas freeze over, we’re having heat waves in places that never get this hot, so I guess I’m exploring that sense of increased uncertainty that comes with climate change.
BFR: Yeah, I mean, you know, they say ignorance is bliss and that is, I feel like, very true of a lot of things but also very unfortunate, you know, because we should all do our part. But even talking to you now, it’s so interesting. There was a phrase you said that just like stuck with me: an age of lasts as much as an age of first. Even just speaking to you now, it’s like you’re speaking in poetry. It’s like very clear that you huge talent for this. I know that you’ve had a few other works published, how did you start writing poetry?
Cora Ballek: This is a bit of an awkward story. But in essence, I have a really close friend, and in 10th grade, I found out that she writes poetry. It was the best poetry had ever seen. I mean, at least at the time, because I didn’t typically read a lot of poetry. It blew me away. And something in my head went, I want to do that, and then I started writing poetry, and I haven’t stopped since. Which is also really cool to be able to share that with a friend and kind of exchange poems back and forth. It’s a good way to get started, I think.
BFR: I feel like art is kind of like dialogue, you know, it’s like a conversation because everybody’s constantly reworking and getting inspired by other people’s art which is really cool, and it sounds like that’s exactly what happened for you. But do you have any other inspirations, ls there anything that is like a muse to you?
Cora Ballek: I struggled with this question but when I was thinking about them. I definitely, for this particular piece, I took a lot of inspiration from slam poetry. And I guess that also goes for my more poetic writing in general. I’ve listened to a lot of slam poetry, not so much recently, but it stuck with me. So that style of delivery, that style of phrasing, and the way signposts emphasize speech, it’s it’s a very particular kind of aesthetic.
BFR: I know what you mean; I feel like with your form, you kind of separated things out like a speech would.
Cora Ballek: Yeah, so slam poetry is definitely one. Other than that, I’m sorry, I really don’t know. I don’t know where it comes from.
BFR: Yeah, I mean, that just comes naturally, I guess. I’m curious what your creative process is like: are you more the type to sit down and write something all in one sitting, or is it fragmented?
Cora Ballek: Um, this really depends, I can do it both ways. It depends on the story. This story, of course, I mentioned earlier I had like a proto-draft that I completely discarded, and then I just let it germinate in my head for several years. And then, once I have this revised concept I sat down and I wrote it in one night. For so for anything. I write that, that is more poetic in nature, my poetry is is all written in one go. I might have the idea in my head for weeks or months, but once I sit down I write it in one go, versus prose tends to be incremental, a couple 100 words at a time. I just I have to reread everything I’ve already written, frequently, as I’m adding on. So it’s a really slow process. It doesn’t help that I always write after midnight.
BFR: I mean hey, clearly it’s working for you. Are you working on anything currently, or do you have anything being published soon?
Cora Ballek: I don’t have anything slated to be published. I mean I’ve submitted some things but I haven’t heard back, so I suppose I’m working on some things. I have a lot of projects that are, like, in the early stages of development, which means they might never go anywhere. I have the groundwork for an entire musical.
BFR: Oh, wow!
Cora Ballek: It follows environmental themes, but that obviously would take me a long time to complete, so nobody hold your breath. I have a short story called “Blue-in-the-sky” with dashes in between every word, which I haven’t submitted anywhere, but hopefully will soon. It’s very close to being done, and also has a lot of themes that are similar to “Last Snowfall.”
BFR: I’ll be keeping an eye out for it because this was definitely one of my favorite stories that we read. Well, thank you, Cora.