Smoke and Mirrors: Two Interviews with R. Cross

Read the Story December 18, 2017

Due to a clerical error, we are bringing to you the abundance of two interviews with R. Cross. Thank you to the author for taking the time to do both. And we apologize to the interviewers for any inconvenience caused. 

For the last few issues of SmokeLong Quarterly, Huan Hsu’s creative writing class at Amsterdam University College has chosen one of the stories. For issue 58, the class chose R. Cross’s “Fruit Fly Infestation”. The following interview was conducted by two students in Huan’s course. Sophia Hengelbrok–a Swiss-born student who grew up moving around Europe with her half-German, half-American family–studies Cognition, Sociology and Literature at Amsterdam University College. A native of Suffolk, England, Faith Hardman studies Literature and Culture at Amsterdam University College.

 

We were wondering where the idea for “Fruit Fly Infestation” came from-were you struggling with fruit flies of your own?

Several years ago I had a pretty bad fruit fly infestation, back when I drank quite a bit myself; this served as my primary inspiration for the piece.

Fruit flies as a symbol of the narrator’s alcoholism really captures the consequences of not dealing with addiction. Was it obvious to you to use fruit flies as the metaphor? Could this story exist with an infestation of ants?

I think the vermin in the piece must be fruit flies, even though an ant nest as a metaphor for something would be pretty fun to write about. It’s just that, the fermentation of grapes in wine, for example, as well as the yeast in beer, is very tantalizing to fruit flies, and an untidy low-functioning alcoholic’s apartment makes for the perfect place for a full blown fruit fly infestation, one that includes the larva cycle and everything.

I also see the infestation in the story as a representation of not just the cycle of addiction, but also the low functioning nature of this person’s alcoholism, and a sign of the underlying aspects of their life and self concept that might have reinforced their drinking to begin with, aspects that would probably need to be addressed in recovery (insofar as living surrounded by garbage and vermin is a sign of not holding oneself in very high regard in terms of quality of life or self-care).

Being new to writing, we would love to hear your insights as an author and as someone who has been in our shoes before. What is something you wish you’d known about writing when you were starting out?

When I was just starting out as a fiction writer, I would often reach points during early drafts or revisions wherein I felt like I was trying to grasp for something—perhaps a way of moving forward in a story, or a solution to a timeline issue—that was just outside my brain’s reach. The solution wouldn’t come to me; I had to go looking for it, which meant trying out different things in the draft itself or by reading fiction that was successful at using the forms I was attempting, or even getting feedback from a peer or instructor who could help me talk through the issue.

This sense of straining for solutions just outside of reach is evidence of exercising the brain in the ways needed to forge new neural pathways — if you stick with writing long enough, your brain will grow such that you’ll eventually be able to hold multiple aspects of storytelling in your mind at once and can find solutions to certain narrative issues sooner, even foreseeing issues before they occur and remedying them, which makes the writing process at least a little more fluid in time.

If young writers find themselves really struggling with a story, it isn’t a sign that they aren’t cut out to be a writer; it’s just a sign that their intentions to complete a piece of writing, and their actions to carry that out, are forcing them to think in new ways. The straining a sign that you’re challenging yourself; persevere!

One of the exercises we do in class is to compose our own versions of Hemingway’s “six word story”. The exercise really helps to get to the core of a story, testing how much can be packed into just six words. We thought it’d be fun to challenge you to give us your own best six word story.

This one is pretty dark and political:
Semi-automatic, purchased legally, fired into crowd.

Hemingway wrote standing, Murakami exercises, Sontag wrote with a felt-tip pen. What is your writing routine?

When my laptop died a couple of years ago, I didn’t have money to get it fixed or to buy a new one, so I began writing everything on my iPhone using the Google Docs app. I’ve since purchased another laptop but I still write everything on my iPhone. I really like that writing on my phone allows me to chip away at stories wherever I go (e.g. I recently revised a piece while swaying on a tire swing at a park).

Lastly, we need your help with our own dorm room fruit fly problem. What’s your preferred method for removing fruit flies? Does the Dawn trick really work? Please, help us.

Oh golly! I’m sorry you’re encountering these pests; they’re really obnoxious and are unfortunately quite hardy. Yes, fruit juice mixed with a little bit of dish soap will act as a nice trap for them. Good luck!

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The second interview was conducted by Mary Henn, who is working on her master’s degree in English at Missouri State University. She serves as the graduate assistant to Moon City Press and is an assistant poetry editor for Moon City Review.

 

The story presents a parallel between a fruit fly infestation and the narrator’s battle with addiction. What inspired this unique comparison? Did you decide on this metaphor prior to drafting the piece, or did it come organically during your writing process?

The metaphor was definitely organic in origin, but it was something I became aware of pretty early on in the writing process.

The setting of this story is limited to one space—the apartment—but also covers a large span of time. The contrast within this setting you have built creates balance within the story by depicting the demoralizing isolation associated with addiction. I noticed that other settings surface toward the end of the story without being explored in any great detail. What prompted you to describe only the narrator’s experiences and surroundings within the setting of the apartment?

Keeping readers situated in the apartment throughout, including at the end, stays in alignment with how I wanted to show early recovery—an addict who is in early recovery is both the scene of the crime, insofar the addiction has occurred within their body, and the conscious presence that is now responsible for making different choices for that body. If the apartment is a stand-in representation of the body of an alcoholic, then having the narrator return to the scene of the crime from these productive outside activities has them returning to themselves in a still-fragile state.

I really loved the imagery within the bathroom scene of stains on the wall, shadow creatures, and hints of something lost. In this moment, the story shifts from its motif of fruit flies to a poetic use of other symbols, such as “a yellow pelican” and “a rose in what looked like dried blood.” The unsettling final words in this scene, “reminiscent of a human fetus,” are especially thought provoking. I am curious both about your writing process for this scene as well as your overall experience with genres outside of flash fiction.

Thanks! This scene was tricky to write. Hitting rock bottom with alcoholism can make for this almost primordial state of being—you lose complete control over your body and are often incapacitated by the physical symptoms of the disease, usually in moments when you’re the most sober because that’s when you go into withdrawal. At a certain point in the writing process, I knew that I was taking this character back to infancy with regards to their level of helplessness. I wanted the bathroom scene to end with the very uncomfortable adult alcoholic version of an infant looking up from their crib at images on one of those hanging mobiles, unable to care for themselves any longer, unable to live with agency, in need of outside help and care.

I’m currently working on an MFA in fiction at the University of Michigan. I’d say fiction is definitely my main genre, but I tend to come at short fiction, especially flash, more like a poet comes at poetry. (I secretly write poetry on the side, but I rarely share it because for some reason the idea of people rejecting my poetry equates to people rejecting my soul.) That said, the word choices for the imagery in the bathroom scene are intentional and subtle: eggshell walls, a rose in what looks like dried blood, a shadow reminiscent of a human fetus, the yellow pelican reference offering an image of a creature whose beak is able to carry a lot of contents, like a uterus, such that all the words are either directly or indirectly hinting a rebirth.

Which artists or songs are featured in your most recent playlist?

There’s a music artist from my hometown (Columbus, Ohio) who goes by Counterfeit Madison. She just dropped her latest album, Opposable Thumbs; I dig it a lot—can’t get enough.

What is the most memorable piece of advice you’ve received in the last 365 days?

When Ocean Vuong visited Michigan this fall, he mentioned how often Westerners use violent or destructive language to discuss art and even artistic success, e.g., “You’re killing it,” or “You destroyed it,” or “That slays,” or “That poem gutted me.” I see my writing as more of a healing agent than a destructive force, so I’ve been mindful of the language I use to refer to my work or others’ work ever since then; it’s been an interesting thing to note and definitely something worth pondering.

About the Author:

R. Cross is a writer from the Midwest. She's currently an MFA candidate in fiction at the Helen Zell Writers' Program at the University of Michigan. Her stories have appeared in Day One, Meridian, and Reservoir. You can find her at r.cross.net