Smoke and Mirrors—An Interview with Susannah Felts

by Tania Hershman Read the Story April 3, 2015

“Maps” leapt out at me instantly, from the opening line, it has such energy and we are thrown right in. How did this story come to you? And was the way it arrived something that often happens with your writing?

My first drafts are usually a mixture of play and intention, and “Map” is no exception. I wanted to write from lived experience, but I wanted to make it new, something outside and beyond myself—which is simply what writing should so often do. I was also very interested in doing so outside the confines of traditional narrative structure, and I’ll say more about that below. I think different material grabs me in different ways, lays claim to the page in different ways. This piece, and a few others that are in the same vein, came about somewhat differently from, say, the novel I’m working on, which feels much more the product of long stretches of thinking. Not to say that there aren’t long stretches of thinking associated with this piece; there are. But the first draft presented itself with a notable degree of urgency.

The rhythms and repetitions are very strong and important in this piece, and I am very intrigued by its structure, almost in stanzas, like a poem. Did the structure come together with the story or did it come later?

It came with the story, absolutely. This piece is about silence in a lot of ways, and I hope that the form suggests that. It felt like it did so to me. But the formal decisions were also coaxed from beyond the story: I had been reading Susan Steinberg’s Spectacle, and I am sure that influenced the form of this piece. I’ve also, for the first time in my life, been toying with writing poetry, and this piece and a few other recent works represent me teetering on the edge of that precipice, I think. It’s a thrilling place to be.

Do you have a preferred length when you write – some of us are sprinters, some are more long haul, but many people write stories of all different lengths? 

I love flash fiction, but I have also written a novel, and am working on a second one, as well as new short stories of conventional length. And there’s this urge to write poems, too….So I guess I’m equal opportunity. All have their liberating qualities and their challenges.

Maps is a perfect illustration of less-is-more-ness, it’s a beautiful example of what flash fiction is and everything it can be, 99% under the surface. Do you write so sparely or is it something that happens in the editing?

With this piece, a spare quality was there from the start; it felt true to the material. You know, form echoes content and all that. When I write longer stories I think I’m often forced to trim, trim, trim. I’m terrible about repeating words that shouldn’t be repeated, then having to cut. But editing of that sort is usually a pleasure. I do love compression—the challenge of doing as much as you can with as few words as possible. Again, there’s that pull toward poetry….

What does “fiction” mean to you?

This question has been haunting me all week! It means many things to different writers, and I honor that. For me, in my own practice, it means recognizable worlds and lived experience, just a little bit tilted—or a lot tilted, or metamorphosed. It means taking granules of lived experience and using them to ‘start’ a story the way yeast makes bread. It means shaping ideas and those granules into a form that’s far more orderly than, and often quite far afield from, the real.

Why do you write?

I once answered this question as “I write because that’s how I’m built,” and though I’m not entirely satisfied with that answer, it feels honest. Writing is something I have always done, and I don’t think I can not do it. That’s not to say that on first reading of this question I didn’t think, “Ha – she should ask me why I don’t write – I feel like I have a lot more to say about that, lately!” Sadly, that’s just as true. I have very little time to devote to my creative writing (like many of us) and the time I do have sometimes doesn’t get put toward writing, as it should. This is a pretty significant anxiety for me. But I’m trying, and I will continue trying. Because I can’t not. Because that’s how I’m built.
Who are some of the writers who inspire you, who you read and re-read? It’s always great to have recommendations from writers I love of other writers they love!

Some writers I’ve either loved for a long time, taught repeatedly, or have been very into recently are: Joan Didion, Amy Hempel, Flannery O’Connor, George Saunders, David Foster Wallace, Barry Hannah, Lorrie Moore, Mary Karr, Lydia Davis, Wells Tower, Maggie Nelson, Megan Stielstra, Rebecca Solnit, Claudia Emerson, and there are so many more…

About the Author:

Susannah Felts' work has appeared in Wigleaf, Quick Fiction, The Sun, the Oxford American, Quarterly West, Five Chapters, and elsewhere. She is the author of one novel, This Will Go Down on Your Permanent Record (Featherproof Books). She lives in Nashville, Tennessee.

About the Interviewer:

Tania Hershman is the author of two story collections: My Mother Was An Upright Piano: Fictions (Tangent Books, 2012), and The White Road and Other Stories (Salt, 2008; commended, 2009 Orange Award for New Writers).