Smoke & Mirrors: An Interview with Vivien Cao

by James Claffey Read the Story December 17, 2018

What makes for a strong piece of flash fiction for you?

Personally, the flash pieces that resonate most with me tend to be very “voice-y”—that is, the protagonist’s voice shines through in the writing. They also have a palpable rhythm when it comes to word choice and syntax, and a last line that hits a lingering, transformative note. I don’t expect—nor necessarily want—twist endings or pat resolutions, but I do hope the overall journey guides me toward a surprising or unfamiliar way of seeing something.

Who are some of your writing influences and why?

I come from a film and TV background, so from that world, some writers I look up to are Jill Soloway and Mike White. They craft stories that speak to me thematically (nostalgia, innocence, melancholia) and layer so much depth into seemingly obvious characters. As for fiction, I really admire Raymond Carver’s ability to tell a subtle story through dialogue.

If you were marooned on a desert island, what five books and five pieces of music could you not do without?

I chose these five books because no matter how much I revisit them for pleasure or teaching, there’s always a new nuance to discover in the details and rhythms.

Tim O’Brien: The Things They Carried

Scott Fitzgerald: The Great Gatsby

Jennifer Egan: A Visit From the Goon Squad

Junot Diaz: Drown

Jeffrey Eugenides: Middlesex

I can put these five albums on repeat and never get sick of them. Plenty of other artists and songs hold a special place in my heart, but these particular albums are pretty perfect all the way through.

Wilco: Summerteeth

Fleetwood Mac: The Dance

The Beatles: The White Album

Weezer: Weezer (Blue Album)

Arcade Fire: The Suburbs

Can you tell us a little about your writing process and why it works for you?

I actually ventured into writing flash as an exercise whenever I felt stuck while working on a pilot or screenplay. I’d start to feel lost in the dialogue, and so in order to distill a character’s want or need, I’d work them into a piece of flash. Sometimes I’ll end up more excited about the flash story than the original scene. I find having more than one work in progress at the same time can help motivate me to keep writing when one thing starts to feel unexciting or stale.

What do you consider more important in a piece of flash: plot or character?

As a writer I think both are equally important, but as a reader, I gravitate a little more towards plot. Usually if a character is flat, I’m open to seeing if the plot is at least compelling or entertaining, but the most interesting character meandering through narrative limbo is just a boring story. With flash I think the reader deserves some kind of payoff, unconventional though the plot may be given the economy of words.

About the Author:

Vivien Cao is from Los Angeles by way of Brooklyn, and is a new transplant to Nashville. She previously worked in film and television, and has taught writing at several CUNY campuses.

About the Interviewer:

James Claffey hails from County Westmeath, Ireland, and lives on an avocado ranch in Carpinteria, California. His work appears in the W.W. Norton Anthology, Flash Fiction International, and in Queen’s Ferry Press’s anthology, Best Small Fictions of 2015. He was a finalist in the Best Small Fictions of 2016, and a semi-finalist in 2017. His novel, The Heart Crossways, will be published in early 2018 by Thrice Publishing.