Smoking with Claudia Smith

Read the Story June 15, 2007

“A beautiful face eroding in salt water.” Truly haunting. When you read over your work, what do you see, hear, and/or think?

Thank you. I started this story with that image in my head. Well, it depends on what story I’m reading over. I think, often, in images and smells, and textures. My father is an artist, and I can’t paint or draw. But, maybe my visual imagination has something to do with being an artist’s daughter. When I read my stories over, I’m often struck by images or events that have come from my past, things I hadn’t stopped to remember or think about as I was writing them down.

How did this story end up being called “Prow”?

Well, I’ll be honest. Many of my shorts start with an exercise my friend, the writer Kim Chinquee taught me; she, or someone else, will provide a list of random words. I’ll weave the words into a short-short. The word “masthead” was on the list; I imagined the masthead on a sailing vessel, a beautiful woman, the kind I’d seen in my old fairytale books when I was a child. That’s what sparked the story. When work shopping the story, another trusted writer told me he thought I was using the word incorrectly; I looked it up and wasn’t sure. Dictionary.com gave me a few definitions, some of which I already knew. I like ships but have limited nautical knowledge. One of the definitions read:

3. Nautical. a. the head of a mast. b. the uppermost point of a mast. –verb (used with object) Nautical. 4. to hoist a yard to the fullest extent. 5. to hoist to the truck of a mast, as a flag. 6. to send to the upper end of a mast as a punishment. –adjective 7. Nautical. run up to the head of a mast: masthead rig.

Realizing how little I really know about the anatomy of a boat, I thought long and hard about ships. I knew with certainty what a prow was. What does a prow do? I knew it was the forepart of a ship or a boat, the bow. What mattered was the image of a ship heading through ocean waves, not the pretty carving. I think it’s a fitting title.

What drives you to write?

Daydreams. Life. I am a daydreamer and I don’t think I could get through a week if I couldn’t write stories.

You are a true flash success, with anthologized work in Norton and a chapbook on its way. Did you ever dream that flash could bring you such fame and glory and money, lots of money?

Ah, me. If you could hear me now I’d be clearing my throat, laughing nervously, or perhaps sighing. Thank you for such kind words. Being anthologized in a Norton publication came as a beautiful surprise to me. Winning the Rose Metal Press chapbook contest was also an honor, especially because Ron Carlson chose my work. I’ve long been a Ron Carlson admirer. Fame? Well, I don’t know. I’m happy to know that people I don’t know are reading my words. Money? I haven’t made enough yet to claim on a tax return; over the last few years I’ve probably made enough to take my husband out for a fancy dinner. He’s the breadwinner. But I’d rather have an introduction written by Ron Carlson and a bio under Sam Shepard’s name than a bushel of money. I don’t know if that came out right. I’m not trying to sound humble, of course I’d love some more money, but as they say, money isn’t everything. Although it is something. Many people involved with writing and publishing experimental work, what is categorized as “literary” fiction, do it for love of the work, not for money. The editors at Rose Metal Press are extremely hard working, and devoted to the work they publish. I am confident my little chapbook will look wonderful, that they will pour everything they have into it. They just sent me the first proof of my collection, and it looks great.

The titles of the stories in this issue wowed me and got me thinking about the value of the great title. What are some great titles—for novels, stories, movies, albums, CDs, and the like? And what is the worst title you’ve ever encountered?

The worst – off the top of my head? Dying Young. Although that’s so deliciously cheesy it’s almost so bad it’s good, like a good Cheese Whiz spread. Oh, and as for books – the greats are hard to imagine with any other title. I love The Great Gatsby. I find it moving, funny, sad—perfect. It has a carnival feel to it, it’s exalting, it is great. When I think about the book and read the title, it is noble and pathetic. I’d think that those two things couldn’t exist in harmony, but this title shows they can.

I like fifties movies, and I have a weakness for Douglas Sirk movies and their titles. I’ve played around with using similar titles but it would take a special kind of writer to pull that off, and I haven’t been able to do it properly—yet.

Johnny Cash’s “Walk the Line.” I can’t imagine that song being called anything else. I think the best titles are the ones that not only catch your eye and your imagination, but capture the essence of a piece.

This is a fun question. I’ll probably think of a dozen awful titles and a dozen magnificent titles a couple of days after this interview is completed.

About the Author:

Claudia Smith's stories have been anthologized in W.W. Norton's The New Sudden Fiction and So New Media's Consumed: Women on Excess. Her flash fiction collections, The Sky Is A Well And Other Shorts (reprinted in the book), A Peculiar Feeling of Restlessness and Put Your Head In My Lap are available from Rose Metal Press and Future Tense books, respectively. Her new collection of stories, Quarry Light, is now available from Magic Helicopter Press.

About the Artist:

An Old Woman of Arles by Vincent Van Gogh. This artwork is in the public domain per Wikipaintings.