Smoking With Claudia Smith

Read the Story August 15, 2004

I love the unspoken aspects of this piece. What was the inspiration behind it?

Often my stories will start with a random image, a memory, or something I dreamed. This one came to me when I was browsing the cosmetics section at the grocery store. My mother didn’t wear lipstick, and when I was a girl I thought it was glamorous and foreign. It made me think of candles, romance novels, fancy underwear. And I loved Marilyn Monroe’s lips. I used to like reading names of the shades, which were often prettier than the colors themselves. Wine-on-Ice. Cherries-in-the-Snow. The lipstick seemed just the right image, the right object for revelations about the small family. I do hope there is some whispering in the corners of this little story.

Lately I’ve been interested in what some call flash fiction, short-shorts, sudden fiction. To me, the best of these give a sense of a larger world outside the story’s borders. They can be sharp and undiluted, like a shot of something that makes your head spin, or just a quiet, simple revelation. When they work, they give me the feeling that I’m venturing out to the deep end of a pool and I’m not that great a swimmer. That’s what I strove for when I wrote “Lipstick.”

I see you’re due September 19. Congratulations! Is this your first child? Has being pregnant impacted your writing at all?

Thanks! Yes, it’s my first. A boy. A very active one. Sometimes it feels as if I’m carrying an octopus, he’s such a wiggle worm. It’s very exciting and strange. I’m sure it has impacted my writing but I couldn’t tell you precisely how. I’ve had lots of anxiety dreams about the baby, and I think that has seeped its way into some of my stories. In one of them, my husband said he was going to give the baby a bath. When I came into the kitchen I found him washing a giant potato. I asked him where our baby was and he didn’t notice it was a potato he was washing, not a baby. In another dream, I had the baby but didn’t remember. I woke up, got ready for the day, and then got a phone call from one of my friends asking me how I was feeling. Everyone told me I’d gone through labor and had this baby, but I didn’t remember and I couldn’t find the baby.

I write a lot of stories about children. Usually the landscape is from my own childhood memories. I’ve wondered if having a little boy might change that.

You have a strong publication history. Any advice to writers just getting their start?

Submit, submit, submit.

Also, I found a supportive writer’s group online. That’s helped a great deal. And there, I stumbled into a group of genre writers and learned that I like writing horror. The internet has been a great resource for me.

What are some of your goals for your writing over the next few years?

I’d like to be in print more. I’d like to have a novel published. I’d like to make a little money. In my wildest dreams, high school freshman are forced to write essays about my short stories, and I’m famous enough to have books on the Barnes and Noble shelves. With a stunning book cover and a picture of me looking writerly on the back flap. And maybe I teach somewhere at a school with smart, hip college kids who think I’m wise and witty.

Who are some writers that amaze you that others may not know?

I like the way fiction can get inside those intimate, internal moments we don’t always talk about or want to remember. Or, if we do, we analyze them and talk them into something different. Fiction that amazes me is always fiction that feels true rather than sentimental, smart rather than smugly clever and hollow. When I read something that shakes me, it’s usually the sort of writing that makes me feel as if I’ve crawled inside someone else’s skin.

If you read the small literary magazines, you’ll find beautiful stories out there. Kim Chinquee writes these piercing shorts that can take my breath away. There’s Kathy Fish, who writes about childhood as if she’s still smack in the heartache of it, Pia Ehrhardt, who’s cheating stories can be merciless, Pasha Malla, who is all over the place online, Jeff Landon, Shauna Mckenna, Elizabeth Ellen, Gail Segiel, Bob Arter… see now I know I’m leaving people out. Those are my peers, writers I’ve met online, writers whose work I believe in. They deserve attention.

Then there’s an old classmate of mine, James Whorton. He had a book published recently called Approximately Heaven. It’s wonderfully wry and a great read. I’m inspired by his success.

I’m always on the lookout for new people to read. I still get a thrill from discovering writers that speak to me. My favorite recent read was The Curious Incident of the Dog in the Night-time by Mark Haddon.

As a child I loved Hans Christian Andersen, At the Back of the North Wind by George McDonald, Oscar Wilde’s fairy tales, and every gruesome or grim fairy tale I could find. I loved anything with blood and magic and retribution. Most of the books I ate up were stuffed in a cluttered room at my grandparents’ house called “The Junk Room.” The writers I discovered in high school and junior high will always be with me. All of them are well known, but they weren’t to me, then. I read intensely. Nothing in the world was more important than finding the right book or story. I read Larry McMurtry, and thrilled at the familiarity of his settings. I read the sexy parts out of Ayn Rand novels. I couldn’t get through her books but the sex was particularly interesting to me at that age. I read Gunter Grass, John Irving, Raymond Carver, Toni Morrison, Edna O’Brien…

And I read Wuthering Heights one stormy night when I was a girl and knew nothing of Emily Bronte. I remember thinking, this is so boring, so what if he’s a traveler and staying in this gloomy house. And then I woke up after Cathy scratched to come inside, and I couldn’t put the book down. I’d love James Joyce if the only thing he’d ever written was “Araby.” And then there’s the gentle vision and humor in Eudora Welty stories, and Flannery O’Connor’s uncompromising eye. And there’s Fitzgerald, who still makes my heart achy and broken whenever I read him. Then there were the old books pulled off of my grandmother’s bookshelves. Some of them were out of print, even then, I’m sure. I loved Betty Smith novels. And there was a book I slept with sometimes called Apple Tree Lean Down by Mary E. Pearce. I read it over and over again because of the saga and because it gave me such a sense of another time and place. My grandmother’s old book-of-the-month club titles fed my romantic fantasies. If I were to read some of them now, they probably wouldn’t have the same meaning for me. It’s harder for me, now, to become so lost in a book that I’m transported. But it can still happen.

Mona Simpson and Robert Stone also influenced me as teachers and as writers. See, I’m amazed by many writers. I could go on and on but I’ll stop here.

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:

A native of Ohio, Marty D. Ison lives with his wife transplanted in the sands of the Gulf of Mexico. He studied fine arts at Saint Petersburg College. In addition to the visual arts, he writes poetry, short stories, and novels. See more of Ison's work here.