Smoking With Jennifer Shipley

by Tara Laskowski Read the Story December 15, 2014

This is your first published story. But you say you’ve always been a writer. Is this a story you wrote recently, or a long time ago? What made you submit it to SmokeLong?

This is a recent piece, though the characters are borrowed from a series of short stories I’ve been working on for the last six months. I was flying home after visiting my sister in Texas and had my notebook out writing down thoughts about being there again, hearing those accents, seeing guys wearing cowboy hats and boots. It was the boots that triggered the story. Within a week I had it posted to my writing group and their positive feedback encouraged me to submit.

I was initially drawn to SmokeLong because of the blind reading policy and the rapid response time, but it was the quality of the stories and the attention given to the authors that sold me. I didn’t submit “Melting” anywhere else—I figured I could wait thirty days for a rejection—but when I got an acceptance letter just one week later, I was stunned. I still am. I know I’m honored to join this crowd, so thank you.

If you were going to write another flash about these characters, five years from when this is set, where would these characters be? I have no doubt the narrator is going to turn out ok no matter what, but what about the mom? What about Hoyt?

If left up to Stella (the narrator), Hoyt would be in prison squealing like a pig. But he might accidentally die or be cruelly maimed—that girl keeps a journal full of such scenarios. Sometimes she paints them. Maybe an angry pig bites Hoyt’s arm off as he’s wrestling him into the slaughter pen. In that painting, the mom would have an armload of rags, but she wouldn’t use them to tie up Hoyt’s stub or soak up his blood—she’d be trying to clean up all that glitter. Three daughters over five years leave a lot of evidence to obliterate. I bet the mom’s done with Hoyt though. She has a thing for charismatic spiritual leaders (Hoyt was an anomaly) so she might just join a cult, taking her two remaining daughters along for the ride.

One of my favorite things about this piece is the way you set the scene. All of the details—from the swaying curtains, to the pink glitter, to those pigs squealing, to the eye painting—are so spot on and wonderful. They help to shape this place and these characters in a way that makes them seem very real and distinct. Did these details come out in an early draft, or did you insert them during revision?

Thank you. I’m glad you enjoyed them. As a landscape architect I designed physical environments where I considered a person’s experience of moving through those constructed spaces down to the last detail. I try to do the same with my writing. I visualized this story before I wrote anything. I imagined myself sitting in the shadows, watching, listening, smelling. The pink glitter was there from the start, but it was dumped on a pile of hog-stall droppings—more a deterrent than a trap. When I imagined how that would smell, I realized she wouldn’t put that under her window, so I changed the carrying medium to corn oil and added lavender sachets to the curtain rods. In the first draft, Stella just taped a sign to her window—an eye with a slash symbol across it—but I wanted her to be more creative than that. Once I got her painting, I just watched as the clouds and the frame and the eye materialized. Melting Jesus showed up in the final revision.

Do you write a lot of flash fiction, or do you prefer to work in another form?

Until this year, I only worked on novels because I loved reading them, but I got interested in short stories when an artist in one of my novels began writing mythical origin stories for all the artifacts she created. I hadn’t written short stories before so I enrolled in a short story course. What an awakening. How had I not known about this universe of short stories and flash fiction? It felt like one of those dreams where you find a door in your house that opens onto a forgotten wing of rooms—a library, an art studio, a greenhouse—and you think why haven’t I been using these fantastic rooms? So, here I am in this dream world where stories can move from concept to completion in weeks or months, just loving it. I hope I don’t wake up anytime soon.

Oh my, I love that dream! I love finding unused bedrooms in the back of apartments that I can add more bookshelves to. How sad when we awake. What do you do when you’re not writing (or dreaming)?

I like to play outdoors. I live near Portland, halfway between the tide pools at Canon Beach and Timberline Lodge on Mount Hood with rivers and forests and waterfalls filling the spaces in between. When I’m being a good Oregonian, I appreciate this abundance. With my family and friends, I hike, cycle and kayak in the warmer months and ski in the winter. When I’m being a bad Oregonian, I whine about the rain and drink too many soy lattes. At the moment, it’s only December and I’m welcoming the gloomy skies—they mean snow on the mountain and a good ski season ahead.

I also like to play indoors. A good motto for my family would be “I bet I could make that.” Right now, I’m trying to transform a bundle of birch branches into a hanging sculpture that will be a convincing replacement for a Christmas tree. My husband creates 3-D medical animation for trial attorneys and I often assist with the 2-D courtroom presentation boards. My daughters and I love any project that starts with a trip to the art store, and I’m sure if I looked in our supply closet, I’d find a jar of glitter.

About the Author:

Jennifer Shipley was once a landscape architect but has always been a writer. Born in Ohio and raised in Texas, she now lives and works in the Pacific Northwest.

About the Interviewer:

Tara Laskowski has been editor at SmokeLong Quarterly since 2010. Her short story collection Bystanders was hailed by Jennifer Egan as "a bold, riveting mash-up of Hitchcockian suspense and campfire-tale chills." She is also the author of Modern Manners For Your Inner Demons, tales of dark etiquette. Her fiction has been published in the Norton anthology Flash Fiction International, Ellery Queen’s Mystery Magazine, Alfred Hitchcock’s Mystery Magazine, Mid-American Review, and numerous other journals, magazines, and anthologies. Tara lives and works in a suburb of Washington, D.C.