This is my favorite of your Kathy Fish Fellow stories! I love Zelberg and I love all these musicians. You just capture them all so well in such a short space, and their fierce, but grudging, loyalty to one another. Were you ever part of a pit orchestra? Or, where did this idea come from?
First, thank you so much.
I played second violin in my middle-school orchestra. (I was definitely one of those kids that heard the harmony and played it, even if it wasn’t written on the sheet music. Sorry, Mrs. McCarthy!) I quit after eighth grade to explore choir and theatre. My time in the performing arts—especially during those formative years—has definitely influenced how I approach writing. I think about the characters first, and how their relationships with each other build tension throughout the story.
I saw an article in the New York Times a while ago about how a performance at the Met got stopped during intermission because they’d found mysterious white powder on the stage. During grad school, I read Emily St. John Mandel’s amazing book Station Eleven, which follows a group of musicians and actors as they travel around post-apocalyptic America performing Shakespeare. In “Zelberg,” I got the chance to work from my experiences and pay homage to Mandel’s work.
Also, pieces of my MFA thesis dealt with family members who lost each other—either through death, estrangement, or a sudden supernatural event like the Rapture—and I think that “Zelberg” is a further exploration of what happens when family bonds are severed unexpectedly.
What’s the one thing you must do or check before you’ll consider a flash story ready to send off into the world?
The voice has to be honest. Voice is often the entry-point into the story for me, and so if the voice isn’t working then the rest of the story probably isn’t working yet either. I recently took a break from a flash piece because I wasn’t happy with the voice. It’s still sitting on my flash drive.
If I’m writing about characters who have different experiences than mine (which happens a lot), I’ll often do a compassion check. I’ll ask myself: Am I writing these characters in complicated, nuanced ways? Am I relying on damaging characterization short-cuts that perpetuate misguided assumptions? George Saunders is a master at empathy for his characters—I’m paraphrasing, but I think he said once that revision is an act of love for your characters. That idea guides me.
I also read my stories out loud before I submit them. I’ve found that this helps me to catch sentences that are either out-of-voice or just awkward.
So this is your last story as a Kathy Fish Fellow. How do you think the experience helped you as a writer over this past year? What was your favorite part?
This experience has helped me as writer in invaluable ways. The connections to the wider writing community have been great, especially after my MFA program. Structurally, the quarterly deadlines gave me permission to put my writing first, which is difficult when you’re working full time. (As I’m sure our readers understand.) I appreciated the feedback from everyone on the SmokeLong team—multiple perspectives helped me see my work in new ways.
I’ve also had the chance to reflect on my work, to try to find connections between the pieces I write. Self-reflection (and reading the slush pile) has helped me to see where my work fits in. I’ve learned to trust myself as a writer this year, which is huge. I’ve become a better editor of my own work (and others’) by being restricted to the flash form.
My favorite part of the fellowship was building relationships with other writers. Community is so important, and something that I’ve appreciated so much over this past year.
What’s one book that you definitely want to give to someone this holiday season, and why?
I kind of perpetually want to give everyone Lauren Groff’s entire body of work. (Like Oprah: “You get a novel, you get a novel, you get a novel.”) Writers can learn from her sentences, and everyone can learn from the way she treats her characters with empathy and grace.
I’d also like to gift Samantha Hunt’s Mr. Splitfoot. The story is so inventive (think: a fundamentalist Christian foster home, a séance scam, and a cult, as well as a mostly silent walk with a selectively mute woman through miles of suburbia.) The way she juggles plot, pacing, and an extreme attention to the emotional lives of her characters is really admirable.
What’s next? Are you working on a longer project? Furiously writing more flash? Throwing your arms up and turning to poetry? Getting a tattoo? All of the above?
As I wrote flash for SmokeLong this year, I noticed that I kept returning to the same emotional landscapes. (A couple pieces might be parts of longer short stories.) This intrigued me, as I’m not one of those writers who plans much before drafting. I figure that means that those situations and characters are worthy of more exploration.
I find myself writing in the same voice, and about similar things, thematically—about how the supernatural elements of conservative Christianity affect the fractured relationships between teenage girls. I think I’m going to see where those connections take me. A chapbook? A collection? A novel? We’ll see.