You’ve been published in SmokeLong before (“At Night, By the Creek”), and I couldn’t help noticing that both stories prominently feature water and some touches of rural life. Is there an inspiration for this pattern?
I have always lived in rural western Maryland, which is at the edge of Appalachian country. I don’t know how to write about city life. I love to read about city life, but the idea of living in a city fills me with dread. The fields and forest and mountains grab hold of some people and won’t allow an exit. I’m held hostage by the landscape! It happens.
I always have been and will always be in love with water. Rivers and oceans and lakes are so impressive. They can soothe or terrify or kill. They can carry us from one point to another. They are home to unseen millions. I have great respect for bodies of water.
One of the things I love about this story is that it gives tiny slivers of human emotion that all feel so textured and real. What were you trying to achieve with this story, specifically in the way it’s dissected into brief glimpses of this woman’s life?
I have problems defining what I wish to achieve with stories. I always feel a little foolish talking about my own writing. As long as a story looks and sounds and feels right, I am satisfied. How it arrives there is a mystery. There is a Santa Claus analogy in here somewhere. How does he get down the gee-dee chimney? He just does.
I do think there is great value in leaving a lot of empty room in stories, especially flash fiction. Maximize that minimal word-count.
Some of your other recent stories have been longer, but you have a history of publishing flash. To you, why do certain stories, and this one in particular, work better as flash fiction?
I hold the radical opinion that flash fiction, or what makes flash special, is a mystical equation of conciseness and unknown variables. I’ve heard a lot of theories on this, that flash is just that—a focused moment in time or a burst of insight that may get lost in longer forms, all determined by small word count. That’s valid. But I have read longer fiction that offers the same impression. I recently finished reading Heartbreaker by Maryse Meijer, for example, and although the stories are a few thousand words each, they feel like flash. They’re stark, lean, and discomfiting. They strike sudden and quick. So there is something inscrutable about flash fiction that goes beyond mechanics, beyond prescriptive technique. Whatever that effect is, I believe it is possible to achieve it in longer forms, too.
Personally I enjoy reading and writing longer stories with endings that supremely devastate—the reader works for it, and there is a satisfaction in working for it, so that ending better pay off. With flash, the whole tiny thing must devastate.
Concerning “At Sea,” I think most people have brief moments of upsetting clarity. Nothing really explains these moments. They just pop up and give us a certain feeling. They hint at a larger picture we’re not getting, perhaps do not want to get. Then life at large resumes, and the last moment is forgotten until the next one. For that reason, the short bursts work well.
I saw on your website that you recently signed with a literary agent (congrats!) and have a collection of stories on the way. What can you tell me about your forthcoming book?
Thank you so much for the congratulations. Her name is Zoe Sandler, and the agency is ICM Partners in New York. New York City! Can you imagine.
Yes, the agent situation was a rather stunning turn. I don’t have an MFA. I’m not a big networking person; I don’t know people who know people. I’ve never even read my work in public. I only started submitting things for publication two years ago, at the dusty old age of 30. (SmokeLong was my first major publication, by the way, in March 2015.) I have been writing my little heinie off since then, however, so while there was significant luck at play, I do believe that hard work and steadfastness—and decent writing, of course—won the day.
I am still working on the book. It will be a collection of short stories, some of which I have published but many I have not. Oddly, I have found that suicide and squirrels make alarmingly frequent visitations in the collection so far. I think Suicide and Squirrels makes for a very poor title, though. Let’s just say that right now the collection is the definition of work in progress, but I have much faith in its future.