I’m just going to say upfront that I love “A Place You Know.” I’ve reread it so many times, and I think it encapsulates a lot of what I love about flash. What thought or image sparked the initial idea for this story, and why did flash feel like the best way to tell it?
I hate to admit this, because I think it goes against so much of what we’re kind of consistently told (at least in creative writing classes), but a huge number of my stories come out of dreams. I’m a lucid dreamer and also I just love sleep—so I think finding my creativity in dreams makes sense for me.
For this story, I was returning to a dream that I’ve had in multiple permutations throughout the years. I have a lot of dream cities that I hold dear to me. One that has infected my dream cities, however, is a city that is just constantly being built, destructed, and re-built over and over. I remember waking up and thinking, okay but what cities surround this city? And then, from there, as I wrote the first line, I knew that this was also a story about taking trips as well and this comfort that can be found in routine trips—with your family around you. When I was growing up, my family was pretty poor, but something we did for fun, was that my mom would bundle my brothers and I into the car and we’d take daytrips. It’s something that, when I think about it, just remains one of the most comforting experiences of my life. It’s something I still love about long car drives with friends.
Of course, as I actually began to write, the story shifted and did its own thing—as all stories must. I never really start out planning to write a piece as a story or as flash length. I’m going to admit another terrible thing: I almost only ever write stories in one sitting. If I can’t finish it, I lose it. It’s a terrible process. I think of writing as possession, in a way, because I sit down and then I’m basically out of the equation. Everything is just the words. So sometimes, I’ll write a short piece and I’ll know that it’s done and I can take my hands from the keyboard. Then, in revision, I might add something to it or take something away but rarely enough to switch it from flash to short story or vice versa. So this is a roundabout way of saying that I can’t exactly say why flash was the best way to tell this story.
Reading this piece, along with “You Told Me to Write You a Way Out” and your poem “The Detective, Years After,” I realized that haunting seems to be a pretty common theme throughout much of your writing. What role does haunting, both in terms of literal ghosts and figurative ideas, serve in your writing?
I think everyone carries a lot of ghosts. Maybe they’re not ghosts of the actually dead, but ghosts of past relationships, dreams we had, places we’ve been, things we’ve done and can’t get back to. So haunting, to me, has always felt like a universal condition.
I grew up steeped in ghostlore, though I’m not sure what drew me into it, and so I’ve studied ghosts and the culture surrounding them extensively (my thesis for my MFA was about ghostlore and I did so much research that I could win Ghost!Jeopardy in a flash). I’m intensely fascinated by people’s different ideas about what ghosts are/mean as well (there’s such a huge spectrum). In my head, ghosts have never been frightening. Like graveyards, which are an optimistic thing when you think about them—the idea that there will continue to be people who will want to remember you, that you were loved—ghosts have only felt scary in the sense that you’re unable to let them go. Writing our ghosts seems like a way around it, exorcising them by putting them to words but also committing them to story, to memory in a different, possibly more permanent manner.
From being your Twitter friend, I’ve learned you’re a person of many talents. Along with writing, you’re an amazing singer and you bake the most delicious things I have ever seen. How do these (and other creative pursuits I don’t know about) tie into your overall writing process?
I think the writing life, to me, is about balance. If I only wrote, I think I’d be exhausted all the time. Writing a story is such a releasing feeling, but also it knocks me out for a while afterwards. So I like to take breaks from writing. In the summer, that means I make myself not write for the entire time and I just recharge by reading. During the months when I am writing, though, I like to take breaks—when the fiction writing doesn’t take me—writing songs because it’s such a different kind of writing. Music is also extremely important to my writing. If there’s something lurking in my mind that I need to write about, I sometimes try to summon it by finding a song that gives me the same feeling that the idea does and just listening to it on repeat over and over (my record was Sam Cooke’s “A Change is Gonna Come” something like 32 times in a row. I’m glad my roommate wasn’t home). So sometimes singing a song, working on getting it right, can be just as helpful.
The baking/cooking, well…That’s probably because I find it as close to meditation as probably I could ever find anything. I’m not so much a recipe follower, so much as I like to rely on sense and taste memory to find my way to something. So it’s deeply calming to take a step away from language and instead focus on the minutiae of chopping something finely or precisely mixing spices based on the smell.
As far as other creative pursuits, I’m not sure I have any. The most important thing to me and my writing, though, is reading.
I totally agree about reading. I’ve been in a real writing slump, but reading has kept my mind open and in that writing state of mind. What are you currently reading, and what is one essential story, book, or collection for you?
Because of teaching, I’ve been mostly reading student papers and books that I’m reviewing for various places. My to-read over winter break pile is so big that I have to question everything about my perception of my reading abilities. One of the ways I keep my reading love while teaching has been thoroughly stuffing myself with all the great online journals out there. There is so much amazing stuff out there right now and the literary community has so many amazing people (who I want to read all the things by) in it. I am also slowly working my way through Ghost Summer by Tananarive Due, a book of literary scholarship on China Mieville,, and Teju Cole’s new essay collection.
As to one essential…Oh, man, this is not a nice question. I’m going to go with The Martian Chronicles by Ray Bradbury, though, because it’s a book from childhood that has remained a constant in how I think about storytelling.
If you could collab with one basketball player (past or present) on a literary project, who would you choose and what would you work on?
I immediately leap to Rasheed Wallace, who is my favorite player of all time. But I’m already writing my cycle of Sheed poems.
However, I think the stronger choice, is Kareem Abdul-Jabbar who is such a fantastically thoughtful writer (if you don’t read his columns, everyone should go out and do so immediately). I’m not sure what we’d work on, he can do everything so we’d have a wide slew of things to choose from, but I’d honestly love to work on anything with him.
I love your recent piece “So Far the Distance,” which is also the opening for your novel in stories. What can you tell me about this incredibly enticing project?
First off, thank you so much! I’m obsessed with interlinked story collections/novels (my other less polished project is an interlinked basketball novel. So I have a problem), so when I thought about writing a sci-fi novel, I thought about in fractured images. Essentially it’s a novel about space exploration and how that affects both the people who go and the people who stay behind. However, it’s also a lot weirder than that I’m sure (which is also the disclaimer I should give about myself).