“Shadows” opens with this: “The sun refuses to begin.” Wow, that’s good. How do you find (1) the openings for your flash fiction and (2) the “defamiliarized” phrasings such as this one. Do you naturally see the world in such a unique, poetic, fresh way? Where did this opening and flash originate?
Hi Randall, thanks for taking the time to ask me these interesting questions and thanks for publishing my work in SmokeLong, too.
Oftentimes, especially with this kind of short-short, I’m trying to support a concept with my language, trying to maintain an idea through language choice. Here, of course, I wanted to suggest a sense of loss, a kind of tension that runs through these two characters lives that has almost become a third character in their day to day movements. I wanted the language to be tense and because of that, because of my mindset, my word choice was affected too. I knew when I started this piece that the couple would drive down a hill, that it would be a cold day, and that there would be butternut squashes. I live on a steep hill on the south side of Pittsburgh and if I’m driving or walking or taking the bus for that matter, I must always go steeply down before I do anything else. The sensation of having to “enter” my life is an interesting one—coming down off the mountain in order to interact with humanity. I think it’s unique and wanted to capture a sense of that in the opening of this story.
That said, the story itself was inspired by a photograph by Luke Swank. I wrote it while teaching a creative writing workshop as part of a retrospective show at Carnegie Museum of Art. I write along with my class, and I know in this workshop I focused a great deal on interior versus exterior lives. The photographs explore this and I wanted my students to think about it too. Swank came from or was part of the modernist tradition, and his work has a kind of closed up quality—an essential tension to it—that nearly everyone in the class picked up on. I became obsessed with this one image that featured shadows and butternut squash. I was trying to capture the tone of the photograph through the tension between my two characters.
“The sun refuses to begin” is a sentence that comes from revision. I’m guessing my initial sentence was something like: The sun was refusing to begin. Or, The sun wasn’t up yet. Or, more likely, some other sentence in that first paragraph that got moved or deleted. Something (bad) that was a placeholder with the evil word “was” in there until I could refine the sentence to be interesting and accurate. I love revising sentences and will often try out 10-20 different incarnations before I “finish” one.
“Time is short.” How does that aspect of time work itself into the creation of fiction that is also (very) short. In what ways does its shortness define it?
I’ve been obsessed with time in my writing from the get go. I’m a pretty non-linear, multi-tasking person so I don’t have a problem free-falling with time in my work. I just finished up a novel that totally jumps in time from chapter to chapter, but I was never confused in writing it. It all made perfect sense to me and I didn’t plot it out ahead of time, and the structure of my first draft remained the structure of the novel until the final manuscript. (No one believes this, but it’s true.)
I love condensing language and having the freedom (as author) to pick and choose how I create a world, what I include and leave out. That’s the privilege of writing. We get to choose. I’m pretty nostalgic and I’m constantly living in my past and the present at the same time. I’m always reliving everything. So worlds coming together are common for me (at least in my head) and I guess I reflect that in my writing. I have a short essay on time and the craft of it in short-short fiction coming out in The Rose Metal Press Field Guide to Writing Flash Fiction: Tips from Editors, Teachers, and Writers in the Field. In there, I try to articulate the idea of free-falling in time and how the short-short story is perfect for it because it doesn’t rely as much on plot as, say, a 60,000 word novel.
I love the weight and power images have here and in your other pieces. Light, the coil of scarf, the gourds, the hold. What can the rest of us do to get our image patterns to feel both important and organic to a piece?
I’m a pretty firm believer in letting objects lead the way. Objects tell us so much about character, setting, time. If you cut back and let them resonate, very cool things can happen. Right now, as I type this, on my window sill I have two pins and a marble. (I’m at a residency and these are the only things I brought from my home.) It’s such a beautiful still life—two tiny rounds pins. One says “love” the other “sweet” (this is true) and a blue and yellow marble. (I dug the marble up from my garden, at home I have a whole dish of dug-up marbles, but I brought just this one with me for good luck). The window sill is white and empty except for these three tiny things. Outside there’s a meadow (and two horses). I could spend all day trying to relay to you how perfect it looks, and at the end there would be a story with people in it and meaning. I guess my advice is: slow down. Look around.
I began to take my writing of flash fiction seriously after Pam Painter told me I had to read your “I Call This Flirting.” What led to your commitment to and love of flash fiction—both as reader and writer?
Wow. You did? First, I must say I love Pam Painter. I love her writing and I love her. She is a great supporter, and a great friend, and I’m honored that she recommended my book to you and thrilled that it then helped you in some way. I’m blushing.
I started writing flash fiction my sophomore or junior year of undergraduate work. Around 1987? I had wanted to be a poet, but that didn’t work out (never understood line breaks), and then I decided to be a fiction writer, but I wasn’t super into writing long stories. I was doing it, but I wasn’t passionate about it. My friend Guy Cappecelatro gave me a collection of work by Raymond Carver one day, and it absolutely blew my mind. I mean, it seriously changed my life right then and there. I can tell you exactly where I was standing when he gave me the book (Fires) and said: I think you’ll like this. There was something about the tension and minimalism and freshness in Carver’s work that connected with my aesthetic and life experiences.
I started writing short-short fiction almost immediately and in doing so found my “voice” I guess, found my place—a place I could stake out and work in for a while? Lawrence Coates at Quarterly West published my short-short “It’s Bob, Let’s Say, or John” (my first national publication) soon thereafter. Everything clicked into place for me as an artist. At that time, I lived in Portsmouth, NH, and there were a lot of writers in that town publishing in The Quarterly, edited by Gordon Lish? He was a big supporter of short-short fiction and of Raymond Carver too. So, there was a body of like-minded people messing with form and having honestly such a great time writing. I discovered Amy Hempel and Diane Williams and Jayne Anne Philips, and I was also really into Richard Brautigan (who was writing short short fiction, amazing short short fiction, in the 60s and 70s.) I also thoroughly embraced modernism—Gertrude Stein in particular. I was young and learning, and it was really exciting. It was a wonderful, creative time where I didn’t feel constrained and could explore the world through writing in a way that made me happy. We weren’t necessarily supported academically in these creative pursuits, so we aligned with visual artists and photographers and musicians living in the town instead of the writers at the university. I still to this day have a great, supportive eclectic mix of friends who are pursuing all kinds of art forms. It’s important to me to be surrounded by working artists, to be surrounded by art instead of theory.
Have I answered any of your questions? Let me try this again:
I love honing the perfect little story—trying to create resonance and concise meaning. I love reading work that makes me feel something in such a short span. A story I can read over and over again and still feel something afterwards is the best thing ever. I feel like a lot of short-short fiction is gimmicky (like a joke with a punch line) and I don’t like those so much. I love seeing these words so tightly constrained on a page that it’s about to burst. It makes me incredibly happy to read work like that. That’s why I both write and read flash fiction.
We share the experience of having Flume Press call us to tell us that our collection of (very) short fiction won their Fiction Prize. Yeah, baby! So what was that phone call and its aftermath like for you?
I remember coming home from work and my husband Rick saying, “Some guy from Flume Press called, and I’m pretty sure it’s good news.” He said it that way because I am notorious for not returning phone calls in a timely manner. So, I called Casey Huff back, and he told me I’d won the prize and that I was their first fiction winner. It was great and so affirming of all this work I’d done over the years. The shorts in my collection were written between 1987-2003. It took me a long time to get together a collection that I thought “worked.” I’d spent the previous year coming home from work and revising the manuscript from 8-10pm each night. That was the only time I had to work on it then. And I had a great writing group that met monthly that helped me get to the title and include the section breaks. So, it really was rewarding to see the manuscript published. It validated my time and my dedication to the form? Plus, everyone at Flume is great! Great, great, great. I had the best experience publishing with them. I think all of your readers should submit to their contest. Also, from that publication I’ve been solicited for some fine anthologies, which I’m honored to be a part of: Flash Fiction Forward and New Sudden Fiction—both out with Norton and edited by Robbie Shapard and James Thomas, as well as You Have Time for This out with Ooligan press. I’ll also have work in the forthcoming anthology Dogs: Wet and Dry edited by Stephanie Freele. So, the chapbook helped me take a step up nationally with my work. I’m really grateful for that, too. I’m judging Rose Metal Press’s contest (the deadline just ended on Dec. 1), and so I’m happy to pass on the good news to someone else. I haven’t received the finalists yet, but I’m excited to see what’s going on out there in the world of flash fiction. And I’ve been asked to teach a flash fiction workshop/lit. class at University of Pittsburgh in the spring term. It’s nice to make a full circle and teach a class I wish I could have taken as an undergrad.
Although I’ve been working on this novel (Reconsidering Happiness, to be published by Univ. of Nebraska Press in fall 2009!) I’ve been slowly creating another short-short manuscript. I feel like I’ve learned so much about sentence structure in the past few years, and I’ve been excited to apply that to the short-short form. I’m hoping that someday the new work will see the light of day as a book, but “Shadows,” published here is part of that new stuff.