Interview with Curtis Smith

Curtis Smith is interviewed by Meg Pokrass as part of NFFR’s New Micro Interviews Series.  Curtis Smith’s “The Quarry” and “The Storm” have been published in NEW MICRO (W.W. Norton & Co., 2018)

 

MP: What images or thoughts helped you start drafting “The Quarry” and “The Storm”?

CS: “The Quarry” is rooted in my fear of quarries—and in my fascination with them. I’d never be brave enough to jump into one like my characters—I’m not a good swimmer. But I can imagine it—or at least I can play up my fears enough to see it clearly. There’s an old quarry in my town—it’s fenced off, but as one drives by in the winter, you can catch a glimpse. I think that’s how that image got into my head.

MP: “The Storm” comes from my days as a school teacher. I taught special learning kids for over three decades, and we had all the drills—fire, shooter, and occasionally, a tornado drill. When I was younger, I worked with kids like the ones in the story, quiet and cut off until they exploded. I also think part of that piece is rooted in the view through the window, that almost purplish color that comes before a tornado—and also in the feel of electricity in the air. It’s both beautiful and menacing.

CS: “The Storm” feels so relevant to how vulnerable children are in their schools today. I’ve read it many times and I can’t get out of that classroom, it shatters me. You create a realistically claustrophobic feeling of a world out of control, the large disabled boy embodying the storm itself. Anything you can tell us about your process in writing this?

I know that boy, not specifically, but I know him through interactions with many like him. Most stories don’t come to me easily—but this one did. Perhaps because I saw the beginning and the end simultaneously—and I knew the real time between them would be mere seconds but which seem longer because of the moment’s fear. So I began and ended with real time then sunk into the middle and allowed those seconds to be filled with details that would set the mood I wanted. I think playing with the notion of time is one of the more intriguing things about writing fiction—I’m always looking for those invitations to linger.

MP: “The Quarry” is dense and poetic, filled with longing and packed with potent sensory images. I see this as a coming-of-age piece. Somehow, you make us care about these two in such a short space.  Can you tell us anything about how this story came to be? Anything you can share about the process of writing this story?

CS: I think I saw these two jumping—and I saw the dynamic between them—one knowing and keeping secrets, the other not. But I don’t think I really understood the story until I saw the quarry as the man’s heart—deep and dark and littered with mysteries. Perhaps that didn’t come out in the writing, but it helped me on the other end as I wrestled it onto paper. Once I saw it that way, I felt like I had a clearer path to take my reader on.

MP: In “The Quarry” there is this line: “The young man loves his brother’s girl with a devotion silent and strong.” This is the way the young man sees his role, but it may not be the way we, the reader, see it. Knowing how the young man views himself helps the reader to understand the difficulty for him in this rapidly changing moment, all of it happening in a heartbeat. As the writer, how do we know what to tell the reader and what not to say?

CS: I usually try to tell as little as possible or at least hold off info for as long as is fair. I think I do that because that’s what I enjoy as a reader—kind of like I’m being treated as a co-conspirator. That said, in a piece of flash, when I feel the need to give backstory, I sometimes opt to do it in simple, direct, declaration. I like to get it out there and then move on. Sometimes it works, sometimes it doesn’t. I think it worked here—it’s so simple and short that it has the ring of truth—and the truth is what is tormenting this young man.

MP: How do you approach revision?

CS: I don’t think I’ve ever had a story without lots of revision. “The Storm” may have come together nicely as an idea, but on the sentence level, it was just as hard as any other story. In my last collection, I had a story entitled “The Lake,” which took me almost twenty-five years to write. I had these images I knew I wanted to use, but I could never make them fit anywhere—until I finally came up with the right format. It was a long time to wait for a 500-word piece.

MP: What are your writerly obsessions? What theme, idea, or image can you not let go of?

CS: I like my sentences simple and my tone hushed, but I hope that strikes a balance with my stories’ quiet complexity. I like mixed motives and characters who keep secrets. I think many of my pieces, at least my novels, are about the struggle to be good in a world where being good isn’t always rewarded.

MP: Where do your most unique ideas come from? Do you begin with an idea? How do you attack the blank page?

CS: I usually begin with a situation, some dynamic where something’s not right. Things usually don’t come to me right away—I need to kick my ideas around a bit. I often write big then whittle things small.

MP: How do you know if a story idea is working? Do you know, or is it hard to know this about your own work?  

CS: That’s a hard question. Sometimes I do know—the situation is right and my vision is clear. Other times I think I have something going, but when I return to it in a few months, I don’t feel it anymore. And there are sometimes pieces that I believe in but others don’t. It’s all so personal.

MP: Do you have any suggestions for writers who would like to learn to write microfiction?

CS: I’d suggest they read it. Start with an anthology like this one (New Micro), and see all the ways it can be done. And within the book, I’ll bet there will be a few authors that really speak to them—and I’d urge them to hunt down work from these authors to investigate further.

As far as actual writing goes, I’d reiterate the idea of writing big (well, relatively big) then revisiting. I’m often surprised by how much I can cut—and it leaves me with a story not only leaner but also much stronger. I’m also a planner—I need to map things out and see it all beginning to end—I know a lot of folks don’t work that way, but I need to. And that strategy is very important for me in flash, just because of the compact nature of the genre. I’ll often write out planning sheets that run up to four or five times longer than the final incarnation. I need that time to think about and see what’s in my head.

MP: What are you working on now?

CS: I’m just about to return to some flash as a matter of fact. I have five or so ideas. I usually write them in a clump like that. I’m also in the edit stages of a new novel and a new nonfiction project. I usually have three things I’m juggling—stories, a novel, and something from the nonfiction realm. I’ll work on whatever is calling me for a few months then cycle on to the next thing. It’s worked well so far—and it allows me to return to projects with a fresh view.

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Curtis Smith has published more than 100 stories and essays, and his work has appeared in or been cited by The Best American Short Stories, The Best American Mystery Stories, The Best American Spiritual Writing, The Best Short Fictions, and Norton Anthology New Microfictions. He’s worked with independent publishers to put out two chapbooks of flash fiction, three story collections, two essay collections, four novels, and a work of creative nonfiction. His latest books are Kurt Vonnegut’s Slaughterhouse-Five, Bookmarked (Ig Publishing) and the novel Lovepain (Braddock Avenue Books).