Meg Pokrass talks to Sherrie Flick about her forthcoming work in NEW MICRO (W.W. Norton & Co., 2018), her forthcoming collection from Autumn House Press, THANK YOUR LUCKY STARS (Autumn House Press, 2018) and her work as Series Editor for BEST SMALL FICTIONS, 2018.
MP: You have a new collection of flash and short stories coming out this Fall, THANK YOUR LUCKY STARS (Autumn House Press, 2018). I feel honored to have been an advance reader, and enjoyed/savored every single piece in your new collection. Please tell us anything you would like to about the birthing of this collection.
SF: It was a long, slow birth with many stages to the labor. It was painful, of course, as all births tend to be. Twenty-five years of gestation. Whoa. Some stories were published in the mid-90s and others were written right before the manuscript was taken by Autumn House. The collection itself was formed as a kind of b-side to my debut collection Whiskey, Etc. (Autumn House Press, 2016). As I put Whiskey, Etc. together there were certain stories that just didn’t fit. I started cutting and pasting those into a separate Word document and then when all was said and done I had two manuscripts. A-side, B-side. Or maybe they’re twins? My metaphor is breaking down but I hope you get the idea. I love them both equally. No playing favorites and no snacks between meals.
M: Some of the themes in this collection involve isolation and loneliness, missed chances, lives not lived, the sadness of getting older and letting go of dreams. There’s a sigh in these pieces, a movement toward acceptance. Do you feel that the concerns of your fictional characters are changing as time goes on? What is different about your writing now?
SF: Interesting. I think those themes you note have always been present in my work—even in the beginning when I was in my 20s. I guess I’m a kind of old soul in that way. I believe the most recent story written for the collection is “Dance” and I do feel that it reflects some of my maturity as a person and a writer. The characters are weird and eccentric—there’s a roving third point of view that I could have never pulled off as a younger writer. The story itself spans time in a way that’s layered and more nuanced. The characters have made choices that they understand but don’t necessarily love (the fact that they actually understand the choices they’ve made is new for my characters) but they’ve come to a synthesis with each other, time, and place. I think as I learn more about writing, I also learn how to relay more layered, complex aspects of my characters’ lives.
MP: I was in the audience for an interview in San Francisco, many years ago, in which Daniel Handler interviewed Richard Ford. Handler was saying to Ford that to him, the magic ingredient in successful fiction is when a writer can make us love (and worry about) their characters. That happens to me with your stories, I begin to care almost immediately. The characters in TYLS feel familiar to me, as if I’ve known them all of my life. Do you have any advice for other writers about building characters we fall in love with, worry about, and ultimately pull for?
SF: That’s a really good question, and I’m really glad to hear that my characters did this for you. It’s something I worry over as a writer. Early on I was a Raymond Carver disciple and I think the stories I wrote under his spell kept my reader at arm’s length. My women were strong but inaccessible, so my workshops told me. Ha. I think the advice I would give is to let your stories breathe a bit, like wine, before you consider them finished. I’ve found that setting the work aside for months or even years sometimes gives me such profound access to the emotional lives and motivation of my characters that I can suddenly truly understand their internal mapping systems. This is the case with the story “Open and Shut.” I first wrote that story in 1999, but I really couldn’t know what it was about and revise it properly until about 2009. At this point, I’ve reworked it a thousand times and it has had just as many titles. I know that no one wants to hear this, but I think complicated characters take time to build, even in flash fiction. Sometimes when you have a character say Yes in draft one, you understand by draft twelve a couple years or months later that what they really mean to say is No.
MP: Many of your stories are about failing or damaged romantic relationships and unfulfilling encounters. Conflict is always buzzing around them. The conflicts aren’t, for the most part, huge and dramatic, they’re poignant and chronic. Can you talk about the idea that there is power in small moments?
SF: I guess for the most part I personally don’t know how to address huge and dramatic conflicts except through the small and powerful moments. I think this is how I see the world and it has taken me a super long time to understand that not everyone operates this way. There was a crazy period in my life with all kinds of stuff happening like you see in dramatic TV shows on Netflix. But when I remember this time now it is of me walking out of a screaming, volatile house into my beautiful, silent garden and trimming the dead blossoms off my peony bush.
MP: Will you give us some thoughts about the concept of “plot” and “narrative arc” in even your very shortest pieces?
SF: I’m not a huge, deliberate plotter. My stories move forward through tension that’s built between character and setting for the most part. Change often happens internally or microscopically. And it often involves engagement from the reader. For instance, in the tiny story “Crickets” there’s a shift from a description of crickets on a Nebraskan sidewalk to the intent and philosophy of those insects. The reader suddenly sees the scene differently—there isn’t a giant plot device that makes that change, it happens internally with the reader. I think this plays into my no big, dramatic conflicts thing as well. I try to relay authentic scenes—scenes that are accurate in detail and accurate in emotional truth and then let them unfold even if that unfolding is the tiniest dog-eared page.
MP: You have two microfiction pieces in New Micro, “On the Rocks” and “Porch Light”. Can you tell us anything about how these stories found their way into the world? Any backstory you might be able to tell us about the writing of these marvelous micros.
SF: “On the Rocks” plays off a trope I have used in a couple different stories of a character owning a lighter given to him by a dead person. I kind of like this idea of a dead person being present in the story only through an object–the lighter–and I like the ritual of opening and clicking a lighter to get the flame. I lived in Nebraska for a time while I was in grad school and during that time I met a lot of people who pretended to be one thing—who took on airs as it were—but were really this other thing. And because I’m kind of a gullible, literal person, I always believed at first the person that was presented to me and it took me a while to learn that what the person really wanted was a shot and a beer. Ha. So this flash is me trying to come to terms with that experience.
With “Porch Light” I wanted to work with a character who had these intentions to do one thing but really always did the other. That’s how she comes to kiss her neighbor, Tim. The only way she can kiss him is to listen to Nirvana. I love those kinds of associations. I minored in logic as an undergrad and sometimes I think those formulas make it into my work: If A, then B, but only if C is less than D.
MP: I find “Porch Light” to be very funny and charming, your comic timing and playful use of language is wonderful. Can you talk about writing humorous stories? Do you aim for funny, or does funny just happen?
SF: I had a friend, years ago, who asked me why I didn’t write funny stories. (At the time I actually didn’t write funny stories.) He said, “You’re a funny person. You tell funny stories all the time.” And it’s true, I’m good bar storyteller. I can keep a group entertained once I get going. My husband is great at tag teaming a funny story with me so we can sometimes have people in tears with these funny stories we tell. I guess back then, before I wrote any funny stories, I thought stories had to be serious. Once I started trying to write deliberately funny stories I realized that funny stories could be serious. So, I guess the funny part is kind of more of the real me seeping in? I don’t know if that’s actually true but it feels that way.
MP: As series editor for BEST SMALL FICTIONS, you clearly read a ton of short-form prose. Are there key ingredients that successful pieces have in common?
SF: Really, just a ton of stories. In the past year I do wonder how many pieces of short-form prose I’ve read because I’ve also judged a few contests, too. I also read some years for the Drue Heinz Prize (which has collections with mainly longer stories in them) but when I do that I also get just boxes and boxes and short story manuscripts to read. If you ever have the chance to do this, do it. It is such an education in what a story can be. With that said, I think with flash fiction voice is critical. I mean, if the voice is flat I just don’t see how the story can work. Voice is connected to sentence level writing, right? So I need to be engaged from the moment I start reading and I need those sentences to really do as much work as they can. I want to feel that zip-bang of Oh Yes now THIS, this is GOOD. So good. So good you want to read it aloud to your dog, good. Call a friend good. I have to take a break and think about this for a while good.
I also like when an author builds a world that is authentic but that I come to understand gradually. This is something that Dan Chaon does amazingly in his short stories. I think I know what’s going on, but I totally do not know what’s going on. Ah. Love that. In The Best Small Fictions 2018 there’s a story “What We See” by Denise Long where you think the story is about this baby who seems to be walking around at night causing all kinds of mischief but the baby is just a regular old not-able-to-walk-yet baby in the daytime. So, you’re reading this piece of flash and you’re like—sure, yes. A wacky story about a nighttime mischievous walking baby, which, you know, is a pretty good premise—but then you get to the end of the story and it slams you to the floor and you understand the story is so, so, so not about this baby. It is about the parents and the world and ego and devastation. When Chauna Craig (my domestic assistant editor for the anthology) and I got together to order the anthology we were like: where should we unleash this baby story because it was, for us, the bottom of despair. Does this even answer your question? There are so many stories in this anthology that do just this; they take me places I didn’t know I could go. And that is what I’m looking for in good flash.
MP: You write short stories as well as flash and microfiction. I’ve so enjoyed your longer pieces in Thank Your Lucky Stars. Do you know, before you begin to write a piece, what length a piece will be? Are the processes in writing short stories different from writing microfiction?
SF: I do have (almost always) intent when I start writing as far as length goes. I understand at this point in my career what I can handle in a 750-word story versus a 5,000-word story. I think about how much I can compress, how much I can let out. How many characters can I handle given the scope of the world I’m creating. My nature is to write short so that’s where I’ll go if I don’t consciously think about expanding. The processes are similar, it’s just how much I’ll let myself explore. It would be rare for me to write long and then cut that draft back into a piece of flash, although of course that has happened, but I just don’t tend to work that way. It’s more that I draft to around the final word count and then rewrite and compress in that framework until I get the story as tight as I can.
MP: What is the best writing advice you’ve ever been given?
SF: I’ve been given so much great advice over the years. One piece that comes back to me again and again is from Tim O’Brien. I worked with him at Sewanee many years ago. He told us to remember to stop and look around while you’re writing. And what he meant was—stop and look around in your head, have your character look around in the scene that you’ve written. It gets at the whole Chekhov thing about writing without judgment. Try to see. And so I’ll often mumble to myself, “Look around.” And that has been really helpful for me.
MP: What is next for you?
SF: Well, right now I’m about halfway through a narrative nonfiction book manuscript that I’m under contract to write for Creative Nonfiction magazine’s book imprint In Fact Books. The book explores my experiences of Pittsburgh and Western Pennsylvania (where I grew up, left, and returned to and where I live now) and also how I became the kind of feminist I am today. It is unlike anything I’ve ever written before. Interviews, research, facts. A huge creative challenge, which is both hard and invigorating.
Sherrie Flick is the author of the novel RECONSIDERING HAPPINESS and two short story collections, WHISKEY, ETC. and THANK YOUR LUCKY STARS (Autumn House Press, 2018). Her work appears in many anthologes and journals, including W.W. Norton’s FLASH FICTION FORWARD, NEW SUDDEN FICTION, and NEW MICRO. She serves as series editor for BEST SMALL FICTIONS 2018.
(This interview is part of New Flash Fiction Review’s ongoing New Micro (W.W. Norton & Co., 2018) interview series, created by New Flash Fiction Review’s Founding Editor, Meg Pokrass.)