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Flash Interview: Caia Hagel Unraveled

Interview with Caia Hagel, author of Acts of Kindness and Excellence in Times Tables (The Cupboard, Volume 4, Spring 2009).
In her chapbook Acts of Kindness and Excellence in Times Tables Caia Hagel delivers a quirky, entertaining, yet intimate read of Larry, a man in his twenties who still wears the Spider Man costume his mother made for him as a child. Light-hearted wit and humor combined with darker societal influences casts a unique twist of an ordinary man living an extra-ordinary life. With the right choice of words and playful innocence, Acts of Kindness and Excellence in Times Tables is a must read for any writer.

When did you start writing flash fiction? Was there anything particular about flash that made it different than just simply writing short stories or other works of fiction?

Though I also write in other forms (that often emerge from it), I've always written flash fiction. I find it a powerfully condensed way to express a whole world of feeling and experience. It is a challenge to write, to find the precisely right word after word and rhythm to keep the whole of it viscerally alive. I find that attractive. I also like the way its compact form has a completeness about it that feels clean and satisfying both to write and to read. As a medium, it might blur the boundary between poetry and prose, which I find interesting.

Acts of Kindness and Excellence in Times Tables details an intimate, yet sort of light-hearted relationship between a mother and son. Was family a main theme in your writing? How do these two characters play off each other? She seems to have great influence on him.

I'm quite fascinated by the relationship between mothers and sons. There are loaded undercurrents at work in so many cases, which give rise to complex emotions, motives, behaviors, all the things that writers love to observe and recreate.

In Acts of Kindness and Excellence in Times Tables Larry has a more meaningful life, seemingly as a superhero, than his mother thinks he does. He believes in the notion of still "believing in symbols" and of "the power of being open and of sometimes reaching out with spidermedicine, for the bettering of the world." Do you think writing, of any sort, can still have this sort of effect on people, even in the societies we live in today? How has societal events impacted your own writing?

I don't think that people really change. Society changes and we adapt to these changes but we are deeper than that. Stories are like dreams, they speak to us at important levels in important ways that have meaning for us, and will always have meaning for us. The way we read stories--in physical book form or on a Kindle or an iPhone--might evolve, but the impact of living vicariously through another person, which stories give us the opportunity to do, will remain necessary.

Are there any specific authors / artists / figures that have impacted your writing? From the time you began writing, do you feel your writing has evolved and/or changed in any ways?

I love people--I'm always the one at the party asking the most outrageous questions, and attracting the most outlandish confessions. I love German writers, particularly the more acute post-war ones--WG Sebald, Thomas Bernhard, former GDR writer Julia Franck. I go back to Greek mythology a lot and enjoy esoteric non-fiction, things like new physics manuals and old homeopathic materia medica. I get enormous inspiration from music--the seed for Acts of Kindness and Excellence in Times Tables came from a Charles Aznavour song about a guy who lives with his mother in a seedy part of Paris and cleans her house all day, buys her groceries, feeds her bird, and at night when she is asleep, works in a strip club and falls in love with a married man who will never requite his love. I was tantalized by the tragedy.

The illustrations in Acts of Kindness and Excellence in Times Tables are really interesting. I especially liked the back cover, the spiderweb and heart. Did you have specific ideas for the cover of the chapbook?

We wanted something punchy and Zen, but heartfelt. Tim Georgeson, the photographer we commissioned, played with a photograph on Photoshop until it completely vanished--and was transformed into a free-hand illustration. He understood the balance between the spirits of earnestness and childlikeness in Larry--we were very pleased.

Larry, the main character in the chapbook, takes on many roles: son, superhero, performer, etc. Is he trying to take on too many roles? His character made me think of how today, in society, we are constantly trying to do ten things at once, be the best we can be and more.

The experiment of the book is a central character whose sincere attempts to master the art of loving strangers in every situation somehow fail but not really. I wanted him to be a flawed superhero so that the pathos of our imperfect/desperate human condition could be felt without shame and with some humor.

I also noticed a theme of loss in this story, particularly when Larry speaks of his father. His mother has been almost numbed by the loss of his father. What role does the passing of his father play in the collection?

It might be a symbol for 'the absent father," a sociological legacy that we're only turning around in this generation. I also liked working with "a ghost," and playing with the starkness of the unsatisfactory mother-son relationship left in the wake of this loss.

The image of the spider, especially his spider suit, is very fitting with the superhero theme of the collection. When Larry puts on his suit, he seems more confident, more able to take on worldly and intimate matters than before. What does this spidersuit represent? It most definitely gives him confidence, an aura of feeling like he can tackle anything in the world. It also allows him to meet new people, perform where maybe he would not in the daytime, etc.

Disguise is always an aid for shy people. For Larry it's that and more. He truly believes in his role as dispenser of spidermedicine--he's an urban shaman of the very New York City variety....

My favorite scene in the chapbook is when Larry is channeling Jeff Buckley performing Leonard Cohen's "Hallelujah." Larry seems to reach people in ways and earn their confidence with such ease. Why did you give him these qualities as a main character?

It makes him accessible and it gives us admission to very intimate things and very unexpected things in others, through their connection to him.

What inspired you to write this particular story? It is pure, at times comical, written with beautiful, simple words and heartfelt phrases. What were your goals in writing this particular chapbook?

I wanted heart. I wanted strangeness but the kind that we can all relate to in private, so that readers could be touched and moved, maybe in ways that they're not so used to.

About the Author


Katie Baker is an MFA in Creative Writing (Fiction) candidate at Rosemont College. She graduated with Political Science and English degrees from Saint Joseph's University in 2009. She enjoys reading, writing, and running, though not all at the same time. She currently teaches Writing at Philadelphia University.

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From Benjamin Grossman

Insight­ful inter­view. Espe­cial­ly like the part about what draws Caia Hagel to flash fic­tion.

I went to the “Cup­board” site and bought a copy. Sounds great!

From Alina Ladyzhensky

Excel­lent work, Katie. I often tend to skim inter­views with writ­ers in which they dis­cuss books I’ve nev­er read, but this was real­ly engross­ing & made me want to read Hagel’s work (as soon as I’m fin­ished with the mas­sive pile of books clut­ter­ing up my desk…) — the scene. What real­ly sold me, inci­den­tal­ly, was the scene you described as your favorite. A+ for any chap­book that throws in a Jeff Buck­ley ref­er­ence..

From Alina Ladyzhensky

(Whoops, typo up there.)

From Rich Grohowski

Great insights into a writer’s cre­ative process behind a spe­cif­ic work. Lar­ry and his Mom sound fas­ci­nat­ing. I’ll def­i­nite­ly read the chap­book. And dit­to about the Buckley/Cohen ref­er­ence! I love both ver­sions of that song.

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