1. Flash fiction offers readers a
compressed story. How do you define it? Has the compression ever limited you as
a writer? If so, how did you overcome it?
There are so
many definitions out there. What distinguishes a flash fiction from, say, a
prose poem? I don’t think there is any one answer but the discussion is an
interesting one. I took a poetic forms class once, and took apart one of my
flash pieces (i.e. “Colts” from The
Sky Is A Well) and separated the lines, so that it read like a poem. This
was an interesting exercise for me because it read quite differently–the way it
was presented on the page called attention to the rhythm of the piece, and it
definitely read more like a poem. When I used to get asked this, I would say–in
a fiction piece, no matter how short, there is some sort of narrative, even if
it is implied. But that can be true of poems. I think my favorite answer to
this now is: if the writer calls it a flash piece and it is very short–it is a
I wouldn’t say
compression has limited me as a writer at all. In fact, I started really
publishing more when I learned how to write the short-short story. It probably
took me a couple of years to find my vision. Many of the shorts written in the
collection you first wrote me about The
Sky Is A Well And Other Shorts were written when my son was an infant. I
found that I did my best work when I could write through a piece from beginning
to end without much interruption, and for a flash piece, that usually was about
a half hour. I’m not saying the piece would be finished, just that I would have
a draft done. That was about the amount of time I had available to sit down and
write when he was small.
For a few years,
I was prolific, writing a new piece just about every day and publishing a lot. Then
a lot of things occurred in real-time, outside of my writing life. I moved with
my son to go back to school and stopped publishing as frequently for a number
of reasons. One of them had to do with the fact that I needed to slow down and
try other things. I worked on longer stories and that process was quite
different for me. It took me awhile. I have a draft of a novel finished now,
involving some of the same characters that appear in one of my stories in Quarry Light, my new collection coming
out this November. It took me a long time to stop thinking in short bursts. My
first inclination, when writing through it, was to stop every two or three
pages and come to some glimmering or brutal moment. The pacing was different. The
new collection has a more traditional approach to narrative and plot, and I
think that is what is right for those stories.
probably goes through transitions like this. I believe flash was the first form
I ever really learned, inside and out. Of course there are still things to
learn about the form. You can do so much with it.
2. Is there a particular meaning or
sentiment you want readers to come to in your flash pieces? What about in your
story “Window” from The Sky Is
That’s a good
question. Flash can work like a song you hear on the radio–capturing a mood, a
feeling, a time in life and suspending it. I think you can do other things with
flash, but with my flash pieces I hope I accomplished that at times. The
stories in Put Your Head In My Lap
are even shorter, more like moments, less like little miniature stories. And I
believe the flash pieces in The Sky Is A
Well And Other Shorts and in Put Your
Head In My Lap–most of them originally published in online journals–were at
first meant to be read on their own. But in the collections, they work off of
one another. I was pretty careful with the placement of the stories within both
collections. I think this is especially true in Put Your Head In My Lap, in which the stages of romantic
relationships are traced.
It has been so
many years since I wrote “Window.” I believe it was Margaret Atwood who said
something like once a piece is out there it really is no longer your own.
People bring their own experiences and interpretations to that piece. I
remember being sad when I wrote it, and, well, it was fall, and I was looking
out the window as I wrote. My desk faced a window at that time. Some of the
melancholy I was feeling had to do with things outside the story and in my real
life probably went into that story. It was the end of summer and beginning of
fall in Austin, Texas, and everything seemed a little burned and dead. I didn’t
really know the woman, a mother, who lived across the street. This was before I
had my son. The woman seemed a little overwhelmed and maybe stressed out. Occasionally
I would see scenes playing out in front of me. I never really talked to her, or
did much more than say “hi” to her kids. I was feeling very solitary that year.
Maybe the story
was in some ways, my way of envisioning a fictional meeting somehow. But of
course who knows where these things come from? You read and read and read and
then you write and write and write, and I think sometimes my best stories are
the ones that come in bursts, when I am in a kind of intense reverie. But they
wouldn’t come if I hadn’t practiced and stumbled and tried for years.
3. What inspires you to write a flash
story? For example, is it an image, a character, a plot, or a setting?
It could be
anything. Many of the stories I wrote a few years ago came from word prompts in
Kim Chinquee’s online writing room in Zoetrope, Hotpants. I would look at the
words, think about them for a bit, and then sit down to write. I would have a
general idea about what I was after, but sometimes the writing process would
change it all.
I think when
writing shorts, it is good to hold onto a feeling, a tone–a color, a word, a
person who has vividly captured my imagination–and write around that.
4. In early drafts, I think it’s easy
(especially for beginning writers) to reach for a box of clichés when writing.
They’re safe. They’re familiar. But readers have seen them before. How do you “defamiliarize”
themes or topics in your stories to avoid clichés?
For me, it came
with years of writing and reading, with learning how to get inside a piece and
cut like crazy. I try hard not to be too precious. Revision is important and
stepping back from your work is important. Listening to others is important. You
don’t have to do what they say, it is your piece, but be open to criticism,
especially when it is coming from someone you know respects your work.
It is easy, when
writing about something very personal and harrowing, to fall into melodrama. I
guess the answer to this question might be as varied as there are writers. But
for me, my writing got better when I tried to stay true to the inside moment,
the character, and didn’t think about shocking or preaching. The stories in my
new collection deal with themes of trauma, rape, neglect, obsession, and fear. Years
ago, I wrote a piece called “Hook” which appears in a different
version in the novel I am working on. After writing the scene in which the girl
in the story picks up a man and takes money for a sex act, I knew it wasn’t
finished until I envisioned her walking home. It was then that I
remembered the dying palm trees outside of the Dot’s Coffee Shop off 1–10 in
Houston, Texas. I remembered how those palm trees struck me when I lived
there, and when I wrote the line “she didn’t know much about the lives of palm trees”
I knew the section was done. I am proud of that line, it is a key moment
in the story. It is in the moment that the girl considers how everything should
look different but doesn’t that her act begins to become real to her and to the
reader as well.
5. What other flash writers have inspired
So many. People
I know: Robert Shapard, Kim Chinquee, Sherri Flick, Tiff Holland, Darlin Neal.
Elizabeth Ellen, Kathy Fish, and Amy Clark, of course. Utahna Faith. Mary
Miller. I like Joseph Young, and some younger writers out there too–Ravi Mangla
comes to mind, I’d like to read more of his work. The list goes on…and then
there are people I don’t know personally, and that is a different kind of
inspiration. I know Raymond Carver wasn’t a flash writer, really, but he definitely
has influenced my flash. So has Chekhov.
But I draw
inspiration from poets, novelists…I think you can learn from other genres and
use it in your own work. As far as I know, my friend James Whorton, Jr. hasn’t
published flash, but I learn from reading his work, talking about writing with
him, and I am glad when he reads my work and gives me his feedback. Having a
correspondence with writers and editors who understand what you are about is
incredibly valuable. Having literary heroes is valuable also.
6. Do you have any advice for beginning
writers and/or flash fiction writers?
I could write
ten pages, but I don’t know how much good it would do. I think you have to find
your own way, and everyone makes mistakes. I sure did. But I learned from them.
I will probably make some more. If I were to have a sit-down heart-to-heart
with my twenty-four year old self, I’d have a lot to say. I’d say: try not to take
everything so personally. Not everyone is going to like you, and that’s okay. When
you start to get a little success, you may not find support from the places and
people you once turned to, and that’s okay also. Here’s a movie quote from a
film I like, Kundun. Things
change. There is a time to submit like crazy and a time to pull back and slow
About Claudia Smith Chen
When I was a
child, I read more than I read now, and when I did I’d step outside for a
while, go somewhere else. I find it difficult to lose myself that way as an
adult, but I can when I am writing. When I’m in that groove my best shorts
happen. It doesn’t happen that way when I write traditional short stories;
those, I stop and start, go back to, edit, and live inside them for weeks at a
time. Writing is a release. Some people run, some paint, some organize their
closets, some meditate. I write.
artists, I work with what haunts me. Certain images and ideas that have
preoccupied me throughout much of my life appear again and again. I kept
secrets as a child, and the isolation that created is present in much of what I
write. I don’t believe I’m a better writer because of my personal experiences,
but I write because of them. I’ve learned to listen to my instincts. I’ve
learned to write about what frightens me.
Source:“An Interview With Claudia
Smith” by Liesl Jobson @ Eclectica, 2007
Tiffany Sumner is a flash fiction writer, aspiring novelist, and degree-candidate in Rosemont College’s MFA in Creative Writing Program. Earlier this year, she relocated to Philadelphia by way of Brooklyn and is earning a living writing about shoes, mobile apps, education and taxes. Yes, taxes. She is a contributing fiction writer for Red Door Magazine and a pretty a-okay cook. Originally from Virginia, Tiffany lives in South Philly with her boyfriend and their two cats–Stitches and Madame Snugglewhiskers. Learn more about Tiffany on her blog Roja ChaCha.