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Thursday

Flash Interview: Claudia Smith Chen

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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
flash piece. 

 

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.

 

Every writer
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
A Well
?

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
you?

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
down. 

 

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.

 

Like many
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

 


Author’s Note

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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.

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