by Aliza Greenblatt
Jamie Hittman is a soon-to-be-graduate of the Queens College MFA program in Creative Writing. From a young age she was fascinated with both writing and medicine, and she plans to pursue a medical degree at the University of Maryland next year. “The Four Billion Year Birthday” is her second published story.
Aliza Greenblatt: I usually like to start interviews by asking the authors a little about themselves. What made you want to be a writer? Is your focus primarily on short stories? Does your background in psychology often influence your work?
Jamie Hittman: I wanted to be a writer because I loved being a reader. I started writing stories around age eleven, I think. I always had grand aspirations of writing epic horror novels, because that’s what I read day in and day out. I actually wrote two novel-length works while in high school, but they were pretty bad, as you might imagine. I only got into writing short stories relatively recently. I first discovered flash fiction while I was in college, and I loved it for its brevity and immediacy. You can’t mess around too much in flash fiction. Flash fiction is pure story.
I think my background in psychology has influenced my work in a general sense. I love learning about how people think and behave, but then, I think most writers do. One of the best things about fiction is the ability to get inside a character’s head. In film, you’re limited by what the director chooses to show you about a character, but in a novel or story, you can dig so much deeper. The reader is privy to everything: a character’s thoughts, feelings, motivations. And that’s so much fun.
AG: Can you tell me a little about your writing process?
JH: I live and die by word quotas. I try my best to write at least one typewritten page per day, which translates to around 650-700 words, single-spaced. I will often write more, but never less. The key is not to shut down before I reach my minimum. Consistency, I think, is the most important factor in writing anything. As long as you write every day (or even every few days) your story will get done. It doesn’t matter if it’s flash fiction or a novel. If you write consistently, you can’t not finish.
I write by hand in a spiral-bound notebook and then type the words up when I’m finished. I can’t write by computer. There’s something about having a delete key that brings out the worst of my perfectionistic tendencies. I will write sentences and delete them over and over again. For some reason I find writing by hand more forgiving. I can cross out words and scribble notes in the margins. I recommend writing a story by hand at least once, actually. It’s a completely different experience.
AG: Often with short stories, only a fraction of the infrastructure of the story makes it to the page. I think this is particularly true with speculative fiction pieces. How much world building did you do for this story? For example, did you have a cause for the death of Earth and what the new planet will be like when the settlers arrive? (You don’t have to give specifics.)
JH: I’m kind of embarrassed to admit this, but since this story was so short, I didn’t do as much world-building as I normally would have. I had a number of causes for the death of Earth, and I can tell you right now that there were way more survivors than the Paradisus could accommodate. I’m sure some of the passengers were handpicked for the journey, while others bribed their way on. But that’s another story entirely. As for the destination planet, I know that it’s earthlike enough that recolonization would be relatively straightforward. Though I did consider what would happen if the planet were colonized already…
AG: From what I could tell, the people inhabiting the Paradisus are having a collective identity crisis. They are the generations in between the stars. Why isn’t the idea that they are the last of an endangered species enough of a reason to survive? Why do you think being on Earth gives people a sense of self-worth?
JH: I do think that self-worth and personal meaning are easier to find on Earth than on a spaceship like the Paradisus. On Earth, we don’t have to think about how little we mean to the universe at large. We have friends, entertainment, and personal aspirations. We set goals and we achieve them. And these things distract us from the idea that our individual lives, on a grand scale, are nothing special. Being born on a generation ship, knowing that the greatest contribution you will make is totally impersonal (not to mention completely involuntary) throws the reality of personal irrelevance into stark relief. Still, I’d say that most of the people aboard the Paradisus are happy with their mission to preserve the species. It’s people like Marian and Dr. Hauser—people who are searching for some other meaning in their lives—who have the most trouble.
AG: The spaceship where the refugees of humanity live appears to be a utopia, but yet it’s acknowledged by its builders that it’s no place for people to live. Why is that? Is it the lack of obstacles (disease, natural disasters, etc.) that make the Paradisus so uninhabitable?
JH: That’s absolutely a part of it. NASA actually put together a report back in 1977 called “Space Settlements: A Design Study.” And it’s this incredibly involved treatise on everything that a space settlement needs for its inhabitants to be happy. According to the authors, engineers have to take care to avoid turning the settlement into a dreamlike environment where “every wish can be fulfilled by a push-button.” Otherwise, the inhabitants could enter a state of mind where they believe nothing is real but themselves. I don’t know if that’s true, but it’s definitely food for thought.
AG: What other projects are you working on now? Are there other stories of yours, either upcoming or published, that you can point readers to?
JH: I only started submitting work recently, so I don’t have much out there yet! My first short story, “Forces of Gravity,” was published in the online journal Bird’s Thumb back in January, so you can check that out if you’re interested. I’ve also just completed my master’s thesis, which is the beginning of a novel. The story is nowhere near done, though, so finishing that up is my next major project.
AG: Thank you very much for taking the time to chat with us. Best of luck with all your writing endeavors.
Aliza T. Greenblatt works in a firmly non-writing field when the sun is up and writes under a desk lamp at night. Fueled by a sheer love of books and a tyrannical imagination, she writes the stories that appear over her morning coffee and won’t leave her alone until they are put down on paper. She writes, raves, and blogs at http://atgreenblatt.com and on Twitter @AtGreenblatt.