Wed 31 Aug 2011
by Michelle Reale
Michelle Reale: I am so pleased to have you as the featured writer! I love your writing, and, as well, love the fact that you are so supportive of other writers, too. You maintain a blog, are the editor of a flash-fiction anthology, happily married, and the mother of three beautiful children AND a new puppy with the sweetest, velvety ears and soulful eyes that I have ever seen. Tell me how you balance writing/creativity with so many other responsibilities.
Nicole Scarpato Monaghan: Thanks, Michelle, for your kind words. I am a lucky girl, for sure, with many blessings. I so deeply love my husband and three children and ah, yes, the puppy, Valentine, her soulful eyes and velvety ears have “puppied” their way deep into my heart in just weeks.
As to the balancing of things, I have not figured that out yet. I often feel that when I’m doing one thing, I should perhaps be doing another. There is too much, always, in both my head and heart. I tend to be stressed and hard on myself internally. I think I somehow come off, both in person and in my online “presence” as together. I’m not. I’d like to think that I prioritize being an excellent mother and wife above all else, but the writing is infinitely important to me, and I’ve made much time for it these last few years, which of course, leaves less time to keep up on everything else. It took many years, but I’ve come to believe that my doing what I love will serve my family in the end. I want my children to value art, regardless of how the world might act as though it’s less important than, say, money or fashion or youth or physical beauty or on and on. I want them to peruse fearlessly whatever they love. If I weren’t doing that, I couldn’t expect them to. I think every week and day and minute there’s a tiny decision to be made about what one should be focusing on. Balls drop all the time. Every time I write something new and feel good about it, at least I’ve got a smile on my face while I’m on the floor picking up balls.
MR: You are a wonderful flash fiction writer. How did you come to love and write in the form?
NSM:Thank you! What a wonderful compliment. I think a few years back when I was rediscovering my writer-self, I found myself addicted to reading the very short stories in online journals and feeling an appreciation for them as a pure and fearless art form. It was, and maybe still is, a bit of a selfish thing. I belonged to it somehow, felt home, like Ah, people write these raw and aggressive pieces and they resonate with me and, wait, I think I can write them too. I wrote many, many stories in my childhood and throughout my teenage years even, and they tended to be longish ones with endless introductions (“set-ups”) and descriptions and several layers of story throughout the narratives. But these small ones, they’re special. They stick you right where it hurts and leave you concave on the last line.
I still enjoy the whole gamut of forms, such as essays (probably my second favorite), poetry, longer short stories, but I feel the absolute sexiest writing and reading flash. That seems a silly thing to say, but it’s the truth. I like the pull and intimacy of it, how we’re thrust into something unsettling and human, something that needs uncovering right now. I am thrilled by its unflinching focus, the emotional intensity, the words needing to do so much so quickly, the unavoidable vulnerability and nakedness of it. When it gets down to it, that’s why I like it best: I feel hot and sexy writing (and reading) flash. I have no idea what this says about me.
Because the domestic scenes interest me in a very intense and personal way, I am drawn to your pieces that lift the curtain on family dramas. Tell me about your pieces that blast the notion of the happy family—talk about their genesis.
I think that my pieces which deal with uncovering troubled family dynamics are ones where I’m very much “mashing up” a multitude of realities I’ve witnessed or imagined rather than experienced. I was fortunate to have a very happy and secure childhood with loving parents and two older brothers who I adored so the family ones are not on any level autobiographical. As far as blasting the notion of happy families, I think I do actively attempt, with every piece, to reveal some underlying complication, tension, or wound in a character or two, so perhaps I create situations, often family ones, to account for such wounds. Even in the most functional and happiest of families, there are as many disappointments, frustrations, misunderstandings, and tiny hurts as there are days in a year. A good story, in my opinion, will reveal those tiny things.
MR: In your flash piece “New Age” a mother confronts the realities of her pregnant sixteen year old. There is a saying that we write about our preoccupations. Is this true, in this case?
NSM:This piece, which was my first published flash, began with an image that felt to me like it needed to become a story. I was putting away my girls’ (then approximately ages nine and seven) dress-up clothes in a trunk and I imagined a mother, instead, tossing them into the trash. These sentences wrote themselves into my head: “I threw out the bent wand, the mangled pompoms, the sparkly belts. I tossed the beaded purse, like I was taking a free-throw shot, and it went in.” I really liked the language and imagery and wanted to see where it might go story-wise. I think of this piece as a language/image inspired piece rather than a content one. Once I had that image on the page, I was interested in figuring out what grave thing might cause a mother to dispose of her daughter’s dress-up clothes besides just the child having grown out of them. I wrote to the sentence with no idea where I’d end up. The pregnancy surprised me but I liked that the mother had the brave acceptance and the stoic ability to say goodbye to her daughter’s childhood and liked juxtaposing that with the father’s very different reaction
I have had a preoccupation with pregnancy at varying times in my life, having had three of them. I have always felt deep compassion for women who experience teenage pregnancy, infertility, miscarriage, and abortion—all of the emotionally-fraught pregnancy related problems–so I might have had a need to write sympathetically about a character who experiences one of these things, and how it impacts the people who love her. I was also, in the writing, identifying with the mother, imagining the utter pain I might feel if one of my own daughters experienced teenage pregnancy and miscarriage, and how I might attempt to cope.
MR: Your piece “Spell” gets into the head of a young girl in a spelling bee, on the surface a pretty innocuous activity—one would think. The girl internalizes everything around her and the reader gets to see her “process” her world. Take us through the process of writing this story.
“Spell” also came about with a few sentences that wrote themselves: “She spells it: anesthesiologist. A n e s t h e s i o l o g i s t. She doesn’t need the definition, but she thinks of it. Makes one numb.”
The sentences sort of implored me to “story” them. I think I might have caught part of a kids’ movie featuring a spelling bee a few days prior. The more I wrote of that story, the more I realized I wanted this character to be something other than what one might expect her to be. Rather than be a hopeful contestant who perhaps lands second place, she’d be a winner who doesn’t feel satisfied. My parents were very doting and always praised me for my accomplishments, so I never thought of this girl as myself, but reading your question I realize that I have put myself into her. I was the kind of little girl to internalize absolutely everything, feeling everything too deeply, I think, for my own good. It is a very weighty thing to absorb so much. I think I was weighed down by my own perceptions of the world and myself in it. I am portraying myself as very serious and sad. If you hang out with me, I will be more fun than this. I promise. I like to laugh and drink wine. Sometimes I’m funny too.
MR: Your flash fiction is very succinct and often with killer titles and last lines which I am particularly interested in. For instance, your title “What Goes Above Our Heads Sometimes Does Not.” How did the title come about? How important are titles to you?
Thank you! I think titles are infinitely important. I’ve learned quite a bit from Randall Brown in this regard. I’ve long admired his titles, and what he’s said about titles, that they are best not when they’re simply “what the story is about” but rather when they inform it and add something entirely new to it. I definitely attempt to do that with every one of my titles.
With that piece, my grandmother had recently passed away. My kids, who hadn’t been super close to her, were greatly affected by her death, it being the first one they’d ever experienced. I told them we’d release balloons in her honor, feeling that would be a very tangible way for them to express their grief. Immediately when I heard myself say this, my writing voice spoke in my head the first line, a knowing and perhaps cynical young girl’s voice: “We floated balloons to our dead uncle for closure.” I had no idea whatsoever where this one was going but liked all that line implied about the character who would speak it. When I sat down to flesh it out, it became the voice of a girl who had lost a family member and who was perceptive beyond her years. It was my hope to create a situation which would be interesting and intense and complex and sad. I was pleased with the tininess of this piece. I never lost an uncle as a child, my father didn’t have a brother, there was no infidelity in my parents’ marriage, and I don’t have an older (or younger) sister (so wish I did!), but that perceptiveness in the young girl is probably straight from my own memory of childhood. The title came very quickly. I wanted it to both reflect that initial image of the balloons rising up above the family and also give the reader additional information, namely, that something which would typically be assumed not absorbed by a child, even the tiniest of gestures between parents was, in fact, understood.
MR: Your blog is a place I love to hang out at. What is the importance of keeping a blog, to you? You are so open and honest in your postings, and your “voice” is totally devoid of the sarcastic snark that has come to characterize writers’ blogs today.
NSM: Wow, thank you! I find that I like to hang out there too, Michelle, and I feel comfy and very much myself. At times it feels vulnerable to be as honest as I am on the blog. I’m human, so I sometimes want to recoil after putting myself so utterly “out there.” But when I don’t do that, I find the writing stale and uninteresting. It seems the more of myself I risk, the more I am rewarded by readers who enjoy and appreciate that I have said what perhaps they are unable to. I really have come to a place of putting the honesty of the writing over insecurities, privacies, or risk of criticism or not being liked or being whispered about. Let them whisper. I’ll be over here doing my thang, and at age 37, I accept that not everyone will like or “get” me, and that’s ok. The blog’s become very important to me. People poo-poo blogs, but I think they can be a wonderful “home-base” for a writer, a place to come back to again and again. I very much like having all things literary having to do with me in one place there.
MR:Talk about being the editor of your upcoming collection Stripped-–the premise behind anonymity and gender is an intriguing one!
NSM:Thank you! Your story is an amazing and haunting one, which I’m so grateful to have.
It’s a collection of forty-seven stories by both established and emerging flash writers. Authors’ names won’t be matched to pieces but authors’ bios will be included in the back of the book. The idea is for the reader to read blindly and to wonder about the gender of the author. Solicited authors were asked to either embody the gender roles of the gender opposite their own or embrace their own gender identity in writing previously unpublished stories for the collection. It’s not as simple as women authors writing from the male perspective or vice versa. We’ve mixed things up. One year after publication, authors’ names will be matched to stories on my blog and people will, I hope, say “No way, he (she) wrote that one!”
I believe the stripping away of the authors’ names will have readers engaging in a new way. It’s been a joy and honor to solicit, read, and select for this collection. I am humbled by the talent of the Stripped contributors.
I think we have to remember to rediscover literature again and again in new ways. I really like that his project is a long-term experiment. I hope it will become a testament to the joy of literary wonder. Many professors have already said they’d use it in their MFA in Creative Writing and Literature courses as a jumping point for lively discussion. I like to imagine graduate writing and literature students hunched over with their noses in it, excited and curious and inspired. I think it will be far-reaching and fun. A sexy thrill. And flashy.
MR: Finally, what is in your writing future? What writing goals have you set for yourself?
Because the writing feels to me like breathing, something I do rather naturally and that I sort of “have” to do (to feel alive and good), I don’t necessarily set specific goals in the traditional sense. However, in my heart, writing goals beat and pump. I very much want to have some of my stories collected in a volume and hope, after I’ve submitted the Stripped manuscript to the publisher, to spend time on a manuscript of my own collected work for publication. I’m not prolific, only having been submitting work for a few years now, but I believe there is enough to string together meaningfully. There is a strong desire to see some of the little things I’ve written, sent out and had published together, cohesive, and bound. This is the only thing I know how to do (write) so I want to do it often and see it very tangibly in the world. I admire writers who simply write for their own pleasure and don’t have a need to publish books and see their names on gorgeous covers with their words inside (assuming those writers really exist). I’m not one of them.
Nicole Scarpato Monaghan is editor of Stripped, a Collection of Anonymous Flash Fiction due out from PS Books in spring, 2012. She has been honored with several writing awards from both the 61st and 62nd Annual Philadelphia Writers’ Conferences for her literary short stories, flash fiction, creative nonfiction, and poetry including three first prizes in 2010. Her recent work appears or is forthcoming in Bartleby Snopes, Storyglossia, Foundling Review, PANK, Used Furniture Review, and many other venues. Visit her at www.writenic.wordpress.com, where her literary posts have become regular contributions to the Philadelphia Stories Weblog. She lives with her husband, three children, and Redbone Coonhound puppy outside of Philadelphia.