CRAFT


by Aliza Greenblatt

Jamie Hittman

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 profile-pic-2

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.

by Susan Tepper

Lexi Lerner

Alexis Hope Lerner is a violinist, composer, and biology nerd from New Jersey. A student at the Manhattan School of Music, she has been a prizewinner in multiple national and international competitions. When Lexi is not practicing or composing, she can be found in her high school’s Environmental Science Center (where she hangs out with the turtles) or watching movies with her cat Marie Antoinette. Lexi dreams of becoming a virologist, a film composer, an explorer, or some wonderful combination of all three. Next year, she will be attending Brown University as part of the 8-year Program for Liberal Medical Education.

Foreigner
by Alexis Lerner

Twenty feet from the left entrance of the Port Authority was where the man called home.

Around him was a semicircular buffer zone enclosed in broken bottles, shielding him from Manhattan’s noisy sea of taxis and commuters.

In his coat pocket: a blunt razor, half a comb and 87¢. No cardboard sign. He didn’t want pity.

He was more a grizzly bear than a man. A mother of four walked by–a swan with trailing cygnets. She huddled them into her arms’ nest. -Don’t get too close, children, or he might bite.

Through cataract-riddled eyes, the man saw the smallest break from the group and skip towards him through the snow. A six-year-old princess with Mary Janes and a mink hat. She accidentally kicked over a bottle.

“Excusez-moi. Voulez-vous un ami?”

Is she talking to me?- He grimaced, sinking deeper into himself. Only his bulbous nose and coarse beard showed between his hat and scarf.

She smelled like sugar cookies. Warmth. Safety. Protected by youth, innocence and socioeconomic status.

He hated her.

He heard a zipper; then the mother’s boots quickly clacking against the sidewalk. She snatched her daughter’s hand, hissing in a foreign tongue as they retreated.

The man lifted his gaze. In the child’s open knapsack was a teddy bear just as grizzly as he was–beady eyes yearning, disappointed.

He sighed and looked up past the Port Authority overhang, past the Times Square skyscrapers, and into the endless grey space, hoping to see some ultimate good there.

 ***

Susan Tepper: Your story takes place outside of a somewhat controversial NYC landmark. How do you feel when you enter it, or walk by it?

Alexis Hope Lerner: On Wednesdays, I intern at a recording studio in the city; to get there, I take a bus in from New Jersey to the Port Authority. Usually I have my headphones on and am planning out the long work day ahead as I go down all of the escalators and pass the various shops and cafes on the first floor: Starbucks, Au Bon Pain, Hudson News, etc. The Port Authority entrance is almost completely glass, and what I see – every week, without fail – rocks me from my complacent state. People with untrimmed beards and dirty faces, wrapped up in wooly, musty blankets, create little islands for themselves on the thick sidewalk in front of the building. To me, it is astounding how many commuters – including myself – look past them as if they were part of the urban landscape itself. It is unfortunately too common a sight in the city – especially at the Port Authority – to see the homeless in public places in broad daylight. We become numb to what is around us, and that is what I am most afraid of. The distraction of daily life allows us to look past the hunger and pain that is often right before our eyes.

ST:  In a surreal sense, the homeless, the grifters, the addicts that populate the area around Port Authority are ‘foreigners’ as compared with the lives of the day-to-day people who use the terminal strictly for transit.  Interestingly, you have given real ’foreigners’ entry into this story.  Why not just some average Americans?

AHL: I agree with you in that the homeless are certainly “foreigners” within the Port Authority environment. But the other foreigners there are not the people whom we might expect. The fact that the French family is not native to the area does not necessarily render them “foreign” to the Manhattan sentiment towards the homeless. Actually, the only true outlier in the story – at least to me –  is the little girl, and that is for reasons other than her nationality. The point is that callousness towards the homeless is an international epidemic. Even the people we would expect to be foreigners in this story’s microenvironment – those who live across the world from the Port Authority – fit in all too well.

ST:  All too true. Did you know ahead of time that you would make them French (or other than Americans), or did this just strike you as you moved along the keyboard (or paper) writing?

AHL: I always knew there should be a language barrier between the little girl and the vagrant because I wanted her intentions and character to be clear beyond her words. The idea of making the family French, specifically, struck me as I was writing; it stemmed from the fact that our perception of French culture is often tagged with a romanticized view of its “poshness”. Consider how we view Coco Chanel, Christian Dior and Louis Vuitton… or even how we idealize the concept of being a “starving artist” in a beautiful Parisian flat, eating baguettes and sipping on hot cocoa in cafes and boutiques.

ST:  As in the famous opera La Boheme.  Which didn’t end well either.

AHL:  There is a certain sense of unattainable charm and glamour associated with French culture, which many Americans covet. But when I visited Paris six years ago, I saw firsthand a surprising number of homeless men and women sitting on steps outside of bakeries and museums. Even if Paris is the “city of love”, it is not exempt from the cruelties of reality. That realization affected me deeply and was integral to this story. Although the vagrant views the family as swan-like and elite, the mother’s ugly feathers show when she huddles her children away from him and turns a cold shoulder – a behavior that breaks our romanticized view of foreign culture. Even the most posh and beautiful of us can be ugly on the inside.

____________

Susan-Tepper200w

Susan Tepper has authored 5 published books. The latest is a novel in stories called The Merrill Diaries, from Pure Slush Books. She is a named finalist in storySouth Million Writers Award for 2013, was nominated for a Pulitzer Prize in fiction (2010), and nine times for the Pushcart Prize. Tepper is a staff editor at Flash Fiction Chronicles where she conducts the interview series UNCOV/rd.  www.susantepper.com

by Andreé Robinson-Neal 

Andree Robinson-Neal

Did you open the window? If you hadn’t noticed, it is spring. You’ve probably had your head down, hands to the keys (or pad and pen), writing away for your next submission; now is a great time to pause because you may have missed some great information, interviews, and updates from your fellow writers at Flash Fiction Chronicles.

The month started with Sarah Crysl Akhtar‘s tips to banish writer’s block. She covers everything from mythical beasts to birthing babies; don’t worry–every tip relates to writing. Susan Tepper gave us a glimpse into the head of someone who seems like he never had writer’s block in her UNCOV/rd interview with Stephen V. Ramey, who shared about his new collection, “Glass Animals,” among other tidbits.

If you’ve been locked to your desk for too long you may have missed the announcement for the latest “String-of-10″ contest. You will have another chance to enter the next one, but in the meantime, read about the list of winners and Jim Harrington’s Q&A with Gay Degani, the finalist judge. Gay is a prolific writer herself and in March had one of her collections serialized over at Every Day Novels.

Nancy Stohlman gave us a reminder about that manuscript from November (remember NaNoWriMo, 2013?) in her overview of NaNo’s youngest cousin, Flashnano. If you need to do something with all that flash you’ve written over your winter hibernation, Bonnie ZoBell‘s interview with Mike Young from NOÖ Journal and  Magic Helicopter Press might be just the motivation you need to prepare a submission or two. If you need inspiration from some fellow flash fiction writers, check out a list of “why flash” from the mind of  Randall Brown.

Jim Harrington  offered some serious words to writers about conquering self-doubt (hint: self-reflection is quite an elixir!) as well as great tips on ending well (or at least ending at an appropriate place). Aliza Greenblatt interviewed Audrey Kalman, EDF’s Top Author for February, where you can find great pointers on commitment to writing. The month ended with a reprint of a 2009 FFC article on hint fiction; Robert Smartwood shares his thoughts on meeting your reader halfway along with a number of reasons why being a traditionalist is overrated.

As you see, FFC was busy in March and there is always more to come. Sarah, Susan, and others have already gotten started with April; get those windows open, let some light in, and get reading.

____________

Andreé Robinson-Neal got bit by the writing bug back in the late 1970s while watching Rod Serling and reading Ray Bradbury–both of whom are everyday inspirations; although she has worked in education for more than a quarter-century, she has never been cured of her penchant for speculative fiction. Find some of her flash fiction at starvingartist.com. She writes under the name AR Neal, who will hopefully one day be identified as a famous NaNoWriMo participant.

 

by Christopher Bowen

 “The publisher has sole discretion as to the design and appearance of the book after receiving input from the author.”

 This was the fifth item in the contract I shared with authors as publisher of Burning River’s line of chapbooks. It came from a document given to me by a pro-bono arts lawyer from Toledo. Look closely, in fact, look in the mirror or at your own contract.

My experiences in publishing and working with people making chapbooks was more than just an experiment to me, it was a lesson in how to treat people, and how, definitely, to create something beautiful.

Want, Wound

Every cover and manuscript of a Burning River title (the press is now defunct and functioning only as my personal blog) carried with it more than literary stories and poems, it carried a tapestry of conversations, cooperation, and a story unto itself. There was, of course, the designer. There was the printer, the author, the reader. And then there was the me.

I want to give some advice, with little expectation, that yes, as an author you should try to invest as much control into the design of your book as you did the writing. But also, that this is very much a capable endeavor. You are a capable person.

The pulp…

naturalhabitatcover

All the covers for the titles from the press came on the heels of images the authors not only recommended, but sought. A photograph from an old, major periodical for a cover? No problem. You will find a refreshed image from a 1970′s Economist as the cover to Burning River’s second chapbook, Michelle Reale’s Natural Habitat.

As a librarian and my friend, Michelle sought the original U.K. photographer out, as I was unfamiliar with international copyright and, yes, he granted rights to the original photo.

There were more than a couple books I sent small token payments, as well as copies, to the photographer or the artist. But more importantly than this, you have to understand that if you can or do decide to take a hand in helping design your book, that humans are social creatures. They want to be involved, but also, they want to communicate.

There were times where I digressed. The author digressed. The designer digressed. But in the end, I truly feel (speaking as an author) there is nothing more enjoyable or fulfilling than taking some reins in the production of your working book.

The search…

If you are at a loss of finding an image based on a google search and contacting the creator, there are many services out there that will grant you rights. They literally sell stock photos. Shutter Stock is an example. Another example may be found in an image I used for a small book trailer for Nancy Flynn’s A Coal’s Throw, as I wanted to test the form. It was a government poster of a Pennsylvania miner. Because government work is already in the public domain, Wikimedia Commons had it listed on their site. Pair that with a right to fair use of a soundtrack from the musician Moby, and I was able to put together a small, thirty second trailer for about five bucks through Animoto.

Lastly, and many authors do this, turn to the people you know, the artists and photographers already in your life or already inside you. Just be willing to give ground, if and when the time comes, for the sake of the project.

There were many times I had to take heed of the designer or the author. Even in the dimensions of the books themselves. Even, sometimes, in their price points.

This is some of what I’ve learned as a small press publisher. I’m sure there could’ve been more, and there certainly is, but then I wouldn’t be as satisfied in my new skin as simply an author.

_____________

Bowen

Christopher Bowen is an Ohio author and culinary chef. His recently released personal fiction chapbook, We Were Giants, is available from the publisher, Sunnyoutside Press. He blogs at burningriver.info.

by Gay Degani

Caroline Hall, Winner of String-of-Ten 6Caroline Hall, this year’s String-of-Ten Six First Place Winner with her story, “Snowman Suicide,” was raised by English majors during the Nintendo generation. Now a teacher-on-hiatus, she has attended ten schools and worked at seven. She is a compulsive hiker and a New Englander who says “wicked awesome” and used the same window fan until it caught fire.  She writes short stories and flash fiction.

[NOTE: The story appears today at Every Day Fiction.]

Gay Degani: I’d love to know what your first reaction was to the list of words: LITTER-ENTRANCE-SAFE-SPIRITUAL -SPOTLIGHT-BOOKMARK-CATASTROPHE-RAZOR-FAULTY-ULTIMATE and the aphorism: “I prefer the errors of enthusiasm to the indifference of wisdom,” from Anatole France.  How did you approach the prompt?

Caroline Hall: My immediate response was that a number of the words on the list–razor, faulty, ultimate, and catastrophe—seemed to cluster together naturally.  To my mind, they grew organically from the concepts of depression and suicide.  I also knew I wanted to use the word “spiritual” because I love it!

When I looked at the list, the word “razor” practically glowed. A few years ago, I had surgery for a bizarre and not-so-threatening cancer.  After I was declared “fine,” I got strangely depressed.  I spent a lot of time in doctors’ and therapists’ waiting rooms that year.  I wrote a poem about waiting rooms and the endless string of medical appointments.  In the poem, I described patients with eyes like pills and mouths like razor blades.  Forty or fifty drafts later, the poem still didn’t work.  But when I saw the word “razor” on the list of words for the String-of-10 competition, I knew the setting and mood of “Snowman Suicide” instantly.  I was glad to get the chance to resuscitate the image and pleased that the story was much better than the original poem.

For me, writing “Snowman Suicide” was about balancing passive and active.  As a patient, you spend a great deal of time passively waiting, and I wanted to capture that feeling.  But I’ve also met a lot of people who fight back against their illnesses and circumstances with spunk and humor.  I wanted to make sure that some of their creativity, intelligence, and strength appeared in the story.

GD: You mentioned your goals for this story included balancing passive and active, so what other elements do you keep in mind when you are working on a piece of writing?  Characters you’ve touched on, what about structure and theme?  What do you handle these?

CH: My successful stories usually begin with an object—in this case, a snowman.  Characters start out being me and evolve as they interact with the object.  They develop slowly, which makes for some embarrassing drafts.  But getting to know and—sometimes— slowly fall in love with my characters is a joy.  Sometimes, it surprises me which characters I fall in love with and how big an impact they have on my life. Workshops and readers are helpful for clarifying the conflict in stories, for finding spots that don’t make sense or feel true.

I studied English and am a closet Classics geek, and my tendency was—and still is—to write Latinate or Victorian-style prose.  My first stories were designed to be analyzed rather than read. Finally, I realized that I could have a vital message, but that didn’t matter if readers needed a pot of coffee to survive the first paragraph.

As a result, I work hard at paring stories down to their cores.  I started writing flash fiction by accident; flash fit the funny clumps of time I squirreled away for writing better than longer stories did.   It was a happy accident.  Forcing myself to adhere to strict word limits has made my sentences stronger and leaner.

GD: You mention “paring down.”  I’m wondering what you look for when you edit your work.  What are your go-to moves?

CH: I spent a few years writing terrible poetry, so my main rule is “if it sounds the way your poetry sounded, it needs to go!” I love alliteration and repetition, but I have to make sure they don’t hijack the story or become distracting.  I’ll turn clauses into phrases.  In early drafts, I tend to stack adjectives and details.  I’ll have three or four when I need one.  In the first paragraph, my snowman initially went through five different diagnoses; three was enough.

GD: As I said in my interview with Jim Harrington, what drew me to this story, was a lot of things: “The title, the first line, the humor, the surprise, its clarity. ‘Snowman Suicide,’ who wouldn’t want to read that story?”  All this makes me want to read more of your work.  Can you tell me where to find other stories of yours and what you are working on now?

CH: “Snowman Suicide” is my first published work.  I wouldn’t have it any other way.  Earlier, I mentioned that my friends from the mental health community—if you can call it that—inspire me constantly with their intelligence, wit, candor, and kindness.  I am proud, grateful, and honored to know them and to have a chance to represent them in this story.  I hope I’ve done them justice.

 

gay 2Gay Degani has published fiction on-line and in print including her short collection, Pomegranate Stories. She is founder of EDF’s Flash Fiction Chronicles, a staff editor at Smokelong Quarterly, and blogs at Words in Place. She’s had three stories nominated for Pushcart consideration and won the 11th Annual Glass Woman Prize. Her linked-story novella is part of Pure Slush’s 2014- A Year in Stories anthology and her her serialized novel, What Came Before, is currently online at Every Day Novels.

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