characters


by Sarah Crysl Akhtar

Sarah Akhtar

I thought I was writing a simple, direct piece of flash–protagonist has problem, and resolves it.

Found myself wrestling with one of the Big Questions–what does it really mean to be human?

And how do you express the capacity for complex thought when your characters have only a limited vocabulary?

More than with any other story I’ve written, for New Song (Every Day Fiction, 3/15/14) I had to look out at the world from my protagonist’s eyes, and try to understand how she’d express her own feelings to herself. A first-person story is either an interior monologue or an intimacy between the narrator and the implied listener. But how can a primitive character speak convincingly to us, through eons not only of time, but of transformation into what we’ve ourselves become?

I had to bring the reader into my heroine’s sensory world; write a powerfully visual story without much description; express intense emotions without elaboration. And I couldn’t impose on her the horrors of “primitive-speak”–think of every silly movie you’ve ever seen, where characters never, ever use contractions, and even three-word conversations sound like epic proclamations

If characters can be expected to use colloquial speech among themselves, we should resist the temptation to “translate” that into something that screams “not our English [or whatever language we're writing in]). Credit your readers with enough intelligence to figure that out, once you’ve set the scene for them.

Is recognition of the power of language–as thought or out loud–something that distinguishes us from other sentient creatures?

My protagonist uses her unspoken words as if she believes they might have almost magical properties:

Suddenly I hated Old Ma. I wanted to smash her.
But I was clever even in that moment. I stopped
my hand and sang my anger inside my head where
nobody else heard it.

Later, as she hunts desperately for her child:

I made a song to my baby inside my head. Where
are you? Don’t you feel me searching for you?

My character doesn’t just see–like all of us, she perceives in accordance with the priorities of her world:

That night the moon showed its whole face, eating
up the dark.

From the response of first readers during the editorial process, it seems I succeeded in what I hoped to do. One editorial commenter called it a “[v]ery visceral piece.” And it’s one of the very few of my stories accepted without a rewrite request.

My protagonist struggled to make sense of her place in a vast and largely unknowable universe. Perhaps the characters we write help us to do the same for ourselves.

____________

Sarah Crysl Akhtar‘s shtetl forebears gifted her with the genes that impel her to make much from little. So of course she writes flash fiction, cultivates orchards on her windowsill and bakes fabulous shortbread. Her son gives her what’s immeasurable–the best of all possible worlds. Less miraculous fruit of her labors has appeared on Every Day FictionFlash Fiction Online and Perihelion SF Magazine.

by Susan Tepper

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Robin has been a writing coach for almost 25 years. Her first novel, On Air, was a finalist in the Indie Excellence Book Award. She is the author of Of Zen and Men and In His Genes, and co-author of Then She Ran. She also has two full-length collections of poetry and short fiction: Dealing with Men and Interference from an Unwitting Species. A three-time Pushcart Prize nominee, she’s been published in Word Riot, 63 Channels, Antithesis Common, Poor Richard’s Almanac(k), Blink-Ink, and many others. Her short story, “Ma Writing,” was a finalist in The Lascaux Review flash fiction award, and appeared in their 2014 Anthology. In her spare time, Robin edits the Boston Literary Magazine. Learn more about Robin at http://www.robinstratton.com/

Susan Tepper: Your novel In His Genes opens in a most unique way. What underlying forces or personal drama drew you toward a medical-mystery as the book’s focal point?

Hiding in Plain Sight — the elusive Carina Dwarf Galaxy

Robin Stratton: It’s a bit of a long story… I have had a passion for genetics for years, and I read a book called Decoding Darkness by Dr. Rudy Tanzi – about the race to figure out what gene mutation causes early onset Alzheimer’s Disease.

ST: A pretty heavy topic.

RS: Tanzi’s book, which I highly recommend, is also his story as a young researcher, and the story of a family stricken with the disease… the early onset type can begin in your late 30s… and if you’ve got the gene, not only are you absolutely going to get AD, but there is a 50% chance that you’ll pass it on to your children.

So I contacted Dr. Tanzi, and asked if we could work together on the movie of his book. He said yes! And so we did… I got most of the way through before the family who’d been featured in the book got cold feet. I think Rudy did, too. Anyway… so I had to let go of the project.

ST: Oh what a pity! I hate to see good work go down the drain.

But your book In His Genes is also a love story. Did you find it difficult placing genetics into the context of a love story? Or, are genetics also about love? Or is it the other way around?

RS: This is the perfect question for this book, Susan! I think romance and love are essential in any novel about human dynamics, which is the topic I prefer, and so there was no question that there would be a romance. Cassandra (Cassie) is very much like me (all my female leads are) and so when I crafted her love interest, I described the man I would be in love with— scientific, kind, warm, great conversationalist, and passionate.

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ST: The title is great, though I must admit I kept thinking jeans…

RS: I really wanted a blockbuster title, and I had a lot of trouble… there were these three things going on: the science of the story, the romance, and the supernatural theme. I wanted a title that would reflect all those things. When I hit up In His Genes I felt that it was reminiscent of that old book, In His Steps— it directly referred to genes, and it had that nifty sexual innuendo. 

ST:  I wasn’t going to bring up the supernatural theme, don’t want to give too much away… but since you already gave us a whiff…  did you know at the outset you would bring the supernatural into the book?

RS: My boyfriend is a UFO freak and buys into everything alien, and when we started going out, he wanted me to write a book about an alien titled “My Boyfriend Wasn’t From Here.” I am not a big alien believer, but thought it would be interesting to have a character that leaves people thinking, Is he… or isn’t he…. ? For a little while that was the working title, until my writing partners begged me to change it. My boyfriend had to settle for a short poem I wrote with that title that was published in my chapbook Dealing with Men. So, yes, I began with those two intersecting/contrasting themes: rigid scientific testing of data vs. faith without evidence of any kind.

ST: That’s a very cool contrast of themes in a book since they are (traditionally) diametrically opposed. I was captivated by this character you introduced, Palmer, but also leery of him. I am leery by nature. I wasn’t born that way, but over time… I think one tends to grow leery and time-worn. Too many struggles and let downs and you just start to see things differently.

Do you feel your protagonist Cassie becomes leery or time-worn as the book moves along?

RS: I think the whole point is that she starts out by being leery. Cynical, I guess is the word I’d use. To me, she’s a reflection of people today who are cautious about allowing mystery and beauty… what if you’re wrong about something? You’ll feel so let down! Best to just doubt everything.

ST: It is a tough world out there in a lot of ways. Trust can be difficult. It’s sad.

RS: Yes, and that’s typical of a particular scene when her car won’t start, and this guy Palmer (who she just met) comes outside of the bar to see if he can get it going. All she can think about is how she always complains that no one wants to help and yet when someone does… it all becomes suspicious! So her character arc had to involve learning to trust— without using scientific data which is the nucleus of her work life and her thought patterns.   

ST: This book, with its unusual and compelling focus on science, also manages to be character driven. I found Cassie an endearing character. She is flawed like all of us, yet she allows us into that dark space that most people (in real life) work hard at covering up. Do you, as her creator, identify with her?

RS: Cassie is a woman who hasn’t been able to find The One, and is mystified at the ease with which all her friends have accomplished this romantic feat. Like so many single women, she got ditched by her friends when they got married. I think of her as very strong and independent. She’s smart and knows what she wants. Her dedication in the lab and her passion for genetics would have happened even if she weren’t madly in love with her boss.

ST: Ah… her boss. A strange fellow in many regards, because he feels so ‘perfect’… (may I have his number please.) And speaking of please, she goes out of her way to please his every whim, or so it seems.

RS: I think that Cassie was raised to think of others first, the way I was, but I don’t think she goes overboard. She’s not suffering in silence about anything; I think she acts out of love. I sandwiched her between an older sibling and a younger sibling so that age wouldn’t be an “excuse” for her station in life, ie, no money, as compared with her “successful” brother and sister. I wanted to touch on the idea that success doesn’t have to mean money or a great marriage and kids. It can be about personal fulfillment. In fact, it should be about personal fulfillment. (But money and a great marriage are nice, too!)

ST: Not too many people would argue that point, Robin. No spoiler alert here: I just want to say I found the characters and plot fascinating. This book really held me. As we all want to be held.

_______________________

 Susan-Tepper200wSusan 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 2014, 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 Sarah Crysl Akhtar

Sarah AkhtarSometimes another author’s story brings out our inner Rumpelstiltskin–that primitive urge to tear ourselves asunder in frustration. I found Dani Ripley’s Jellyfish (9/2/12) so breathtakingly astonishing that I could neither comment on it nor leave a vote when it first appeared. I felt myself out-written in the sci-fi genre for life.

I’ve accepted that now, and can say without pain that Jellyfish is a perfect sci-fi story, capturing the grandeur, mystery and terror of space with unmatched elegance and grace. Even the spelling of the protagonist’s name–Kapteyn–struck me as a way of making the mundane memorable.

“Kapteyn is dead. No, that’s not right. He’s thinking, therefore not dead. His body is lost. He floats, smaller than an atom. No. That’s not right either. He’s confused. The sensation isn’t entirely unpleasant. He processes.”

From this crystalline-pure opening, Jellyfish sustains an exquisite melding of intellect and feeling.

I was baffled that after 31 total votes cast, Ripley’s story achieved only a 3.4 rating. Eight of the nine commenters used words like “captivating” and “intriguing;” found Jellyfish thought-provoking; its prose was called “exquisite” and “authentic.” But many of them felt unsatisfied, felt a certain flatness or incompleteness.

I profoundly disagree. I’m stingy with stars; I don’t like to dilute the value of a five-star rating by sprinkling it around too freely. You’ve got to touch me with some irresistible force to pry my hand open. But I’ve made things right now, and gone back and given this story what I knew it deserved from the first read. Take a look at Jellyfish, and see why.

____________

Sarah Crysl Akhtar‘s shtetl forebears gifted her with the genes that impel her to make much from little. So of course she writes flash fiction, cultivates orchards on her windowsill and bakes fabulous shortbread. Her son gives her what’s immeasurable–the best of all possible worlds. Less miraculous fruit of her labors has appeared on Every Day Fiction, Flash Fiction Online, 365tomorrows and Perihelion SF Magazine.

 

by Susan Tepper

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Doug Holder is the founder of the Ibbetson Street Press of Somerville, Mass. . He teaches writing at Bunker Hill Community College in Boston and Endicott College in Beverly, Mass. Click here to learn more about Doug.

Susan Tepper: If I were to choose a painter analogous to your poetry, and your writing sensibilities, it would be Edward Hopper.

Doug Holder: Hopper would be a good choice. It seems a lot of his characters are “Eating Grief” and often experience that sweaty dark night of the soul.  I have also admired the work of Lucien Freud and his unsettling nudes. Many of my poems deal with a sense of alienation, and my characters aren’t ones that wrestle with suburban angst—or whether they will able to convert that farmhouse in Connecticut into their dream home. They ain’t pretty, they ain’t in vogue, they ain’t hip, they usually are not young… The poet Philip Larkin is another hero of mine—as I feel I bring the same down-at-the-heels sensibility to my work.  I loved his poem (“They fuck you up, your mum and dad”) and so many others.

 product_thumbnail.phpST: Cutting right to the chase—”Eating Grief at Bickford’s” (which you aptly dedicate to Allen Ginsberg) is a place I recognize, too, like the old Horn and Hardart eateries that populated NYC, back in the days. This poem is all part of a lost dream, isn’t it?

 “There are no places anymore / Where I can sit at a threadbare table / Pick at the crumbs on my plate / And wipe / The white dust / From my pitch / Black shirt. /… “

DH: Yes the Automat—I used to go there with my grandmother as a little boy—loved the little windows that you opened for your pot of baked beans or chicken pot pie. Places like these were also havens for down at the heels poets and writers—Both H and H and Bickford’s were mentioned often in Beat Poetry circles because you could nurse a cup of coffee, write, talk or kibitz for hours on end and oh of course it was cheap. I used to see many characters in places like these that I was fascinated by… The muttering, pea-soup stained, ketchup sandwich denizens who lived on the fringes.  This was all grist for my mill. And the dream to a great deal is lost. I have been interviewing folks from the Chelsea Hotel in NYC, and this famed bohemian flophouse—that housed such folks as Patti Smith, Gregory Corso, Thomas Wolfe, to name a few—has been gutted of its artwork and the remaining tenants are being slowly weeded out. So the old Bohemian NYC seems to be a vanishing distant dream.

ST: I’ve known you for nearly a decade and I know some things about your life, your cat, have met some of your family, etc.  So when I read your funny and satirical poem titled “You know it is tough being a writer”, well, all about you kind of got summed up.  The poem begins:

“Even when I was born / My father called / Me a treasure / And tried to / Bury me. /…”

DH: Well you know life can be nasty, brutish and short. And this is very much so for the writer. Most of us don’t make a living at it, reviews are hard to come by and when we do get them at best there is faint praise—we do it because we love it. So the poem, with a Henny Youngman flourish of corny jokes maps out the life of a struggling writer. The cheap flats, the rejection of the mandarins (oranges), and so on and so on. Because life is tragic and comic…and yes wonderful too!

ST: Agreed. Tragic and comic and wonderful. I love how you find the humor in the pit, it’s the only way to get through. You happen to have a great sense of humor. On average, do you think poets tend to wallow in the muck more than, say, fiction writers?

DH: I read somewhere that of all writers poets have the shortest lifespan. I mean look at Plath and Sexton—they used to discuss who would commit suicide first. And when Plath beat Sexton to the punch—Sexton wrote a poem about being pissed off at this and how she was jealous of Plath. The old joke is: a man meets a poet at a cocktail party. The man asks the poet what he does for a living. ” I am a poet and I am going to commit suicide.”

Hell I don’t know if we are more morose—I mean there is no shortage of fiction writers who wallow in the muck. As a whole I think we think a lot—ruminate—look at our navels.. and stare into the abyss—this can make you morose.

ST: I write fiction and poetry, about 50/50. I find that I have to be in a certain emotional mindset for the poems to come out. Poet Simon Perchik always says to me: writers are working things out. By that he means personal things, troubling things. Yet he has a great sense of humor, as do you, Doug. Here is a poem of yours that exemplifies your way of looking at life through a glass not-so-darkly. You titled it “Father Knows Best–Mother Does The Rest (from the TV show)”. And it begins:

The bland tyranny / of the cardigan sweater. / His smile / creased in brutal condescension. / Mother corseted in apron strings. / …”

It’s droll, it mirrors that TV mode of the fifties time period, and it’s funny. Personally, I have never been a fan of men’s cardigan sweaters. Kind of creepy.

DH: Yes… there was something mesmerizing about the show. Robert Young’s tight-smiled patriarch—the doting mother—the dancing dog—Bud’s greaser’s look—the only totem of rebellion around. But you could feel the tension just below the broad lawns and narrow minds of the suburbs. I grew up in the suburbs of Long Island, NY, and I found it stifling. It was a very materialistic culture, competitive and conformist. I was a fish out of water there. I was like a Collyer Brothers hermit—reading the stacks of newspapers in my bedroom—like some old man. I was drawn to the city, it’s variety and its anonymity.

ST: Well I’m glad you didn’t stack to the ceiling zillions of newspapers and periodicals like the Collyer brothers. Or, did you?

Also check out:

Boston Area Small Press and Poetry Scene
Ibbetson Street Press
Poet to Poet: Writer to Writer 
Ibbetson Street Online Bookstore

_______________________

 Susan-Tepper200wSusan 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 Sarah Crysl Akhtar

Sarah AkhtarI loved this story. Can’t say that enough. A sublime mixture of mundane and marvelous, Jacob Drud’s Mornings, With Teenage Genius was EDF’s 2012 Father’s Day story. I can’t think of a more beautiful celebration of the father-son relationship.

“Dad, I think I did something bad.” His head is in the fridge, but I can hear the embarrassment.

Achieving perfect pitch for two contrasting voices is a challenge for any writer; in flash, there’s no room to recover from the slightest off-note. Drud captures the bemused and tolerant parent, and the teenaged son who might have done a little too much with his chemistry set, in wry counterpoint.

That, and the interplay of advanced physics with the sensory pleasure of a morning’s first cup of good coffee makes this story magic.

The eleven commenters–almost half of all the readers who took the time to rate this story–loved it. Yet the final total was only 3.3 stars based on 25 votes.

I still can’t understand why. Perhaps some readers found it hard to enter a story that begins with what is, for most of us, almost-incomprehensible scientific lingo. Yet, even looking from the outside in, we can sense beauty and wonder, I think.

Maybe, for the occasion, readers were hoping for a more “traditional” story. But what’s more basic and primal than loving our children, regardless of the scrapes they get themselves into?

Take a look at Mornings, With Teenage Genius. Maybe you’ll see why I’m so glad I was privileged to read it.

____________

Sarah Crysl Akhtar‘s shtetl forebears gifted her with the genes that impel her to make much from little. So of course she writes flash fiction, cultivates orchards on her windowsill and bakes fabulous shortbread. Her son gives her what’s immeasurable–the best of all possible worlds. Less miraculous fruit of her labors has appeared on Every Day Fiction, Flash Fiction Online and Perihelion SF Magazine.

 

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