INSPIRATION


by Jessi Cole Jackson

Ani King

Ani King lives in Lansing, Michigan with her husband and two very tall children. She has a fondness for short stories and long summers. You can find her at thebittenlip.com.

Jessi Cole Jackson: You mention in the comments following “Butter Face” at EDF that all of your stories tend to be sad and “[butter face] is one of my least favorite expressions ever, so I had to use it.” What draws you to telling sad stories and embracing unpleasant expressions? How do you go about tackling such weighty issues as rape in as few words as flash fiction allows?

Ani King: I can’t seem to stay away from the more uncomfortable elements of life. In some ways it’s probably therapy, a way to excise the past without telling my own specific stories. In some ways I’m trying to give my younger self a stronger voice, and fiction affords the opportunity to find and tell stories that don’t leave me so exposed as the autobiographical would.

In some ways I think flash fiction affords perfect length for stories about terrible things. By nature flash requires that your point or story be concise, almost densely packed. I think the more difficult thing is discovering which angle to tell the story from so that you’re not just using the shock value of the situation to make impact. I don’t care for stories that turn people who have been victimized into two-dimensional plot devices, and with flash, authenticity is something that is immediately noticeable.

JCJ: Would you tell me a little about your writing process?

AK: I’m the least organized writer. I have this ridiculous “Ideas” document on Google Drive that I constantly add to and edit from. Once a story seems to have enough flesh I move it to its own document and then, depending on the story, ignore everything and devote myself entirely to its care and keeping. That part isn’t true all. Between work and family and too many hobbies I pretty much write whenever I get a chance, unless that chance comes easily. Ten minutes between meetings—yes! Whole day off with nothing planned? Nope. Gonna sit here and watch Netflix in my bathrobe. In terms of research I tend to wikipedia-hole myself, but that often leads to more ideas.

JCJ: One of my favorite aspects of your story is your protagonist’s voice and the juxtaposition of her outward strength and size with her inability to fight back, either physically or verbally. Even retelling her story to us, she comes as almost timid. It made me, as a reader, want to fight for her. Is this something you did intentionally? Did you hope readers would respond in a particular way? How did you find her voice?

AK: I started weight lifting a few years ago to combat some joint and back pain due to a long hours desk job. I’ve never been particularly athletic or coordinated, so getting to a point where all of that clicked—the controlled movement, the awareness of what your body is capable of, was a really cathartic thing. I’ve never been interested in bodybuilding, but I’ve seen the effort and control it takes, and I started thinking about how difficult it would be to suddenly feel as if all that work were for nothing. Female bodybuilders in particular are ridiculed by people for their physiques, even in very subtle ways, so I feel like that must tie in even more with those societal expectations for beauty. We also tend to assume that outward strength denotes aggressiveness and so on, so in some sense, yes, the juxtaposition was very intentional.

I think the reaction I most wanted from readers was for them to feel connected to someone who frequently is presented as a caricature. Finding her voice was a lot easier than expected—I’ve talked to a number of other rape survivors, and there tends to be a sense of wryness after a while. Particularly with women who are not considered conventionally attractive and who have been greeted with a mild sense of disbelief, or even a hint that maybe they should consider themselves lucky that such a handsome man was interested in them. It’s revolting, and a lot of us use darker humor to stave off the real horror of hearing those offhand comments.

JCJ: What was the hardest part of writing “Butter Face”? Do you have a favorite part of the story?

AK: Writing the actual rape scene is a close second to writing the ending. I wanted to convey what happened with enough sense to make readers feel it, but without being graphic. Being in that headspace is hard. It’s an icky place to be. As far as the end, that’s always where I struggle. Where does this part end? Where do I leave her? Is she ok? Do we need to know that?

JCJ: What are you reading? Who are some of your favorite authors?

AK: Oh! I love this question! I’ve been reading a lot of short story collections lately: St. Lucy’s Home for Girls Raised by Wolves, by Karen Russell, is fantastic. The title story is incredible.  Also, Get in Trouble, by Kelly Link, and The Wilds, by Julia Elliott. Stone Mattress, by Margaret Atwood definitely has some teeth to it, and her take on aging is so beautifully done. I also tend to read a lot of online magazines and journals: Every Day Fiction, of course, and freeze frame fiction. Apex, Clarkesworld, Pank, and so many more. I love how accessible the internet has made literature as a whole. I tend to gravitate towards authors like Lidia Yuknavitch, Neil Gaiman, Catherynne Valente, Margaret Atwood, and most recently the Phryne Fisher series by Kerry Greenwood.

JCJ: What projects are you currently working on? Can you point readers to some of your other stories, either forthcoming or published?

AK: I’m currently working on a series of linked shorts inspired by a magical realism piece I wrote last year: http://roseredreview.org/2014-winter-ani-king/. Also a sci-fi short story loosely inspired by the Pig Prince fairytale, and a literary fantasy novella. I have upcoming publications in freeze frame fiction’s YA Volume, Pidgeonholes, which is newer and really lovely, and a poem in Spry Volume 6. All of my previous publications are listed on my very low traffic blog.

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Jessi_Cole_Jackson-150x150

Jessi Cole Jackson lives and works in New Jersey, though she’s not from there. By day she builds costumes for a Tony Award-winning theatre. By night she writes stories, questionable poetry and lots of abandoned outlines. When she’s not working she enjoys cooking, reading, and exploring local farms. You can read more about her sometimes exciting (but mostly just normal) life at  jessicolejackson.com.

by Sarah Crysl Akhtar Sarah Akhtar

Can sophisticated palates coexist with a hankering after Cheez Whiz™ on white? Mais oui, dude.

Popular fiction can be great—even superb, like a freshly-made soup from a good deli department—and be worth more of your money and your time than anything the cognoscenti might be touting.

I’ll take John Le Carré, Elmore Leonard or Eric Ambler over most literary prize-winning authors any day. I like something I can get my teeth into and savor, without vaporously yearning characters spouting five hundred pages of angst. I admire authors who can make every word of spare lean prose do the heavy lifting where someone else might inflict a fifty-sentence paragraph on me.

And I’m not ashamed of enjoying a well-worn Agatha Christie paperback either.

There’s some stuff, though, that I can’t choke down even if I’m climbing the walls for something—anything! to read. There’s Cheez Whiz™, and then there’s Cheetos™, and even with a rumbling stomach I find that there is a junk food too far.

A lucky few writers have become very, very rich from truly awful books. And with tears in my eyes and a ragged throat I cry “more power to them,” even if I find it more pleasurable to read the text on an orange juice carton than a chapter in any of their works.

What does all of this mean?

Before you can write bad stuff for big profit, you need to learn how to write well.

You need to know the difference between a commercial decision and an inability to produce good prose.

Publishers are always looking for their new blockbuster flagship author. There’s plenty of competition. They don’t have time to deal with amateurs who think it’s got to be easy to do a knock-off of Mary Higgins Clark. They want professionals who can grasp not just that something sells, but why. Who can write to an editor’s request or a division’s need.

Fellow readers often respond to my critiques on comments threads as though I’m Attila the Hun’s cranky sister. Why must I be so picky? Yeah, someone’ll say, the story had a few holes in it but heck, I gave it five stars anyway!

That’s a fine way of encouraging a young, hopeful writer not to get any better.

Maybe this is your first publication, or your third, and your critique circle and your MFA instructor have all been incredibly encouraging, and finally you can call yourself an author. And now all these readers out there are patting you on the head. Except for the mean one who’s managed to find an absurdity or some slightly overheated prose, and call you on them.

People read stories for a lot of reasons, all of them equally valid. Some just want a quick entertainment that hits the mood of the moment. Some hope for something memorable and moving. Others are trying to refine their own craft, and the story and the reactions to it are both valuable.

For real writing success, you need to know what’s good, what’s bad, and why, and then reach for the audience that suits you best.

____________

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, 365tomorrows, Flash Fiction Online and Perihelion SF Magazine.)

 

by Aliza Greenblatt

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Amy Sisson is a writer, book reviewer, crazy cat lady, and former librarian. Her fiction ranges from Star Trek work for Pocket Books to the short stories in her Unlikely Patron Saints series, which have appeared in Strange Horizons, Lady Churchill’s Rosebud Wristlet, and the Toasted Cake podcast site. She enjoys making artist trading cards, studying German and Japanese, attending Houston Ballet performances, and traveling with her husband, Paul Abell. Her story, On Not Noticing a Bear, was EDF’s top story for December

Aliza Greenblatt: I’m going to start this interview with an assumption so, correct me if I’m wrong, but if I read your blog correctly you started off as an avid reader (and still are) and picked up writing later. When did you decide to become a writer? Was there one particular story or moment for you?

Amy Sisson: In college I double-majored in English and Economics: English because I was thrilled that I could get a degree by simply reading books and then saying what I thought about them, and Economics to try and be a little more practical. In my junior year, I got it into my head that I wanted the “romantic” writer’s life—I thought I would strike forth on my own to live on the other side of the country, work odd jobs while I polished my masterpieces, and so on. (I may have been on a John Steinbeck kick at the time.) But I found out that I really didn’t have that much to say in my stories just yet.

I never gave up the idea of being a writer, but I decided to get a graduate degree in Space Studies, both so I could get a decent day job in that field and to gain some background knowledge for writing science fiction. Later I also got a library degree. None of that was my original plan, but now I can’t imagine a different path to my writing.

AG: When you sit down to write a new story, what is your process like?

AS: For me, most stories start with voice. Sometimes I know what the voice will be ahead of time, and other times I just type a first sentence and let the voice decide itself. I’ll admit that I’m not one of those writers who have fifty different ideas to work with at any given time—ideas that are big enough to become complete stories are really hard for me to develop.

The process for every story is different. A few of my stories seemed to just write themselves in a few hours, but on the other end of the spectrum, I have one story that I worked on over the course of fourteen years! The end result has very little resemblance to the story I started with, but I think it has ended up being one of my best, and I’m currently sending it out to markets.

AG: I really liked the versatility of this story. On one hand, it felt like a children’s fable but there were also deep undercurrents of adulthood worries, such as workplace unhappiness and loneliness. Was that your intent or did you have a particular audience in mind for this story?

AS: On Not Noticing a Bear is based on one of my favorite James Christensen paintings, which is literally titled Lawrence Pretended Not to Notice that a Bear Had Become Attached to His Coattail (Google for the image “lawrence notice bear” and it will come right up). It hangs over my piano and it was the most natural thing in the world to write about why that silly little man might try so hard to ignore the bear. And of course I wanted them both to have a happy ending. Oddly enough, my other Every Day Fiction story, The Lion Tamer’s Sock, is also based on a Christensen painting and it also has to do with a companion animal and with getting out of a rut.

AG: The thing that drew me into the story immediately was its voice. How did you develop it? (Or did it find you?) Was it a challenge to maintain the storytelling style within the flash fiction length?

AS: This was one of those stories that I started with a sentence and it just flowed from there. The original version was actually 1500 words, but I realized that I could take it down to flash length without losing anything important. I also think that this sort of affected writing style works best with flash fiction, because you don’t want the reader to get tired of the voice before they reach the end of the story.

AG: Can you tell us a bit about your Unlikely Patron Saints Series? Are you still adding stories to the collection?

AS: This series of stories is about little miracles, and people who discover they’re meant to protect some unlikely group of creatures or people through some small magic. The first one I wrote was about city squirrels, because I was in library school at the time and there were so many squirrels on the downtown campus that I was always petrified I would see one get hit by a car. So I made up someone to protect them. I called that one number three in the series even though it was the only one I’d written, as a way trick myself into eventually writing more of them. I’ve had four stories in the series published in different venues, a few more still unpublished, and a frame story to go around them for an eventual collection. I think I’m likely to write a few more, but I want them to come naturally instead of trying to force them so I’m in no hurry.

AG: What other projects are you currently working on? Are there other stories of yours, either upcoming or published, that you can point readers to?

AS: I recently left librarianship to concentrate on writing full-time. My two main goals are to finish a young adult novel (I’m about a quarter of the way through) and to have a minimum number of short stories out looking for a home at any given time.

My favorite of my Patron Saints stories, Fella Down a Hole, is available free in the Strange Horizon archives and as a Toasted Cake podcast. Another one, Minghun, is also available free at Strange Horizons. And Waterfall, a standalone science fiction love story, is available free at Khimairal Ink.

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 Sarah Crysl Akhtar

Sarah Akhtar

I was musing over a recipe in the newspaper recently, wondering if I should give it a try. And before I knew it, I’d written and submitted a story about two grandmas and the mysteries of time and connectedness and love—you know, all that big cosmic stuff.

Just because of a recipe for orange flan in the New York Times!

It’s taken me a long time to vanquish the terror that used to come with finishing a story—the absolute conviction that this would be the last one ever—that I’d never be able to come up with another worthwhile plot again.

One of the cheeriest things to come out of the writing life, for me, is learning that there’s no such thing as wasting time. Everything you do has to do with writing.

Writing is all about how we feel about…everything. Plot, technique—these are tools we use to make sense of what we experience. Anything—really anything—can set off the wondrous chain reaction leading to a story that’ll make you sit back in amazement and say, “I wrote that!”

We’re told, over and over again, that we must be busy and productive all the time. Writers begin to think that their value is measured by the number of words they churn out in a day; the number of submissions they achieve in a month.

To me, “multi-tasking” is one of the vilest words in modern vocabulary.

Give yourself time. Notice everything, with pleasure or bemusement or pain. Let all of it simmer quietly inside you, like a good rich stew.

When it’s ready to ladle out, you’ll know.

____________

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 Jim Harrington

jimharrington2

I began writing fiction in January of 2007. In October of 2008, I created a blog where I posted a quote and then wrote about what the quote meant to me as a writer. Honestly, the daily posts were intended for myself. They were a way to force me to think about each quote and how it might change my writing. If people reading my comments gained from them, so much the better. I’m going to post a few of these as I wrote them—even if feel differently now. Feel free to agree, or disagree, or add your own take on the quote and what I said. Here’s today’s article.

***

Fugedaboudit (first published 2/15/10)

Forget symbolism, forget literary theory, put aside your desire to be anthologized. Tell the most authentic story you can, with as much attention and sensitivity to life as you can muster. — Randall Silvis Write to Connect With Readers. [The Writer, January 2010]

It’s all about the story.

Beginning writers, and those somewhat beyond the beginning stage, struggle to find their writing voice. Sometimes the struggle is such that the writer stops writing. In other cases, writers attempt to copy voices from novels and short stories they like. My guess is this doesn’t work out very well. Understanding how a writer writes and being inside the writer’s head when he does are two separate things.

I don’t remember struggling with voice. I probably did. It’s always been about the story with me. If a piece failed, it wasn’t because of the voice. No, it was because I wasn’t invested enough in what happened to the character to be able to write the tale.

I like today’s quote. Why? Because it tells it like it is. Forget about similes and metaphors. Forget about writing “fancy” prose. Forget about getting published and being famous. Just write the story. If the writing is good and true to the characters, the rest will take care of itself.

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Jim Harrington began writing fiction in 2007 and has agonized over the form ever since. His stories have appeared in Every Day Fiction, Liquid Imagination, Ink Sweat and Tears, Near to the Knuckle, Flashes in the Dark, and others. He serves as the Managing Editor for Flash Fiction Chronicles. Jim’s Six Questions For . . . blog provides editors and publishers a place to “tell it like it is.” You can read more of his stories at http://jpharrington.blogspot.com.

 

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