INSPIRATION


by Jessi Cole Jackson

Profile

Brian Toups lives part time on Earth, part time in the multiverse of fantasy. When not telling stories, he enjoys meeting new characters, both real and imaginary, and counts Aragorn, Kvothe, Pi Patel, and St. Thomas Aquinas among his confidants. He has a background in philosophy and quotes Aristotle frequently, to the dismay of his few devoted friends. His favorite sport is Ultimate Frisbee.

Jessi Cole Jackson: Could you talk a little bit about the inspiration behind “The Unwinnable Fight“? Do you have experience with soldiers coming back from war?

Brian Toups: I’ve often been told: write what you know. Never having been a soldier myself, I focused primarily on the emotions and memories I have in common with the main character, Isaac. I also relied heavily on the experiences of friends and family. My uncle Joe served in WWII with a glider division. It was a hard job because mid 20th century gliders would often lose wings and crash into forests. They were called flying coffins. My uncle Francis served with the marines in the Battle of Iwo Jima. I have also paid close attention to the stories of my peers who are currently in Berlin, Baghdad, and Okinawa.

The bit in “The Unwinnable Fight” about Isaac painting C-130s with a tiny paintbrush is real. I’m told, when a marine’s paint sprayer breaks, he or she just keeps on painting.

JCJ: You mentioned in an email you’re primarily a speculative fiction author, what drew you to Isaac and this literary story in particular?

BT: It’s true, most of the stories I write are speculative fiction, and I feel at home in that genre. I knew it would be difficult to write a literary story, but I never realized how much it would stretch my imagination. Every time I wanted to introduce immortal gods or a few good-natured dragons into the plot, I had to resist.

Some say that returning-from-war stories are worn out as an old combat boot. I wanted to write a story that treated a character, not so much as a soldier, but as a man and a son. The story, as a result, does not have much to do with the war itself. In a lot of ways, it’s easier for Isaac to risk his life overseas than risk his masculinity and his emotions facing his father. He prefers to serve and follow orders, rather than traverse the truly dangerous terrain of his own insecurities and his mother’s absence, the ever-present lack that deceives him into thinking he has no home.

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

BT: I always start with a character. It’s usually something vague at first, like a name or an odd habit or unusual job. In this story, I started with Isaac. At first, he was just a guy standing on a sidewalk with a bag over his shoulder. He looked more like a runaway than a soldier. Next, I figured out who he was and what he wanted, and then I went from there. Isaac’s identity as a soldier has shaped him profoundly, but not so much as his identity as a son.

JCJ: According to your blog, you’re going on a roadtrip at the end of the summer! Where are you headed? What’re you most looking forward to on your trip?

BT: I’ve spent the last four autumns in Tallahassee, FL studying creative writing. I’m excited to wake up in a different city every day and write. Changing places, seasons, and faces always get me inspired. I write every day, no matter how poorly, but when I’m traveling the quality of my work is much better.

I am ready to be spontaneous with this trip, so my current destination is west of here, the obvious limitation being the Pacific Ocean. There are plenty of friends and family along the way to keep me sane.

As a writer, sometimes I feel burdened with glorious purpose and think I have something meaningful and profound to offer the world. Other times I realize, with no small measure of humility, I am just making things up and writing them down.

I think this road trip is about doing something and hoping for something I know not what. “Chasing the wind” as Kvothe would say in Patrick Rothfuss’ incredible book The Wise Man’s Fear.

JCJ: I loved the tension in your story, particularly that it’s primarily internal–Isaac’s not fighting with anything or anyone but himself in the moments we see. What do you think it is about Isaac that readers, even those of us who have never been in the military, can relate to in his struggles and indecision? What is it about returning home that can be so very hard?

BT: He is deeply wounded by loss and by his childhood experience with being powerless. He is afraid of things he can’t control. I think, in that sense, Isaac could be anyone. There are specific details of his struggles, how he runs away from home by going to war, how he tries to break out of the crippling sameness of his town.
I think there’s another reason, too. When he’s out there, the adrenaline is kicking, he doesn’t think too much about home, and it’s easier if he thinks he has nothing to go back to. But he needs a home, and he can’t keep telling himself his home is the war, or else he’ll die inside, having nothing good and noble to fight for.

I pray for our soldiers every day. I think being a warrior or a protector is a noble profession, and it’s important to remind our men and women in the armed forces that they are invaluable, even when certain members among them make mistakes. No amount of paper or ink will ever do justice to those who serve, to those who preserve freedom on the battlefield while peace remains elusive. There is not a breath of mine that they can’t claim as their own.

JCJ: Based on twitter retweets, it appears you’re a fan of C.S. Lewis (I am as well!). Does Lewis’s work influence your writing? Who are some of your other favorite authors or thinkers?

BT: It’s good to meet another Lewis fan! C.S. Lewis is my favorite author. He beats out J.R.R. Tolkien and Ursula K. Le Guin by a lion’s whisker.

C.S. Lewis is a superb example of a man who was both an artist and a philosopher. I’m inspired by his life, partly because he was so honest about his faults and failings. Whenever he had struggles, he wrote about them. He was open about his ideological shifts: his journey from childish belief to agnosticism, through atheism, back to the Christian faith. He knew how to evoke emotion with the simplest language, and I think the use of a child’s words to explain complex ideas is the mark of true genius.

I read every day, usually fantasy, but I try to keep that balanced with philosophical, religious, or moral works, and I even inject some secular Vonnegut or Hemingway every now and then. I’m inspired by Leo Tolstoy’s philosophy of art, and what it is to be an artist. I never make it two years without re-reading Le Guin’s A Wizard of Earthsea.

JCJ: Do you have any writing projects currently in the works? Could you point readers to anything else of yours, either forthcoming or published?

BT: I am currently seeking representation for my debut novel Star Kin.

The plot follows Ava, an evening star, after she is taken from the sky as a child. Human in appearance and raised in the wilderness by a dragon, she has legitimate identity issues. She meets Oberon, a renegade angel, and together they have to stop a mysterious enemy who is draining the light from the world.

I never stop writing. I can hardly spend three days editing my older novels without feeling the desire to invent a world or sketch a character. I hope to have more stories published in the future with Every Day Fiction and others.


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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

I’ve often taken the powerful emotions triggered by real events and turned them into fiction, and find that a pretty successful recipe.

And I’ve almost always managed to steer clear of the Polemical Palisades and Sentimental Canyon while doing it.

But recent world events had enraged and frustrated me, and before I knew it, I was writing A Story with a Message.  And I was so moved by what I’d written, I made myself cry.

Danger, Will Robinson!

Even as I began to suspect it was dreck, I submitted it to the site most familiar with and welcoming to my voice.  And for good measure, sent a copy to a friend, whose intellect is boundless and whose judgment is sterling.

The response from both quarters was what I dreaded even at the moment I hit send.

I’m grateful nobody sent me dentist bills for the throbbing toothaches my story must have inflicted on those first readers.  Instead of powerful emotion and throat-catching moments of universal human suffering and sacrifice, I’d written The Big Rock Candy Mountain of almost unbearable sentimentality, and we all knew it.

The story needed a heart transplant and four follow-up surgeries.  At one point I almost pulled the plug on it, convinced it wasn’t worth keeping alive.  But It was accepted after the third revision, with the gentle observation that I still had time to find its true soul.

I was still working on it almost up to publication date.

More tears were shed over that story–but this time by readers who found it extraordinary.

I suspect I could have placed the original somewhere.  There’s certainly a market for the Hallmark Hall of Fame genre, too.  But sentimentality is like bonded leather–a cheap substitute for the real thing.  Don’t dazzle yourself with an ersatz product, even if you’re pressed for time.

If you find your eyes welling up when you read your first draft, remember that a holiday commercial can accomplish the same thing.  Get up from your computer, mop your eyes and make a strong cup of tea.  Then get back to work.

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

 

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.

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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.

 

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