Tue 8 Apr 2014
by Gay Degani
Caroline 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 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.