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INTERVIEWS « Flash Fiction Chronicles

INTERVIEWS


by Jessi Cole Jackson

Steven L. Peck

Steven L. Peck is a university biology professor and teaches classes on ecology, evolution, and the consciousness of the human mind. He has published over 50 scientific articles. Creative works include three novels with mainstream publishers, including  A Short Stay in Hell and the magical realism novel The Scholar of Moab, published by Torrey House Press and named AML’s best novel of 2011 and a Montaigne Medal Finalist (national award given for most thought-provoking book).  He has been published in Abyss & Apex, Analog (Fact Article), Daily Science Fiction, Journal of Unlikely EntomologyNature Futures, Pedestal Magazine, Perihelion, and many others.

 

Jessi Cole Jackson:  Could you talk a little bit about the inspiration behind “Tales from Pleasant Grove”? 

Pleasant Grove is the small town in central Utah where I live, and it is so ordinary as to be rather unexciting sometimes. I began to imagine short vignettes about a much stranger city. I wanted a Pleasant Grove that was weirder and more exciting. I started writing these down, and soon I had an entire collection of Pleasant Grove stories that portrayed a world where anything could happen. I tried to keep the small town feel, but mixed it with far more magic and adventure.

 

Jessi Cole Jackson:  What is your typical writing process look like? How do you come up with your ideas? Do you have any rituals or superstitions attached to your writing sessions? 

That’s a great question. I usually try to write at night at a given time, but I have to admit I’m not very consistent. Sometimes, though, especially when I’m really excited about a story, it takes over my life and I can’t put it down. Usually, so much that I’ll lay awake at night running through the story in my head. Several times this has produced new characters or even new plot lines.

 

Jessi Cole Jackson:  I love the details of your story. They are specific and telling, making each moment feel real and immediate. At the same time, your protagonist is an everyman who could stand in for any one of us. Do you think most people would swap out their fears, or be like Hal, comfortable with the devil(s) they know?

Steven L. Peck: I think I’d be more the Hal type. I like the devils I know. And there is a slight streak of superstition that runs through me whenever there is a change, for example when I have to change seats on an airplane there’s always this discomfort that I’m not where I was supposed to be. I don’t take it too seriously (I’m a scientist after all), but it’s still there putting a little pressure on something that really is silly to worry about.

 

Jessi Cole Jackson:  Is there a fear you would get rid of? Which jar would you choose to take its place? 

Steven L. Peck:  I wish I could lose the fear of pickpockets. I travel a lot, and I have this irrational fear I’ll get pickpocketed. I never have been, but I’m always on the lookout. It’s completely crazy. It’s almost as if I think pickpockets are magical beings that can get through any defense and that I’m helpless to their tricks. I’d take a jar with some fear I was absolutely sure that I was never going to run into, like a fear of deep sea angel fish that live so far down in the ocean depths that my chances of ever running into one are almost non-existent! (But as the story shows, these things have a way of backfiring).

 

Jessi Cole Jackson:  The voice of your protagonist is very distinct. Did you work on cultivating his voice or did it come to you? Do you do anything to ‘find’ your characters? 

Steven L. Peck:  It seems to me that it’s almost as if my characters find me. They just appear whole-cloth as if we meet by accident. One of my novels (The Scholar of Moab) was about an ordinary kid working in the mountains for a geology company. I didn’t expect it, but one day in my mind’s eye a conjoined-twin cowboy road up and started talking to my main character. It changed the entire book, and I never saw it coming. Characters are like that when I write. They seem to exist almost independently of me and I am only a kind of medium that encourages their visit from another world.

 

Jessi Cole Jackson:  I’m always interested in what people do when they’re not writing. You’re a scientist, philosopher, and professor, correct? Where’s the intersection between those passions and fiction for you? 

Steven L. Peck:  It seems funny to say, but in being a scientist and a philosopher of science I’ve found that my imagination the most critical talent I have. I’ve always loved discovering things, and I’ve found that the real art of good science is the ability to ask the right questions. The hard part of science is looking at the world and trying to discover what’s the next question to ask. Answering them is usually the easier part. Find good questions and discoveries follow. I think it is the same in fiction. Asking questions of our characters and settings are what set up the magic that follows. Trying to see what motivates them and what situations will best draw out the question you are exploring in your fiction, I think are the hardest parts of all. I honestly believe that my being a fiction writer and a scientist really play on the same strength.

 

Jessi Cole Jackson:  What projects are you currently working on? Could you point readers to other stories of yours, either forthcoming or published? 

 Steven L. Peck:  A lot of my previously published short fiction can be found on my website, including my Daily Science Fiction short story and myNature Futures story, including a number of others. In addition to the collection of Pleasant Grove stories I’m working on (and my hope to find a publisher soon!), I have a book of short stories coming out later this summer, called Wandering Realities, published by Zarahemla Press, which I’m very excited about. It’s about one half speculative fiction and half literary fiction. My most popular book is A Short Stay in Hell and a volume of short stories set in the Hell of this novel is going to be published soon as well (with one by me, too!). It’s got some best selling horror writers contributing (I’d name them but contracts have not been finalized—watch my website for news). The book also is going to be made into a full-length feature film by David Spaltro (Director of the just released horror film, In the Dark) and filming starts at the end of this year. I’ve also got a couple of novels I’m putting the final touches on and hope to start shopping them soon. One is a follow-up to my book, The Scholar of Moab, called Gilda Trillim: The Shepherdess of Rats, and the other a young adult fantasy called, The Airships of Gumpta.

__________________________________________________________________

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 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.


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 Andreé Robinson-Neal

If it were possible to have your eyes closed as you read, it might also be possible to feel, smell, and hear the story. You might be saying to yourself, “I can hear the story if I buy an audio book,” but that is not what is meant here.

Anjali’s fingers were hard despite the softness of the cream she was kneeding into Reena’s face. They were a worker’s hands, the hands of a woman who washed clothes, did the dishes and cooked the meals for the family along with her work as a beautician.

Abha Iyengar’s Many Fish to Fry is filled with touchable, smellable, hearable moments on each page. She takes us to Paharganj, a neighborhood in Delhi, to meet a variety of memorable characters, including Reena Vardharajan (which was shortened to “Rajan” because “Vardharajan” is so long, isn’t it?) and her family; Parvati, Reena’s part-time maid (who is a barely tolerable and weak replacement for Murali, the former full-time servant); Anirban Dasgupta and his wife Proteeksha, the Punjab/Bengali couple who live next door in Flat No. 69; jewelry maker Sanjay Singh and Neeru his wife; and the ever-effervescent private detective Harinmoy Banerjee. There is also the matter of fish, interwoven intricately throughout.

Thanks to her beautician, Reena’s love for jewelry making has been rekindled. She meets Sanjay as she embarks on her new career as a part-time business woman. Making jewelry provides her an outlet, something her traditional mother, traveling businessman husband, and busy children struggle to understand. She takes over the dining room table to craft her designs and spends afternoons visiting Sanjay and other merchants in the roadside shops to the dismay of her husband.

When [Reena’s] seriousness with her work began to interfere with her attention to the little details around [her husband Anand], thing she had taken care of earlier because she had nothing else on her mind, he expressed his disapproval.

“You are getting too involved. Why do you need to do all this running around at your age? … I miss the hot rotis you make for me. you have no time to talk to me … and the dhobi just can’t iron shirts like you do … did.” …

She had expected him to be highly supportive.

But when a Hilsa fish shows up unexpectedly on her doorstep, followed closely by an unexpected meeting with Harinmoy Banerjee, a colorful private investigator and self-labeled Super Sleuth who rings Reena’s door looking for Proteeksha, the next door neighbor from Flat No. 69, Reena embarks on an adventure filled with intrigue, laughter, tears, and gossip. And of course, fish.

Iyengar skillfully mixes language and cultures into a delicious stew that will suit any taste. She intermingles traditional Hindi and Bengali words and phrases (there is a glossary of terms in the back for the less initiated) with Western terms familiar to any English speaker of the 20th and 21st centuries.

Her words come off the page to tickle the palate. The sound of the traditional words and phrases, when read aloud, are lyrical to the ear: phrases such as Na rehega bans, na bajegi bansuri (“If there is no bamboo, there will be no flute,” meaning “If the source of the trouble is removed, then the trouble won’t occur,” according to the glossary) and Daane daane pe likha hai khane wale ka naam (“On each morsel is written the name of the person destined to eat it”) are just two examples.

As Chris Galvin Nguyen, the writer of the book’s forward indicates, Many Fish to Fry examines Indian social issues and suggests what it is like to move beyond tradition through the use of “real-life trends of language and culture in India.” For weeks after reading it, you will be challenged not to end every sentence with Harinmoy’s classic Is it not, dear?

This is not Iyengar’s first book, but it is her first with Pure Slush. She has a number of other published works worth checking out and can be found at www.abhaiyengar.com and www.abhaencounter.blogspot.in.

___________

 

Andree-New

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 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.

____________

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 Andreé Robinson-Neal

Road Kill CollectionThere is something about the term “roadkill” that catches the eye, particularly when it’s on the cover of a book. And when the poor animal in question happens to be a stuffed bunny, there is no doubt that what is contained between the front and back covers should be investigated.

Jon Sindell’s The Roadkill Collection does not disappoint—a turn of the last page leaves the reader wondering what hit them. He meanders across miles of emotion and causes sharp intakes of breath, bursts of laughter, and shakes of the head. For example, in “The Muffin Man,” Sindell gives us a glimpse of a girl’s experiences with homeless ministry and how an innocent gesture can cause the path to turn.

In Gregory’s tent, I lay on his shoulder. He smelled like liquid soap and earth. He laid his hand on my belly so gently, I could almost feel a baby in there. (“The Muffin Man”)

A parental nightmare of a different kind appears in “Victory Torch,” where the main character crashes (and burns) in the hallowed halls of the Ivy League.

Sindell conquers many subjects, from love to gardening to sports, and back again. One of the shorter pieces called “That’s Not Love?” takes the reader on a swift trip through the less sensual side of parenthood and thin-walled apartments. The angst of barely concealed disappointment and hatred rings through in “A Zinzinnati Red”, while the depth of a mother’s love is apparent in “Insidious.”

Who loves this country. You think I don’t? Think this purple heart don’t mean anything? That it don’t mean a thing that my name’s Schmidt, and some of the guys I shot coulda been Schmidt’s? … First one guy hits his fist in my cheek, then they all join in … I spit out a tooth, and out my blood pours. Commie red. (“A Zinzinnati Red”)

There is sharp wit in this book that leaves scars. In “One Clear Shot,” the reader is treated to graduation day and a mom who’s waited for just the right moment to get a little closer to even with her ex-husband. She delivers a verbal “mortal wound” that takes the soul of her victim in style.

The love of the game (baseball), nature, and the great writers of history all speak clearly though the stories presented in Roadkill. While this is Jon Sindell’s first flash fiction collection, it will hopefully not be his last.

____________

Andree-New

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.

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