by Gay Degani
One of the first names I heard when I discovered Flash Fiction was “Kathy Fish,” and I’m delighted to have the opportunity to interview her about her newest collection, Together We Can Bury It.
Gay Degani: Your stories are clear-eyed and lyrical with characters that provoke curiosity and concern. It’s easy to make a connection to them, their humanity, their strength, and their frailty. But there’s something else, something I find most intriguing about your writing.
Your work is subtle and sometimes the “meaning” seems just outside my reach—until I read the story again. Each new look produces a fresh nuance and I can’t quite figure out how you create something that circles back on itself the way “Swicks Rule” or “Baby, Baby” “Orlando” or “Maidenhead to Oxford” or “Moth Woman” do, and still satisfy the reader so thoroughly? How do you break the “rules” we take so seriously?
Kathy Fish: Thanks so much for the kind words, Gay. The simplest answer I can give is that the way I write is the way I think. I’ve always stayed pretty loyal to the voices in my head or rather, the sound in my head. I hear a certain rhythm to a narrative and plug in words and images to fit that rhythm. This is especially true of first sentences and paragraphs.
Imagery takes over after sound and I just layer image upon image and somehow in that process, something like a narrative emerges. I guess when you put sound and imagery first, rather than plot and characterization, you’re going to break a few rules. I know what the rules are and I know I’m breaking them, but it feels right to me, so I trust it.
And that’s not to say I don’t revise. I just don’t revise to fit the rules, I revise to get it closer to how I hear and see it in my head.
As to making it work, I think there’s something to be said for staying true to your own style and voice. There’s a certain authenticity to that. Also, I realize it probably doesn’t work for every reader, but I’m very grateful there are readers for whom it does work.
GD: What about the “voices” in your head? Most writers experience this, but often discover “voice” only takes them so far, but I see in your response you’ve developed a process that goes beyond voice. When you say, “I revise to get closer to how I hear and see it in my head,” what questions do you ask yourself?
KF: There is always that voice asking me, “Why are you writing this?” that I have to try to shut out. Confidence, as a writer, is not so much always feeling like your instincts are right, but doubting them and writing anyway.
I think process is ever changing, for all of us and what works now may not work later, but it helps to have an approach to writing fiction and that’s my approach. My road blocks in the beginning had to do with not knowing my own voice and trying out all kinds of other writers’ voices. I suspect that’s how we all start, like learning to speak, it’s all about imitation. Also, there was the self-doubt that had me changing tenses and POVs compulsively. I still do that, but not like I used to.
When I revise, I read the story aloud, over and over again. Almost always I will find myself stumbling in the same places and it’s usually where I’ve overwritten or gone off-voice. Flow and rhythm are huge for me and where a story is lacking in those becomes really obvious when it’s spoken. I think it does take practice and lots of trial and error.
GD: Your work has a lyrical beauty to it that must come from this technique of reading your work aloud. I see it especially in your opening sentences. You say “Flow and rhythm are huge for me and where a story is lacking in those becomes really obvious when it’s spoken.”
I love sentences like “I stand hugging my light sweater around me on Platform 6 at Maidenhead Station.” Or from “My boyfriend and I grab our bikes and pedal across town for a parade that has probably been cancelled.” (“Tenderoni”)
Or “It was like the time we broke icicles dripping from the low eaves and brandished them like swords, slashing and sparkling, and you cut my cheek and dropped your weapon.” (“Watermelon”)
Or my favorite: “My twin cousins, Margie and Mae, are manning the grill, telling me about their diverticulitis.” (“Swicks Rule”)
You do more with these opening sentences than seduce the reader with rhythm. You promise something else is in store for the reader. The way you work is to “get closer” to what you hear in your head. Is this how structure evolves for you?
KF: I think a mosaic structure is a means of reining in stream of consciousness writing. Thoughts and images and language shifts from section to section rather than sentence to sentence or word to word. Meaning emerges from how the sections are ordered, emphasis, etc. I like using it when it feels right for the story.
GD: “Mosaic structure” doesn’t seem easy to pull off, yet you manage to do so time after time. Can we talk a little bit about pulling this collection together? You’ve created section in your book using lines from one of the stories in each section. What were your guiding thoughts?
KF: Pulling the collection and ordering the stories was very difficult. My stories are all over the place in terms of theme, point of view, and style. I envy writers who write all their stories in first person, for example. And write stories that are semi-autobiographical. There you already have one voice, a unifying theme, a sense of cohesion. I just don’t do that. My narrators are not “me” and so there are all these disparate voices.
But some themes do run through my stories with consistency and that was our starting point. Molly Gaudry, who runs The Lit Pub, was extremely helpful with this task. She gave me lots of intuitive and intelligent feedback as to how the stories felt to her. She also noticed how the stories seemed to weave in an out of the seasons of the year and also, the seasons of one’s life: childhood, adolescence, and adulthood. This gave us a starting point and we started grouping the stories this way. I also wanted to begin and end on “wintry” stories so that the book resonated with the stunning cover art by Jana Vukovic.
I pulled sentences or phrases from the stories to introduce the different sections of the book. I felt those phrases gave a good sense, emotionally, of the stories for their sections. I wanted each section to feel like a mini collection in its own right. It took a long time to get it just right but I think we were successful. I am very happy with how the collection reads and flows and the overall feel of it.
GD: You’ve been a pioneer in the genre of flash. What advice would you give new and emerging writers about writing in general and writing flash in particular?
KF: That is a very kind thing to say, Gay, thank you. My advice for new, emerging writers:
1. Work hard.
2. Actually have something to say. Maybe you will have to do a lot of thinking to figure out what you want to say. Thinking takes time and you might be in a hurry to get published, but there is enough trite bullshit in the world. You’re better than that.
3. Read read read read read. Read only what excites you. Don’t read, ever, out of a sense of obligation. Read what inspires and challenges you. Fall in love with stories and books and other writers. They’re your true teachers.
Kathy Fish’s short fiction has appeared in Indiana Review, The Denver Quarterly, New South, Quick Fiction, Guernica, Slice and elsewhere. She was the guest editor of Dzanc Books’ Best of the Web 2010. She is the author of three collections of short fiction: a chapbook of flash fiction in the chapbook collective, A Peculiar Feeling of Restlessness: Four Chapbooks of Short Short Fiction by Four Women (Rose Metal Press, 2008), Wild Life (Matter Press, 2011) and Together We Can Bury It, the 2nd printing of which is forthcoming from The Lit Pub.