Wed 9 May 2012
In “Navel Gazing,” Every Day Fiction’s top story for April, Ao-Hui Lin gets close and confessional with readers in a conversation about diet, lovers, and expanding navels in a cross-genre piece with elements of mystery, horror, speculation, fantasy, romance, and realism.
Flash Fiction Chronicles interviewed Lin about the importance of a truthful narrator, intended message to readers, her writing process, and advice for reaching a wide audience without sacrificing personal style.
Lin: First of all, I’m immensely gratified that it was rated so highly and I sincerely thank everyone who took the time to rate and comment. I’ve read so many wonderful stories at Every Day Fiction, and I’m honored that readers found my story entertaining. As to why, I think it’s because the story doesn’t take itself too seriously. It’s definitely horror and fantasy and possibly tragedy, but nevertheless a thread of light humor runs through the whole thing. There are places where I was going for a giggle even if I followed it up with something that I hoped would make the reader shudder.
It’s also one of those stories that takes an unexpected turn and yet the end is still somehow inevitable.
FFC: Joe’s character is portrayed entirely through the narrator’s eyes—a couple of physical traits, diet behavior, his mysterious demise—but she may be an unreliable narrator.
When is it important and when might it be unimportant, for the reader to believe the narrator is telling the truth?
Lin: I think it’s important to create a bond between reader and narrator, so playing with an unreliable narrator is always tricky. At no point, do I want the reader to feel like he or she has been lied to, because that breaks the bond. The reader needs to know that my narrator is sincere; she’s not trying to fool the reader even if she’s reluctant to elaborate.
As an aside, though I’m using the pronoun “she” for simplicity’s sake, I never explicitly state that the narrator is a woman, and in my own mind I’m not committed one way or another. Many readers will take the reference to anorexia and the narrator’s relationship with Joe and come up with “woman,” but that’s definitely not a given. What is given is that the narrator loved Joe passionately and was deeply affected by his death.
Which brings me back to the unreliability. Is she (or he) so unbalanced by her loss that she’s created this horrific image in her head, or did it really happen? I think the story works either way, as long as the reader believes that the narrator loved Joe and is genuinely terrified. Whether the reader buys into the creepy crawlies, or decides that the narrator is unhinged, or some combination of the two, it’s all still firmly along a spectrum of horror, either physical or psychological.
FFC: The narrator’s appearance and behavior mimic Joe’s so closely that I considered whether they might represent one character, rather than two, a metaphor for the struggle to control the fears within.
What message(s) would you like readers to take from this story?
Lin: That’s very interesting! I love it when readers see something in a story that I didn’t intentionally put there, but after the fact makes so much sense. I certainly enjoyed playing with the idea that loss of control can be terrifying, and I wanted to explore the paradox that at least when you’re dieting, food is both the enemy and necessary for life. But I think what drove me to write the story was the strong emotion the narrator feels for Joe, and the fact that no matter how nightmarish the end was, she still remembers her love and attraction for him. If there’s a message, it’s that attraction transcends physical appearance.
FFC: I’m curious about your writing process for “Navel Gazing.”
What was in your mind when you wrote the first sentence: a situation, character, theme, point of view, atmosphere, or something else? How did you proceed from there?
Lin: I’m a little embarrassed to admit this, but “Navel Gazing” was about the most process-less story I’ve ever written. I have a dear friend who actually does have an enormous belly button. (We are still friends, despite my use of this anatomical anomaly as fictional fodder.) I’ve also had many conversations with other women about the seeming futility of dieting and the way our bodies have changed after childbirth. Added into the mix was the ADHD quality of my own ongoing internal monologues and one particularly restless night.
I was lying in bed at 2AM, my mind wandering while trying to resist the lure of the refrigerator, when the line about “sleepwalking with the munchies” came to me, and that was enough to establish the voice of the narrator. I sat up, grabbed my computer, and had the story written and submitted by 3AM. It started with the voice and that one line and that time of night when things go bump in the dark, and it just wrote itself. I wish all my stories went so easily.
FFC: “Navel Gazing” shows that an 820 word story may explore a quirky plot, offbeat characters, and hazy ending, and still produce a cohesive flash fiction that appeals to a diverse readership.
What tips can you offer the writer of flash fiction who wishes to capture a large audience, without compromising his or her unique style?
Lin: Oh wow, I don’t know that I’m qualified to answer that. I do know that I enjoy reading flash fiction that’s character-driven and rich in plot. It’s tempting in this short format to say there isn’t enough room to develop character or make much of a plot, but I think that’s a mistake. When a writer starts sacrificing character and plot in favor of style, it’s going to weaken the story. At the same time, those elements are only going to enhance whatever a writer does with his or her particular voice.
I also think that mixing genres works particularly well in flash fiction, because there isn’t enough time to harden or disappoint reader expectations. A writer can suggest a bit of world-building, a touch of humor, a tragic backstory without going too deeply into it, and readers will fill in the rest, satisfied that they got enough to set the story. By mixing genres, writers can further play with reader expectations and avoid disappointing readers who expect their genres to be fully fleshed out.
Ao-Hui Lin spends a lot of her time pondering the nature of motherhood and hopes that when her children are grown they won’t wonder why so many of her stories about mothers end in tragedy. Her work has appeared in Jersey Devil Press Magazine and is forthcoming in Drabblecast.
Sue Ann Connaughton writes from a drafty old house in New England. Her most recent works appear in The Linnet’s Wings, The Journal of Compressed Creative Arts, Boston Literary Magazine, Barnwood International Poetry Magazine, and Meadowland Review.