Thu 16 Aug 2012
by Thomas Jay Rush
Flash Fiction Chronicles interviewed Nicholas Lee Huff about Every Day Fiction’s top story for July “Smitten,” and about goosebumps, revisions, and the secret of life.
FFC: Thank you for agreeing to an interview. Congratulations on winning Story of the Month for July.
Nicholas Lee Huff: Thank you!
FFC: I loved your story. One of the striking things about it is the poetic repetition and parallel construction. I’m going to conjecture this aspect of the piece arrived in early drafts. Is that true or did you develop the repetition as you revised. Talk a bit about your drafting process. Did this piece go through a lot of drafts? I’m always interested in the drafting/revision process a piece takes to its final form.
NLH: My writing process is so simple it is almost not worth mentioning. The piece is assembled in a first pass. It gets a second to clean up big mistakes and a third to patch smaller holes. After that it gets put away and I revisit it in a few days or weeks to see how it reads.
Adjustments happen in the last edit as needed. If I give it more than four passes it begins to sound stiff and over-analyzed to me.
When I write, the only thing that occupies my mind is the storyline itself and the voice of the piece. It gets read aloud during the edits. That is critical. I can always tell if something doesn’t sound right. But the idea of specifically using repetition, or some other writing device, never enters my mind. At least it is never a conscious decision.
FFC: More than just a few of the comments on the website mentioned goose-bumps, several mentioned shivers down their spine, one mentioned the secret of life. Question: Do you have the secret of life? If not the secret of life, then the secret of giving goose-bumps? I agree with your readers, somehow you touched a nerve, but you didn’t fall into sentimentality. Talk for a moment about how you skirted the edge of sentimentality.
NLH: I do have the secret of life. I’ll tell anybody about it if they come to Seattle and buy me expensive cups of coffee at my favorite coffee shop.
Being able to find a story or a piece of music that gives you that tingling sensation is fantastic. If it happens with anything I write, it is only because I stumbled on it while following the story’s path. Everything is an accident. If I knew how to deliberately give a reader goosebumps, I’d own the keys to the kingdom by now.
I am convinced that writing a love scene is a walk on a tightrope. Too little effort makes it sound hollow, too much makes it sound maudlin. The distance between the two is paper thin. You have to weigh every word. For that reason alone, it is a foolish endeavor. I don’t know what I was thinking when I took on “Smitten.”
FFC: I read the piece five times. Every time I got to the sentence where the narrator says, “When you are gone, I will disappear in this world,” I got a lump in my throat. That sentence, I think, reveals a lot about the narrator. Caroline’s death in the story is sad of course, but I think it’s the narrator being left behind that cuts to the reader’s heart. Please tell us that this sentence came to you only after an excruciating amount of hard work-and that someday all of our own hard work will eventually pay off.
NLH: No, it came on fast. Sorry, I have no idea where it came from either. Just popped into my head. I think I was eating a Reuben sandwich at the time.
FFC: There are so many other things I could ask you about (your use of second person, the turn in the piece where the narrator asks Caroline to marry him, etc.) but I wanted to ask you about your history as a writer. How long have you been writing? Have you been published elsewhere. Where do you hope to go with your writing?
NLH: When I was in my late 20’s, for some stupid reason, I decided to become a professional writer. I had published a piece in a college journal and, later on, won second place in a writing contest. So the idea didn’t seem that crazy at the time.
There was an old closet in my house. It was about six feet by four feet. I cleaned it out and put a tiny desk and a computer in there. Then began to write stories and send them out.
This was before the Internet, so rejection letters still came in envelopes instead of E-mail. Each time a letter came, I tacked it to the wall. Then I told myself I would either be published or cover the walls from floor to ceiling with letters. After a few years the walls were covered and I quit.
The only problem is the storyteller in me did not want to stop. Ideas would enter my mind when they were least expected. Characters, plots and devious little twists. Sometimes these would go away as quickly as they had come. Other times they would hang around in my memory. If one haunted me more than the others, it would get written down.
Now I write when I can. Often it happens late at night when I can’t sleep. That happens a lot. I don’t think I suffer with insomnia. It is more like I have the circadian rhythm of a 1930’s Chicago Jazz musician.
FFC: That’s funny. My last question is more of a comment. The piece is posted on a site called Every Day Fiction, but it comes across as neither every-day nor fiction. So I just wanted to extend my condolences (if they’re necessary), and ask, is this fiction?
NLH: For me, this story was a departure from the norm. My genre of choice is Horror and I seldom write about the human heart, unless it is being served at a dinner party.
The inspiration for “Smitten” came to me while watching a relative care for his wife during the final stages of her terminal illness. They had been married over a half century. Although the bond between them had always been strong, it intensified with the final days of their life together.
Caring for a dying family member is a terrible drain upon the spirit and well-being of the one by their side. It represents an ending without hope and the inescapable uncertainty of a new life spent alone. Add to it the 24 hour a day responsibilities of patient care, medications, doctor visits and so on. And, trust me, you have not suffered until you try to sleep a litany of nights in the stone-hard chairs found on the 10th floor oncology ward.
One might think the relationship would dissolve, or at least crumple a little under such duress. In this case it did not. Their devotion to one another only seemed to grow. By the time it was said and done it had presented me with a mystery that I wanted to write about. Why would a person go so far for anybody? Especially when the outcome could only be tragedy. How does it differ from the heat and life of new love? What has to take place between the beginning and the end of a relationship to bring about this conclusion?
Most of all, in 1000 words or less, I wanted to map out the possibility that love can endure death. That is how this story was born.
FFC: Thanks so much for taking the time to answer my questions and congratulations on writing such a great story.
NLH: Thank you.
When not writing, Nicholas Lee Huff is an engineer and the owner of a technology consulting firm based near Seattle, Washington. He has won a small handful of writing awards and published a slightly larger handful of short fiction pieces and poetry.
Thomas Jay Rush has been a house painter, a carpenter, an oil well roustabout, an actuarial analyst, a researcher at IBM’s Watson Research Center, and the owner of his own software company. Then, he figured out what he wanted to do: write poetry and pick flowers like Ferdinand, which is what he does now. He lives with his wife and three children in Southeast Pennsylvania. Jay is half-way through the MFA program in Creative Writing at Rosemont College.