Thu 13 Sep 2012
by Thomas Jay Rush
Flash Fiction Chronicles interviewed Olivia Kate Cerrone about Every Day Fiction’s top story for August “Leaving Teknaf,” and about the role of conflict in fiction, word choice, and being a writer when one is not writing.
FFC: Thank you for agreeing to an interview. Congratulations on winning Story of the Month for August.
Olivia Kate Cerrone: Thank you!
FFC: In some ways “Leaving Teknaf ” is a slice-of-life story, focused on the moment when Benoy must decide whether to step into the “black car” or not, although I think it’s a lot more than that. Every time the lottery ticket is mentioned it is followed quickly by a statement about the mother’s failing health. My professors at Rosemont stress the importance of conflict in a story. Question: must a story have conflict? Must a flash story have conflict? How important is conflict, when compared to, say, setting, character, plot, etc.?
OKC: Sustaining a degree of tension throughout a story’s narrative is essential to crafting fiction that is immediately engaging and holds the reader’s interest. Conflict and the progression of its dramatic development serve to establish that sense of tension. The reader must know early on what’s at stake in order for a story to be compelling. Otherwise, the material will read as flat and uninteresting. I believe that the most powerful fiction—be it a novel or flash—thrives from conflict that is well-rendered through language.
This is especially significant in flash fiction, considering its brevity. Kim Chinquee, a brilliant master of the form, once remarked in an interview how “flash is about sound and rhythm, image and conflict, all wrapped up in one.” I couldn’t agree more. The key to successfully executing conflict and tension in flash fiction lies in the writer’s approach to language.
FFC: I read a number of your other stories online (http://www.oliviacerrone.com/). Your stories are set in interesting places: Sicily, the Bay of Bengal, Jaffa. Tell me about setting. How does setting help tell a story? What purpose does setting serve in your stories. Does it serve purposes other then simply informing the reader of place? Can one rely too heavily on setting?
OKC: For me, everything starts with character. I can’t begin to write a story until I establish a deep understanding of my character’s desires, as this influences the decisions made regarding plot, tension, dialogue exchanges, etc. Setting provides another way for me to access this initial understanding. So much of who we are stems from those environments that frame our lives, even if we aren’t consciously aware of it. In recent years, my fiction has taken on a more international edge in terms of social focus, so setting has become that much more significant when rendering characters. There are undeniable socio-political aspects of those settings, such as in Sicily or Israel, that play a very significant influence on the specific needs and compulsions of my characters. Research carries a heavy presence in my writing process for this reason. Sometimes I am fortunate enough to travel to those places that I am drawn to as an artist.
Can one rely too heavily on setting? It depends. I can’t speak for other writers, because each artist comes with his or her own different set of aesthetics that shapes the work they produce, but for me, fiction is about desire. If my depiction of setting serves to obstruct this or the immediacy of the plot in some way, then I know I need to pull back and rethink what I’m doing with language.
FFC: I hate when people do this to my own writing, but that won’t stop me from asking my next question. I think this story implies a lot more than it actually says. For example, the sea, seems to stand in for the mass of humanity that Benoy is “swimming in,” and as the fishermen do to the fish, the lawyers pull Benoy out of the sea. Also, the black car, seems to hint at an unfortunate future for the boy, just like the Black-Finned shark who is astonished by his own death. The many details in the story, which I think are excellent and give the story depth, also seem to serve a symbolic purpose, telling an “under-story” as it were. Is that correct? This is, after all, a website devoted to craft. Tell us about the craft you brought to bear on these details/symbols. Are they simply details or are they symbols? Are they both? Are they intentional? It’s a novice magician asking a master to reveal the magic trick, I know, but have at it.
OKC: Thank you for the kind words, though I am certainly far away from “master” status when it comes to fiction writing. Yes, I think readers can most definitely decipher a layer of “under-story” in those details designed to help bring my fiction to life on the page. But I don’t usually choose to inject an ulterior meaning in a specific image, at least not on a conscious level. Then the effect of the image might come across as forced or too heavy-handed. Furthermore, I don’t have any control over what others read into my work, nor do I want that control. That’s part of the beauty of art: the variety of its interpretation. Gathering the necessary details (the particular name of the marketplace shark, a Black Fin, in “Leaving Teknaf” for instance) comes in part through research or personal experience, but the arrangement of such details and the precision of their depiction is achieved through constantly massaging the language. Revision is a crucial aspect of my process. The choices I make with language also stem largely from my gut. Writers develop their instincts for language through years of reading, writing and revising.
FFC: I think word choice is super important in flash fiction. At some points in this story you’ve chosen the perfect word: the word “free” in the sentence that starts “With his free hand…”; the words “at the edge of her mattress,” which implies Benoy’s growing distance from his mother; the way you describe his mother’s “bony hands,” and “the gentle rise and fall of her chest,” which recall the fish that are being salted on the beach. They say every word counts in flash fiction. Does every word count? Do you labor over every word, every image, every detail? It seems like you do.
OKC: Absolutely. I believe that in a form as short as flash fiction, there is much more emphasis placed on language, so yes, every word does indeed count. The trick lies in understanding what’s essential. Flash lives in such a compressed narrative—be it a particular moment or brief, life-changing exchange. Building that structural container is often the most challenging aspect of writing flash fiction for me, mostly because I am naturally inclined to think like a novelist. I have an expansive imagination, and I’m always fighting off the urge to share more about the character’s life—how their particular back story maintains an ongoing influence to the current state of their affairs. This is another reason why revision is so important to me.
FFC: You studied in New York and now live in Boston. Compare the two city’s literary scenes. Are you involved in the literary scene in your city? Any quick tips for a novice writer on getting involved? I try to attend as many readings and workshops in Philadelphia (where I’m from) as I can, but workshops cost money and readings are usually at night when my kids need my attention. Are you involved in any online writing communities?
OKC: New York City and Boston are both amazing literary cities in their own right, and I am very lucky to have lived in both. Of course, given its size and ultra-competitive industry, there are more opportunities in NYC to attend or give readings, and meet with other writers, agents and publishers. There’s also just a fantastic pulse of energy, an exciting sense of endless possibilities that comes with NYC that you can’t find (or at least I haven’t found yet) anywhere else in the world. But cities are also often lonely places, and being that the writing life itself is mostly lonely and full of endless rejection, it’s important to maintain some sort of support system in your creative life. I thrive off of artistic communities. Outside of a few close writer-friends I have in my life, I frequently attend artist residencies like the Vermont Studio Center for both the space and time to write, along with the new friendships that often form with being in a supportive, creative environment. I did an MFA in creative writing at New York University much for these same reasons, and I’m so grateful that I did. My MFA experience was essential in helping me evolve as a writer. I still exchange work with some of the wonderful people that I met there. Outside of academia, there are organizations like Grub Street in Boston or the Gotham Writers’ Workshop in NYC that offer great opportunities for connecting with other serious writers. Really it comes down to finding smart readers who you click with aesthetically, and are open and available to critiquing your work. I encourage writers to also check out online venues, such as the fabulous literary podcast, The Drunken Odyssey with John King, which places a special emphasis on fostering a sense of community among writers.
FFC: One more question: where to from here? I understand you teach. Tell us, briefly, if you would, about your life as a writer, or your life as a non-writer, or anything you’d like to add.
OKC: Right now I am furiously attempting to complete work on a novel entitled The Hunger Saint, which is set mostly in contemporary Sicily. I hope to begin querying agents and attending writing conferences to find representation in early 2013. My life as a writer is a constant juggling act between producing new work, submitting to journals and making ends meet. Since I teach nearly a full-load of college writing courses throughout the week, I often find myself getting up at four or five in the morning, just to get in several hours of fiction writing before starting my work day. It’s hard, but once you get into the rhythm of it, such a schedule becomes easier to adjust to over time. One of the most essential things I’ve learned about surviving the writer’s life is this: you must have a ferocious will above all else. You must be relentless.
FFC: Thanks so much for taking the time to answer my questions. Your ferociousness certainly shines through in your wonderful story.
Olivia Kate Cerrone recently won the 2012 Mason’s Road Literary Award (sponsored by Fairfield University’s creative writing MFA program). Her fiction has appeared or is forthcoming in a wide variety of literary magazines, including New South, The Portland Review, The Dos Passos Review, Gigantic Sequins, Word Riot, and Italian Americana, where she won first place in the journal’s 2012 short story contest. She is currently at work on The Hunger Saint, a novel set in contemporary Sicily. Chapter excerpts have appeared in Hot Metal Bridge and were translated in the Italian literary journals El-Ghibli and ScrittInediti. Contact her at: Olivia.Cerrone@gmail.com
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. He lives with his wife and three children in Southeast Pennsylvania (although it would be a flower-strewn hillside in Spain if he had his druthers). Jay is half-way through the MFA program in Creative Writing at Rosemont College.