Wed 18 Jan 2012
Every Day Fiction‘s top story for December, Sandra Crook’s, “Biting the Hand that Feeds You,” proves that a story doesn’t need to be wrapped up in a satin-bowed ending to suggest Christmas. The holiday spirit may be evoked by the tiniest promise of light in the darkness. A soup kitchen provides the backdrop for a bitter man, a theft, and a flicker of self-perception.
Crook discovered Flash Fiction eighteen months ago, when she joined the WriteWords Forum. Since then, she’s had fifty pieces published on various internet sites and in anthologies. When not cruising the waterways of France, she fosters rescue dogs at her home in Cambridgeshire, UK.
Flash Fiction Chronicles interviewed Crook about the effects of “Biting the Hand that Feeds You” on reader reaction to the story, her inspiration and writing habits, and her thoughts about the flash fiction form.
FFC: Your story was posted on Christmas day and even though it’s not a Norman Rockwell-type holiday story, it received highly favorable remarks from every Commenter. Why do you think it touched readers so positively?
Crook: I’m not sure, really. The editorial team mentioned that all this year’s Christmas stories had a certain grittiness about them, and I was unhappily conscious of this in the lead up to the publication of my story. Most people love a happy ending, and though this doesn’t really have one, maybe the grimness of the story made that small “flicker of self-perception” seem like one.
Or maybe any favourable comments were a reflection of the Christmas spirit amongst the readers!
FFC: I was impressed by the authenticity of the main character, Tommo. Although he shows no positive characteristics, I still felt enough empathy for his situation that I wanted him to redeem himself, rather than get caught for his crime. Can you share your inspiration for developing him?
Crook: Cruising in France, we encounter many homeless people, or clochards as they are known. They like to congregate around the waterways where they set up makeshift homes. In Carcassonne, one man set up his home close to our boat. The canal basin would be wreathed in thick smoke each day, as he lit a fire in a large can and warmed his food by repeatedly dropping pieces of cardboard into the flames. Eventually, the Port Capitaine told him to move his cooking activities farther down the canal, away from the boats, or he’d be moved on completely. He responded angrily, with a touch of desperation. “You don’t own the world, you know,” he shouted at the boaters.
That evening, I shared out our supper and took a bowl to his patch, thinking he’d appreciate a hot meal. “Is it spicy?” he asked suspiciously. When I affirmed this, he waved me away irritably and turned his back. I experienced a mixture of reactions to this rejection. He and Tommo were perfectly right, though, “Just because it’s charity don’t mean we can’t have a choice about things.”
FFC: Overall, I find “Biting the Hand that Feeds You” to be a sad story. It’s Christmas; impoverished people are making the best of dour conditions, but their day of plenty and happiness is a fleeting one. The reader knows that the next day, they’ll be back in destitute circumstances and the volunteer will discover she’s been robbed. How and why did you reach this slant for the story?
Crook: I tried to reflect the fact that, as ever, there are a number of agendas at work here. I think there is tremendous pressure on people to be happy at Christmas. Maybe it’s a throw-back to childhood, when for most of us, it was truly a festive period, so we feel the need to re-create some of that atmosphere. In the story, the other itinerants enter into the spirit and reality takes a back seat for that one day. As it does for many of us.
Tommo doesn’t share these sentiments; he’s untouched by the seasonal trimmings which serve only to irritate him. Perhaps, there never was a happier time for him, so this day, like any other, is reduced to its basic opportunistic ingredients—warmth, food, shelter. And gain.
For whatever reason, the volunteer has sacrificed her day, and though her efforts are largely appreciated, Tommo’s attitude brings her up short. She experiences guilt and embarrassment, and is uncomfortably aware that her actions may have come across as patronizing. No doubt, when she returns to the soup kitchen and finds her purse is missing, she’ll assume it was taken by the others when she ran after Tommo to give him his present. She’s a woman heading for disillusionment, I fear.
I thought it unrealistic to expect a Damascan revelation, given Tommo’s character. I’m not one for sappy endings, anyway, but I wanted to create a sense of hope. That dawning sense of shame, together with the possibility of change, might be about the best we can take from this scenario.
FFC: Many writers find the nature and quality of their work changes when their environment changes. You and your husband spend several months a year cruising in your boat. How does this affect your writing habits, topics, and flash fiction output?
Crook: I seem to produce more work when we’re cruising. I usually set my laptop up in the wheelhouse, so in between flashes of inspiration I can relax and enjoy the sights. The odd break from writing, as we negotiate a lock or two, usually brings me back to the boat refreshed and motivated to continue.
I meet and observe so many types of people. Boaters are great tale-tellers and a fruitful source of ideas. The “live-aboards,” who’ve sold up in their home countries to spend their lives cruising, are genuinely interesting personalities. Many of my characters have been based on the people we’ve met.
The cities and villages along our route offer different cultures and brief snatches of history and customs that I use, or jot down for future research. We’ve also lived abroad for several years, so I feel very lucky to have this rich tapestry to draw upon.
FFC: For some, writing and reading flash fiction borders on addiction, the urge to refine a story until every bit of it shines true and tight. Others see it as a non-genre, a fad. What would you say to those who perceive flash fiction as an inferior form, a lesser step-sibling of short stories?
Crook: Well, I used to be one of the latter group! Until eighteen months ago, I’d never written a piece of flash fiction—now I scarcely write anything else. I’ve discovered there is a real art to creating flash. It’s not easy to establish a story arc, develop the plot, and portray characters, within a strict word count, without resorting to exposition and over-use of gerunds. The need to continuously prune, strip out adverbs, and remove repetition, has enabled me to see how much dross I’ve tended to incorporate into my stories. And still regrettably do, on occasion!
I don’t believe Flash Fiction is a fad. Rather, I think it’s a developing trend. These days we all have a thousand things clamoring for our attention, especially when we sit at our computers. To enjoy a satisfying, humorous, or thought provoking read as I enjoy my morning coffee gives me a boost for the day. I know it’s the same for many of my friends and colleagues.
Sandra Crook discovered Flash Fiction eighteen months ago when she joined WriteWords Forum. Since then she’s had around 50 pieces published on various internet sites and in anthologies. When not cruising the waterways of France, she fosters rescue dogs at her home in Cambridgeshire, UK. Links to Sandra Crook’s published work, including poetry, short stories, magazine, and newspaper articles, can be found at www.castelsarrasin.wordpress.com.
Sue Ann Connaughton writes compact pieces from an eighteenth century, perukemaker’s house in Massachusetts. Her most recent work has appeared in White Cat Magazine, The Journal of Compressed Creative Arts, Oberon’s Law; Red Dirt Review, Unlikely 2.0, Linguistic Erosion, Bete Noire, Boston Literary Magazine, Twenty20 Journal, and The Binnacle Eighth International Ultra-Short Competition anthology. One of her stories was recently nominated for a Pushcart Prize.