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Interview with Sally Houtman

February 2013

This month, we talked with Sally Houtman, who contributed to Flash Frontier‘s twelve issues in 2012. From her opening story ‘Safari Hats and the Colour Green’ (January frontiers) to her final piece ‘The Seasons, it is said…’ (December/January the gift) Sally was with us all the way. Read on to find out more about her workplace, her attention to detail and her love of other stories, too.

On work habits and influences

FF: Sally, you wrote a story for every issue of Flash Frontier in 2012; that’s twelve stories in a year, month after month. Congratulations – well done! Do you tend to write on a regular schedule anyway, or was this more an exception to your usual habits? And what makes this kind of challenge inspiring?­­ Was it helpful to you as a writer ?

SH: More than a regular schedule or writing routine, I’ve found the best way to keep the creative gears turning is to adopt an attitude of openness. By this I mean a ready awareness of the magic in the everyday ordinary, an ability to grab hold of anything that seems to contain that little spirit-spark of life. In this way, even when I’m not physically at my desk writing, I’m still engaged in the process. Writing is something I’ve found I can’t make happen, but rather have to let happen in its own time. It does, however, mean that my writing comes in fits and starts, but I’ve never found logging a prescribed amount of screen time to work for me. Inspiration has its own schedule. Certainly, the physical act of putting words to page, the construction phase of the process, takes place at the keyboard, but the act of discovery and the linking of ideas, the heart of the process, is a bi-product of the sensory experience of interacting with the world and is more likely to manifest with an ear to the radio and a spoon stirring a bubbling pot on the stove than at the hard, uninspired surface of the desk.

That said, I did find the challenge of the themes and deadlines enormously helpful this past year in terms of accelerating and structuring this process. It provided me with a more targeted awareness and focus as well as a sense of urgency as the monthly deadlines came and went. Without the positive pressure of these themes and deadlines, I doubt I’d have written with such intensity over such an extended period of time.

FF: In our June interview last year, we asked you about your work habits. We’d like to ask you to share a little more with our readers in this interview. We understand that you have some degree of visual impairment. Does this affect the way you write on a practical level? Are there technological advances that assist you? And also, does this condition affect the way you write on a literary level, i.e. do you believe you see the world differently in a psychological as well as physical way? Does your visual impairment have any bearing on the sensuality of your stories? We can’t help but notice that your stories are full of colour, taste, smell, sound…

SH: On a practical level, there are two pieces of equipment that, without which, I would be unable to read or write. These are a desktop camera for the magnification of printed material, handwritten notes, etc., and a computer screen magnification program which also provides speech output.

Although these allow me to access material that would be otherwise beyond my reach, there are inherent limitations to being dependent on such technologies. There is an unavoidable time and frustration factor involved in performing even the simplest of tasks. The best way to imagine the way I work is to think of holding a powerful magnifying glass over a page – yes, you can read the print, but only a small block at a time. And yes, my computer ‘speaks’ to me, but I’ve got to know where to find the text to tell it what to read. For this reason, complex graphics, columns or scattered blocks of text such as those found on web pages can prove to be vast and foreign landscapes. Many have been the times I’ve searched for a piece of information, a link or a button, only to find it ‘hidden’ on another part of the screen.

Additionally, unlike a sighted person, I do not have the ability to skim or scan text, as the speech program must read every single word. This means that, in order to locate a specific piece in a document, or refer back to something I may have missed for clarification while reading, I’ve got to either do a search for a word unique to that part of the text, or reread the entire document. Proofreading as well becomes challenging, since things like extra spaces or punctuation errors are easily missed because they simply are not spoken.  On the other hand, because I actually hear everything read aloud, I have a greater feel for the flow and music of the language and am able to pick up errors in my own and others’ work that escape visual detection. The eye, it seems, sees what it expects to see while the ear never lies.

As for whether I see the world differently than others do, it would be naïve to say that I don’t. Certainly it is a cliché to say that a blind person is more in tune with their other senses, but there is no denying the element of truth in the cliché. Throughout my life, rather than simply looking at a thing, I’ve had to, whenever possible, pick it up and turn it over in my hand to examine its detail. It’s inevitable that this natural tendency to feel the weight and texture of a thing, would find its way into my writing as well, since this is the way I experience the world.

The details…

FF: Titles matter a lot. Your titles tend to be a part of the story – that is, they don’t just announce the story but they blend into it, as in ‘What Lily Knew’ (June 2012) or ‘To Dislodge –‘ (May 2012). How do titles come to you – do they come most often after the story has been written, or do you think up a title that takes you into the story? Do you have any of your own you wish you could go back and change?

SH: A title must not only seduce and entice, but it must, without being gimmicky or clever, seamlessly blend into the landscape of the story. Nothing turns a reader away from a story faster than a cliché or tired expression waving as the story’s flag. If the title shows a lack of imagination, it is likely that the story will do the same.

In my own writing, the title serves as a frame to house the finished work. While a work is in progress, its title changes continuously, sometimes as many as a dozen times in succession as I work to pinpoint the story’s central theme. I find the physical act of typing out a title and pinning it to the top of the page an immediate indication of whether I’ve tapped into the heart of the story or not. That’s not to say that an original title never survives to the final cut, because quite often it does. ‘Safari Hats and the Colour Green’, for example, is a phrase that came to me while working in the garden in a green safari hat. It provided a jumping off point around which I built the story and that particular title never changed. Other titles will undergo a number of transformations before returning to their original form. But the final title is never decided until the work feels whole and complete. And because I take great care in choosing a title which blends into the story rather than announces it, I can easily say that there is not a single title I would change.

FF: You started off at Flash Frontier in January 2012 with ‘Safari Hats and the Colour Green’, a story that favours rich description over plot. In fact, one might even argue that nothing actually happens in the story, and yet there is a lot happening in this relationship – which makes it a memorable piece of flash. In fact, most of the stories you wrote for Flash Frontier are about relationships, often in crisis – or at the very least morphing, developing, swaying and uncertain. But ‘Safari Hats and the Colour Green’ depicts a relationship that works despite the couple’s differences. Which relationships are most challenging for you to tackle in your writing? And do you know when the story begins whether the relationship will work out or founder?

SH: I think of relationships not just in terms of those between people, but in a more universal sense, as the inter-connectedness of all things. I am fascinated by the idea of choice, compromise and consequence; the power of a single decision, act, moment, or encounter to set in motion a chain of events which changes the course of a life. That being the case, you could say in all fairness that all of my stories are about relationships, but in a more general sense. In life there is a relationship, for example, between the is and the could be, between the real and the imagined, between what we have and what we desire. Whenever these forces are at odds, the result is tension and choices or compromises must be made, each carrying with them their own consequences. In my writing, I merely identify and define the opposing forces at work, give them flesh and bone through character, and assign them a voice. Do I know in advance whether or not the relationship will succeed or founder? The success or failure of a relationship between characters in a story, just as in life, is not so much the question, since there are benefits and drawbacks either way. From this point of view, the dissolution of a relationship becomes less a failure than a course correction, a choice that, for highly individual reasons, puts a life on an alternative path.

FF: Your story ‘The sky on that day’ (March 2012) was nominated for a Pushcart Prize. This story contains detailed observations (His hands were in his pockets, his trousers hitched up with a piece of string…) as well as a certain simplicity and symmetry that make it both sparse and whole. When you thought up this story, did you intend to create this kind of space, or did that follow once you began?

SH: That story, as do many of my stories, sprang from a single phrase. In this case, the phrase being, “He couldn’t say.” Where, when or how the phrase came to me, I can’t recall, nor is it important, since all scavenged bits take on a new life in new hands. The phrase itself implies a mysterious sense of uncertainty, which I imagine is why it caught in my net. I knew right away that whatever story developed from this phrase would need to reflect the same feeling of uncertainty. So it wasn’t so much that I intended to create this kind of space, but that the story itself demanded it. It was my job as the writer to carefully weigh and balance each detail to give the story just the right amount of structure while at the same time leaving space for the echoes. I worked quite hard on word choice and phrasing so that the sections would have a sense of balance and symmetry, and to ensure that no one section carried any more weight or significance than the others. In any story, I strive ultimately for a sense of balance. I feel I found it here.

Some short questions… 

FF: What was your favourite story to write at Flash Frontier in 2012? And your least favourite?

SH: I’ll define a ‘favourite’ story as a successful story. A story that is truly successful, I feel, is one that lifts off the page, one for which I as the writer feel I no longer claim ownership. In other words, a story I can step away from and feel it lives apart from me. Though not all stories achieve this status, when they do, it’s tremendously rewarding. Of the twelve, I feel ‘Soliloquy’ hits closest to this mark. It began as a series of random and unrelated phrases I’d collected, all of which seemed to contain a particular rhythm and energy. In working with the phrases over time, a distinctive voice began to emerge. It was then a matter not so much of writing the story but of getting out of the way just enough to hear what this voice was attempting to say. In this particular story I quite literally built the stage and allowed the emerging character to take her cue, step out and begin to speak. The discovery process in this case felt quite personal and special, and was for that reason the most rewarding.

As for a ‘least favourite’ story to write — rather than singling out a particular story I’ll just say that some stories are, on a technical level, more effective or successful than others. Each of the twelve was written with the same amount of thought and care. But as a writer, it’s natural to feel that it isn’t enough for a story to simply stand strong on its feet. I wanted them all to dance.

FF: What authors of short fiction do you admire most?

SH: I appreciate the use of the word ‘admire’ rather than ‘enjoy’ in the context of this question, since I believe them to be very different things. I enjoy a good cup of coffee, but I wouldn’t say I admire it. By the same token, there are many writers whose work I enjoy, but to admire implies an appreciation of the craft. As an avid reader I’m always on the look-out for fresh voices, and the writers whose work I am most drawn to tend to be those who have a voice most true to itself. In other words, a writer whose work is not shaped by a particular style or trend and whose writing contains a certain watermark that defies imitation. These are a rare find, but there are two writers whose work I’ve discovered in the past year who come immediately to mind. They are Chris Okum and James Claffey.

To try to characterise Chris Okum’s work is to answer the question of how long is a piece of string. His narratives tend to careen forward at a dizzying pace and in a characteristically disjointed fashion. But at the same time they manage to remain tightly focused, driven by their own internal logic. I’m continually surprised, often amused and frequently horrified by the truths that emerge from the depths of his characters’ noisy absurdity, but rarely, if ever, am I disappointed. James Claffey, in contrast, has a special knack for capturing the real world with an uneasy depth and detail. His writing which at times is raw and haunting, and at times mysterious and surreal, is always richly textured. In a few hundred words he is able to open a window on a world I find both familiar and unfamiliar, one filled with mystery and promise, beauty and pain.

Looking back at last year…

FF: In an interview last year (when you placed in the national flash fiction competition), you commented:

“In any story, particularly a very short one, I feel it’s essential to create some resonance, a sense that there is more here than meets the eye, a feeling of before and after, a sense that the story has life or significance beyond the words on the page. A successful piece of flash fiction, to my thinking, should create a feeling that, in the palm of your hand you are holding something immense.”

We agree with this of course and find that the best flash fiction stories from our pages resonate long after we’ve read them. Tell us which stories by other Flash Frontier writers from 2012 still resonate with you, and why.

SH: There were a number of stories that readily came to mind, as these were stories I returned to several times, rereading them with an eye to discovering their X factor, that little something that made them work so well.

Having just gone back once more to reread Matthew Zela’s ‘On a Day’ from the February 2012 issue, it still gives me chills. In a short space he’s managed to compress a lifetime of experience and a sense of sadness and longing. In less skilled hands this might have veered into the sentimental, but its language is perfectly paced and the detail sparse and well balanced.

Also on subsequent reads of Mike Crowl’s ‘Scropion’ from the September 2012 issue, the story still makes me smile. It’s difficult to write an effective, humorous flash piece without it unfolding like an anecdote or a joke building to a final punch line. But this story has both humour and warmth. The character’s frustration and vulnerability are transparent and accessible. Who among us cannot relate to his inner dialog? “My brain doesn’t like having its nap interrupted.” A complete and thoroughly effective piece.

Lastly, for the reasons I noted earlier, James Claffey’s ‘turn to tiny vessels’ from the October international issue has stayed with me. The scene is so vividly drawn that the reader is right there in the moment, feeling the bite of the wind and the roughness of the bark. It’s a powerful and telling scene, revealing much about the character’s inner and outer world, giving that necessary feeling of the before and after and lifting the words off the page.

Thank you, Sally Houtman, for the interview this month. For more of Sally’s stories, check out her Fictionaut page.

For the February 2013 travel issue of Flash Frontier, please go here

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