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Interview: Sherrie Flick

Best Small Fictions and your work as an editor

Flash Frontier: Let’s begin with Best Small Fictions, which has been guided since its beginning in 2015 by Tara L. Masih. You are taking the helm as Series Editor 2018-19 (with Tara L. Masih staying on as Managing Editor), and the 2018 Guest Editor will be Aimee Bender. How do you view this series in relation to other anthologies? What do you expect from the job, and what do you hope for?

Sherrie Flick: I think Best Small Fictions has done a great job of highlighting the short form and acknowledging outstanding stories and writers of flash fiction. It seems to me that it fits in well as a happy cousin with the other Best of anthologies. It’s a great teaching tool. I expect to be amazed and surprised at the wealth of great work being produced right now. I expect to be pleasantly overwhelmed by it all.

I’m also thrilled that Aimee Bender agreed to be guest editor for my debut series editor issue. She is top notch; I’ve always loved her stories and I can’t wait to work with her. Along with Michelle Elvy who continues on as International Editor, Chauna Craig has signed on as Domestic Editor. We have a great team of consulting and roving editors going into next year as well. I definitely do not feel alone, which is where I want to be.

FF: You have held many writing residencies and guest editorships, and you have curated wonderfully successful reading series and interdisciplinary programs, from Pennsylvania to North Carolina. Additionally, you’ve been a professional baker in both New Hampshire and California. How do you see your varied experiences influencing your work as an editor and writer, and how do you navigate the line between your very full outer life and the requirements of a quiet inner life, for your work as a writer and editor?

SF: I think early on baking taught me how to effectively multi-task on the job. When you’re working a baking shift you’re never doing just one thing. Sure, you’re the bread baker, but you’re finishing off the Danish that have been rising and making coffee for the counter person who comes in at 5am. You’re taking orders and escorting the bread through its many stages. I pretty much live my life this way. Astrologically, I’m a Cancer. So I kind of crab in sideways to most things I do. I do feel that it’s all interrelated. Taking care of my big urban garden is as important as revision of my latest short story. Organizing a monthly reading series or interdisciplinary workshop isn’t too different than organizing a manuscript. It’s good for me to balance introversion with extroversion or I tend to be a hermit.

FF:As an editor who has been immersed in flash fiction for years, what themes or trends do you see developing in flash? Has it changed a lot since your earliest publication?

SF: My earliest publication beyond my friends’ homemade photocopied zines in the late 80s was a story called ‘It’s Bob, Let’s Say, or John’ published in Quarterly West. I feel very fortunate to have that accolade and to have then cultivated a relationship with the editors at that publication that lasted many years. Early on in my writing career and experience of flash fiction, a lot of it was clearly directly influenced by miminalists, à la Raymond Carver. There was a clipped tone to the prose and a kind of repression of language in dialogue. Gordon Lish introduced a lot of flash writers to the reading public through his journal The Quarterly, which we all read religiously in the late 80s into the early 90s. Amy Hempel, Joy Williams and Diane Williams are three writers I discovered there.

I don’t really think of myself as an editor, although I have served as one in many capacities. I think of myself more as a reader and observer. Trends come and go with short work – second person, magic realist elements, lists, fantastical elements, politics, etc. There are more publications and more writers interested in flash and that only means writers who can explore and nudge the form in every which way.

FF: Your story ‘Boiled Clear’ is included in Best Small Fictions 2017 (forthcoming this year). Tell us about this story, and why it’s special to you. And how do you think being included in this year’s volume may help guide you as Series Editor starting in 2018?

SF: I’m just happy to be included in BSF 2017. I didn’t have much to do with it. I didn’t know ‘Boiled Clear’ had been nominated. So, I don’t think it will have any impact on my editorship. Mainly, I plan to work closely with Tara Masih and Jeffrey Condran and Robert Peluso at Braddock Avenue Books to put together the best, most representative anthology of small fictions possible.

Sherrie’s own work and the art of writing flash fiction

FF:Your latest collection, Whiskey, Etc., is a collection of stories that touch on everyday themes (revealed by section header: Songs, Pets, Coffee/Tea, Dessert, Art, Cars and Canoes, Soap and Whiskey) and feel very real. Did all the stories originate as a set? What distant places of memory or observation did you explore to arrive at these? And how did they come together as a collection?

SF: The stories in Whiskey, Etc. pretty much span my entire writing career. They weren’t written to go together and many stories were pulled from this manuscript as I formed it because they didn’t fit in thematically to the sections and the tone/ideas at hand. Many of those outcasts made their way into my next short story collection, which will come out with Autumn House Press in Fall 2018.

The collection came together slowly, kind of painfully slowly, ha. But once I started seeing some connecting objects and could pull together the section headers it started to feel more like a book than a Word document filled with stories. There are 57 stories in this collection so it was a lot to wrangle, but I really wanted the cadence and rhythm of each section to move into and complement the next and work across the sections.

In recent years I’ve been interested in close observation and setting. Some of the stories in the collection came from daily observation exercises – the characters and detail rising from a described place. That place would often change in revision, but I found observing the world around me in an almost meditative state was a great generator for work for a time.

In this collection, there are ekphrastic stories, small character sketches, moments of drama. How do you go about exploring the line between concrete and abstract in your writing?

I guess I feel like they’re all concrete. I’m not as interested in the abstract as I am in precision. I think my work is always trying to accurately reflect a state of the world for my characters.

FF: You began as a poet. You also write novels. Tell us how flash fiction has evolved from other writing, and how it may influence approaches to your other writing.

SF: Well, I was only a poet for a couple years when you look at the big picture. But yes, I did enter my undergraduate studies as a poet. That means I got to study with Charles Simic, whose prose poems were a great influence on the kinds of stories I came to write after writing long stories for a while.

I don’t consider myself just one kind of writer. I have the most experience with flash fiction and so I feel most comfortable with that tribe. I also write as a journalist; I write branding copy; I write essays, short stories, flash, and longer fiction and nonfiction. It’s all interesting and it’s all writing to me. I mainly like to challenge myself to try new things to push at what I don’t yet know. That’s how the novel came to be. Why not try to write a novel? I asked myself. Why am I opposed to it? I had to ask myself why I had clung so militantly to the flash form for so long. It didn’t seem healthy. So I branched out. I think writing each of these genres helps me with the others. I find it all creatively stimulating and educational.

I do feel fortunate to have worked at flash for so long. I think the act of compression comes in handy in any form in which you write. Journalists must meet word counts, novelists must move quickly through time or from chapter to chapter. This is where my flash skills come in handy across the board, for sure. Right now I’m working on a book-length narrative nonfiction manuscript that I’ve contracted to publish with In Fact Books. It explores my relationship to Pittsburgh (where I live and have lived for 20 years) and in doing so a person’s coming to terms with place. It’s an entirely new animal for me. This place of the unknown must be a place I like to be in because I find myself there all the time.

FF:In flash fiction, balance is critical to a story’s success. Can you talk a bit about the balance between creating a rich character in a small story with a lot of space? The balance between details and omissions?

SF: The kind of balance that I think you’re referring to comes in revision for me. Finding a story’s heart and then working to support it involves paying attention to what is and is not written. Oftentimes how a character chooses not to act is as important as the action on the page. I tend to cut back, sometimes too much, in order to find the essence of the character I’m writing. Then I fill back in a bit.

Other creative projects, and fiction v. reality

FF:You spoke about your fondness for kale, coffee and Manhattans in Ploughshares. And these feature in your work, too. Do you think it’s unavoidable, this mingling of reality in fiction? What do you draw on, and what do you like to invent?

SF: I think we all have different kinds of expertise. We know certain things well – cocktails, cooking and stovetop espresso seem to be on my list. I think it’s unavoidable to have some of our characters take on actions that we know well. I was a professional baker for a time and a corporate temp. I worked in a fine arts museum for seven years and at a historical society for six. All very different cultures. I’m happy to have experienced them in a fully immersive way because it introduced me to many different kinds of people and taught me a kind of diplomacy that I couldn’t have acquired otherwise. Although I now teach adjunct in academia in both the Food Studies and MFA programs, I didn’t come to the academy traveling the expected trail. Again – I came in sideways.

I think I’m not answering your question here, which was about reality in fiction. I think it’s all reality—even if I make it up, what I make up is based on my lived experiences.

FF: Besides being a writer, you are also a culinary adventurer. Please tell us more – about your baking and your gardening, and how they intertwine with your writing.

I’ve probably already talked too much about baking. Food is really foregrounded in my life. That’s kind of a stupid sentence. I should say making food from scratch is part of my daily life. I bake sourdough bread each week. I feed my wild yeast starter like a little pet. I can and ferment a lot of what I grow. My goal is zero processed food in the house and most days we are at about 95% of that goal. I can’t stop buying crackers. I know I can make my own—but I have to draw the line somewhere, right?

To go along with my no processed food thing is my very big urban garden. We live right in the city of Pittsburgh up in a super hilly neighborhood called the South Side Slopes. It’s strung together with a series of city staircases and narrow, too narrow, two-way streets. My garden slopes upward from our little house and is about 125 feet long. We’ve just acquired the lot beside ours and so I’m planning a little orchard for that space and I want to get chickens. We have berries and grapes as well. Gardening is a giant living creative process for me. It is super cheap, very laborious therapy. It is very important to my wellbeing that I have my hands in soil for big chunks of the day during the spring, summer, and fall. In winter, I get depressed. That’s just true. (Pittsburgh winters tend to be slushy and gray. We’re all depressed.) I feel like the garden is an exoskeleton of how I work internally. Again, it’s me achieving a kind of balance with my interior brain creative work and my exterior hands in the dirt/dough exterior work.

FF:Animals and road trips also figure centrally in your writing. And then there is your Yorkie, Bubby. Is there also a connection here between your real-life tendencies and experiences and the sentences you build around people, with travel, both real and metaphorical, and animal life intertwined as well?

SF: I spent a lot of time traveling in my 20s. Road trips across the US with various friends or by myself sort of define that decade for me, which was the 90s when we still used paper maps and pay phones and coffee across most of the country was horrendous. Those were the temp years for me, where I worked long enough to make enough money to travel, quit, traveled, and then got work again. I was living in San Francisco and it was glorious.

I think travel is important whether it’s within your country of origin or without. You can begin to understand the world outside your experiences in this way. It’s addictive.

My novel Reconsidering Happiness follows a character, Vivette, on a road trip to Des Moines where she plans to change her life. So, the road trips definitely cycle back into my creative work in a million different ways.

My husband and I still travel a lot and our dog Bubby is a great sidekick. Last year as I was promoting Whiskey, Etc. we drove from Pittsburgh to Key Largo across the panhandle to New Orleans up to Nashville to Covington, Kentucky and then home to Pittsburgh again—with the dog. I’ve been in 48 of the 50 states. Still need Alaska and Hawaii, which will take a bit more work than some others have.

I used to have cats and so cats showed up in my early stories – particularly in my flash fiction chapbook I Call This Flirting. Now I have this little dog, Bubby, and I’ve come to understand dog psychology and its own special breed of co-dependence and now my stories have dogs in them.

FF:New Zealand readers will be fascinated to hear about you learning to play the ukulele. How does music enter your life and your writing?

SF: A few years ago I decided I wanted to learn to play an instrument. My friend Guy convinced me to go with a uke because then I wouldn’t get frustrated and quit. He is wise. I chose a banjo-uke or banjolele, which is a uke with a banjo head. It has a great sound. I play music once a month with some friends who are much better than me. We call it a hoot. We play old-time country music and write original songs and drink a lot. I discovered I was an okay singer who kind of naturally understood harmonies, if not chord progressions. Music is my time out. I don’t feel like it’s part of my creative process, even though I have been writing songs. I feel myself using the other side of my brain when I play and that feels good. It’s fun and I feel a kind of direct rejuvenation when I play that I don’t experience otherwise. If you’d like a sense of the hoot, here’s What Whiskey Pairs Best with a Hootenanny, a piece I wrote for The Wall Street Journal’s “Message in a Bottle” series.

Thank you, Sherrie Flick, for taking time with us here at Flash Frontier: An Adventure in Short Fiction!

Sherrie Flick is the author of the novel Reconsidering Happiness (University of Nebraska Press) and the short story collection Whiskey, Etc. (Queen’s Ferry Press). Her flash fiction has appeared in many journals and anthologies, including Ploughshares, SmokeLong, Flash Fiction Forward and New Sudden Fiction. She lives in Pittsburgh, Pennsylvania, where she teaches in Chatham University’s MFA and Food Studies programs. She is the Series Editor of Best Small Fictions beginning 2018. www.sherrieflick.com

 

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