Sherrie Flick’s new collection Whiskey, Etc.—flash, micros, short-shorts—has been getting rave reviews. Kim Chinquee calls her writing “deliciously intoxicating.” Flick’s flash chapbook I Call This Flirting is legendary. She is also a novelist (Reconsidering Happiness) and has written food essays for the Wall Street Journal, Pittsburgh Post-Gazette and Ploughshares. What we wanted to know is—how does she write such great stories?
Question #1: What’s the best response to your book so far?
Answer: One great response is an email I received from Margot Livesey. It warmed my heart and encouraged me to no end. Here’s what she said:
It’s too long since our paths crossed but I did want to write and tell you how much I liked and admired the stories in Whiskey, Etc. You are a mistress of voice – Sweet Thang! – and detail – the Microwave. And I love how much you can do in a small space – like Dinner Party or the Paper Boy which has one of the great opening sentences. … You have a wonderful ability to entertain the reader and indeed even to make fun of the characters without ever deriding their hopes and desires. Your sentences sing.
I also received a fantastic congratulatory bottle of Rowan’s Creek Kentucky Bourbon from my friend and former student Kyle Wolf. She drove it from Kentucky to my book release party.
Did you start out writing flash fiction? Obviously you’re a talented writer in several genres.
When I was an undergraduate I had never heard the term “flash fiction” because I don’t think it had been “named” yet. I do remember one fine day at a local bookstore when I spotted that green-covered anthology edited by Tom Hazuka and James Thomas called Flash Fiction and yearned like anything to be one of the people in there.
But I’m getting ahead of myself. I started off as a poet. In fact, I went to the University of New Hampshire to study with Charles Simic. In retrospect, this all makes sense. Charles Simic is the perfect prose poemy poet for someone like me to work with. But line breaks baffled me. I felt I couldn’t be a poet because I didn’t understand line breaks. When you’re 18, 19 years old this is how you make decisions sometimes, you know?
So, I took some fiction workshops and diligently wrote the 15-20 page stories that my professors liked. Then one day my friend Guy gave me a book by Raymond Carver. Then I discovered Gordon Lish’s The Quarterly. And thus discovered Diane Williams and so many other great flash writers. Then I started writing these short compressed stories and I felt a kind of coming home. My first published piece of writing was a flash fiction called “It’s Bob, Let’s Say, or John” published in Quarterly West in fall, 1990. I’d found my people and my place.
I think Margot Livesey is right on about your writing. ”You are a mistress of voice”—I love that. Ta-Nehisi Coates said in The Atlantic blog (June 11, 2013) that voice is the most important thing in fiction because “if you like the person telling you the story—which is to say the voice, not the author—you generally will let them tell you a story.” Is voice something that comes naturally to you, or is it a lyric impulse, or long practice in writing, or is it tempered from staying close and personal with the characters, their feelings, what they notice in the moment? The language in the narration always seems right for them. I never get the sense you are writing for the language itself.
I think I’ve always had a knack for getting inside a voice–or maybe I should say for getting inside voices that can tell stories in an intimate way. I always loved the blurb that John McNally wrote for I Call This Flirting, which reads in part: “These are late-night stories, told after midnight, a femme fatale whispering sad and unraveled and lusty tales into your ear.” I love the idea that every character you ever write has a secret they’re whispering to you. Sometimes those secrets are revealed to the reader. Other times they are just what drives me forward to create.
I think my initial interest in poetry informs the lyrical, rhythmic quality of my prose. I can hear a kind of meter as I write–or I strive toward it might be a better way of saying it? As I draft I do so much reading aloud. So, some of the voice is instinctual and some comes from practice and revision.
The way I look at it, all the craft elements are connected. I’ve been really interested in setting the past few years and how character and voice can rise from setting. Many of the stories in Whiskey, Etc. were drafted with this in mind. So I’m really happy that you noticed that about the figurative language. It’s a package deal when the stories are working–character works with voice, which works with setting, which adds to point of view, etc. I would like for it all to be seamless, of course.
I want to borrow one other phrase from Livesey’s note, that “You have a wonderful ability to … make fun of the characters without ever deriding their hopes and desires.” How do you come by this ability? Or do you have to like characters that you write about? Or do you ever get inspired by characters even if they’re hatable? Or do you just let the situation guide you? I love your characters. Some are cheaters, irresponsible, selfish, manipulative … yet my feeling is just, bring them on.
This question is a tough one. I guess first, I don’t feel like I make fun of my characters. I do inhabit them while I’m writing. When I was a student in workshops people said they didn’t like some of my characters, especially women who behaved badly. That comment always bothered me because I feel like the interior life of anyone is worth examining. I guess mining that territory when it’s a selfish or irresponsible person can be uncomfortable to readers. I don’t have pity for my characters, even when they can’t redeem themselves. I sort of feel like we’re all unredeemable on some level. At any rate, I don’t have a desire to make excuses for them. I’ve never thought about my characters in this exact way so I’m working through it as I’m typing this answer. I should note that sometimes my characters are based on people I’ve known, sometimes they arise from the scene I’m setting, but usually they’re a hybrid of me, you, and everyone else I’ve ever met.
That’s interesting, that characters arise from the scene you’re setting. Is that sometimes how stories start for you? Stuart Dybek says he generates a story by looking through his journal for some memory or image or other jotting (Richard Brautigan called such things in his journal “lint”) and picks one that has an emotional charge for him. Based on that piece of “lint” he starts a scene or narrative description, then a second character comes in with dialogue and the story takes off, it’s in gear. Maybe anything could serve as a prompt, whether it’s “lint,” or just a group of random words, or maybe a song (like your great story “Sweet Thang”—was that from that oldie Chaka Kahn song “Sweet Thing”?). I see I’ve made this a double question—first, where do you get your story idea, then what do you typically do to develop it?
Having my characters rise from setting is a new thing for me. It came from a daily exercise I did every morning for a semester, where I would observe and record place without judgment, as Chekhov suggests. Here is one of a gazillion quotes I have from him about this: “The artist should be not the judge of his characters and their conversations, but only an unbiased observer.” And to a friend he said, “You are right in demanding that an artist should take an intelligent attitude to his work, but you confuse two things: solving a problem and stating a problem correctly. It is only the second that is obligatory for the artist.”
It was a fascinating exercise, though failure is built into it. We always seem to turn to judgment, but how long can we hold it off? At any rate, from this came many stories. Setting first, then characters and tension rising up. I’m still trying to process and think about this.
But it’s not my only method. I’m often inspired by an object or a snippet of dialogue I’ve heard. I just need a little nudge to get going on a story. Once I have something down, which I’ve written pretty organically and pretty quickly, then I begin to shape it on a sentence level–refining characterization and setting as I go. I find that for me tension and plot arise next. I follow after. I revise forever.
The “Sweet Thang” story comes from the Van Morrison song, Sweet Thing: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=2QzDWIOUnM0
During another little stint of daily exercises I tried to incorporate whatever song was playing on the radio when I started to write. This is way harder than it sounds. But another story in Whiskey, Etc., “Relationship,” came this way, so I guess it was worth it.
Question # 6:
At the time of this interview you are teaching a 10-day summer MFA fiction workshop at Chatham University. Your course description has a sentence that intrigues me: “The plan is to think inside and outside the fiction box in every way possible.” Could you just give us some specifics on what you mean by that?
Yes, we’re having the session out at the school’s Eden Hall Farm campus, which is about 50 minutes north of Pittsburgh. It’s beautiful. There’s even a white stag on the grounds. Magical.
I’m focusing on short stories in my workshop and also on generative exercises. I’m really open to what students want to define as a story. We have a range of work from fantasy to flash to standard realism to magic realism. Yesterday, we took one student’s story and acted it out while she read it aloud slowly, like stage directions. This helps with continuity issues (the actors can only do/say what’s on the page), helps show simultaneous action (or lack thereof), and helps to confirm that the dialogue contains action and internal thoughts. Everyone was laughing but we were also critiquing as we went.
This workshop has a lot of moving parts and the students leave it with many, many starts and drafts of stories. I figure they can do the hard work of finishing after we’re out of this intensive. For example, I might give students the first and last lines of a story and they have ten minutes to connect them, or give the students two objects that they have to include in a scene. Then I might throw a bag of short story collections onto the table, and we spend an hour just looking at and reading aloud first sentences. I want them to understand the importance of the reader’s first encounter with the story. I also think if you really learn how setting can work for you, then you can learn character and plot. It’s the same with an object–if you can get an object to represent a person, then you have enhanced characterization and all of this leads to effective compression, which is my favorite part of writing. Taking the big, huge world and bringing it down to a thimble.
It’s good to see how you generate stories. How did you put together Whiskey Etc? It’s such a rich, full book. So was I Call This Flirting, a dozen years ago, when a flash fiction chapbook was a rarity. There are more opportunities now—would you tell up and coming writers to go for chapbooks, then gather them to make a larger book? Maybe it’s best just to write and not worry about a book, but if they want a plan, would it help to work with themes, or maybe a recurring cast of characters? There seems to be interest in flash fiction novellas now.
Yes, I think there’s a lot of interesting hybrid work happening right now and it seems to me that flash lends itself to the novella or short novel form. I love Christine Schutt’s Florida, for instance. I have a roving interest in writing something in that direction.
Ordering and putting together my chapbook taught me a lot about how to order a collection. It was my training ground. With Whiskey, Etc. I first thought of using overlapping characters, that is, to link some stories across sections with the same people, but that definitely didn’t work. Then I tried the reverse, to not overlap character names at all, which is how it stands now. But, of course, changing the name can change the character, which changes the story, and so more revision was called for. I don’t recommend working this way. But I did want to break it into sections, somehow, because I feel that flash reads better when there are some resting points built in. To do this I scrolled through the stories and started highlighting common themes, ideas, and objects, and then I sorted them by those themes. I tried for a good balance of obvious with subtle, and a rhythm between stories within each section. This might sound like it took a long time. And it did! I spent a great deal of time reading the full manuscript aloud to my dog. I wrote some new stories to fill in some sections that just seemed too short to work on their own.
How has very short fiction changed, as a “genre,” since you started? Where do you see it going? You’re still a young writer yet you’ve been part of it, almost since Flash Fiction came out, as writer, as teacher, as impresario of a flash reading series. It goes by so many names now—flash, nano, micro—is it getting shorter? Have approaches or attitudes changed? Has your own writing changed? You write other kinds of prose now—is there any conflict with your continuing to write very short stories as well?
One of the main changes I’ve seen with flash fiction is that academia has accepted it. Because of that I have to think that’s it’s trickling its way into the canon or into a broader definition of what fiction can be. Back in the late 80s when I first started writing flash, my fiction professors were very unhappy with me. Some refused to workshop my tiny stories and others just talked expansion and narrative arcs and plot. I see both professors and students now who are open to experimentation and to taking on critiques of stories in a more complex way.
On my own writing, my early pieces of flash were focused more on atmosphere and relaying an emotion and on one tiny slice of life than on, say, character development. In Whiskey, Etc., the super tiny “This Was It” is the only story from that time period that has made it this far. As I’ve practiced compression and experimented and written a ton of flash stories I’ve learned to relay the world more effectively and with more complication. I would say more recent stories like “Canoe” or “Sweet Thang” or “Forever” have much more character development and setting, and go beyond one moment to explore larger and deeper parts of the characters’ lives.
I don’t see a conflict with flash and the other genres/forms I work in. I can put on my journalism hat or essay hat or novel hat and feel that my experience writing flash helps me in all those arenas. If I turn in a 1300 word article for a magazine, maybe something about gardening, and the editor says that they’ve lost some space and could I bring it down to 900 words? I say: no problem. I love to cut. Compression came in handy with my novel when I wanted to relay a change in geography quickly so I could get into the action of my characters. Everyone can benefit from trying to write flash, to relay our complex world in approximately 700 words. It’s an effective and rewarding challenge.