Interviews · 08/28/2018

An Interview with Sherrie Flick

Sherrie Flick is is the author of the novel Reconsidering Happiness (University of Nebraska Press), the flash fiction chapbook I Call This Flirting (Flume Press), and two short story collections with Autumn House Press: Whiskey, Etc. (2016), and Thank Your Lucky Stars (Fall 2018). Her fiction appears in many anthologies including Norton’s Flash Fiction Forward, New Sudden Fiction, and New Micro; her nonfiction has been featured in the Wall Street Journal, Creative Nonfiction, Pittsburgh Quarterly, and Pittsburgh Post-Gazette. In this interview, Flick offers insights into her newest collection, as well as her processes, influences, and challenges as a writer.

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AM: Thank Your Lucky Stars consists of both longer short stories and flash (many of these less than a page long), and food imagery abounds in them. As I read TYLS, I found myself thinking of the flash pieces as pallet cleansers, set between larger, heavier courses. In addition, the entire collection is divided into four parts, which contributed to the sense of a multi-course experience. How much of this merging of imagery and structure was intentional during the writing and arranging? How did you decide upon the order of the stories?

SF: I love the idea of my book as a four-course meal. It’s true food abounds in the stories. I guess that’s kind of unavoidable since food abounds in my nonfictional life. I have a big garden and I cook and bake and write about food for magazines and newspapers. I teach in the Food Studies department at Chatham University so I’m aware of how food is connected to culture and community — a binder as it were. With that said, I did not think about the sections as courses as I put the manuscript together.

I did think a lot about allowing resting places for my reader. I find that flash fiction can sometimes overwhelm readers if it comes one after another across the pages. So, for this collection I tried to create an internal rhythm for the collection with rest stops and general pacing within each section. I didn’t so much work around the longer stories as place longer stories around the flash. I think most people would work the other way around. But since I’m flash oriented I prioritized it in the ordering and maybe that worked out.

It’s really challenging to order 50 stories in a collection without it seeming like chaos. I tried to connect the worlds through objects and repeated themes and places so it felt like a whole, even though the stories weren’t linked in any way.

Even after Autumn House had accepted the collection, I changed the order of the opening section quite a bit.

AM: Speaking of recurring themes and objects, I noticed there is a real connection to place in this collection that influences how the characters are presented or feel about themselves and others. You pay quite a lot of attention to the Midwest, with characters who are a product of it placed in juxtaposition to those who are not. Can you talk a bit about place in your writing and, more specifically, your connection to the Midwest/Plains states?

SF: I subconsciously became interested in place/setting in writing when I moved to Nebraska for grad school. I had never lived in the Great Plains and I had never lived without some kind of body of water — rivers, oceans — right there, orienting me.

I moved to Lincoln, sight-unseen from San Francisco in 1994 and it was slow-release culture shock from day one. The sky was huge, the horizon endless, the bugs very, very large and plentiful, and it was a body of waterless. I didn’t know I was doing this — but what I did was try to write my way into it. “Crickets” in TYLS is one of those stories. I started asking myself, Who in the hell chooses to live here? A totally unfair question, I understand. But I was so deeply baffled by the -24 degree winters and the 104 degree summers that the only way I could figure out how to stay was to dig in. Nebraska wedged itself into my brain as a riddle. So, I also wrote stories like “Nebraska Men” during this time.

I grew up in Beaver Falls, PA, a mill town north of Pittsburgh. Then I moved to New Hampshire for my undergraduate work and stayed for a few years, then I migrated over to the bay area. So when I moved to Nebraska something geographic clicked into place.

This is a really long-winded answer to your question. Nebraska forced me to think deliberately about place and then in the years following that experience, after I moved to Pittsburgh, I started really trying to understand how setting works with other craft elements. Setting is connected to character is connected to dialogue is connected to objects and tension relative to culture.

AM: So many of the stories in TYLS focus on romantic relationships and the search to find a sense of comfort and home in another person, but one story, in particular, deviates a bit from this pattern. “Silence, Pushing” is the tale of a mother and father, Jane and Charley, and their relationship to their deeply troubled teenage daughter, Elizabeth. As the parent of two teenagers myself, I recognized the distinctly sharp, emotional edge of the conflict in this story and I admired how deftly you presented the sorrow and anguish of Jane and Charley without devolving into sentimentality. Can you tell me about the genesis of this piece and the experience of writing it?

SF: I thought about this story for years and then it definitely took a couple tries to write and then rewrite. I’m glad you feel the tension is working there. That particular tightly pulled illogical teen logic is something that knocked me for a loop when I experienced it full-on with my step-daughter. I wanted to play with that idea of adult parent logic up against the anti-logic of the teenager. It’s so intense to be grounded and settled in middle-aged reality with no recollection of teenhood and then come up against that exact force, working by entirely different rules. By the time I wrote “Silence, Pushing” I already had many of the stories for this collection finished. I knew that dogs would be coming in and out of the collection as a defining thread so that’s where the dog idea came up. I tried to think about breaking points and the markers we know we can’t recover from in our lifetimes. That’s where the throwing of the puppy comes in and stands in for so much more.

AM: You’re well known for your flash fiction, but you’ve also written in the longest form, the novel. Many writers find there’s a length that is most natural for them, so I’m curious if flash is that for you? Is your interest and fluency in it something that has shifted for you over time?

SF: Most of the hours I’ve logged as a writer at this point have been writing in a compressed form, for sure. I do think that length — 750-1200 words — is my sweet spot. I perhaps understand the shape and form of those stories more than anything else. But I learned so much from writing the novel, and right now I’m under contract on a book-length work of narrative nonfiction that is informative and enlightening in other ways.

I started off diligently writing 15-page stories as an undergraduate because that is what my professors told me to do. And it wasn’t that those stories were awful, it’s just that the moment I read Raymond Carver and Amy Hempel (this was in 1988) I felt a powerful blast of passion fill my body. It really was a kind of holy moment. Zap. I knew what I wanted to do and it seemed exciting. And I guess that excitement has never dissipated for me. I’m teaching a flash fiction workshop right now at Chatham University’s Summer Community of Writers and just being in a room with a bunch of writers and talking/writing flash fiction for 3 hours a day has been so invigorating.

I do think I’ll write another novel. I have a half-drafted one that I’ve set aside for now and I’m not positive I’ll turn back to that, but I love the overwhelming challenge that a novel presents. How it demands you live in this big world for years, the structure, the depth of characters, the settings. Writing the novel helped me understand sentence structure in ways that I could have never achieved just writing flash.

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Sherrie Flick is the author of the flash fiction chapbook I Call This Flirting (Flume), the novel Reconsidering Happiness (Bison Books), a semi-finalist for the VCU Cabell First Novelist Award, and the short (short) story collection Whiskey, Etc., a Foreword INDIES bronze winner for 2016 Best Book of the Year in Short Stories and an Entropy best fiction book of the year. Her new short story collection, Thank Your Lucky Stars, is forthcoming from Autumn House Press in Fall 2018. She lives in Pittsburgh, Pennsylvania.

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Angela Mitchell is a fiction writer living in St. Louis, Missouri. Her work has been featured in Colorado Review, Carve, Natural Bridge, storySouth, Necessary Fiction, and other journals. Her debut story collection, Unnatural Habitats & Other Stories, is forthcoming from WTAW Press (October 2018).