An interview with Chloe N. Clark
Chloe N. Clark tells Rachel Mans McKenny about her new story collection Collective Gravities (Word West Press, July 2020), her craft, her editing habits, and the apocalypse. This interview was shortened and edited for clarity.
The short stories in Collective Gravities take place in either Midwestern cities and landscapes or space. What was your process like for writing about these places and do you find similarities in them?
The Midwest is very much “Big Sky Country.” I think I’ve already connected the sense of big openness and isolation that space also has. So to me, these are linked landscapes in a lot of ways. I also think there are exploratory qualities to both of these places. Space obviously is about exploration, finding new frontiers, but I think the Midwest is, too. I think there are natural places here that are unexplored, too.
The two bookending stories, “Balancing Beams” and “Between the Axis and the Stars” include a lot of tragedy that happens in space. That seems to mix with the interpersonal relationships. This might sound simplistic, but do you think there can be a “happy space story” or do you think by nature, space is something that we have to fail in which makes it the story?
I think there can be happy space stories because of exploration. There’s a lot there. For this collection, a lot of them were pulled from a novel-in-stories I drafted which focused on how what we seek comes with a price, in this case, the lives of young people. The cost of privatized space or the military — ways we use bodies to accomplish our means. But I’m working on a few space stories which, if not “happy” are at least “hopeful.”
(laughs) I know “happy” is such a loaded term.
I write a lot of joyful space poems though. (laughs)
You are seemingly equally productive in poems and short stories. As someone who only writes fiction, I have to ask, how can you tell what an idea is meant to be? What is the difference in its genesis?
For stories and fiction, it’s very much visual for me. For poetry, it’s sound-based — I’ll hear a line and base it off of that. Almost always, I know before I go to write it what it’s meant to be.
Is there anything that’s surprised you about this process or that is different than creating a poetry chapbook?
When I put together poetry collections, I think about an emotional plot or arc. In stories, because each has its own plot and arc, it’s a little harder. I thought of it as a three-act structure for this collection. The emotions I wanted to see in the first act, second, third.
I know folklore, myth, and especially Monster Theory are important in your scholarship and teaching. How do you see that playing out in your writing, especially the stories in this collection?
I’ve always been interested in oral storytelling and how that fits into cultural landscapes. I always want my stories to be able to be told aloud — the rhythm of being told aloud. I think these stories have such roots in who we are that they are interesting to play off of in contemporary ways. And Monster Theory is the most important scholarly work that I do, especially in the current state of the world. Thinking about the ways we monsterize and “other” people plays into a lot of my stories. I write about outsiders a lot, I write about violence we commit upon others because of that.
I can absolutely see that in this collection. I’m thinking especially about “Lover, I’ll be Waiting”, which was a favorite of mine in this book. Also, about titles. Do titles come first, last, easy… They are so poetic in themselves.
Titles are almost always first. I can’t start a story until I have a title. It bothers me at a fundamental level. Usually it’s something that triggers the image that starts the story for me. In “They are Coming, They are Coming for You, So You Better Run, You Better Run, So You Can Hide,” I was thinking of zombies, which triggered the idea of apocalypse, and where do we run or hide when the worst has already happened? Is there a point to that? Those two ideas were where the crux of the story was.
Has becoming an editor of Cotton Xenomorph influenced your writing process at all? Your editing process? Your submitting process?
Founding and working with Cotton Xenomorph has made me really think about the amount of writing that’s out there. We get a ton of submissions, and it made me think, “When do you know a story is ready?” I think a lot of the pieces we get, it’s wonderful to read them all, but a lot of them don’t feel ready for submission. We’ll say that in the letter: “These elements are great, but it’s not ready yet.”
For you, when does a story feel ready for submission?
I’m probably an over-perfecter. Less so in poetry, because I have an instant, “Yes, this is how I want it.” A lot of the stories I wrote for Collective Gravities I wrote ten years ago and have been editing ever since. I probably overthink when things are ready. Usually when it says what I want it to say in the way that I want it. I think of the stories in the collection, “Between the Axis and the Stars” is one that I wrote, edited it a couple of times, and it felt very done to me. I had that good instinctual sense without over-polishing.
You often start stories in media res. I’m interested — do first drafts come that way, or does the action move itself upward as you edit?
Openings in my pieces very rarely change, because I have that sense of the scene that I want to start with. That might be a byproduct of wanting to go to school in film. I got my Associates in film, so I think that’s my ‘film brain’.
I have to say, reading your disaster stories like “Bound” and “They Are Coming…” in the middle of a disaster was strangely prophetic.
I feel bad that there are so many apocalyptic stories in Collective Gravities, which comes out right as we’re in the middle of a global pandemic.
But I think it’s the right time. People need this as well, and I think they will find comfort in the chaos. I did.