Our Research Notes series invites authors to describe their process for a recent book, with “research” defined as broadly as they like. This week, Sherrie Flick writes about Whiskey, Etc. from Queens Ferry Press.
Whiskey, Etc. or My Life’s Research
The research for my short story collection Whiskey, Etc. is my adult life lived. The 57 stories in this collection reflect the places I’ve been, people I’ve met, and concepts I’ve obsessed over for the past 27 years. The stories themselves chart a timeline of me and my writing life.
The oldest story in the book is called “This Was It.” It’s 109 words long, and I first drafted it in 1989, my senior year at the University of New Hampshire. It was revised many times after that, especially its final sentence. I remember hitting on the active moment of folding laundry and how that action manifested an emotional tone that the tiny story needed. I didn’t find that final sentence until the year 2000, eleven years later. And soon thereafter Prairie Schooner published it.
Back when I wrote it, my 20-something self scribbling in a notebook sitting at a café in Portsmouth, New Hampshire — beautiful afternoon light, crisp salty air — I had this issue that my girlfriends frequently commented upon. I couldn’t seem to recognize flirting, nor was I particularly good at flirting with the men I liked. My dear friend Cheryl wrote up instructions for me (as a joke). Her brief list was magneted to my fridge for years. The instructions were: “Put your hand on his knee, on his face. This is flirting.”
These sentences, slightly revised, show up in “This Was It” and also in another story, “The Paperboy.” All those late-night talks drinking whiskey and smoking cigarettes on my patio paid off. Eventually, I was better at flirting. In fact, my now-husband likes to tell the story of me firmly putting my hand on his knee at the bar, before we’d even had a date.
That was New Hampshire, where I went to school for four years, where I lived for five years, where I became a baker. It’s a place I call my homeland even though I didn’t grow up there. New Hampshire, in particular the town of Portsmouth and in particular the place of Ceres Bakery, is a part of me, always will be.
But there came a time when Portsmouth itself grew smaller by the day. I could feel it suffocating me, even as I loved it still. I was 23, had been out of school a year, and suddenly I needed to get in my car and drive. I migrated like a desperate bird over to the other ocean and San Francisco. It wasn’t just me, but many of us felt the call, probably 20 of us in all eventually got into our beat-up cars and headed west. For a while there in the early 1990s, Route 80 was our Main Street. We zipped back and forth, up and down, side to side, across the whole country and back again and again. But in San Francisco we started up a very serious writing group. We met each week, everyone bringing work every week. We read it aloud and commented and revised. We were writers. We knew it.
During this time I first worked as a temp, and then as a baker (again). The owner of the bakery was a woman named Sally. She walked through the shop day after day, holding a stem glass of white wine, saying things like: “I’m just a bleeding heart liberal.” I was actively trying to “get” people then. Get them and get them down on paper. Snippets of overheard dialogue filled napkins and my notebooks. I was interested in the eccentrics around me, and I was interested in characterization. The stories “Breakfast” and “Anna” come from this time.
After five years, I realized my body and my sinuses just wouldn’t hold up for a lifetime career in baking, so I considered graduate school. My plan: go where they pay me. I wanted to write “for free” for a couple years. I applied to 6 schools, got into 2, and got full funding at one. That one school happened to be in Lincoln, Nebraska.
I got into my car and drove, once again.
Living in the Great Plains was a pretty big mental challenge for me. The sky was huge and there wasn’t an ocean in sight. I hadn’t realized how much that ocean on the left or right of me had kept me grounded. And so, I had a slow, multi-year geographic nervous breakdown. Somehow that huge sky connected me to simultaneous time in my writing in a way that nothing had before. I wrote a lot in Nebraska. Deep, desperate writing. Stories like “The Paperboy” and “Back” and “The Way You See It” come from this time.
Back in San Francisco, I had joked that in Nebraska I would meet a cowboy, find lots of great thrift store stuff, and eat only grilled cheese sandwiches. I didn’t meet a cowboy, but I did meet my husband Rick.
We decided to move to Pittsburgh, Pennsylvania. I had grown up in Western PA and wasn’t sure about returning to my “roots.” But we got into our Uhaul and drove into Christmas day 1997 with a single Christmas Tree bulb hanging from the rearview mirror. In Pittsburgh, everything I’d learned about craft and story and life started coming together. I published a chapbook of flash fiction; I wrote a novel, Reconsidering Happiness, which helped me tremendously in exploring sentence structure and building larger character lives. My flash fiction turned to more complex subjects, and I tried to compress more about a character’s life into fewer pages. I also worked at an art museum and so art — thinking about it, viewing it, programming around it — became a part of my daily life. There’s a whole section of stories (“Art”) in the book inspired by paintings. “The Lake” is a great example of my character Walter’s full life compressed into a flash story. It’s written after the painting, “Lake Time” by Alex Katz.
Although I have not baked professionally in Pittsburgh, I have baked a lot of food for friends and students and co-workers. A few years ago I realized I could use my knowledge of food in my fiction. Food is so connected to communication, to community, to family, to comfort and discomfort. A story like “Family Dinner” reflects a lot of that synthesis.
This book is important to me because it represents a culmination of all that I’ve learned about craft, about story, and about the psychology of human beings in this world. I love that just a few stories from each part of my old life have risen to the top with some staying power. So many stories didn’t make it, of course. But I’m proud of the stories that comprise this book — and happy that the decisions I’ve made in my life brought them to the page.