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Jul/Aug 2007 Reviews & Interviews

An Interview with Claudia Smith

by Liesl Jobson


A short short is not a single thing done a single way. So many are sharp, luminescent puzzles, arresting flashes in the dark that leave us a touch of wonder or alarm. Some are complete little worlds in a page and some are simply scene fragments in two. Of course at times there is word play and often slanted imagery, even the jarring moment. Often the jarring moment. Some are tricky seductions, some brash and confrontational. --Ron Carlson from introduction The Sky is a Well and Other Shorts

Buy now from Amazon! Claudia Smith lives and writes in Austin, Texas. She attended Bard College, the University of Texas, and the Writing Seminars graduate program at Johns Hopkins.

Her fiction has appeared in Redivider, The Mississippi Review online, Juked, Night Train, FRiGG, Elimae, Failbetter, Opium, The Citizen, and Word Riot. She is a contributing web editor for Hobart magazine. "How to Catch a Good Girl" was one of the Million Writers Award's top ten online stories of 2003. Claudia's stories have been anthologized in Norton's New Sudden Fiction: Short-Short Stories from America and Beyond and So New Media's Consumed: Women on Excess. Rose Metal Press will publish a chapbook of her short-shorts, The Sky is a Well and Other Shorts in June, 2007.

Liesl Jobson met her at the 2007 AWP Conference where they co-presented a panel on writing and editing flash fiction in an online workshop, under the mentorship of Kim Chinquee.

 

LJ     Please share how the process of writing flash fiction works for you.

CS     I often start with a word or an image; these words and images may come from something that's preoccupying me, a dream, perhaps, or a worry. Many of the shorts included in The Sky is a Well and Other Shorts began in Hot Pants, an online writing workshop. The writer Kim Chinquee, who hosts the workshop, developed a writing exercise that works well for me. She usually comes up with a list of random words, and we write around the words. The technique works so beautifully that, unless I save the list before writing a story, I forget what the word prompts were. They end up buried in the text, like bits and pieces of a dream that lingers but I've forgotten.

I used to consider myself a loner when it came to writing; one of the things I love about writing is how intimate and private the process can be. That's why I could never have anticipated what an important catalyst this writing community would be. One of my favorite shorts in the collection, "Slip," was written in the room. I can't tell now which words were provided, but "slip" was one of them. When I sat down to write the piece, I was wearing a slip late at night. I heard the forest outside, as well as the air conditioning unit. I looked out at the lamplight in the parking lot outside my window and imagined a woman, leaning over a rail, wearing a slip. That's how it began. I meant to capture a dreamy feeling of loss, fear, and longing. I wouldn't have written "Slip" if it weren't for those word prompts.

Sometimes, on a good day, I'll sit at my desk with the windows opened, as my son naps, reviewing, reading or writing, and another writer in the virtual room will log in. Three or four of us will read and write together. It feels deliciously quiet and yet I'm not alone with my words.

LJ     Which of your teachers most influenced you?

CS     I took my first class with Mona Simpson when I was 18. No other teacher had or has so influenced me. She told me I had a talent, but that the only way to write well was to practice. Young students sometimes need the kind of gentle encouragement she gave me; she was a teacher, and a friend. She gave me books to read, Peter Handke and a steady diet of Chekhov. I was too shy to talk to her about her work, but my first novel, a novel that remains unpublished, was heavily influenced by Anywhere but Here. I fell in love with the novel's narrator, Ann August, with her ambivalence, her intelligence. When I read Simpson's work, I believe every word. She has a relentless eye for beauty and ugliness. She is fair to her characters, but unsparing. This strikes me, still, as a deeply responsible way to approach fiction. I left the characters in Anywhere but Here believing that love was awful and fierce, and yet, somehow, worth that ferocity.

Some of my best memories of Bard are of sitting in Mona Simpson's office, full of too much coffee, talking and talking, falling in love with my own insights. I wanted to be a writer when I was a freshman, but I knew I could be one when I left her class. I'm not a teacher, but I believe that teaching undergraduates is not the same as teaching graduate students. There's a mingling of arrogance and innocence in people that age, and it takes a certain knowledge of that to instruct. Mona Simpson was a fair but sensitive and encouraging teacher. It was what I needed.

Kim Chinquee reminds me a bit of Mona Simpson; they are both physically small women who fill up a room. They have an incredible drive, a spark inside. I'm the sort of person who needs to be around that kind of drive, or I might slump my shoulders and slink away from what I'm meant to do, meant to be.

Mona Simpson suggested that I wake up early to write every day. When my son was a baby, I learned to love those early morning hours, with my husband sleeping and my baby dozing. I'd sit at my desk, reviewing, reading or writing, and another writer from another part of the world would log in to the Hot Pants virtual room. It felt deliciously quiet and yet I wasn't alone with my words. That's a wonderful feeling.

LJ     What do you mean by "I wasn't alone with my words"? Isn't writing the most supremely lonesome activity?

CS     Not for me. I'm not lonely when I write. Scratch that. I should say, I am not lonely when I write well. I am profoundly alone when I'm writing a good first draft, but never lonesome. I have a friend who runs, who describes what it is like to run well, to breathe well and move well, but to be completely inside herself. I'm not a runner, but, when I write, it's something like that.

I've always loved long train rides, bus rides, any long stretch of time beside a window in a moving vehicle. I'd take the Marc train from Virginia to Baltimore for my classes at the Writing Seminars at Johns Hopkins. It was a foolish, impractical thing to do. But it gave me lots of time to make up stories, conversations, images. Perhaps it was a form of practice. My writing is the concentrate of my daydreams.

The writers in the Hot Pants workshop have brought concentration to my editing. I used to hate editing, hated shaving off a singing line. But after working for years with these writers, the piece still feels alive to me even when I'm cutting, pasting, changing.

And there is probably a difference to me because the writers I'm working with aren't in a physical room with me. So I can be alone, in my room, without voices or bodies, just words.

LJ     Before your son was born, you worked as a reference librarian. How did that influence your writing?

CS     It gave me something to write about. In a practical way, it reminded me of how fleeting books are. So many fall out of print. I don't have a librarian's soul but I do adore their souls. The best librarians are preservers, organizers, and teachers. They believe books, words, and information are precious. Librarianship gave me a perspective on life, on ways to view life in all its bits and pieces. I look at ephemera differently now; it's not even a word I understood before I went to library school. The ticket I saved from the one and only play I ever attended with my husband, the play I saw with him before he was my husband; my childhood friend's sixth-grade notes written to me before her slumber party, before she grew up, had two children and died ­ that's ephemera. My short-shorts, they could be called ephemera, too.

LJ     Many of your narrators are adolescent girls, observing ephemera. They note the quirks of the world with ruthless honesty. They aren't yet cynical about the society which gives them every reason for bleak despair. One senses they will soon be betrayed and disillusioned and yet they also hold the door open for hope.

In "I Tell, I Don't Tell" the narrator says, "I loved being a child. I was better at it than I am at being a grown up." While this particular narrator maybe romanticizing childhood, I'm curious how your view of childhood informs your writing, and how it has changed ­ if indeed it has ­ since becoming a mom.

CS     Many of the pieces in the collection were written during my son's first year. We brought him home and I marvelled. The world seemed very tender and also more frightening to me. I try not to sentimentalize childhood in my stories, and I worried I might when I looked at him and every small moment, even the way he tucked his little legs under his body as he slept, fascinated me.

When I write from the point of view of a child, my own memories and experiences usually serve as the model for the story. Being around my young son has reminded me of how magical, how beautiful and scary the world can be for children. That period in life has always interested me.

LJ     The act of writing is an enormous risk. There are never guarantees of success and recognition. At its core, one must risk facing the deep self in total honesty if one is to connect authentically with characters and readers. What memories and experiences of your own childhood do you write about?

CS     I don't know if I'll ever be able to talk about the worst of my childhood experiences in a direct, autobiographical way. When I watch my son experience pain or happiness, I'm reminded of how fragile I was as a child. I was legally deaf as an infant and toddler, so I remember images, sharp moments, feelings and experiences, and visceral reactions to those experiences. When my husband comes home, my son runs to the door trembling with anticipation, calling out, "Daddy, Daddy." His exuberance is lovely to watch. The other night, it was storming. Thunderclaps woke us and my son called for me. It's a common experience, I'm sure, comforting your child during a thunderstorm. Looking at him, rocking him, I kept thinking how unknown the world is to him now. And oh, he notices everything, constantly pointing things out that I haven't seen. As adults we learn to sharpen our focus, shut those things out.

LJ     In your short-shorts you subject your characters to a relentless brutality ­ a deliberately dislocated finger, a sixth grade bully dropping ice blocks of urine down a child's back, an eight-year-old's experience of suicide, and girls who hang cowardly dolls/women by their necks. Their horrifying reality is intensified by the stark contrast of the finely detailed strokes you paint: ballet slippers rescued from a dumpster, the bully's hair, done in "golden wings," crumbled sand dollars that turn into doves, and newborn colts. Somehow you manage to fuse horror and beauty in such close proximity that the reader, swirling through these extreme miasmas, gasps, unsure whether she's looking on pure evil or supreme loveliness.

Tell us, please, something about the mind that conceives such stark duality. Is it imagination and intuition, or experience, that opens the door? Do you write in a trance?

CS     My fiction is probably a result of nature and nurture; I couldn't write the way I do without having studied and workshopped for years. What I soaked up as a student surfaces in my strongest pieces today. My sense of structure has improved over the last few years. When I write short-shorts, I do fall into a kind of trance.

When I was a child, I read more than I read now, and when I did I'd step outside for a while, go somewhere else. I find it difficult to lose myself that way as an adult, but I can when I am writing. When I'm in that groove my best shorts happen. It doesn't happen that way when I write traditional short stories; those, I stop and start, go back to, edit, and live inside them for weeks at a time. Writing is a release. Some people run, some paint, some organize their closets, some meditate. I write.

Like many artists, I work with what haunts me. Certain images and ideas that have preoccupied me throughout much of my life appear again and again. I kept secrets as a child, and the isolation that created is present in much of what I write. I don't believe I'm a better writer because of my personal experiences, but I write because of them. I've learned to listen to my instincts. I've learned to write about what frightens me.

LJ     What do you perceive to be central themes in your writing?

CS     Longing, fear, love? One thing I've noticed is the varied responses others have had to my work. "My Lawrence" which appeared originally as "My Robot" online in Juked, and later in W.W. Norton's "The New Sudden Fiction: Short Short Stories from America and Beyond," is an example of this. That piece received quite a few rejections. Some editors felt it wasn't my best work. Some read it as a terribly sad piece, a reflection on grief and isolation. Some have felt it sentimental; others fall in love with the robot, and believe it a sweet and whimsical story. Maybe it is all of those things. That story came from the isolation I felt after a miscarriage. My characters tend to be in a state of longing, for the future or the past. They are with lovers they don't marry, or married to people they love but find troubling, or hungering for something they don't yet have, or they have it and aren't sure they want it.

LJ     Your writing engages the reader in dark, stark and beautiful places, encouraging them to hope when all seems lost, despite having seen the soft and dirty underbelly of the psyche. You mention having learned to trust your instinct, and this internal conviction serves your characters well. What factors led you trust your instinct as a writer? Who showed you how to do this, or helped you recognize when you were doing so?

CS     When I was younger I didn't trust myself, looked to others for guidance, and let myself get knocked down more easily than I do now.

Getting published also helped dislodge something in me. I used to be afraid that those I love would be angry or hurt by my work once it was in the world. I was surprised by how accepting, even supportive, they've been. Those words are out there now for anyone who Googles me to see. They can love it or hate it or think nothing of it. I'll still keep writing. I no longer think about those I love when I write. If I did, I could not write truthfully.

LJ     What is your favorite tool for procrastinating? How do you like to avoid writing? Is avoiding writing more anxiety provoking than doing the writing?

CS     One of the best cures for procrastination is parenthood. Whenever I have a moment I try to read or to write. I used to hanker for the perfect place and time. Now I'd have to say I don't even have a room of my own. For now, that's okay.

Watching my son splash in the tub or learn to jump, even his sense of time, has me writing in bubble bursts. When he was a baby, I wrote a lot of short-shorts. I realized then that my best work happens when I can finish a draft in one sitting. I couldn't write a traditional short story with the time I had, but I could put the sleeping baby in my lap, nurse him, and write as he slept.

Right now, I'm anxious about the lack of time I have to write. When I do have the time, I'll probably procrastinate….

LJ     If you had one wish that could grant you the means of achieving your highest potential as an artist, what would that be?

CS     In my twenties, working in libraries and bookstores, I used to make the same wish every time I blew out candles on a cake or threw a penny into a fountain. I wanted a novel published. I imagined myself in a city like New York or Paris, in a shimmering apartment with built in bookshelves and worn Persian rugs. It was a dreamed up Utopia, something from a fairytale. Now I'm older and I don't know if I'll ever be discovered overnight, if anyone will ever discover me in a drugstore, Lana Turner style. I may never be in a Barnes and Noble bookstore display. I know writers who teach, writers who publish, and writers who edit. Some make a living from their work and some don't. Being published, and being part of a writing community, is part of what keeps me going.

Now I have hopes instead of wishes. I hope to publish more books. I hope to finish a novel and have it published. I hope my writing finds a wider audience. I'd like to be able to make a living from my writing. I want to write until I die. My wish is to never stop writing.

LJ     Usually when I read your flash stories, I know the end is sidling up to me because it smoothes my cheek and I lean right into it, unsure whether it will plant a cinnamon kiss on my skin or twist off my ear. It's at that precise moment that I want you to go on for another 100,000 words. So, while we're tossing pennies in the virtual well, let me add my wish to read your published novel!

I have great faith, Claudia, that your dreams will indeed come true. Best of luck.

 

Slip by Claudia Smith

There is a baby and he is so small, he's smaller than a needle. Smaller than the threading hole on a needle. I had him next to me, nursing, before he shrank. Now I can't find him. He's slipped through the bed boards, or fallen through a crack in the floor.

We make goo. Goo is water and cornstarch. I scrunch up my nose. Ooo, goo, I say. My son laughs. Goo! He says. Ewww. Goo! He smears the goo over his face, he stuffs it into his mouth. I put him in the bathtub. We cover his duckies in goo. Ooo, we say. Goo.

There is a slip of a baby following me. He's a ghost baby, but not really, because he never was. He was never a baby, not completely. He is maybe not even a he. He is all of the almost-babies. The lamplight outside our windows is bright. I wake. My husband is groaning, still asleep. Outside the air conditioning unit hums. I listen to the baby monitor. Our baby is stirring. He may cry a little, go back to sleep. Now he's crying. He heard me pacing.

We fall into a shallow slumber when he nurses at night. My mother told me never to nurse a baby in bed. You could lean over, suffocate. But I would never.

Lights slip in and out of cracks, and there is some giggling, some tittering. When I was a little girl, I would see the figure of a man walking in and out of the walls. I knew the man was real and I knew he couldn't be. After I bring our baby back to his crib, I look out the window. Our apartment is in a nature preserve off the highway. You can hear the cars whoosh past the forest, if you listen hard enough. If you listen hard enough, they begin to sound like rushing water.

 

Quotes fromThe Sky is a Well and Other Shorts printed with permission from Rose Petal Press.

Links to more of Claudia's work may be found at Claudiaweb.

 

The Sky is a Well and Other Shorts
Rose Metal Press June 2007
ISBN 978-0-9789848-1-6.
40 pages

 

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