Tuesday, November 10, 2015

1/2 Dozen for Kathy Flann

I got to know Kathy Flann early on and have become a fan of her work. It is so wonderfully odd, so brilliantly wonderfully odd and it feels so true and precise and real and yet otherworldly. 

With the recent publication of her new story collection GET A GRIP, it is especially my pleasure to have her here to answer a half dozen questions about her creative process, bad habits, obsessions, and her story about wanting to time-travel in order to beat a certain Scottish poet with a spatula. 

Here goes: 



Current obsessions -- literary or otherwise.

I’m writing a series called How to Survive a Human Attack, advice pieces for different movie monsters, like zombies, swamp monsters, and mummies. I find myself thinking about it all the time – these poor wretches always get bludgeoned, beheaded, set ablaze, or tricked into wells. They may have tried to eat people’s brains or something. That’s a fair cop. But they were hungry (or lonely or low on fuel or looking for a place to call home). I mean, who hasn’t gotten cranky after a long day of dieting or gestating?

I despise the pervasive myth of inspiration – the idea that an entire book can exist simply because of an accumulation of inspired ideas – but I don’t deny that inspiration exists. There are things that have no other explanation. Was there a singular moment of inspiration for this book?

There’s inspiration, often, in the genesis of a story, coming up with the idea for it. The rest – at least for me – is hard work and determination. The notion that a person sits down and just sort of channels a story onto the page in one sitting is  -- in my experience – misguided. But what I would say is that those initial moments of inspiration are so compelling that they give fuel to the process. With some stories, it even takes several years to finish, but I care about the idea enough to come back to it over and over. If I don’t have that commitment, then the story wasn’t really worth pursuing.

One moment of inspiration came when I read a newspaper story about the first meteorite fall in Maryland since 1923. Meteorite hunters were flying to the area, competing to get to the object first. I learned that meteorites are worth more money if people witness the fall, or if the fall is captured on camera, or if the meteorites don’t land on the ground. They lose their value the longer they touch earth. All of this got my imagination going. I wrote draft upon draft. I researched like crazy, learning about the different metals that can be in a meteorite, about telescopes, about the cut-throat nature of meteorite hunting, the need for speed and secrecy. The story that resulted, “Heaven’s Door,” about a veteran meteorite hunter nearing the end of his career, speaks to the race against time in which we are all engaged. Our time is limited. How will we spend it?

What’s your advice to someone who’s fallen in love with a writer? 

Tip #1: Don’t buy flowers for your beloved every time she gets a rejection because while it is true that she is bummed out and making overwrought comments about her worth as a human being,  A) you will go broke and B) she really is going to be fine after a few hours of cursing under her breath. I had to tell my husband this when we first met four years ago.

Tip #2: Consider whether you want to spend your life with someone who curses under her breath.

People always talk about the writers they aspired to emulate. I’d love to know the writers you most hated as you were coming up and how those tastes shaped you.

In one of my first workshops, I wrote a story in which a character traveled back in time and beat to death Hugh MacDiarmid, the Scottish poet, with a spatula. We’d been reading him in a literature course, and I couldn’t parse the Scots dialect. The instructor commented that the story I’d submitted was reminiscent of Woody Allen’s work. “Do you know ‘The Kugelmass Episode?’” she said.  It was a piece I had read about twenty times. She may or may not have meant the comparison as a compliment, but I felt so light, as if I’d won something.

If I’d been able to travel forward in time, I’d surely have been shocked to discover that I would grow to love Scots literature later, when I lived in the UK for five years. Probably that spatula-wielding hatred had been a sign of engagement – of wanting to engage, anyway. MacDiarmid still isn’t my favorite Scots writer, but he is credited for starting a Scottish renaissance, using Scots dialect when it was stigmatized, and I have to be grateful to him for that. As much as it’s challenging to make a connection, I suppose he and Woody Allen both spoke in registers that people hadn’t heard in writing before, and I think that’s an important thing for a beginning writer to see is possible. Below is MacDiarmid’s “The Bonnie Broukit Bairn,” which does not make me want to bludgeon him with a kitchen utensil -- and that’s always relaxing, not to feel murderous.

Mars is braw in crammasy,/ Venus in a green silk goun,/ The auld mune shak's her gowden feathers, / Their starry talk's a wheen o' blethers, / Nane for thee a thochtie sparin'/ Earth, thou bonnie broukit bairn! / - But greet, an' in your tears ye'll drown / The haill clanjamfrie!

What other jobs have you had -- other than writing or teaching writing? Did one of these help shape you as a writer?

One summer, I worked at a moving company as a packer. This was in DC, and a lot of the moves were government workers – our days were spent wrapping wine glasses, picture frames, etc. in paper and sealing them into boxes. I was always surprised that people would not sort through their things much before we arrived. We packed junk drawers, and I’d think, You really want this hairy button? Or this price tag? This one time, we went to a nice ranch house in the suburbs to pack for a middle-aged couple, very ordinary-looking, indistinguishable from other customers we’d had. The woman wore no makeup and had shoulder-length dark stringy hair, and the man might have been in khakis, might have been the military. When I packed their night stand, I found myself holding a giant tub with the words Orgy Butter on the label.

That moment was like graduating from an extra MFA program -- people may seem a certain way, but what’s in the nightstand? What’s in the glove compartment?

Was there an extremely influential writing teacher who had a great impact on your writing life?

In my MA program at Auburn, I was lucky enough to be mentored by Judy Troy, who used to have me over to her house. We’d sit on the shaded front porch and talk about fiction all through the Alabama summer. When you’re living in a dumpy place full of roommates and termites, the invitation to spend time at a nice house and drink lemonade is, in itself, nurturing. But on top of that, she offered me insights about stories and characters that I still draw on everyday. I hear her saying, “What’s the ongoing tension here – the problems that this character has had for a long time? And why is today the day of the story?” Whenever I’d explain, she’d say, “Just say that. Right at the beginning.” I hear that still, too. It was a revelation to me – that being very clear would build tension.

What's your worst writerly habit?

For a while I would eat candy or chew Big Red while I wrote, as a way to burn off nervous energy. I suppose it was like all those writers you’d see in old black and white photos, sitting at typewriters with cigarettes burning in their fingers. There was a need to do something physical while writing, something to keep me there in the chair. Maybe it was also a way of creating a ritual, of tricking my mind into associating writing with something as normal as chewing. But I worried about my teeth. So then I started chewing sugarless gum, absently unwrapping piece after piece. One night, my husband and I went to a party and I had to go home early because I had a stomach ache. He’s a doctor, so he went into that mode. “What did you eat today?” I listed off some stuff, mentioning the gum only as an afterthought. “You did what?” he said. Then he gave a very technical description of what the chemicals in the gum were doing to my “gut.” He kept checking up on my habits later.  “Are you still chewing that gum?” Oh no, I assured him, you persuaded me at “gut.” Now I drink herbal tea.

Kathy Flann’s fiction has appeared in Shenandoah, The North American Review, The Michigan Quarterly Review, New Stories from the South, and other publications. A short story collection entitled Get a Grip won the George Garrett Award and was released by Texas Review Press in the fall of 2015. A previous collection, Smoky Ordinary, won the Serena McDonald Kennedy Award and was published by Snake Nation Press. For five years, she taught creative writing at the University of Cumbria in England, where she created mini-courses for the BBC’s Get Writing website and served on the board of the National Association of Writers in Education. She has been a fellow at the Virginia Center for the Creative Arts, the Sozopol Fiction Seminars in Bulgaria, and Le Moulin à Nef in France. She is an associate professor at Goucher College in Baltimore, Maryland.