Monday, November 26, 2018

Tara Campbell on the Power of Writing Short

The author of Circe’s Bicycle talks about worst case scenarios and the magic of flash fiction
By Yohanca Delgado

The reported resurgence in the popularity of poetry suggests a broader hunger for brevity, for lean literary art. Tara Campbell is ahead of curve. Though her first book was the novel TreeVolution (Lillicat Publishers, 2016), she has been writing poetry and flash for years and teaches flash fiction across the DMV area. 

Tara Campbell's second book, Circe's Bicycle (LitFest Press, April 2018) is a collection of flash fiction and poetry. We talked about creating the connective tissue in a flash and poetry collection, writing the dreaded “what if,” and the difference between writing long and writing short. 

Your second book, Circe’s Bicycle, is a collection of flash fiction and poetry. What inspired you to bring those two forms together in one collection? What is about these two forms that works well together?

I have my editor Jane Carman of Lit Fest Press to thank for the inspiration to bring poetry and prose together. I had submitted a couple of micro-pieces to their magazine, and Jane asked if I had enough for a collection. I hadn’t been working toward a collection, and wasn’t sure I had enough of one particular form to put together. Fortunately, Jane was open to a hybrid collection, so I looked back at all my small, strange things to see what made sense together. I took the paintings down from one wall of my office, then printed the poems and stories out and jotted potential themes on each page before taping them to the wall. Pretty soon my office looked like one of those movies where the detective is staring at a web of strings attached to various photos and pieces of evidence stuck to the walls—except I used red sharpie instead of string. Out of that process emerged the two thematic sections of the collection: “Tradition & Transition” and “Love & Consequences.”

Let’s talk about “We are Twenty-Six,” one of my favorite pieces in this collection. It’s a deliciously fabulist meditation on stagnation and addiction—told from the perspective of twenty-six renegade teeth. How did you combine these two seemingly disparate ideas: stagnation and teeth? 

I tend to fixate on the worst-case scenarios for any situation that comes my way, no matter how unlikely I know my imagined outcomes are. I’ve always ground my teeth in my sleep, but for some reason, I didn’t really stress about it that much until I went to a new dentist. She’s very thorough and competent, and explained to me what grinding was doing not only to my teeth, but also to my gums. So of course my brain created the most ridiculous image of all my teeth spontaneously spilling out of my mouth, and I suppose that combined with my concern about becoming stagnant as a writer (I see all my fellow writers’ heads nodding out there), and this story is the result of those two anxieties. Because that’s what writers do, isn’t it: we fixate on something and then have to write through it.  

Along those same lines, the title story, “Circe’s Bicycle,” evokes the siren call of a particular form of escapist grief. A giant bee that carries away a mother who is mourning her child. Can you talk a little bit about how that story came together? 

This story came out of a dream where I was in a room with a small insect that was growing gradually bigger and more threatening, and I was trying to figure out what it wanted from me. I usually don’t write from dreams because the resulting stories can so easily wind up going nowhere. But there was such a curious combination of dread and fascination in the dream, I had to figure out what that was about.

I suppose it’s also about love and vulnerability. When you really fall in love, whether with a partner or your children or whomever, it’s like a little piece of your heart is no longer safe inside your chest, but walking around on its own. It’s a beautiful and terrifying thing. You start to think about how easily everything could change, and while on the one hand you’re happy and grateful, you also have to face the realization that there’s no way keep your loved ones completely safe in the world. 

Flash is having a moment these days, but you’re not new to the form. You teach flash in various places, including The Writer’s Center, American University, and the National Gallery of Art. What do you think it is about the form that appeals so much in 2018? 

Well, the first thing that comes to mind is the trend toward distraction (i.e. multitasking) and shorter attention spans, and some people may feel that’s a simplistic answer, but I think there is something to it. It speaks to a deeper anxiety about not having enough time to absorb all of the information coming at us today. Books, TV, movies, music, news, fake news—it’s no longer enough to read; we have to read even more to figure out if what we’ve just read is real. It’s easy to feel overwhelmed and stressed, and flash fiction can be a brief respite from that. It’s not written as fact, yet it can express truths that are often drowned out in all the media whizzing around us.

Flash is also super accessible. There’s lots of amazing flash online, most of it for free, which means readers can experience a story at any time on their phones wherever they are. Perhaps there’s an element of commitment-phobia or FOMO to the trend toward shorter forms, but I view that in a more positive light. In a world where we all feel pressed for time, flash allows readers and writers to experiment without inhibition. We can try a new author/voice/form, and concentrate entirely on that one thing, without fretting over “losing” the time we’re dedicating to it. If someone who doesn’t think they have time to read a whole novel still carves out time for flash fiction, that’s a good thing.

The prospect of resolution is also a powerful motivator. There is peace in being able to complete something, read or write this one little story, to feel like you’ve understood at least one thing in an endlessly complicated world.

Your first book was a novel (TreeVolution, Lillicat Publishers 2016). How did you transition from writing long to writing short and back to long again? How do the demands of long-form work differ from those of flash for you? 

I have to admit that I don’t normally start a story knowing exactly where it’s going or how long it’s going to turn out. Most of my work starts out with a “what-if” and I spin out various solutions until the story sorts itself out in my head. Poems are a little different, because they usually come to me when I’m pissed off about something. But if I figure out I’m writing a book, I’m like, “Oh crap, here we go,” because we all know novels aren’t easy. When you’re lucky, it’s the subject matter, the problems you throw at your characters and solutions they come up with, that keep you going, no matter what the length.

I’m usually working on both short and long projects at the same time. Quite often the poems and stories are safety valves for the longer work. When I get stuck on a book, being able to turn to a more immediate goal like a story is much better than shutting down altogether. Above all, I try to keep writing.

Even as you move across forms and genres, are there themes and questions that consistently spark your curiosity and drive your work? 

As I mentioned earlier, I often write poetry in response to something that pisses me off—violence, racism, sexism, all the -isms. That doesn’t necessarily mean an angry poem comes out of it. Some poems come out playful and hopeful, imagining the world that might be if those various -isms were kicked to the curb, like “When Peanut Butter Baby Ruled the World.” Sometimes real-world problems morph into imagined worlds, and other times imagined worlds become places to speak to real-world problems and examine human nature. 

I get a lot of ideas from the news and popular science articles. Yes, of course additional research is required, but things like IFLScience and stories on NPR fuel a lot of great ideas. In fact, it was a radio segment about scientists listening in on thirsty trees on that inspired my novel TreeVolution

In short, the overarching theme of my work is “what if?”

What do you read to fuel your work? Do you read flash when you’re working on flash, for example, or do you read across genres? Whose work inspires you?

I often say I write science fiction for people who don’t think they read science fiction, and that’s what I like to read as well. My favorite speculative fiction considers possible futures while remembering that the science should be in service of the story, not the other way around. Margaret Atwood is a master of this, whether the primary focus is political, as in the The Handmaid’s Tale, or our bioengineered world, as in her MaddAddam series. Station 11 by Emily St. John Mandel is another example of speculative fiction that crosses genres: dystopian with a lush, literary feel.

I’ve always read across genres, and all over the map: Ray Bradbury, Alice Munro, ZZ Packer, Barbara Kingsolver, Ursula le Guin, Mitchell S. Jackson, Octavia Butler, Joyce Carol Oates. I went through a big John Irving phase, and Christopher Buckley’s always good for a laugh. Hitchhiker’s Guide was huge for me, naturally, and I read all the books in the series.

And I’ve found wonderful additions to my reading list by going to local readings. I encourage folks to support their local authors, not just the big names, because there’s a lot of talent on the ground. I think at last count there were approximately eleventy-billion amazing writers in the DC-metro area.

What books do you recommend to writers interested in exploring flash? 

Reading lots of flash and finding stories that make you shiver is the best way to go. There are lots of journals available online, mostly free, so enjoy! Of course, I have to start with Barrelhouse (full disclosure, I’m a fiction editor there). But there’s also (b)OINK, Brevity, CHEAP POP, Cotton Xenomorph, Ellipsis Zine, Every Day Fiction, Flash Fiction Online, Heavy Feather Review, Jellyfish Review, jmww, Journal of Compressed Creative Arts, KYSO Flash, Literary Orphans, Lost Balloon, Matchbook, PANK, SmokeLong Quarterly, Spelk, Split Lip, Tin House, Vestal Review, WhiskeyPaper, and Wigleaf. And then there are the compilations like Best Small Fictions, Wigleaf 50, and Best of the Net (this last one isn’t restricted to flash).

I always hesitate to single out individual authors, because I know I’ll remember dozens more I should have added once the thing goes to print. But I will mention some contemporary writers whose stories I’ve taught in flash courses: Amber Sparks, Rion Amilcar Scott, Kathy Fish, Jan Elman Stout, Kathryn Kulpa, Brynn MacNabb, Christopher Gonzalez, Tyrese Coleman, Tessa Yang, Dorothy Bendel, Cathy Ulrich, Jennifer Young, Megan Giddings, Ben Loory, Miranda Stone, and Virgie Townsend.

What are you working on these days? Any new projects on the horizon? 

My eternal book project still looms large: a historical novel about a “troupe” of Ashanti (now Ghana) on an ethnographic tour to Vienna, Austria in the late 19th century. I came across an Austrian author’s account of this exhibit while working on my MA in German, and I couldn’t believe what I was reading. These ethnographic exhibitions, in which human beings were put on display, sound more like an episode of The Twilight Zone than history. But they actually happened, often taking place in zoos. I wanted to know more, and particularly from the perspective of the people on display. This project a bit of a departure from anything I’ve done before, but the story so captivated me, I have to keep chipping away at it.

Wednesday, November 7, 2018

An Interview with Nan Kilmer Baker, author of NAKED JOY

By Tessa Wild, TWC Front Desk Associate

Tessa: Why did you decide to write NAKED JOY?

Nan: Born with a passion for writing, I had written stories for years about people, places and events around the world that intrigued me. Most of these wound up in a large dress box under my bed. Bolstered by the confidence and skills acquired through writing courses taken over the years, I eventually assembled those earlier works, along with some newer, into a collection of essays. My book, NAKED JOY, Confessions of a Skittish Catholic from Idaho, was published in July, 2017. 

Tessa: How did your time at TWC impact your writing?

Nan: The courses I have taken at TWC over the past fifteen years have inspired me to continue writing, polishing previous work, honing my skills, and above all, refusing to give up. Experienced instructors/authors along with fellow classmates provided invaluable feedback. They offered both the praise and criticism I needed to refine my manuscript into a book worthy of publication.

Tessa: What kind of impact are you hoping your book will have on the world?

Nan: While I doubt NAKED JOY will have much of an impact on the world, I do hope my writing resonates with readers on a personal level. Reviews thus far, from men and women alike, have expressed an appreciation of my writer’s voice, describing often mundane occurrences in life with compassion, humility, and a droll sense of humor. I’d also like to believe I have put my Podunk little town of Nampa on the map for readers, by sharing a little of “My Own Private Idaho.” Despite being born and bred in this small western town, I have been fortunate to have traveled the world, called nearly a dozen locations home, and lived to write about my adventures before I’m too old to remember…

Tessa: What is the most difficult part of your artistic process?

Nan: Without doubt, the most difficult part of the artistic process for me is the sharing of deeply personal, sometimes painful events with my readers, many complete strangers. An introverted, private, highly sensitive woman, I had to overcome this obstacle in my attempt to write honest, factual, believable stories.

Tessa: Did publishing your book change your writing process?

Nan: Publishing my book only changed my writing process in that I now have more confidence in myself. For years I could push my work aside and listen to that gnawing voice inside my head—“Face it. You are never going to be published. Give up!” This excuse is no longer valid. And it doesn’t hurt that sales have exceeded my expectations.

Tessa: What are you working on now? 

Nan: I am currently working on writing a book about writing a book. After a decade of toil and countless rejections, I believe I have a story of interest for both writers and readers. I like to say “everything in the publication process that CAN go wrong, DID go wrong for me.” From shady agents, to lost submissions to computer catastrophes, I experienced some of the worst. But the highs made up for the lowest of lows and I survived. All should make for an enlightening, astounding, sometimes humorous, often infuriating, first-hand account of the world of publishing.
Tessa: Do you have any advice for aspiring writers?

Nan: Here is my advice for na├»ve, aspiring writers like myself a short time ago.  Besides the usual “don’t give up, develop a thick skin, believe in yourself,” etc., I might add—“BEWARE!” There are many “publishing experts” out there eager to help you in your quest to publish your work. And they will find you and contact you and entice you with promises for success. And they will want to charge you incredible fees with NO guarantees. These people seem to prey upon indie writers trying to make it on their own. I am not saying there aren’t some who are reputable and honest and able to help. But the money most are demanding is difficult to justify and their success rates highly questionable. With some effort and time, most writers can do for themselves what these professionals are promising. A writer and not a business person, I found myself learning more about marketing and publishing than I ever wanted to know, but my hard work paid off in the end.

Tessa: Is there anything else you'd like to share?

Nan: Not to boast, but my cousin’s grandfatherthat would be my father’s sister’s husband’s father—helped invent the TATER TOT. And who doesn’t love these frozen Ore-Ida gems?


Nan Kilmer Baker hails from Idaho, the “Famous Potato” state, where she began writing as a young girl and never looked back—moving from diary entries to ghost writing term papers to copy writing. NAKED JOY is her first book, but in her dependably quirky blog she has been musing for years about topics as diverse as Mr. Clean, travel, toilets, butter and stain removal. Nan is the mother of two young adults. Having lived abroad for years, she currently resides in Northern Virginia with her husband—and other treasures she collected during her travels.