Sherrie Flick: Exploring the Spaces In Between

S.FlickPicSherrie Flick knew at 16 she wanted to become a writer, but “I didn’t exactly know that that meant.” She left the small mill town in Pennsylvania where she grew up to attend the  University of New Hampshire “because I thought writers went to New England.” She earned a bachelor’s of arts in English literature before attending the University of Nebraska where she earned a master’s degree. Along the way, Flick learned exactly what it means to become a writer. She wrote an award-winning flash fiction chapbook, titled, I Call This Flirting, and stories published in numerous anthologies including Norton’s New Sudden Fiction: Short-Short Stories from America and Beyond and Flash Fiction Forward. Her stories have appeared in numerous literary magazines including Prairie Schooner, North American Review, Quarterly West, Puerto del Sol, Quick Fiction, and Freight Stories, among others, and she is the recipient of a Pennsylvania Council on the Arts Fellowship.

A freelance writer in Pittsburgh and the artist director of the Gist Street Reading series, Flick’s debut novel, Reconsidering Happiness, has recently been published by University of Nebraska Press. The critically praised novel explores the trajectory of two modern American women navigating through relationships, connections, misconnections, betrayals and the entire landscape of human emotions and conditions as Flick explores the spaces existing in between people who care about and for each other. Flick, who likes to garden and to cook and who writes a mini blog called “Sentences and Food,” came to Baltimore recently to participate in the 5:10 Readings. She and Rosalia Scalia discuss the novel and the writing life for jmww.

Rosalia Scalia: What was the spark for this book? Margaret and Vivette seem parallel in that they both are trying to find their best selves. Was it the notion of being lost or uncertain that intrigued you, or the characters themselves?

Sherrie Flick: I had been thinking about the notion of contentment for some time–how it’s so much more complex than it seems–how being content means different things at different stages in a person’s life. Another idea I was throwing around for bar conversation was: when does leaving get boring? When do people decide to stay in one place, make that place work–and why. All of this is tied into regret, of course. So those were the big ideas hovering over the book.

The character Vivette actually exists in a short story “Slow Fire Pistol” that was published in 2003 in Puerto del Sol. In the story she’s a different person, but she does pick up and leave for Des Moines. I decided to write her–Vivette’s story–more thoroughly. The characters of Robert and Susan are also in the story as well. I recently reread that story, and it was kind of cool to see the origins of the characters but also how they changed in novel form.

RS: What part did you write first?

SF: The first scene has always been Vivette getting in her car and going.  I wrote the book pretty much the way that it reads. I know that’s a little strange since it’s so nonlinear. I wrote the entire first draft of the novel in 4 weeks at an artist residency at the Ucross Foundation in Wyoming.

RS: In a way, this novel explores how women various women survive, thrive, or exist. There’s Vivette and Margaret, but there’s also Susan, whose seemingly perfect relationship is based on an illusion, Olivia who settles with Wesley in what appears to be a mutually beneficial deal, but who may perhaps have the most honest relationship of all, Gert, whose affair with a married man leaves her alone and older…..Vivette gets to see how various choices affect women’s lives. Was this  a conscious decision or happenstance?

SF: I think the novel explores many ways that people interact–in relationships and as friends. I mean, I didn’t sit down and say, “I need this kind of woman and this kind of woman and one of these too.” It was more that I was trying to accurately represent how a community is made up of many complex relationships that overlap in both predictable and surprising ways.

RS: How did you come to structure the book the way you did? Did you have to try out several structures first before you figured out the one that worked best?

SF: I actually wrote the book in its current non-linear structure. I’ve always experimented with time in my writing, and so this kind of fractured narrative wasn’t new to me. Instead, I felt comfortable piecing the story together through fragments of the characters’ pasts. I simply tried to replicate the way we remember things–in bits and pieces and never in an “if a then b” way.

Although I’m an organized person, I think non-linearly, so it wasn’t out of my safety zone to have a story that jumps from Vivette in Nebraska in 1994 to Margaret in San Francisco in 1992 to Vivette in New Hampshire to Margaret in New Hampshire. It became a very real world for me so I could wander through it. It also helped that I had four weeks of free time to work only on my creative project–no cooking, laundry, work, etc. I was able to get lost in the world I was creating, and I really only had to come out of it to eat dinner with the 7 other artists there, who were awesome and got super into the word count of the book and would ask each night at dinner where I was: 20,000 words, 40,000 words, etc.

Once I had the draft, I did the real work, cut a bunch of scenes and added new ones, enhanced characters worked on making everything more believable and complicated, but the basic structure remained the same–the first and last scenes, for instance.

RS: One of the things that struck me is how easily Vivette and Margaret became unmoored from their pasts, previous to showing up at the bakery. At the end, I felt astonished that both characters’ birth or original families didn’t matter that much to them or didn’t factor much into the story arc. Vivette has Grandpa Joe Joe but other than him, no close bonds with any other family members. Can you speak to this? I ask b/c this is a cultural contrast for me.

SF: I think part of what propels the people in this book out of their lives is the search for connection, the search for a kind of family that they maybe never had. In some ways, the women at the bakery serve this purpose, right? They’re like sisters to each other and the community. The groups of friends in Portsmouth are alternative families, too as well as the little household in San Francisco. I think when someone doesn’t quite fit in with their real family, she’ll put together a group that works as a surrogate. So we see some of that in Reconsidering Happiness.

There’s also a kind of loneliness that pervades the story, and I think that does result when there isn’t a supportive, robust family there to pick a person up again and again.

RS: Both Vivette and Margaret have been described as pioneering. Do you agree with that assessment?  Did you set out to write about pioneering women? (I didn’t see them as such, unless the pioneering is internal.)

SF: I do see them as contemporary pioneers–setting out to discover the unknown. It isn’t so much based on geography in this world any more. We know the U.S.–the boundaries and rivers and everything has names. But there’s the idea of leaving all that you know and setting out to discover what’s out there–setting out to discover yourself along the way.

RS: Time is one of the most difficult things to handle in fiction and you do it beautifully. Is this something with which you struggled? Or did the handling time come to you as a piece of cake while something else caused you to struggle?
SF: I’ve always loved to play with time in my stories–in particular the short-short stories I’ve written for years. I feel pretty comfortable free-floating time-wise in my fiction, taking that risk. And I love when it all works out, so thanks so much for saying I handled it beautifully!

For me the main struggle was getting the dialogue complex enough. In my first draft everyone got a long a little too well. I needed to add tension, create conflict in the relationships and this came mainly with crafting and re-crafting the dialogue–something that doesn’t come easily to me in the first place.

RS: Tell me about the male characters–Robert, Peter, Wesley. Which one do you like best and why?

SF: I don’t have a favorite. They all–all the characters in the book–seem so real to me now they seem like friends I’ve simply lost touch with. It’s kind of weird. Who would I like to hang out with right now? Peter because, yes, he’s the most grounded and the most mature. I think we could have a good time talking in the living room or at a bar and nothing would get too weird, although Wesley as an older person would be attentive and smart in conversation and would serve good food and wine. Robert. Not sure I’d want to hang out with Robert for too long one-on-one, but he’d be great at a party or any kind of group excursion.

RS: Did you find it more difficult creating male or female characters?

SF: I didn’t struggle with one over the other. For a while I couldn’t figure out what Susan’s secret was–and then one day when I was hiking in the morning at the residency, it came to me.

RS: When did you realize that Robert had hidden a lot of cheating and how did you decide to let Peter be the one to articulate it?

SF: The relationships were written organically. Robert became the cheater as I was writing the porch scene with all the beer drinking. In the original story published in Puerto del Sol, Susan is actually the one who cheats. Suddenly Vivette was the only one left and then I had her follow him inside to see what would happen next.

RS: Peter is my favorite because he seems wise and more solid than the others. Wesley is more likable as an older man than as a younger one.  But bottom line, they are all as confused and floundering as the women. Can you speak to that? Was that your intention? It surprised me that it ended from Wesley’s p.o.v. how did that decision come about?

SF: Yes, everyone is trying to figure out what to do. Everyone is flawed. The novel isn’t just about the women (although of course Margaret and Vivette are foregrounded in the story) but about the relationships that come together and fall apart and shape us in the present and future, for men and women. That was definitely intentional. I was trying to get the characters to be as rich and complex as possible. Confusion doesn’t break down over gender lines in real life, so I definitely didn’t want it breaking down that way in my book.

Some of the most emotional reactions that I’ve had to the book have been from men who see a bit of themselves in each of the male characters at different times in their lives.

It seemed natural to me to end the book from Wesley’s point of view. He is the character who ties everyone together. He’s also the person who keeps the circle of the bakery formed. He’ll always be a regular, right? He’ll be one of those old men one day. And he’s there with baby Nicole who will probably work at the bakery some day–or she could. I thought he best represented the cycle of small town life–how some people stay and others go and those that go still hang around like ghosts in the memories of those who have stayed put and vice versa.

RS: Tell me about your writing process—not the discipline part but how you come to a story. Do you outline? How did you keep track of all the characters? etc.

SF: No, I don’t outline. I do take little notes and write in my journal each morning before I write. Ideas, snippets of dialogue, something about a character that I eventually want to add. The pre-writing kind of helps with decluttering my brain.

In revision, I use a highlighter and write up little character studies of each person what they do and what they don’t do–decisions, physical attributes, everything. But this is in retrospect–sort of reporting on myself in a way. Then I make changes to characters who aren’t working or who need to be less predictable, etc.

I revise a lot. I feel like revision is the real part–where everything happens. I revise by hand, I revise on screen. It gets very messy. It’s hard for me to stop. I spent four years revising the draft and then it went through 3 more extensive revisions once it had been taken by UNPress. On a sentence level I’m sure every word of the book was changed at least once. I’m pretty obsessed with sentences.

RS: I was always afraid every time Vivette and Peter were left alone that they’d end up in bed, and yet the surprise is that Margaret is the one who kisses a strange man. Tell me about this.

SF: Yes, I wanted to create a very real tension between Vivette and Peter. But without anything amiss. There is a kind of ultimately harmless flirting that happens there. With Margaret, that scene was really hard to get right. Who starts the kiss? Why? How does it end? Where does it end? Margaret has lapsed far back into nostalgia at that moment–it’s like she’s in her past and not in the life she has now. Kissing the professor is a mistake for her, but it’s also what needed to happen once she gave him a ride.

RS: Olivia is an interesting character because she betrays Margaret and approaches the notion of marriage with Wesley as more or less an economic/business transaction. On the surface, Olivia and Wesley appear well-matched as they both come from monied families with expectations, but Wesley does truly seem to love Margaret, despite her less monied background and her more spontaneous approach to life.

SF: Olivia does use Margaret to get to Wesley, but she has been programmed, as Wesley has, to get what they want. And yes, they enter into a passionless marriage, but I think that monied people do that, marry to keep the momentum going, to keep living the life where they have things they want. They come from the same class. Their parents approve and both of them want what comes with that life. But there are sacrifices to be made: Wesley walks away from his passion with Margaret and he regrets it but he lives the life he wants. Olivia sacrifices location, agreeing to stay in a small town in New England when she had planned to go back to New York. There are many passionless marriages like this where there continues to be a certain distance between [spouses]  even though they have children and continue the cycle.

RS: The scene in the laundry mat—where Wesley talks about Margaret needing systems is a metaphor for that, almost.

SF: (Laughs.) I was so happy when I got that scene right. The dialogue was much longer because they talked about laundry and other things, and I cut a lot of it but wanted to keep the subtext. Later when Margaret tells Olivia about the laundry mat discussion, Olivia says, “That’s exactly what his father is like,” which connects Wesley back to his family and the expectations.

RS: Any advice to new writers?

SF: I struggled getting the first draft down. Once I had that part down, I felt relieved because I now had something to work with. The real work of writing comes in the revisions. I think every word in that book has been revised and changed. After that first draft was down, I was then able to go back and rework dialogue, add tension. Revise.

(Sherrie Flick will be reading Wednesday, November 4th, with Laura van den Berg, 7:30 pm, at Rosemont College, McShain Performing Arts Center, Rosemont College, 1400 Montgomery Avenue, Bryn Mawr, PA, as part of the Rosemont Reading Series. For more information, visit http://www.philadelphiastories.org/rosemont-reading-series)

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