Kim Chinquee is the author of OH BABY (Ravenna Press) and PRETTY (White Pine Press). She also is the recipient of a Pushcart Prize and lives in Buffalo, New York. In today’s jmwwblog, she talks with author Dylan Landis about her new flash collection, PRETTY.
The linked story-shards in PRETTY are pretty the way a dropped razor blade glints at a baby: compact, alluring, dangerous. Chinquee’s subject, a woman named Elle, grows up with a sexually menacing father, is raped as a teenager, joins the military, marries, has a son. One page might contain a night or a long stretch of time, while shocks and crises are compressed to a sentence. A former Air Force medical technician, Chinquee hones her aerodynamic stories mercilessly—and keeps finessing her work, says Matt Bell, editor of The Collagist, long after it’s accepted. Famously prolific, she’s finished a novel-in-flashes, BATTLE DRESS, and is revising a third flash collection, I AM DOING SO WELL.
Chinquee is a long-distance runner, which also makes one think of lean—yet the queen of flash has written long: she’s sent a full-length novel, You Look Nice, to her agent, and is seeking a publisher for Shot Girls and Other Stories. She teaches English and creative writing at Buffalo State College. Her son drew the bitten cherry on the cover of PRETTY.
Dylan Landis: What’s your process for pieces that may be less than half a page: do you write long and keep cutting, like liberating and reeling in a kite? Or does the piece stay short as you work? Do you know from the start how short is short?
Kim Chinquee: I usually write small and get smaller. I never know how short a piece will be. Sometimes the piece actually ends before it physically ends, and I don’t realize that until revision. Rarely, when I write a first draft, is a story longer than a page.
DL: So it’s not a distillation of a longer piece. Sometimes, reading, I felt like an eavesdropper, riveted by the characters’ loaded conversation—and then it ends while it’s still intense. What makes a powerful flash?
KC: I think flash is about sound and rhythm, image and conflict, all wrapped up in one.
DL: Robert Olen Butler’s blurb of PRETTY says: “Kim Chinquee works the flash fiction form in much the same way that Raymond Carver worked somewhat longer story forms: with a stunningly complex simplicity.” But the cover of PRETTY refers to a poetry series. And I’m wondering about flash memoir: Both you and the first-person narrator were medical technicians in the Air Force. Tell us what we’re talking about.
KC: Oh, it’s definitely fiction. I use some of my own experiences and weave them into stories.
DL: Pia Z. Ehrhardt talks about “load-bearing sentences” in her writing. I call them pivot points: lines that carry much of a story’s emotional weight and around which something shifts. How do you arrive at these sentences? Can you have a successful flash without one?
KC: I guess I don’t think much about load-bearing sentences as I’m writing them. Sometimes they appear, I suppose, but they seem random to me. Maybe I build up to one as I’m writing, and perhaps to me they fall at the end. I definitely think that pieces without them tend to be dull, and limp.
DL: You once said, in an elimae interview, that you love the density of Faulkner’s AS I LAY DYING. I see density as inextricable from airspace in your work. Here’s part of “Twister,” in which a couple hides from a storm in their basement, a place of cobwebs and boxes, including one…
…filled with letters that he’d told her about one night before he left to bury his father. They were in his language, and she would never understand them. He’d been crying, saying sorry, but she said it was all right then.
DL: He asks if she loves him. She answers, “Honey.” The piece is just 11 lines.
What might a powerful piece of flash fiction lose if the writer kept spinning it out, for backstory or closure? Would the density dissolve?
KC: I don’t think backstory is so important in flash fiction. Maybe backstory can appear through an image, or through another sensory detail, but just a hint is enough. I believe a reader must work harder in interpreting flash, filling in those gaps with his or her own experiences.
DL: The story “Rain” is full of invitations to the reader. Its first-person narrator is spellbinding in her brevity, especially with dialogue. Here’s the entire second half of Part I of “Rain,” where she’s babysitting three girls, the windows are jammed open, and it storms.
At first I didn’t know which was worse, letting all this happen or calling home, in case I got my father. I called home. No one was there except him.
“The windows are stuck open,” I said to him. My voice was shaking.
“You want help?” he said. “Will you be nice?”‘
I held the baby in her diapers. When my father entered, the girls were still crying. Then I told them if they were good he wouldn’t hurt them.
“They’re pretty,” he said, touching their faces.
Then they got quiet. I put a blanket over them, and my father went from room to room and closed the windows. I looked at the moisture falling from his forehead. It thundered. He trembled.
DL: It seemed critical to me that the question “Will you be nice?” doesn’t get answered—you cut away from it. You do the same around “They’re pretty”—give it lots of airspace, so the awfulness just shimmers. Will you talk about that airspace?
KC: Thank you. The father asking if she’ll be nice implies a certain perversion. Or it could be playfulness, though based on the narrator’s implied fear, earlier in the piece, my hope is that the reader will see this as a threatening situation. Also, the uncertainty is a threat in itself. The airspace is for the reader to fill in the gaps, to draw his/her own interpretations based on what’s already been given.
DL: Is the collection about one woman, or three? The first-person narrator is raped in the title story, and flashes back to “a nightmare with my father.” (See “Rain,” above.) That girl later joins the Air Force and has a son. Braided in are third-person stories about “she” and “Elle.” Please talk about the woman—women?—in PRETTY.
KC: I think they’re versions of the same woman. Maybe how she sees herself, maybe how she wants to see herself, maybe how she thought she was once. In revision, I tried to make the protagonist more of an “agent,” less passive, more in control of her thoughts and actions. Perhaps those are the Elle stories.
DL: You’ve written a full-length novel, YOU LOOK NICE, and the long-story collection, SHOT GIRLS. How is that different? Is longer harder?
KC: I used to think longer was harder, but I’ve recently realized it’s not so much harder to me as it is different. Writing flashes to me are like sprinting: a lot of practice and training and fine-tuning. Longer to me is like marathon running. Lots of training, hard long runs, though not every run is a good one. Each requires a lot of hard work, but in a different way. I used to be a good sprinter, until I started running distance seriously. I think I’m a better flash fiction writer, since I started writing more flash.
DL: Your online flash fiction group uses one-word prompts. Can you share ten or twenty words that have proven powerful as prompts? Or doesn’t it work that way?
KC: We post five prompt words per day. Most of them random. I post my words on Fridays. I try to include a word or two based on sound, some on maybe a weird image or something. I don’t think there’s a magical formula. Sometimes they don’t get used at all, usually based on people’s lives, how busy they are and whether they’re writing that day or that week. My last bunch of words were: cheerio, cereal, zero, dime, hop. I tend to do better with other people’s words. The last bunch I used as prompts (from Avital Gad-Cykman) were: traction, monster, change, tulips, find. They’re really just words.
DL: Whose work has recently affected you powerfully, and why?
KC: Oh, Diane Williams, Lydia Davis, Mary Robison. The brevity of their work, and their efficiency of language. I read as much of them as possible; I admire these women so much.
DL: Near the end of PRETTY I wanted to make a found poem from your last lines:
I am so close I can touch his tattoos.
She took it and aimed.
She tried to be strong, holding the door shut.
I closed my eyes, and I clung onto their father’s black jacket.
Usually the father went first.
She closed her eyes and waited to burn.
DL: Where do you like to leave the character, or the reader? Do you know when to stop, or do you back up and cut to find an unsettling place to leave off?
KC: I struggle most with endings. I feel that endings are most vital. It’s essentially what the reader is left with. Many of these endings were since revised, but it was too late for the changes, since the book had already been typeset. I’m probably happiest with “I am so close I can touch his tattoos,” which I think speaks for the piece, as she isn’t “too” close, that the tattoos imply a certain daring-ness, that the boy is not quite a boy. I like to leave the reader with a picture, an image, and it’s also to me very much about sound and rhythm, like the end of a song.