The Short of It: An Interview with Siân Griffiths by Jeffrey Condran

Siân Griffiths lives in Ogden, Utah, where she teaches creative writing at Weber State University. Her work has appeared in The Georgia Review, Prairie Schooner, Cincinnati Review, and Booth among other publications. She is the author of the novels Borrowed Horses and Scrapple and the short fiction chapbook The Heart Keeps Faulty Time. Currently, she reads fiction as part of the editorial teams at Barrelhouse and American Short Fiction. For more information, please visit sbgriffiths.com

Jeffrey Condran: This new chapbook is a combination of flash pieces and slightly longer stories. Flash fiction has seen a considerable rise in interest over the last decade, now supporting at least three prize anthologies, including Best Micro Fiction 2020, in which your story “An Imaginary Number” appeared. How do you understand the appeal of this form?

Siân Griffiths: Flash is something that I’ve really grappled with. I had never heard of micro or flash fiction when I started grad school in 2000, but my mentor, Judith Ortiz Cofer, was a huge proponent. Her emphasis on compression was really good for me—I needed to get rid of a lot of dead weight in my sentences, and I was drawn to how the form invited lyricism and vivid imagery, but most of my early attempts were pure garbage. For a long time, I didn’t really understand how flash worked, especially the question of how to end so short a story. If I wrote a successful piece, it seemed like happenstance. A few years ago, I heard Pam Houston say that, in flash, the conflict need not resolve but the image has to resolve, and the more I’ve turned that idea over in my mind, the more I’ve come to agree with it. This may be the key to its appeal. Life is chaotic and crisis-riddled, and suggesting that we can fix this can feel false. Flash can serve up little slivers of life, and rather than trying to resolve its crises, focuses on one image, allowing it to evolve into something newly perceived.

JC: You include a note in the acknowledgements discussing the role played by writing prompts in the drafting of “The Key Bearer’s Parents.” Are prompts a regular part of your writing process?

SG: Often yes, but not always. “The Key Bearer’s Parents” was more prompt-driven than anything else I’ve ever done, since it combined several prompts at once. Part of the fun of writing it was to see how to intertwine ideas that didn’t seem, at first, like they belonged together. Mostly, I’m a magpie when I write, collecting fragments and ideas from my life and putting them together to make some other thing, but prompts are great for pushing the mind sideways and getting me away from my default modes. When I teach, I often include what I call “Quick Fire Challenges,” inspired by one of the cooking competition shows I used to watch. In the first few weeks, I bring in prompts, offering a couple to a class per session, and we all write together for five to ten minutes before doing whatever else we’re scheduled to do. After the first few weeks, the students bring in prompts instead, and some of them really push me outside my norms. “You Were Raised by a Dragon. What Was It Like?” was one of those student prompts. At first, I thought, not my genre, man, but not writing would have violated the rules of the game.

JC: “You Were Raised by a Dragon. What Was It Like?” asks the reader through a series of interrogative questions to imagine a childhood with a dragon. “Did she encourage you to take candy from strangers? How about meth?” There is a weird comedy here, but also, the story seems to suggest, a stereotype—one that is later broken when the reader is asked to share in the fear of knights and their lances. The result is a sudden and unexpected empathy. What did you hope the reader would see in this intimate look at a dragon’s life?

SG: I was in such a punk mood when I wrote this one, and I think I started with this idea of being really flip and interrogating the prompt, but the questions evolved as I wrote, becoming more sincere and genuine. My mother was a social worker in child protective services, and I started to wonder if a dragon mother would be a bad, abusive parent, or whether she was something different, a mother who wants to breathe toughness into her child, knowing the dangers that are coming for them. Thinking of the dragon as female also made me start to question the role of the knight, and whether he is as really good as his casting suggests, and so the questions take a few jabs at the patriarchal biases inherent in the myth. I really like the energy the questions-only form created. I don’t know if you ever watched Kids in the Hall, but Bruce McCulloch created a sketch in which he played an annoying kid who asked obnoxious questions, and it still makes me laugh. I think I may have channeled a little bit of that in the form.

JC: “Slippers” is my favorite story in the book. It envisions the life of a somewhat fastidious, middle-aged romance novelist—a man—who is dealing with writer’s block. The climax of the story is a kind of meta-commentary on the creative process and a genuine act of sympathy. Can you talk the ideas you found to be at stake here?

SG: I’m so glad that’s your favorite! Another reader said that to me as well, and it makes me happy. This is another story that started from a prompt. (I want to say this is from Aimee Bender, but I may be misremembering.) The prompt asks writers list five things about which they are an expert and then to write about that expertise from the point of view of a character who is unlike ourselves in some major way. I claimed that I was an expert in choosing a pair of slippers, so my story spooled out from there—or, more accurately, from a moment of failure in my male character’s expertise that’s revealed when his slippers become prematurely holey. The writer’s failure on the slipper front instigates a failure on the creative front because how on earth can you write with a hole in your toe? His sour mood creates a feeling of disdain for his work and his readers, but as he leaves his desk and starts talking to people, the mood shifts and lifts. Romance novels focus on a kind of epic ideal of love that I don’t trust. I am more interested in the small, seemingly inconsequential, everyday love we can feel in person-to-person interactions, even with relative strangers.

JC: “Clockwork Girl at the Opera” is set in a fin de siècle London and is narrated by a kind of steam punk “mechanical woman” who is attending the opera with her owner. It’s a tremendously affecting story in many ways. What was the impetus to tell the story from the POV of this particular narrator?

SG: I’m realizing as we talk that this whole book may be prompt-driven. This one came from the writer Kirsten Kaschock, who posted these creepy little gifs for writers to respond to. One was of a veiled woman super imposed with clockwork, hence the clockwork girl. I really like the aesthetics of steam punk, and Victorian literature was one of my areas of specialization for my PhD. Part of what draws me to both are the problematic depictions of women. The culture at large saw women in a servile, supportive, highly sexualized role that I would argue downplayed their autonomy and humanity. Telling this story from the clockwork girl’s point of view allowed me to lean even harder on that idea of diminished personhood, while also revealing her to be thoughtful, curious, and complex.

JC: This chapbook and a recent novel were published this year. What’s next for Siân Griffiths?

SG: Oh lord. I’m a mess. I’ve always got too many irons in the fire. Right now, I’m mostly focused on finishing up the manuscript for an essay collection, tentatively titled The Sum of Her Parts, and I’m working on my third novel, which follows a woman competing in the Mongol Derby, the world’s longest, toughest horse race. On the back burner, I’m also revising a feature-length screenplay about Boudica, an Iron-age Celt who led a revolt against the Romans, and very slowly and haphazardly writing more longer short stories that I hope will be a part of a full-length story collection.

Jeffrey Condran is author of the recent story collection, Claire, Wading Into the Danube By Night. His fiction has appeared in journals such as The Kenyon ReviewThe Missouri Review, and Epoch, and has been awarded the The Missouri Review’s 2010 William Peden Prize and Pushcart Prize nominations.  He is an Associate Professor of Creative Writing at the University of Arkansas at Little Rock and co-founder/publisher of the independent literary press, Braddock Avenue Books.

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