What’s Unsaid: An Interview with Lydia Gwyn Interview by Curtis Smith

Lydia Gwyn’s stories and poems have appeared or are forthcoming in F(r)iction, The Sublunary Review, Entropy, Bending Genres, The Florida Review, The Journal of Compressed Creative Arts, Elm Leaves Journal, Appalachian Heritage, and elsewhere. She is the author of two books of flash fiction: You’ll Never Find Another (2021, Matter Press) and Tiny Doors (2018, Another New Calligraphy). She lives in East Tennessee with her family and works as an instruction librarian at East Tennessee State University.

Curtis Smith: Congratulations on You’ll Never Find Another. I really enjoyed it. I’m always interested in a collection’s journey, especially in the indie-press world. I’m a big fan of Matter, your publisher—can you tell us how you landed with them? In looking over your acknowledgment page, I’m seeing some places I used to love but which are now sadly defunct—so I’m guessing parts of this collection must be ten years old or so. If that’s the case, can you address these pieces—did returning to them surprise you in any way?

Lydia Gwyn: Thanks, Curtis! I’m a big fan of Matter as well. Over the years, I’ve published several stories with them in their Journal of Compressed Creative Arts. I’ve also purchased a few of their books and loved the look and feel of them. Kathy Fish’s book Wild Life is a great example of Matter Press at its finest. It is a stunning book both in terms of the content—her gorgeous stories—and the physical book itself with the cover design, the font, and the paper used.

I actually had Matter Press in mind as I worked on the stories in You’ll Never Find Another. I wrote the bulk of that book during 2020, while I was working remotely from home. As soon as I realized the stories were shaping themselves into a new collection, I began thinking of a press that might make a good home for it. Matter Press was number one on my list. As I was working on edits of the book and preparing to send it around to publishers, Randall Brown of Matter reached out to me and expressed interest in publishing a collection of my stories. I spent about a week tidying up what I had and sent it out to him. From the beginning it felt like my book was meant to be with them.

You’re right about certain stories in this collection being older. These older stories were originally part of my first book, Tiny Doors, but they ended up not making it into the final collection for thematic reasons. The stories in Tiny Doors mostly deal with childhood, and these older stories were about marriage and relationships. However, the older stories were also stories I loved, and as you mentioned, they were published in now defunct journals and hadn’t seen the light of day in years. I wanted them to have an audience again. I didn’t feel they were done being read. When I started putting together You’ll Never Find Another, I found they fit in beautifully with many of the new stories I’d written.

 CS: This is your second collection of flash fiction. Was the process different this time? If so, how?

LG: Both the writing and publishing processes were different with each collection. With my first collection, Tiny Doors, I didn’t sit down to write a book. Instead, I compiled a manuscript of stories I’d written over the years. About half the collection was made up of stories written between 2008 and 2010, and the rest of the collection were newer stories written within a couple of years of the book’s publication.

With the second collection, I knew I was writing a book fairly early on. Aside from those older stories I’d cut from Tiny Doors, most of the stories were written within a few months of each other.

When it came to publishing, the process was different with each book as well. First, let me say the publishing process with both presses was wonderful. Both are small, indie presses, and I felt I had a lot of creative control throughout each process. The process with Matter was a bit different than with ANC in a few ways.

First, Matter has an in-house artist, Roma Narkhede. Roma called me up one day to chat about the book and its themes before coming up with a few cover designs. I picked the one I liked best and we worked on fine-tuning the font and the colors. She was an absolute pleasure to work with. At ANC, editor Bill Ripley is also the artist behind all their amazing covers. For Tiny Doors, I worked exclusively with Bill throughout the entire process.

Another big difference was in the collection length. With ANC there were length limits on the collection, which wasn’t necessarily a bad thing. It simply meant I had to pare my collection down to less than 70 pages, which is how I ended up focusing on the stories of childhood in

Tiny Doors. Together, Bill and I shaped a smaller, but more cohesive, book out of the longer manuscript I sent him. With Matter, there were no length limitations. My book could be as long or as short as I wanted, which meant I could include some of the stories that didn’t make it into Tiny Doors.

Additionally, Matter has slightly larger distribution. My book is available from the publisher as well as on Amazon.

CS: I admired many things here—and two that struck me the most were the use of surprising details and the manner in which you often left things unsaid. I strive for this in my work, and I was wondering how this fits into your process. Do these things come to you in revision? Or are they part of a story’s origins?

LG: I feel like leaving things unsaid is very often one of the hallmarks of good flash. At least, it’s one of the thing I love most when I read flash. I love hinting at something but not fully disclosing it. This allows the reader do some of the work by filling in the blanks on their own. When I’m reading a story, I know the author has her hooks in me when I reread sentences looking for clues. To me—looking for those clues and finding that I have to interpret some things on my own are signs of a good story. This is something that tends to be second nature for me probably because I’ve spent so many years writing and reading flash and poetry. Poetry often employs this device, and even though I write more fiction than poetry, I read more poetry than fiction, and it definitely has a major influence on my writing.

Leaving things unsaid is generally part of the story’s origins for me. If I see that I’ve done a little too much work for the reader, over-explained here or provided too much backstory there, I’ll cut those parts out.

CS: Was it always flash for you? Or did you start with longer forms and discover flash? Do you sometimes start a long piece then realize it’s better as a flash—or vice-versa?

LG: It was definitely not always flash for me. I started out writing traditional short stories with the hope of learning to write novels. I majored in Creative Writing with both my bachelor’s and master’s degrees, and the focus there was always on longer forms—specifically the traditional short story.

However, at some point in grad school some of us began writing flash, reading flash and having conversations about it. This was back in 2002. Flash had been around for a long while at that point, but it still wasn’t the focus in any creative writing program I attended. I went to University of Southern Mississippi and studied with Frederick and Steve Barthelme along with Mary Robison (whose story “Yours” was the first flash I ever read). Kim Chinquee was a student there with me at the time, and she had begun to write and publish her first flash pieces. I remember reading them and falling in-love with the form (and her work in particular). I purchased a copy of the classic flash compilation—Sudden Fiction and began reading as much flash as I could, both online and in print.

In one of Rick Barthelme’s workshops we spent a couple of weeks writing flashes just for fun, and out of that workshop came the very first flash piece I ever published. Once I found flash, I never looked back, and it’s been flash all the time since then. I actually have a very hard time writing longer forms, even when I want to. It’s hard to turn off those impulses specific to writing in such an abbreviated form. At this point, my brain feels hard-wired to writing flash.

Gywn book cover CS: Another element I admired was the tone of these pieces—they were both dreamy and urgent. I want to ask about tone—and how conscious you are of it as you work on your early drafts. Many of the elements I associate with tone—such as rhythm and word choice—often come to me later in the process, and I was wondering how it works for you.

LG: That’s interesting that tone comes later to you. I wonder if that’s the case for most writers. For me, tone is almost always there from the very beginning. In fact, I often have to hear or find the tone of a piece before I can find the story. I believe this comes from years and years of reading poetry. I’ve been reading poetry daily since the fourth grade, when my dad bought me a copy of Leaves of Grass. Reading poetry is usually how I begin my mornings and sometimes end my nights. So, rhythm, tone, and word choice are there for me from the beginning. Only sometimes will I need to go back in and edit for rhythm or tone. I’ll read my stories aloud and if something feels off, I’ll cut it or add to it as the case by be.

 CS: Point of view is also another element a writer has to work with—and a few of your pieces had an interesting point of view—a first-person addressing a second-person. I’m wondering where in the process does the proper point of view strike you? Do you sometimes write in one pov only to switch it? What sort of criteria influence your point-of-view decisions?

LG: Point of view is another element that’s usually there from the beginning, especially when it comes to a first-person addressing a second-person. For years in my pieces, I’ve been addressing my brother, who died by suicide when he was 16. I found addressing him directly—making him the “you” of the story—felt more authentic, more immediate—than it would have had I made him a character in third person (though I’ve done this a few times as well). Lately, I’ve been addressing my husband in pieces as I write about marriage. I would say a lot of my work is mostly a hybrid of fiction and memoir. If I find myself writing a memoirish piece, it will often have this pov of a first-person addressing a second-person, and I know it from the beginning. It comes out that way naturally. In fact, I sometimes find I lean on that pov too much; it feels comfortable and easy for me. There have been times when I’ve written a piece with a first-person addressing a second-person only to realize in the revision process the story really needs to be in third person, but that doesn’t happen too often. If I want the reader to feel a sense of immediacy, a direct emotional link to the speaker of the story or even to the “you” of the story, I’ll usually write in first-person and address a second-person. Again, this may be another instance of poetic influence. This point of view is so common in poetry.

 CS: How do your ideas come to you? An image? An overheard snippet? The imagining of a strange situation? Once you get an idea, do you run with it immediately—or do you have a notebook and let the ideas kick around for a bit?

LG: I’m glad you asked this question because it segues nicely into what I was about to touch on with the previous question. Most of my ideas come from freewriting. During the work-week, I wake at 5am to write before heading in to work. I always begin my day with 20-30 minutes of freewriting. I keep a notebook, where I do all of my freewriting by hand. Most of the time I keep a book of poetry handy as well, sometimes a book of short stories or even a literary journal, and I’ll flip through it very quickly, glancing through a blur of pages and trying to pick out words here and there. It helps that it’s 5am, and I’m not fully awake. I’ll start by grabbing whatever word my eyes pick up and start writing them down. This will act as prompt words for me and usually generate an image, a phrase, or an idea. Then I’ll begin freewriting with the words I’ve found. Most of the time what I write in those sessions is complete nonsense, but it serves as a way to allow me to play, to relax, and to have fun, without putting any pressure on myself myself. When I’m enjoying my work, the ideas come more easily. Once I’m done freewriting, I type the whole mess up into a Google doc. I usually find I have a kernel of a story, a sentence, or an idea to work with. The act of typing up my freewriting also helps me to begin to organize the bits and pieces into something coherent—sometimes it’s the seed of a story. I’m also lucky enough to be a member of Kim Chinquee’s writing group, Hot Pants. In that group, five prompt words along with a first sentence are posted almost daily. Many times, I’ll freewrite with Hot Pants prompt words and see what develops.

 CS: There are forty-five pieces in this collection—and they’re arranged in four sections. Can you discuss the thought process that went into shaping the collection?

LG: I struggled with how to order this book. With my first book, all the pieces fit into a nice, neat theme, and I could order them like a good mixed tape—starting off with the strongest piece, followed by the next strongest piece and so on. However, with this collection there were stories that didn’t pair with each other thematically, and there were stories from many different points of view, including ten purely-fictional stories written in third–person that didn’t blend well with my more personal hybrid pieces, all of which were written in first-person. The idea of arranging these into sections—like mini books—made sense to me. Again, many books of poetry are organized this way, and I liked the tidiness of that arrangement, so I placed the stories written from an adult, first-person pov in the first section of the book, followed by a section of stories written from a childlike, first-person pov. Section III contains stories written in third-person straight-up fiction with no crossover from my own life.  The last section of stories is written in first-person but with a very different narrator than the stories in sections I and II. Section IV stories have a young adult—college-age—narrator.

 CS: What’s next?

LG: I’m working on a third book of flash fiction now, and I’m about three-quarters of the way done with it. As terrible as this pandemic has been, it’s been an unexpected blessing to me as far as writing goes. Working from home, as I did from March 2020 – July 2021 meant I had an hour and a half of extra writing time in the morning. When you don’t have to get ready for work or make the commute into another town, as I had been doing each morning, you find more time in your day. For all those months I woke at 5 am and wrote until 8 am, and I got one and half books out of it. Currently, I’m working on writing the next few stories in my new collection and will probably start looking for a home for it at the end of this year. I just finished reading Mary Karr’s book The Art of Memoir, which is one of the best books on writing I’ve ever read, and I’m re-reading Tobias Wolff’s This Boy’s Life. Memoir is a genre I’ve been slightly obsessed with for the past few years and one I’d like to experiment with a little more. I have big dreams of writing a long-form memoir or hybrid memoir and maybe taking a few workshops to help me with this.

 

 

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