A Conversation with Jennifer Fliss and Jennifer Todhunter

Cover of Best Small Fictions 2019 anthology
The Best Small Fictions 2019
Sonder Press, 2019 (427p)
ISBN: 978-0-9997501-5-5

Eight Longleaf Review contributors are included in the 2019 edition of the Best Small Fictions. This winter, editor-in-chief Kate Finegan conducted a series of four digital roundtables with them via email. In this final installment, Jennifer Fliss and Jennifer Todhunter discuss grief, parenting, resilience, and catharsis.

Longleaf Review: Both of your Best Small Fictions stories focus on grief and magnify physical details—blood and hair. How do you select meaningful details in writing flash fiction? Also, why are physical details so effective in writing about grief?

Jennifer Todhunter: Grief appears often in my writing. For me, grief is intangible—but it feels heavy and real like a thick wool blanket. Sometimes, I wish you could dress grief up in a nice jacket and take it out to supper to help explain away the sadness people show up with. Like, here is my grief, it will have the soup. And I think this is why physical details are so effective when writing about grief, because you’re assigning a physicality, a tangible-ness, to something that is otherwise impossible to see or understand. The details I worked into “The Menstrual Cycle of a Grieving Woman” (the blood, the hair), are meant to emphasize how the woman is grieving the loss of her husband, but also how she’s grieving the loss of her chance to have a family with him. Imagine losing someone just as you are starting a life with them, after you’ve been imagining what the children you make together will look and sound like. I think that’s an ultimate sadness. Typically, when writing short fiction, I try to find a few details that really amplify the intent of the story and let those carry it, rather than bogging something so small down with too many elements.

Sometimes, I wish you could dress grief up in a nice jacket and take it out to supper to help explain away the sadness people show up with.

Jennifer Fliss: I think most about grief in those everyday things. How do you reschedule the doctor’s appointments (or cancel them because, say, a loved one has passed away)? How do you wash the dishes? If you have a partner who dies, what’s it like doing the first load of laundry after that? The one that still has his or her socks and dirty pajamas in it? It is these moments that I often try to come to in my stories. And to Todhunter’s point: it’s tangible.

These moments of grief are universal, but they rarely get “screen-time.” We never think of the everyday: having your period during a funeral. It’s genius to write it, but it’s also so common in real life. Todhunter’s story gutted me not because the husband dies, but because she still has to go through the motions of a normal life.

JT: Jen, I noticed in “In My Sleep I am Wounded a Thousand Times” the narrator names one of the lice “Max”. In “The Menstrual Cycle of a Grieving Woman”, the narrator names her cramps “Rita”. Why do you think we as humans try to personalize things that cause us grief?

JF: I named the louse Max because it felt like such an indicator of loneliness. Who, under normal circumstances, would find a friend in a parasitic insect? Humans often need connection for meaning in life, and this was the way she was going to find it, despite the dire circumstances. She was going to give a human name to something inhuman.

From Todhunter’s story: what if? What would we do? Where would we find meaning IF we too were trying to process grief and fear in such an extreme situation? I “what if” all the time. We all do. To make choices, we have to weigh these things to try to make plans for life. And I think we name things because we want a human-like connection.

Your two stories work very much in tandem (this is something I love when I read several stories by the same author). Do you ever feel like one story is a continuation of another (or connected) to another of yours? As you write them? After the fact? Do you ever feel there is a parallel universe that exists solely of your created worlds? And if not, do you forget your characters after a story is published (or done)? For me it feels like “The Menstrual Cycle…” is almost the answer to “If the World Ends.” They’re in conversation with each other and with me as a reader and I feel a more very full and engaging experience having read both.

JT: I love this question, Jen. This is something I’ve often wondered when reading other people’s work, yours included—how much is intentionally connected and how much connects through the subconscious of a writer, particularly when stories aren’t obviously laid out in series. I didn’t set out with the intent of connecting my two pieces, but they’re connected anyway, aren’t they? I can totally see that, now—in terms of theme and the grief. And I think, perhaps, when an author’s stories connect in theme, that maybe it speaks to an underlying need to explore or navigate situations that have impacted, or continue to impact, the author, no matter how subtle. Certainly, within the last decade, loss and children and the whole What-If-Of-It-All have had an enormous influence on my work.

In the same vein, there is a connection between “Hineni” and “In My Sleep I am Wounded a Thousand Times” that is undeniable—in the Jewish culture, the lice, the cleansing, the embracing and grieving of other family members. I love that Longleaf published both these pieces. They feel destined to be together. Was there something left unexplored in “Hineni” that you felt compelled to explore in “In My Sleep I am Wounded a Thousand TImes”? Something that didn’t feel like it had been put to bed yet, so to speak? Both pieces border on the brink of sleep, those thoughts that plague us when we’re almost surrendering. In “In My Sleep I am Wounded a Thousand TImes”, there is a gray area between sleep and reality and I wondered what, if anything, this gray area helped you explore that you couldn’t otherwise explore in “Hineni”. 

Ever since I first read “Hineni”, I have been in love with and enamoured with its meaning. The concept is so powerful, the notion of reminding yourself that you are here. And so easy for us to lose sight of. I feel like both of your pieces really showcase this push and pull—the fact that we’re HERE and we often forget it. What compelled you to write “Hineni” and what did you hope your readers would take away from it?

JF: “In My Sleep I am Wounded a Thousand Times” was written first. My sleep is impossibly bad and I am filled with anxiety at night that doesn’t dare show its head in the light of day. I have always been aware of the what happens when it happens again in relation to Jews. Many of us have lived waiting for that other shoe to drop. And now that it has dropped, the shape of antisemitism is new and I’m trying to figure out how to get on with my life despite my fears for my family, and primarily my daughter. “Hineni” took that idea further and the lice just (apparently these are closely related in my mind; I just wrote a nonfiction piece about lice and Jewish stuff too!) came into the story organically.

As I’ve aged, I’ve gotten much more connected to my being Jewish. It might be because I’m a mom now, it might be because antisemitism has gotten louder; I’m not sure. But it’s something I think about all the time. As far as I’m concerned, any Jewish person alive today is practically a miracle. There have been thousands of years of attempts to wipe us out and yet, we survived. I feel a responsibility to my ancestors for that and at the same time find so much beauty in Jewish traditions and ethics. Tikkun Olam: to fix the world. Tzedakah: giving to charity and social justice. Teshuvah: repentance, the righting of wrongs. These are things so embedded in Jewish culture and are driving forces in how I write, how I live, and how I parent.

There have been thousands of years of attempts to wipe us out and yet, we survived. I feel a responsibility to my ancestors for that and at the same time find so much beauty in Jewish traditions and ethics.

I find every other aspect of life snapped into sharper focus once I became a parent. Your stories are alive with family—parenthood, childhood, partnership—and the loss of those things.

“She does not care for her parents, and they do not care for her.” This line stood out to me in your amazing Lost Balloon story, “Nualla to the Nth Degree“. It’s a simple sentence with so much behind it. It’s kind of devastating if you really think about it. If this were said about my own daughter, I’d be shattered. I find stories take on more weight—as a reader and writer—now that I’m a mother.

How did becoming a parent inform your own writing? Did it? I have heard many times how creativity and writing is cut off once someone becomes a parent. Logistically, there’s a certain sense to this. But I began really writing once I had my daughter, so filled with fear and emotions, writing as my outlet was IT for me. What about you?

I find stories take on more weight—as a reader and writer—now that I’m a mother.

JT: This sentiment in your last response: “I feel a responsibility to my ancestors for that and at the same time find so much beauty in Jewish traditions and ethics.” Your Longleaf pieces are alive with it; the push and pull between beauty and survival and despair. It is an education for me, and one I will come back for anytime you revisit it in your writing. As a parent, I understand the anxiety that surrounds raising children in today’s world, with the uncertainty and hate, and can only imagine how being Jewish amplifies those feelings—experiencing the antisemitism, the fear of what it means for your children, your past, their future. I admire your ability to create something tangible out of these feelings—a tangibility like what we were talking about with grief—and to provide something for your children to read and reflect on when they’re older that truly embodies their culture and your fears. It’s a brilliant point of focus.

Like you, I also really started writing after having kids. Having kids slowed me down, made me examine and consider the fears and anxieties coming to surface, knowing another life was dependent on mine. So much feels out of our control, despite our intentions to provide the very best life we can for these little creatures. I often find myself thinking and writing about worst possible outcomes, like the collapse of Nualla’s relationship with her parents in my Lost Balloon story, and I allow myself this because I hope it will help me with the grief that follows if any of these things actually occur (I know it probably won’t). It’s a coping mechanism, a way to try and get ahead of what’s coming. 

Having kids slowed me down, made me examine and consider the fears and anxieties coming to surface, knowing another life was dependent on mine.

I’ve read your brilliant, gutting essay “The Day I Told My Father to Shoot Himself” (Narratively) a number of times since it was published. And in reading your work since, have recognized your exploration of parental relationships—motherhood and daughter-hood—within it. How has your past shaped your approach to your stories and the themes you choose to write about? Do you find writing is cathartic in the sense of working through prior experiences in the same way I find it cathartic to work through experiences that may be forthcoming? In the face of all the anxiety and fear that the world’s bringing on, does writing help you practice the notion set out in “Hineni”—does it remind you that you are still here?

JF: What beautiful thoughts and insight. Yes, I definitely think writing is cathartic for me. And I know, I know, it’s often poo-pooed. Of course, writing shouldn’t be published if its only intention is catharsis for the writer, but often, in doing this, it helps others. That essay was one of my first where I truly put out there what I’d experienced. People wrote to me saying they had similar experiences, thanking me for writing it. That, to me, is the ultimate reward. That something I wrote, something I did, helped someone else. And yes, “hineni” is something I think about all the time, from my experience as a Jewish woman and as a survivor of so much abuse. Every one of us can relate in some small way: we are here to do something on this earth. I don’t believe we are fated to do anything specific, but what a waste if we aren’t trying to better ourselves and the world we live in. You know that Mary Oliver line: “Tell me, what is it you plan to do with your one wild and precious life?” Though relevant to every human, it feels like its THE directive to writers putting their words into the world.

LR: What does being included in BSF mean to you? And do you have any other favorite stories in the collection?

JT: I know it sounds cliche, but being included in BSF is a literal dream come true. I’ve been inspired by its content since discovering the anthology a number of years ago, have aspired to be included, but never thought it’d actually happen. It’s been a real treat reading through this year’s collection—there are so many different voices and approaches. And I always get stuck on Rewa Zeinati’s “What We Will Tell”, one of the Spotlighted Stories. I am mesmerized by it, I mean, those final lines:

“We’ll tell them how we pulled off our limbs and folded our bones and drowned them in the red womb of water to get there. We’ll explain water. How it came down in threads from the thick blue attic and how it spread as a river. We will try to explain river. and we will fail.”

How perfect and gutting and grief-filled. Just the way I like it (and just the way Jen likes it too, I’d imagine). 

JF: That line is so lush, Jen. It is a huge honor to be included. And like I’ve said, in a way, before, putting a Jewish story in a not-specifically-Jewish place feels like a win and acknowledgement. I and other Jews have really felt silenced lately and to hear, “No, we DO want to hear it, read it, think about it”…well, that’s so important.

Jennifer Fliss (she/her) is a Seattle-based writer whose writing has appeared in F(r)iction, Hobart, PANK, The Rumpus, The Washington Post, and elsewhere, including the 2019 Best Short Fiction anthology. She is the 2018/2019 Pen Parentis Fellow and a 2019 recipient of a Grant for Artist Project award from Artist’s Trust. She can be found on Twitter at @writesforlife or via her website, www.jenniferflisscreative.com.

Jennifer Todhunter’s writing has appeared in a number of literary journals. Her work has been selected for Best Small Fictions, Best Microfictions, and Wigleaf’s Top 50 Very Short Fictions. She is the Editor-in-Chief of Pidgeonholes. Find her at on Twitter @JenTod_.