Jennifer Fliss (she/her) is a Seattle-based writer whose writing has appeared in F(r)iction, The Rumpus, No Tokens, and elsewhere, including the 2019 Best Short Fiction anthology. Her flash collection, The Predatory Animal Ball, will be out later this month. She can be found on Twitter at @writesforlife or via her website, www.jenniferflisscreative.com.
And be sure to read Jennifer’s stories “Hineni” and “In My Sleep I am Wounded a Thousand Times” from issue 2 of Longleaf Review!
Many of your stories invoke fantasy, surrealism, or magical realism and sing to the strangeness of being human. They’re reminiscent of fables and folklore, meant to entertain while also explaining some facet of the world. How have folklore and oral storytelling influenced your own fiction and the stories you want to tell others?
Instinctually, I want to say “not at all,” because when I think of folklore, I think of a dusty old tome with golden curlicues on the jacket or a fire and some ancestor telling a story of how our people came to be. But, upon reflection, I realize folklore and fables are so much more than that and they can be contemporary.
I think a lot about my ancestors, where they came from, why they moved from place to place and what they took with them and what they left behind. When all your belongings are taken from you, when your town is wiped off the map, what you have left are stories; they can’t be taken from you, as anyone who is part of a diasporic community knows. As a result of this forced nomadic life, the stories are your roots.
The stories that I write that I get the most out of come from, in some way, my Jewish roots. In particular, I am fascinated by talks of the golem — a monster created to protect the Jewish community — but then, of course, goes a bit amok — and the creature factors into quite a few of my stories.
There are forty stories in The Predatory Animal Ball, and that doesn’t even come close to the number of stories you’ve written throughout your career! What continues to draw you back to the short story form, specifically to works of flash?
When I write, the (figurative) pen tells me how long a work should be. I start with an idea: a word, a sentence, and then go from there. It usually pours out of me naturally, and it often comes to an end on its own. Since many of these happen in one sitting (minus revision), they feel like works of art that are representative of a very specific moment, meant to be consumed in the same way. I have a lot of ideas, more than I have time to address. On a practical level, writing such short works means I get to explore more of these ideas, which is very satisfying for me as a writer.
What do you feel flash and micro works are able to achieve that short fiction — or even the novel — cannot?
I love a novel; love spending time in a setting, feeling it out, spreading out in its many pages. But short fiction is so different. A flash story isn’t meant to be put aside midway. You are meant to eat it and then digest it and then see how it makes you feel, all at once. I love this about flash. It’s like a physical piece of art you pick up, hold in your hand, and turn it to see all its angles. It’s a single meal. Because flash is so short, you can pick it up again and again and perhaps you will see it in a different light in a way that is different from longer stories and novels.
Can you offer any advice to writers looking to experiment and explore in micro and flash?
Oh, my advice is that anything can be a story. Anything. I think a lot of folks get hung up on what would happen in real life. Opportunities for stories are truly boundless. They don’t have to adhere to gravity or reality.
I believe flash can be more conceptual in a way that is harder to pull off in longer works. Experimentation and flash go so well together! Just . . . do it. There are no risks when it’s just you and your pen.
Some of your stories, such as “Intimacy of Brushing Teeth,” clearly address the reader and tuck them into the narrative folds of the story being told. As you’re writing or revising, where are you thinking of the people who’ll one day read your words?
I don’t often address the reader in stories, but that said, I think the narrator is an underused tool in storytelling. It’s a place where we can experiment and have fun. Bringing in the reader is one way to do this. By addressing the reader, we are making it interactive. It becomes play. And play is the highest form of research, or so says Albert Einstein. And while we usually use the word “research” for science-y things, we are actually constantly researching for our own lives. We research, hypothesize, experiment daily and we proceed with our life accordingly. So why can’t reading for fun be considered “research?” Play is research. Play is enjoyment. So, tucking the reader into the work is all these things. Now you’re making me realize how I would like to do this more.
The dedication of Predatory Animal Ball invokes multiple generations, some living and others deceased. In what ways has your family — historical, of a more recent past, or present day — had an impact on your storytelling?
Of late, a lot. Like what I said above about the Jewish diaspora life. My ancestors went through quite a lot for me to be sitting here comfortably, able to write my stories with relatively few worries. I love being Jewish and the ancient traditions that go with it. I’m not religious, so my connection is bound in blood, in actual history. I recently learned several branches of my family fled Spain during the Inquisition and landed in Amsterdam. One man ended up working a printing press. This seems like no big deal now, but it wasn’t so common back in the 1400s and 1500s. Storytelling is big in most cultures, most people’s histories, but especially diasporic communities for the aforementioned reasons. But I can only speak to the Jewish experience. Storytelling and the dissection of those stories, questioning them, and revisiting them, is critical to Jewish life.
As we all know, revisionism is a big part of history and storytelling as well. Often, we in the minority don’t get to tell our own stories. I am trying to visit that even more lately. Why are Jewish stories rewritten by others? I’m trying to be a voice for these experiences when the outside world (1) sees us as a monolith, and (2) there are many more Jewish stories than the media would have you believe (i.e., can you think of a Jewish story that isn’t related to the Holocaust?). I feel a responsibility to my family, to my ancestors, and to my descendants, but not in a heavy obligatory way. I’m happy to take it on!
Tell us a little bit more about the importance of community in your life as a writer. You mention many different support systems and outlets in your acknowledgments; what role have they played in the creation of this collection and more broadly in your writing?
You can, of course, be writer and not be part of a writing community. But as a writer who wanted to get published and who yearned to find others to talk about writing with, I had to find community. In 2012, I took a continuing ed writing class at the University of Washington, and there I found my first writing community. It was sufficient then, but it probably wasn’t until I went to the Tin House Summer Workshop in 2016 that I realized what a writing community could be and how glorious it was to be around other talented writers and talk incessantly about this thing we all were obsessed with. Let’s face it, lay people really do not want to discuss POV or narrative tension.
This laid the groundwork for a robust community, which was extended via social media, other workshops, and joining a writing group here in Seattle. I would not have had the opportunities I’ve had without it. This is how other writers, editors, and agents get to know you and your work. This is how you get solicited to submit work, to participate in readings, etc. And we all need to keep learning, so being in proximity to other writers who are always educating me make me a better writer.
I’ve been privileged to be able to access some of these things, however, this is not the only avenue to community, but it’s true it makes it easier. We all need to work to make finding community more accessible to anyone who wants to be part of it.
You’re on the reading team at Cotton Xenomorph, another online publication that’s entirely volunteer-run. How has reviewing and considering fiction submissions for a literary journal had an impact on your own writing?
The team at CX is awesome. I had admired all of them before I joined as a reader. So it felt pretty great to be invited to be part of it and it’s been fun to be a part of that community and to see how it works on the other side of the Submittable (figurative and literal) queue.
As for reading and reviewing, I know I said I didn’t like revising my work. But I love providing feedback on the work of others. It’s nice to be helpful, but it also helps me with my own writing. When I read submissions, I have to be aware of the basics needed for a successful story. I need to be able to identify what is lacking if I reject it or what is working and why if I bump it up to the editors.
Often submissions have requested editorial feedback, too, so I can’t just say “I didn’t like it.” (I mean, I could, and I could say it doesn’t fit the CX aesthetic, which is 100 percent valid and happens), but I want to have reasons, to be able to state my reasons plainly in a way that is hopefully helpful for the submitting writer. This then ensures that when I come to my own page, that I am aware that those things are present.
You’re widely published both within fiction and across many other genres. What keeps you coming back to the page and motivates you to write in the first place?
This is a hard question. In one way, it’s simple: I love writing. I love words, the way they go together, the way we all (mostly) have the same toolkit of words but we each put those words together differently to make unique stories. It is fascinating. Oh sure, I love when I’ve written something that resonates with readers. Those messages of support and relating to my content are so rewarding. But that’s not what motivates me. What motivates me is just the enjoyment of the thing. What would I do with all those ideas and thoughts?! What do non-artists do with all that!?
I’m not sure it has, exactly; I could see myself writing those stories today. But lately I have been experimenting more with form. I love combining a visual element in my stories. When we think of an art gallery or art show, do we ever think of literature? Why not? How can we change that? How can we make literature more accessible in that way? How can we make it tangible? The hermit crab form is, honestly, so much fun to play with. I had a piece published last year where I used the Dr. Bronner’s soap label as a form. It reached so many more people than if I had structured it in regular paragraphs and text. Hybrid forms in this way reach a piece of the brain that text alone doesn’t. That is what I’ve spent a lot of time lately doing. Again, not to sound redundant: it’s fun.
How do you lean into the slow burn of revision (as opposed to the heat of writing a first draft) and practice patience with your work?
Generative writing for me is pie and incredibly enjoyable. Give me an idea, I’ll write you a story. but then . . . revision is so difficult for me. It’s not that I can’t do it or figure it out eventually, but I lack patience. I want to move on to the next idea. Well, that’s all well and good to write on my own without revising, but if I want to put my writing forth for public consumption, I have to put on my gloves, get into the dirt, and pick at the thorns of revision. It’s how my work gets better. This is what makes a professional writer an actual pro. And I need to get that through my thick head and spend more time with my stories. I know I’d improve if I spent more time on revising and learning about revision. I just purchased a copy of Peter Ho Davies’ The Art of Revision. The spine hasn’t been cracked yet, but just buying that book is a step in the right direction. Right?
I am working on a novel — two, actually. With something of that length, I don’t have a choice but to come back to it again and again and reread and revise over a long stretch of time. So, this is how I am learning to put stuff away and come back to it later. Time really is the best editor. Writing these longer works is undoubtedly helping me with revision and patience with my shorter stories.
When did you first begin to see these stories as a body of work, as a collection rather than an assortment? Did you write with a collection in mind?
I did not write with a collection in mind. But it wasn’t long into my writing career that I realized I return to certain themes over and over and over. I began writing because of my experience with childhood abuse at the hands of a man. While I’m not intentional about it, my subconscious is like: let’s make almost all your stories about women getting their revenge on misogyny. Let’s focus on the predator–prey relationship. So, once I had enough stories, they came together thematically fairly easily.
If you could curate an experience for your readers as they read your book, what would you include? A plush armchair, a certain snack, morning/afternoon/evening light, a specific type of music to play in the background, etc.
I have joked that a LARP party of The Predatory Animal Ball would be kind of amazing. But barring that — and for the introverts out there, myself included, there will be a fire and rain, warm drinks, and a cheese plate — several.
What are you going to do to celebrate on launch day?
Because of the pandemic, it’ll look differently than what I had probably originally had in mind for “the day you get published.” So, I will most likely be home alone working all day. But I’ll be sure to order in dinner, be thankful for the people who helped me get to this place, and then keep thinking of ideas to publicize the heck out of it. I do have a launch reading a couple days before (December 12th), and I am beyond excited that the readers reading with me are incredible. I admire every single one of them and they all agreed to be part of my special day and I mean, I’m almost in tears just typing this right now. So that will really be the celebration.