In case you missed it, I reviewed Madeline ffitch's fantastic story collection Valparaiso, Round the Horn over at The Small Press Book Review earlier this month. Now, I have the pleasure of bringing you an interview with the author. ffitch tackles my tough questions with ease and sheds some amazing insight into the writing process and life.
Steph Post: Because I am novelist and occasional flash-fiction writer, I'm always in awe of those who can write fully formed, traditional length short stories. This is something I struggle with, but you make it look effortless. How much time, from inception to final copy, do you normally spend on a story?
Madeline ffitch: Well, first of all, it's good for me to hear that anyone who writes novels could be in awe of my process, because the feeling is mutual. I'm working on my first novel, and have no idea how to do it, I'm just feeling my way through it as I go along. I think that craft should be lively, imaginative and surprising, a constant inquiry, in some way un-masterable. I have always wanted to be a writer. When I was a kid and a teenager, I wrote and wrote, but didn't really ever have any finished work. Every piece of writing was open ended. So the first important thing for me to learn when I started writing seriously was how to finish something. And I've been learning that for so many years now, that my next challenge is to learn how not to finish something. If I can understand that all endings are somehow arbitrary, then that can free me up to continue to experiment with craft and how vastly different endings can be. And also I am trying to learn how to keep opening and opening the story so that it can become something as expansive as a novel.
On a very practical level, I'll also say that I work well with deadlines. This comes from my years working in a theater company where we would book the tour before we had even finished writing the play. The strictness of deadlines helps keep me disciplined and honest, and I can always fail to meet them if I need to.
SP: Almost every story in your collection mentions animals of some kind. Racoons, turtles, rabbits... Reading your stories is like being out in the wild. Why are animals so heavily featured in your work? Are they there as themselves or are they representing something larger?
Mf: I think of my stories as very full of a lot of inventory, people, work, and motion. I am interested in the chock-fullness, the constant teeming of the world. Animals are a part of that. Animals must be encountered, and in some way dealt with, either emotionally or practically. And animals are never completely within human control, even though many people have this notion of animal ownership or dominion over animals or something. That kind of thing always breaks down in interesting ways. The animal is wild, it gets sick, it behaves oddly, you have to deal with its body, it doesn't care as much about you as you care about it. You're a little afraid of it. You ascribe human traits to it, but then those don't quite work. Also, lately, I have been particularly interested in the closeness that people have with animals when they are also planning to kill and eat those animals. Before I moved to a rural area, I didn't know hunters, or road-kill eaters, or butchers. Now I do. Now I know small children who love it when the baby lambs are born in the spring, but also discuss dispassionately that those lambs are also going to feed them over the winter, and all that that entails. This is a startling perspective for me to encounter.
SP: Do you have a favorite story from Valparaiso, Round the Horn? Is it possible to like some stories of your own more than others?
Mf: The most recent of these stories I wrote this past year, and the oldest story in the collection is probably ten years old. I tend to be more interested in the newer pieces. But I respect the fact that when you make a piece of art and put it into the world, it's out of your control, and your personal feelings about it are sort of beside the point. I've noticed that people can't seem to tell which are the older stories, so I try not to be self conscious when someone says something nice about something that I wrote at a very different time in my life, even though there's a part of me that feels like someone's reading my diary from when I was thirteen. This is my first book, and I am so glad that people are reading it at all. I feel very lucky when I get feedback about the stories, and when people seem to connect with them.
SP: Many of your stories feature 'unlikeable' characters and it was those characters, and their stories, that I was most drawn to. Do there need to be 'likeable' characters in fiction?
Mf: It doesn't make sense to me to set out to write a likable or unlikeable character, just as it doesn't make sense to me to set out to write a sad or a happy story, or a funny or dramatic story. In the type of storytelling that is interesting to me, these binaries don't have much of a place. In fact, a great starting point for a story can be investigating a moment, an image, a dynamic, a person that is un-sortable, or unclassifiable. Of course, as I get deeper into a story, it can be great fun to add horrible, excruciating details to certain characters, but I still try to let them surprise me, and not to overdetermine them. I am most interested in writing about what I love, and I love some very complicated and unlikeable people, so sometimes my biggest challenge is to not let my overwhelming love of my characters stop them from being as nasty and irksome as people can actually be.
SP: Along the same lines, do there need to be characters that the reader can relate to? Or does that even matter?
Mf: Here, I tend to think not about myself as a writer, but about myself as a reader. As a reader, I care about resonance, but I do not want to be related to. I want to be transported, astonished, and convinced.
SP: You have to tell me about the "punk theater company" you are a founding member of. Where did this come from and what sort of works are performed by The Missoula Oblongata?
Mf: The Missoula Oblongata was a collaborative experimental theater company that toured original theater around the country, transforming neighborhood spaces into theaters. We wrote, produced, and performed in our own plays, built our sets mostly from found materials, and performed in vacant lots, warehouses, schools, community centers, and even a post office and a grocery store. That theater company was my primary career for six years, and helped me to understand myself as a working artist, part of a large coast to coast punk community that finds connections between radical grassroots social and environmental justice movements, experimental music and visual art, writing, performing and more.
SP: Who or what have you read recently that you feel needs to be shouted and celebrated from the rooftops?
Mf: I just went on a short book tour and got the chance to be introduced to and encounter several amazing writers for the first time.
In Brooklyn I read with Tommy Pico, a fantastic poet and performer, who I understand has a book length poem forthcoming. I got a few copies of his "Nature Poem" and have been passing them along to friends. In DC, I also loved the poems of Mark Cugini, and he opened his set by reading a wild and necessary poem by Danez Smith.
Lately, these poems are helping me to imagine writing a novel, if that makes any sense.