Five Questions with Sarah McCartt-Jackson

Kirby Johnson: Your piece, “Flux” appears in our most recent issue of NANO Fiction, 7.2—how did this piece come about? Is it part of a larger collection?


Photo credit: David Williamson

Sarah McCartt-Jackson: “Flux” is part of my larger mixed-genre (poetry and flash fiction) manuscript entitled Stonelight, which follows a family in early twentieth-century eastern Kentucky coal country. In the manuscript, the mother (Ora) lives alone with her children after her husband (Eli) moves to a coal camp. The work explores our relationship with the land, subsistence pattern shifts, and the idea of homeplace and family. During my research, I came across a Congressional hearing on the conditions of a particular coal town, in which all of the children died from a disease called “flux.”

KJ: What struck us most about this story was your ability to build a world in so few lines. Did you struggle with including, or not including, certain elements of this place? How did you know when you hit that sweet spot of creating a scaffolding of setting with just the right number of details thrown in?

SMJ: Yes, writing this was certainly a struggle because I had to find a balance between detail and the idea of authenticity. I definitely had to edit quite a bit so that I could draw readers into the story of sweet Lily without overburdening them. Too much detail comes across as heavy-handed, but too little doesn’t allow time for the reader to care about the occasion. For example, I think it’s important for the reader to know that Eli (the father and coal miner) has to pay the doctor every month, regardless of his or his family’s health (“whether sick or well”) and that just to see the doctor is a ten-day trip for Ora (and Lily). On the other hand, earlier drafts of this version stayed closer to the actual Congressional hearing in which the doctor said, “Did that brat die?” But that detail, I thought—while it’s jarring and telling—is not as effective as the detail of the doctor licking his finger to clean his boot. So I wrote this as a longer piece, then whittled away during revision. I also had a great reader in Jacinda Townsend.

KJ: “Flux” is comprised of just one sentence, which is quite a feat to pull off. Tell us about that decision.

SMJ: I chose to tell “Flux” in one sentence for several reasons. First, the sentence pulls the reader through the story quickly, which, I hope, emphasizes the swiftness with which sweet Lily fades due to flux. Second, I wanted to simulate how once the family makes the decision to send Eli to the coal camp, they become part of a certain path, not necessarily doomed but finite. And finally, the one-sentence structure demands readers to remember those details, carrying the details with them to the piece’s end until a release, like the uncoiling saw briar.

KJ: Who are the writers (flash fiction or otherwise) that you most admire, and what qualities drew you to their work?

SMJ: My favorite writer is W. S. Merwin for so many reasons. One thing he does that I admire is his ability to use or not use punctuation and capitalization to create dynamic lines and phrases. It forces you to experience the piece actively over and over. I also recently reread William Gass’s “In the Heart of the Country,” which communicates pacing, repetition, story, and reminds me how our brains will move, will make connections when given the opportunity (then tear those connections apart as needed). I enjoy writing that borders between prose and poem and challenges our idea of genre.

KJ: What are you working on now?

SMJ: Right now I am working on my new manuscript (also mixed-genre), which is autobiographical, and I’ve begun working on collaborations with visual artists. There are some images that cannot be painted or danced, and there are some images that cannot be written. I’m interested in learning how to express those images that live in the liminal space between different types of languages.

Sarah McCartt-Jackson is a Kentucky poet and folklorist. Her most recent work can be found in Inch, Indiana Review, and Journal of American Folklore. She has been honored by the Academy of American Poets, Kentucky Women Writers, and as Tidal Basin Review's inaugural Poetry Series Center Feature poet.