Five Questions with 2015 NANO Prize Winner Stephanie Devine
Matt Sailor : What appeals to you about writing flash, as opposed to other forms?
Stephanie Devine: There’s something deeply satisfying in the movement and energy of flash. I love fiction that sweeps me away and pulls me relentlessly toward a conclusion. In short stories, it’s difficult to maintain that level of breathless momentum (and the process of writing that kind story can be physically and emotionally exhausting). The challenge in flash is opposite: it forces you to consider where to slow down the forward motion, quiet down, reflect. The form requires precision and economy, yet provides enormous freedom to experiment. Practically nothing is off limits, but every word has to work that much harder. And hey, it’s nice sometimes to spend a single day on a piece and be able to call it complete. I’m working on a dissertation right now, and writing flash has not only helped me improve the shape and language of that book, it’s also offered occasional, much needed reminders that yes, I can finish a thing.
MS: What can you tell us about the process of writing “Of Felling”? How did it progress from idea to finished piece?
SD: This piece began with the image of a tree felling. Atlanta has a beautiful tree canopy and when the light is good you can walk down the road, a mere block from rush-hour traffic, and daydream you’re in the middle of the forest. We lost an old tree near our apartment in the spring and I was surprised by how much it unmoored me. The world felt off. So, I made some notes and—no kidding—labeled them “Flash for NANO?” I’ve wanted to place a story in the journal for a long while, but never quite had anything that fit. Of course, at that point, all I had were a couple details around a feeling. I looked at the notes a few times over the summer but didn’t know what the story really was. Then I got an email that your contest deadline had been extended and looked again at my notes, but this time the idea—suspension—had come together. I finished the story in an evening and submitted it the next day.
MS: Omission is necessary for great flash–in “Of Felling,” what isn’t said is as important as what is. Can you talk about how you pare your flash down to only the essential details?
SD: My experience has been that your story will tell you which details are essential. Every story is its own universe of matter, and almost always the essential details are vivid and material. If you want to create a quick impression, you must show what you mean, and if you want to suggest beneath the surface, what you do show ought to build something bigger than itself. In other words, if you include a giant tree and it’s only a tree, the detail is not working hard enough. Details should be able to take on layers of meaning, but they should also be of the story universe. In addition to a tree, there’s also a Brussels sprout in “Of Felling” that takes up precious space at the end of the story. Which seems ridiculous. But based on the other elements of the story, no other detail fit as precisely—the size, the composition, the way the bud grows.
All that said, I think simple, straightforward telling is also important in flash. To say anything, you must first say something.
MS: You write longer fiction as well. How do you know when a particular idea lends itself to flash? Do you let form, subject matter, or some other element guide you in that decision?
SD: My not very useful answer is that I just sort of know which form is right based on the idea. The subject matter can always work in any form, depending on the approach, but it seems to me there are a lot of experiences in life that don’t fit naturally into the cause and effect logic of plot. Of course, you could build the artifice to make it work in a longer story, but sometimes all that invention feels false, like it diminishes the feeling rather than expressing it more truly. Sometimes the moment is intense, and fleeting, and you need a shorter form to match. For that reason, I’m attracted to flash when the subject is personal, or when making the character accountable for her actions is beside the point.
MS: In “Of Felling” you employ a memorable voice–a choppy sentence structure that jumps quickly from image to image. How did that voice develop, and how important is voice to you in crafting fiction?
SD: This is the nicest compliment because voice is so important to me. I love stories, but equally I love the myriad ways that people tell stories. The choices made in telling are as communicative as any other detail, and I don’t feel like I have a firm sense of character until I know how the character would tell their story (whether that character actually narrates or not). For “Of Felling,” the voice came together in two ways. One, the tree felling seemed like an omen for the other problems in the narrator’s life, so I wanted to make those connections between images quickly, like the mind does. But the movement wasn’t so brisk in the first draft. When I’m cutting a piece to reach a certain word count, I always go after transition phrases first, and that’s what I did here. I found I could (almost) do without them entirely if I amped up the repetition and visual connection between the images. The result was a strange accumulation of tension that felt natural to the piece.