Christopher D. DiCicco’s “Heavy Shoes” won our September 2013 Story Of The Month competition. It’s a fine piece of writing among so many wonderful and gorgeously rendered stories included in his new collection So My Mother, She Lives in the Clouds published by Hypertropic Press www.hypertrophicpress.com . Each of these stories opens up worlds of longing, beauty, and grief among characters who walk out of the pages into the world. Readers recognize their own fault lines, brokenness, yearning, sweetness, and love reflected in these characters Christopher creates. It was a pleasure to read and re-read this book, and what luck to catch an interview Christopher.*
It’s a tremendous collection of forty-five short, short stories. How did you choose the first story to place in the collection, and how did you select the title story?
I’m happy you asked that. The title story was my doing. The first story was not. The first story “Talk of Fire” is one I was actually apprehensive about because I’m a schoolteacher. Yeah, of course it’s metaphorical in nature, like a lot of my pieces, but like a lot of my pieces, there’s still a strong element of realism to it. The idea of starting my book with a college student who lights himself on fire because he wants to hear his words crackle, well, it made me uneasy. My editors though believed it was a piece that worked as a preface to the rest of the collection; that the metaphor, the realism, worked for what was to come next in the collection. And in the end, I agreed. I want to hear my words crackle too. As for the title story, I felt “So My Mother, She Lives in the Clouds” captured my offbeat, minimal approach. It’s a favorite story of mine. It has a lot of the elements I enjoy it, fantasy, realism, potential truths, no answers, big questions. I like that about fiction; that, like in real life where some of the biggest events go unexplained, unanswered, in fiction the fantastical elements can be just as crazy and real and unexplainable. It’s nuts and beautiful.
Most of your stories are in first person, yet, the ones presented in second and third are just as strong. How deliberate are you in perspective? How do you determine it? Do you experiment? There’s these few lines in “A Literary God (In Love)” on page 200 that comes off a bit meta. I’m a fan of the character Sara. Her response to the narrator is what I’ve grown to expect from her:
I’m a first-person omniscient narrator because reading my story, reading it aloud to myself, it’s like having God whisper the answers to all my questions, but better because I’m the one doing it. They’re my answers. . . Me telling it. “Sara later corrects the narrator and says, “Excuse me, your book? It’s our story. It’s our book.”
Does this story have much to do about your thoughts on narrative perspective?
Yes, I am very deliberate in perspective. The first-person removed narrator is my favorite. First-person is kind of like acting, you lose yourself in a role and develop your character with every movement you make. It’s like riding a fixie bicycle. I’d hate to use that example, but it holds pretty firm. If you’ve never ridden one before, the bicycle is set on a fixed gear where the chain is as simple and pure as it gets, and so it’s a personal ride; in that, every move you make determines the ride. If you pedal fast, you ride fast. If you slow your left leg, the ride pulls left and hesitates. And the first-person reminds me of that. It’s incredibly responsive. The story develops—reacts—based on each word your narrator spits out. And it’s great to decide you’re the father or the daughter or the son and then tell a story about the other. I love that. You tell a story about someone else, and in doing so you tell a story about yourself—the first person narrator. Man, I love point of view. Did you notice in “Pennsylvania is No Concern” that I use First-Person and Third Person Limited? That was great for me. And in “Why the Wolves Take the Calves First,” getting to develop a tough heart-broken but sensitive father, who notices the circle of life and the brutal honesty in nature—to have him narrate and comment on things that someone like him would notice—that’s just so much fun for me. That’s the story. So, does that kind of reflect “A Literary God (in Love)”? Maybe it does. I suppose the story does have a bit to do with my thoughts on perspective because in the end it’s an illusion, right? It’s a technique. But the funny thing is, I don’t usually think of that while I’m writing. When I’m writing, I tend to believe it, that it’s real, that it’s my story to tell. I’m the narrator even if it means I’m not me at all.
Your stories have strong, emotionally anchored endings. Your endings are a strength of your craft. How do you know when the ending is just right?
Thank you for saying so. My endings start by feel. For the most part, I know when it’s time. I wish there were more to it. I mean, there is, but the first part of it, the big part, is an organic conclusion for me. It grows out of the story, and I pluck it up. Once I have it, then I finesse it, but not as much as you might think. Understanding what a strong ending is and what it comes equipped with is important. It allows it to happen. My endings often coincide with my themes. They’re disappointment, failings, awful impossible things that the narrator acknowledges. Those are things I know. Some from personal experience, some from observation. It’s what I know. But it’s not all depressing. A good ending has so much more that comes after it, but that’s up to the reader, to the story that keeps on even after the writing stops.
How do you come up with titles?
I subscribe to two different philosophies concerning titles. First, titles can be an act of naming. The idea is that you look at some piece of art whether it be a child, a song, or a story, and you name it. You name what it is, what it will become, and what it should always be. The second philosophy, the one I use more often, is the title is the very first line. It is the beginning, the start of everything, and the part where you call the reader over, saying, “Hey, so my mother, she lives in clouds” or “Heavy shoes, my girlfriend has the heaviest, let me tell you.” And then you explain. You show them what you mean, and that’s your story.
I have several favorites among this collection. It’s impossible to select one. Talk of Fire” blew me away as did the title story. “Life Where You Want It” is another favorite as is “I Think I’m Going To Make It,” “Your Uncle Scott Is A Lake Monster,” “A Bucks Devil and the County Ghost,” “Future Perfect,” “Even Toy Swords,” and “Her Heart A Thundering Steed.” What about you?
You’re not the first person to ask me this, so you’d think I’d have a good answer, but it’s still the same–I’m terrible at playing favorites. I can be incredibly pleased by the smallest of aspects of a given story. A phrase can drive me wild. An awkward simile and I’m in love. It’s true. That’s all it takes for me to like a story, a really good line. It’s terrible—but that’s the truth of it. In “Life Where You Want It” the ending, it makes me happy every time I read it. And so does the line “He’s hoping they’ll let him on, as if he were some young Dominic Dillianhaul from Nebraska who has never played the game before, as if he were someone different and new.” I love that name. I love “Future Perfect” It’s my favorite. And so are a thousand other lines that I’m still waiting to write.
Do your children like your stories? Do they help with critique?
No, neither of my sons help yet. Maybe one day. I have a writing group though with some really good friends and even greater writers. Matthew Kabik, Daniel Difranco, and Zachary Woodard point me in the right direction, and it worked well for a while. Lately though the writing group has kind of gone on a hiatus, which is sad for me, but part of the evolution of such things I suppose.
What’s next besides the whirlwind life of a literary debutante?
More stories. It’s not something I can stop. I think in stories, dream in stories, and, I love creating them. But yeah, I worked on some poems this past summer, and they’re very personal, but they’re also very story-like in many ways. I wouldn’t mind finishing those up when the mood arises. But really, I’m dying to write some new stories. That’s all I really want to do—drink a cup of coffee (in the early morning) and write a story that makes me smile. Did I mention that I write for me? I’m terribly selfish—and I’m not planning on changing anytime soon