“I Like an Ending That is a Beginning” A Conversation with Christopher DiCicco, Flash Fiction Author
Interview by Timston Johnston
TJ: I’ve been seeing a rise of flash fiction, mostly online for the last five years. Some printed lit journals are featuring them as regular content and contests, and now, like your book, put into full-length collections. Why do you think readers have popularized and/or crave writers who keep stories brief?
CD: My thoughts on this tend to go back and forth. The nervous part of me fears the rise in flash fiction stems from shorter attention spans, but the calmer, more thoughtful side knows the short attention thing is probably bullshit. I mean, honestly, Spencer Holst wrote flash fiction before I was born, and a slew of other writers experimented with shorter form, and people didn’t bite, and that was good stuff. People weren’t reading flash (despite it not being called that then) because they had such excellent reading stamina or because they were demanding greater, longer works. They weren’t encountering it—and if they did, it was in literary journal restricted by the whims of the postal service. There’s just more to it than that, though, right? The Internet, indie presses, people taking chances. Writing has more access than it’s ever had before—and that’s something. But still, it’s true, the medium hasn’t spiked in popularity until today. And maybe that’s the thing. To a certain degree, it could be readers and writers understanding that nowadays it’s okay to say, hey, I enjoy this piece despite it not being a thick tomb of exposition and intrigue. That’s probably part of it, that it takes time for something to catch on, and that there’s a comfort in numbers aspect where readers don’t have to be afraid of being the only one voicing their enjoyment of shorter work. The enjoyment of flash no longer equates to a lack of sophistication.
And then there is the want for more and more and more from readers, but not necessarily in a larger quantity. Think small plates, the trend to appreciate something exquisite in only a few bites. It’s a well-crafted experience, flash. And people are reading. They want to read on their phone, while waiting for the elevator, and yeah, they could read a novel, but some readers want different authors, different styles. We’re used to the Internet, limitless sources. There are so many great times to read, and then move on, and flash allows the reader the opportunity to experience art and skip to the next track. Maybe, it’s comparable to music listening?
What I do know is I’ve been enamored with the flash medium for a while, and it’s not because I want a quick read. It’s about appreciating the complexity of the writing art. I don’t need an entire novel for me to say, wow, this is powerful writing. It’s making something happen in a short amount of space that you can walk away from, but keeps you thinking. Moreover, it’s the style. Oh, man, it’s got style, flash. Good flash is dripping with it, stripped down to the best lines. It’s the idea that writing really is art—honest prose, beautiful in its thoughtfulness. There are some flash pieces that come out kicking and others that play with the economy of the word, letting loose a stream of tight sentences, each building off the other until the reader is left alone with just the end result of the story. In some ways, it seems like the popularity of flash stems not from a lack of attention, but from a more critical eye, examining language and effect. The story craft has to be so on point, so tight, and wonderful for it to be good flash. And the delivery needs to be something else, something more than traditional. Reading flash should be like taking in a great painting or an awesome photograph. It reveals and tells a whole story in a snapshot and leaves its audience contemplating everything that is left out, that could be, and that ought to be.
So, yeah, maybe the rise in popularity is a good thing, a change in our culture that acknowledges the subtle aspects of an author’s craft, valuing line over page.
TJ: In regards to craft and accentuating longer-form exposition and plot, when writers decide to go brief (in the much less than 500-word range), I often notice a sacrifice made that seems to omit the traditional mapping of a story, that is the rising conflict for the sake of climax, whereas evoked emotion is superior to a fading closure and resolution. In my mind, this creates two independent genres: the traditional short-short fiction and the single frame, Polaroid-like flash fiction. Do you have certain guidelines within your own work or notice in others’ that definitively categorize a piece as flash?
CD: I love that you ask this, and that you see a distinction. At least, I think I do. The idea of sacrificing anything sounds kind of awful, but somewhere along the line I wrote an essay about this, so I’ll try to answer it honestly, even if I would rather lie. The Polaroid-like flash fiction (I call micro-flash), maybe a piece of 500 words or fewer, is a different approach, for sure. I hesitate to say it sacrifices anything, but readily admit (despite my writing typically in the 1000 + form) that it relies heavily on the reader to do much of the storytelling. When you look at a really good photo, it fuels the creation of a story. I’m careful not to say it alone creates the story because there’s more to it. For example, maybe it’s a powerful black and white photo; let’s say an isolated bathtub displaced by floodwaters; destruction surrounds it, a toy duck sits crushed underneath, and the kicker, a dirty water line rings the outside porcelain. That’s the photo—and the thing is it’s up to the audience to create the rising action, the conflict, and whatever else they want. But, in the end, it’s still powerful, I mean, if it’s a really good shot. So, maybe on one hand, micro-flash has to be really damn good, like it has to be just the right flash/snap/whatever that will evoke the rest of the story. But on the other hand, it depends a lot on the audience (in flash’s case, the reader). No one is lining up photos of what lead to the tub being displaced. There’s no photo of the family, no three-year-old crying and clutching her father’s leg as the floodwater pours in—but the reader can imagine it—if the reader wants to—it plays on what’s stored inside the reader. That’s the other thing with micro-flash, it seems to depend on how much storytelling ability the reader has—imagination and practice in craft—and that seems really important. Can the reader create the rest of the story and fill in the gaps?
Anyway, I agree. There’s a distinction between the short-short and the single frame, and it seems to be about 500 words. It’s the sweet spot, the 1,000 words. It’s somewhere around there that I find myself able to build a piece. And the building aspect is the big distinction I use to categorize between Polaroid-like flash (micro-flash) and good ole-fashioned flash, that is the short-short. The flash fiction I aim to produce uses the minimalist technique of “Horses” and Poe’s “Unity of Effect” to build toward an ending. And I like an ending that is a beginning. I think that’s really important in a piece of flash, that the piece end leaving the reader understanding that more is to come and that whatever happens is the start of some new chapter of the story. But, to focus on the technique that separates or categorizes the different styles of flash, it’s that the short-short still builds, introducing the audience/reader to a concept/character/idea, and then acts upon it. It doesn’t just drop the reader into a single frame or moment. It’s in the building that the rising action and exposition occurs. It’s just minimal, a compacted line packed with importance. It’s definitely not 19th century exposition, detailing a room for two pages followed by a slow reveal of the conflict via witty banter, but it’s not slamming the reader in media res, asking the reader to drum up all the particulars.
…that’s really important in a piece of flash, that the piece end leaving the reader understanding that more is to come and that whatever happens is the start of some new chapter of the story.
TJ: I think the last paragraph of flash (if not in the final line) holds the most weight, especially in your book—I return to “Sounds, Glorious,” and your title piece, “So My Mother, She Lives in the Clouds.” Some flash writers say they will often write the last line first and place a story behind it. What is your process like, and do your stories usually turn out as you’d like, or does something unexpected emerge?
CD: My stories build from the first line, so I’m definitely not one who starts with the last. I like an organic experience, and I think that’s the secret to my endings. They write themselves. That’s all. The technique I subscribe to happens to be let the story write itself, and build to an ending you’re not quite aware of until you’re there. And my stories absolutely do write themselves in that way; although, I suppose it’s really annoying to say that. Like, what does that mean? I’m clearly the one behind them, but at the same time, it’s much closer to a free association type writing where I see the word CAT and then write whatever comes to mind next. I’m building, line by line, to something, and I don’t usually know until I get there. I have an idea, sometimes even a want, but, in the end, it’s what has to happen, kind of thing, my endings. My process is all about the first line. The first few lines especially; in fact, it might be the first paragraph really. It starts the ball rolling, and then it picks up speed. My process is catalyst and reaction, stemming from the first line down. The ending, and I love a good ending (I mean, that’s what I’m trying for), comes as a natural result of what came before it. It’s the next step to something bigger, so it’s more like knowing where to cut. I want the ending to keep going long after the reader has finished the story.
And my stories absolutely stray from what I want. I typically don’t try to steer them in one direction or another. The direction I have in mind is there from the start, but I’ve learned to let go, and usually the story will find its own path, arriving at an ending that is most natural. Sometimes it’s different from what I imagined, but I’m okay with that.
TJ: I’m very intrigued by stories that surprise even the writer. Is it possible you could you expand on this and explain how one of your pieces that had strayed the most in your collection by comparing what you wanted versus what was written?
CD: No problem . . . but where do I begin? I guess that’s the thing, I begin stories with concepts, not full-on plot arcs. I’ll often write down an idea that goes something like, a father has a son who keeps disappearing and reappearing in strange places. Then I’ll add a line or two of how I think it ought to sound in terms of narration. I know I’ll want the story to tackle the difficulty of parenting, maybe the confusion and absurdity of feeling disconnected to something (your baby) that you’re supposed to have this uncanny relationship with. I might want the father to learn that he can’t control his child and that no set schedule from a baby manual will be applicable—but what does that look like? The baby disappears a few times, the father freaks out each time and then what? Where does the story lead me? And even right now as I make this example up, it depends on what happens in those in between moments, in each line that builds from another. Like for instance, I keep thinking of the baby reappearing outside the nursery window high up in an oak tree, so the next line should be something depicting how the father learns to go with the flow, and how when the baby disappears, he quickly climbs up the tree in the afternoons, and sure enough, the baby appears in the high branches every afternoon; this way I can establish the baby has taught the father something instead of the other way around, as children often do, teaching the ebb and flow of life.
My point is the story comes from the seed of my concept. What comes next after the father has figured out the pattern, now that he’s comfortable? Probably the father holding the baby in a rocking chair, and the story ends with them both disappearing or maybe just the father, so the baby is left alone, rocking in the chair. Again, I’m not sure what will happen. I need the other lines to build to it. I don’t know if that makes any sense. But that’s how I write.
As for a story that did that . . . ha, all of them? I really only start with concepts and write. But that’s not completely true. Sometimes I have endings in mind or direction. Sometimes. Not often. I wanted “A New Religion for Fatherless Sons” to be a father coming back to life, for the father to be a miracle, and for it to be chronicled by the son. I thought it would be something like the father comes back to life and then has to go into hiding, so the son never gets to see him anyway (so it’s like the father might as well be dead). Instead, when I wrote it, the narration went kind of dark, and next thing I knew the boy ended up being the devil and tricking everyone into not believing. I didn’t really want that. Even I was upset. But that’s what I wrote. I probably messed up the intro, the first few lines, and set the tone too dark and messed up, and, like I said, I build to the ending.
You’re such a lit journal publishing machine that all but eleven of these stories haven’t been published. Aside from the regular “see what we publish” guideline, how did you know that these lit journals you did publish in were right for the work you were producing?
Well, first, I read the journals. I read a lot of them. I’m always checking out journals, reading their new issues. I enjoy that, and I like to see what other writers are doing. It’s interesting to me to watch a new journal develop, to see what they like and why. I freaking love how certain publications develop their aesthetic. You can watch editors steer their journals in the direction of their tastes, and it’s a really interesting experience to recognize a journal’s aesthetic while the journal itself is developing it. Take for example the journal Psychopomp who gathers off beat stories that border on the surreal and fairy tale format—I love that I can read one of their magazines and know that I’m getting my daily dose of weird. And I watched them do it. I got to read those weird stories and start noticing they accepted more and more with a fairly-tale bent or maybe it’s a fable one. Either way, in doing so, I knew I wanted to be a part of their journal, of what they were developing, so I sent them a story. That’s how I typically know if the journal is right for what I’m doing: I can read it and say we have similar taste and I want to be part of what they are doing in the literary community.
What was the process like bringing your book to life with Hypertophic Press?
The process was a lot of things for me, and l’ll mention specifics, but to look at in a general way, it was an incredibly affirming experience. To have someone believe in your work, that investment, that idea of bringing it to life—like someone breathing life into something you’ve created—it’s very inspiring, very rewarding. What Hypertrophic did was to make the process an amazing collaboration. That blew me away, honestly. Here are these people who have this knowledge and understanding of how to make a book, and they’re bothering to go the extra mile and explain what they’re doing or what it is they could do—and, moreover, they’re asking me what I’dlike to do. That completely floors me, their willingness to make me such a big part of the actual process. I was included in what felt like just about everything—that’s a lot of back-and-forth e-mails about editing (which I was expecting), but also major discussions about everything from story order, font and layout, all the way to promotion and changing a “the” to an “a” proposals. The cover alone was a huge collaboration, but the process was so much more than that. We shared literary theory with each other, and in doing so, we got to know each other on a personal level. I remember discussing poetic white space with them in relation to the titles and the first page of each story. It was awesome. It really felt like we made the book together, so much so, that I’m actually scared to make another with anyone else. It was the effing dream for me, to be included like that, so now I’m wondering what it’ll be like to not be included, to have someone who doesn’t explain what and why they’re doing things. Or worse, what if we don’t agree on most of the edits? That’s incredibly important to me, that my writing read a certain way. I’m really particular with how my lines sounds, especially in relation to preceding and later sentences. I said it before, that I build my stories line by line, and I really do, so when an editor wants to do something, it very well might cause a chain reaction, and I have to be okay with that and believe in that edit. Otherwise it’ll kill me. I mean, I guess it’s okay to die a little when making a book. Seems natural. Anyway, I think I’m getting stressed out just talking about this. Holy crap.
I noticed you went to Twitter to ask others about writing novels in flash. Is that what you’re working on next? Are you noticing any differences in the execution to the stories?
I am! I’m working on a novel in flash right now, and I’m loving it. It really feels like my best work. It’s a challenging project, but so far very rewarding, and yeah, there’s a difference in the process, but maybe not so much in the actual execution. What I mean is that I still compose very carefully and revise a lot during the actual writing of each story. I might write and re-write a single paragraph for a few hours, crafting away at it. It’s that whole read a line, then write a line, then read those lines, then write another. It’s a process, alright. Sometimes it goes pretty well though, if I’m reading and writing in such a way where I feel like it adds up in the way I want it to and sounds right to me. I read my stuff aloud a lot, and keep starting at the beginning. It’s probably a bit crazy, but luckily I write flash, right? So yeah, for just about every line I write, I start at the beginning of the story and read down until I write the next line. I often linger on a paragraph, reading it over and over until I nail the next line in it. Then, I’ll read it from the top down again to make sure. It has to sound right, and I’ll know it when I hear/see/write it. Okay, the big difference in crafting this: the larger picture comes into play and has to be in the back of my mind. That’s a huge difference for me, to write a story and have to consider the whole thing like I would a line in a normal piece. I mean, each story is a line in a bigger story and they have to add up in such a way that I build this thing. But at the same time, each story is its own story. There is an end and a beginning, a theme and a something happening, something important to itself out of the context of the entirety. But there it is again, this idea of an entirety, and it keeps coming back to that, connecting and reconnecting, and it’s really challenging, but when a piece feels like it works in the bigger picture, that’s very rewarding. I get to be excited about the story itself, and then I get to be excited about the novel it builds.
Anything else we should know?
Probably, but I won’t think of it until it’s too late. That’s the nature of these things, right? Wait! I want to mention a touch more about my current project because I’m, right now, excited about it. This novel in flash I’m working on follows the dynamics of a couple, Lynsey and Jeremy, who are exploring who they are individually and who they are as a couple in relation to the world around them—but I’m using tropes from fairy tales and folk tales to delve into that very real, every couple quest for identity. They’re looking at the things that define us, just with the help of bears and foxes and an occasional map.
Timston Johnston received his MFA from Northern Michigan University and is the founding editor of Little Presque Books. He sometimes Tweets candy bar reviews @TimstonJohnston.
In the first of our new series of author interviews, DiCicco shares his thoughts about the collection with our head editor Chuck Augello.
CA: How would you describe your collection to readers unfamiliar with your work?
CD: Weird. Sad. Playful. Like a cartoon platypus who is ultimately depressed but learning to fly. The collection is an odd assortment. Some of the stories are entrenched in a kind of everyday realism while some of those same stories cross into absurdity—what I mean, is I’ll write a story about a missing mom through the lens of a boy who wants to be a dog or a story about a father yelling something funny as he falls to his unavoidable death. The stories are little walks in the Park of Coping with Loss and Dissatisfaction. I joke when I say that, but I think a lot people know the place, and my stories definitely travel there, skipping down different paths. It’s not all sad, though. The stories in the collection explore some fantastical things, and I hope some readers can enjoy that in the darkest moments there can be wonder.
CA: Most of the stories in So My Mother, She Lives in the Clouds are flash fiction. As a fiction writer, what about the flash format is attractive to you?
CD: The bright light? I kid, I kid. But seriously, the attraction starts with the darkness. My stories often tackle pain, absurd or normal, and—you don’t want to live there. Some authors talk about how they craft worlds and heart-moving stories you’d happily supplant yourself into in order to escape your own life—my stories are selfish. You don’t want to escape there. That’s what I did writing them. The flash format takes you there, shows you around, let’s you feel something, and ever so kindly lets you leave as quickly as you came. Flash, it’s a story, a whole story, but it’s one where the writer knows not to linger. It would just be a lie, like talking about the drapes when the elephant in the room is asleep on the living room sofa.
CA: You have some great story titles. A favorite is “The Worst Thing about Hell is You Have to Climb Down to It,” although “What I Learned Beneath Your Shirt” is a close second. Do your titles usually come first, or do they arise from the process of writing the story?
CD: Thank you for saying so. My story titles come at the beginning of the process. They’re often the first (or a close second) piece of the story I write. My theory on titles is that I’m either naming the piece, like I would a child where I want the title to capture the idea of who the story is and will grow to be—or, and often this is the case, it’s my first line. It’s like calling your friend over and telling her, “Hey, you know the worst thing about hell is you have to climb down to it?” and then you go into it. You explain what you mean…the rest of the story. The title is my point, like, hey, I’ll show you what I mean in a second.
CA: Several of your stories involve characters telling stories, like the father in the title story. What appeals to you about stories-within-stories?
CD: I suppose it’s two-fold. On one level, I’m very interested in the storyteller. Who are they? What have they gone through. I like writing stories where I can show the end result, the teller delivering the past and the present. When the character, my narrator, tells his or her story, it allows me to relinquish more of the control and let’s the story become their own. Yeah, of course, it’s technique. I’m creating this illusion for the reader that this story belongs to my narrator, allowing me to develop the character/narrator as much as the story, but I love the idea of the removed observer. It’s not exactly their story per say, but it dramatically changes them. You can’t un-see some things—so what’s that person’s story? What did they see that has made them who they are?
CA: In “So Bright We Quit Our Shadows,” published by CC, the characters are trapped by an unforgiving, penetrating sun. In several of your stories characters are at the mercy of impersonal forces, as if the world has grown too big for us and the best we can do is hang on to our decency, our humanity. Can you comment on that?
CD: Sure. Those impersonal forces you mention, the ones that have us clinging to our humanity, I see them more asmaking us decent. At their mercy, we become human. They make us real. When the world crashes down on us, when we have nothing left, we cast aside a lot of the trivial stuff and live, and there’s a story there, whether it’s a painful one or not, and the characters there, well, they’re so human, it’s definitely worth writing about to me.
CA: Your work is often surreal, weaving the fantastic into everyday lives. Do you consider your style to be in the slipstream tradition?
CD: Fabulism, magical realism, new magical, minimalism—I do it all! But seriously, I’m definitely a product of something, and that something seems to blend elements of my childhood interests. Sometimes it seems like whatever the end result is that it’s weird enough to slip out of the standard genres, but that’s where my mind goes when writing stories. I suppose similar minds fall into the slipstream tradition, somewhere between literary fiction, science fiction, and magical realism. So yeah, I consider myself part of it.
CA: Which story in the collection took you the longest to get right? Why?
CD: If I had my way I’d still be revising most of my stories, so the idea of getting a story right is a bit hard for me. There are moments, days even, where I think a story is right where I want it, and then one morning I’ll wake up, flip open the computer, and read and hate and read and believe every word, every phrase, every idea is shit and sounds like shit and should have never been written. But I’ve come to understand that, so I know now to flip the computer shut again, and to walk away. I suppose there was a month or so, maybe more, where that happened a lot, so it made all the stories I was working on feel particularly difficult to get right. I was trying my hand at a novel, and it was ruining me. I love flash. I love the short story. Those things appeal to me more than any other medium, so when I was attempting the novel, everything else I wrote left a bad taste in my mouth. I’d come to one of my short stories, and I’d read a line aloud, and it would sound so silly and wrong to me because it lacked a novel’s detail. It was a hard place to be as a writer, and it almost destroyed me.
CA: If you could have lunch with one fictional character, who would it be?
CD: By the way, are we talking about one of my characters or any character from any book? If it’s the latter, then I’d like to have a trout lunch with the narrator from Trout Fishing in America or maybe with Trout Fishing in American himself, as he is his own character from time to time. A close runner up would be Eli from Patrick deWitt’s The Sisters Brothers, as he made sense to me.
If we were talking about one of my characters, then I’m not sure. Most I feel I know, that I’ve broken bread with them in my head plenty of times, but maybe, if we had both finished work for the day, and there were an open pub serving dark beer and warm food, maybe I’d like to sit down with Pop from “Pieces of My Junkyard Father.”
CA: Who are some of your influences? What’s the best book you’ve read so far this year?
CD: Lots of influences. Lots. Over the summer I took it hard to poetry, and then to the works of Richard Brautigan. A Confederate General from Big Sur, The Hawkline Monster: A Gothic Western. Revenge of the Lawn. In Watermelon Sugar. I’ve been reading over a lot of his work, and yeah, he’s not so much new or alive, but his writing really does what it wants. Some of it, I’m just shaking my head at, but I respect it, so it’s been quite inspirational to me. And yeah, Trout Fishing in America. I can’t tell you how many times I’ve read that in the last year. Any time I felt my prose getting stiff, any time I felt my stories limited, I read a chapter and remembered that this guy could break the rules before I even knew there were rules.
CA: What are you working on now?
CD: Well, I took this past summer to explore poetry and ended up producing a chapbook’s worth. Before that, I was getting silly with hybrid form, writing children’s stories for adults. But right now, I’m just slowly working my way back into what I love—the minimalist story. I’d call it flash, but I don’t always get my stories in under exactly 1000 words.
CA: What’s the best writing advice you’ve ever received?CD: I feel like all the good writing advice is learned, not told. Anytime I hear something that really rings true it’s because I’ve already suffered it. Okay, that’s just me complaining, but I think there’s something to be said about learning what works for you, and that no advice is a one size fits all kind of thing. And that’s probably the best advice I hear good writers give–that some of the writing advice out there is gold and that same gold can be complete crap, that you have to learn to reject what might be good advice for another writer but death to you. You can waste a lot of time believing you should be doing it a certain way, fighting an unnecessary fight.
And oh yeah, that whole thing about finding a time and place that is your writing zone, that’s terrific advice, but don’t let it get out of hand or it’ll govern you and you’ll only be able to write at 5:00 am in the morning sitting on a lukewarm wooden rocking chair. But knowing that you write better in the morning, well, that’s good for a writer. Learn what you like, repeat.
So My Mother, She Lives in the Clouds: Christopher D. DiCicco (Contributor Series Interview Series #8)
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.*
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
Author Interview Series: Christopher DiCicco
Tell us about So My Mother, She Lives in the Clouds.
The stories are told from the perspective of narrators learning to cope with absurd pain. Maybe a girlfriend floats away, maybe wolves steal a son, maybe the narrator mail-orders a new family to replace the one he’s lost. It’s a collection of short stories where most of the characters deal with loss and the what happens next. The same characters reappear throughout the collection in different versions—and I suppose they all suffer; they all heal. Or cope. Maybe that’s more it than anything else. The collection is weird. There’s no way around it. The prose reflects that, so there’s lots of variety. And the title story is actually based on something I used to tell one of my sons when we’d walk through the woods, and I guess that kind of sums the collection up, offbeat stories told casually.
Who is your favorite character from the book?
That’s a tough one. I mentioned that certain characters reappear through the collection, but not in a chronological sense, more like a reality sense. There’s Simon—sometimes he’s young and suffering—sometimes he’s older and coping, a touch off from being completely sad. He might be my favorite. I feel for him. But I suppose the real favorite, just because in a way she’s still a mystery to me, is the character Sara. She’s something else. Sometimes she might be more like a girl on the edge of the story, in that, she’s part of them, for sure, but only as a missing piece. She is the something the story needs but she keeps leaving it one way or another.
What inspired you to write the book?
I know this is a terrible answer to start with, but a lot of people. A lot of books. Honestly, family and friends, beautiful phrases and stories, all those things inspired me to write. But, more specifically, in many ways my family. Past and present. There are a lot of family dynamics running through the collection. I guess growing older, starting my own family, and wanting to be able to tell them stories that weaved in the issues I knew to be real—that really inspired me a good deal.
What were your biggest challenges when writing the book?
One of the biggest challenges was walking away from a story. I’m always tweaking stories, tightening up lines, rephrasing things, telling the story from a different perspective. That can take a lot of time, consume your life—and I love my family and enjoy my work as a teacher—so letting the writing consume me was a struggle. I truly identify with writing and feel it’s something I have to do in some form everyday. Maybe that didn’t always look like secluding myself away to knock out a story, but it was always something. Where do you fit that in is the question. What I found is having a very supportive family (especially my wife Anna) and being willing to squeeze my writing in while standing in the middle of the family room helped. Maybe a better way to look at it would be to say, the biggest challenge was learning not to squeeze writing in and instead learn to make it a functioning part of my life.
Who are you reading now? Which authors have been an inspiration to you, and why?
Actually, right now I’ve been on a poetry kick. I’ve been reading through the McSweeney’s Poetry Series, and I’m quite pleased with it. Some really beautiful, wonderful stuff there. I suppose some of my biggest inspirations are Kurt Vonnegut, Richard Brautigan, and Etgar Keret. And Amy Hempel. The first three taught me I could write however I felt like, as casual as telling a friend over coffee that the world was coming to an end. Amy Hempel taught me there are a lot of ways to tell a story. She has that subtle beauty to her writing where you realize the pain the character is experiencing is its own character within the story. I want to write stories like that.
What advice can you provide to aspiring authors?
Feel free to experiment. If someone asks of your writing the age-old question, “Why?” respond with, “Why not?” There will be a lot who do. They’ll be people you respect. They’ll be writers you admire. And, in the end, it won’t matter. Some writing advice hurts because it’s true and you feel shameful of not writing as well as you should have. Other writing advice will hurt because it will be wrong specifically to who you are as a writer—and if you apply it, even if it’s sound advice for a thousand other writers, you’ll know you were wrong to, and it’ll stick with you. People will want different things from your characters, more from certain lines of plot, and they’ll be right to want it at times. It’ll help you tremendously to get that feedback. And then, there will be other times where you’ll need to learn to say no, this phrase stays, this character dies here—and it will make your story exactly that—your story.
By Deb A.
Christopher David DiCicco writes short fiction in his attic. But he also mumbles it to himself in grocery stores, so if you run into him in Pennsylvania, don’t be alarmed. He is a proud member of the online literary community whose piece, “Life Where You Want It” brings an upside-down world to the pages of Agave Magazine’s Summer 2014 issue. (He would probably not mind you thinking he wrote Amy Hempel’s “In The Cemetery Where Al Jolson is Buried” as well: “I can read that story over and over and you know what, so could you.”) This week we are proud to introduce to you the fascinating Christopher D. DiCicco.
Where did you come up with the idea of a short story about being upside-down on a roller coaster?
I think in stories, so it just kind of came to me like a lot of mine do, but then like a lot of my ideas, I married it to something more important that interests me or haunts me or hurts my damn soul. You know what I mean, one of those deeper themes that occur throughout most literature because we’re all so similar, I married it to one of those guys. I’d been talking to my writer friend Matthew Kabik and he’d been reiterating his hate for his cubicle life; every day he’d look at this awful inspirational poster of a mountain biker riding down a hill with the words “Go for it” at the bottom of it or something like that. He said it crushed his soul, the stupidity and corniness of his corporate job trying to inspire him, and I thought about it, how odd and scary it is that we get stuck in these daily loops where we end up doing the same thing over and over again that we’d rather not do, and how that’s probably as weird as the rain hitting the ground and drying it right up. So, I guess the piece is a reaction to that. It’s my way of trying to make the reader look at things in a different perspective, maybe notice how weird things already are.
What would your upside-down life be like?
Picture this–upside down, when I kiss my wife, it’s because I’m angry. I step into a room and walk outside into the sun.
Hanging there no longer right-side up, I feed strays, starving them until I can see their ribs.
And when I dance, I stand completely still, and when I’m sad and cry upside down, little words in the tune of a happy jingle come singing out my eyes letting everyone know what it’s like to be me.
You sometimes write by dictating into your iPhone – does that change the nature of your final draft compared to things that start on a screen/a sheet of paper? Do you use this method because your brain is bubbling over with ideas, or because your life as a father/husband/teacher means you have to make the most of every minute… or just because you like to?
No, not really because even if I start a piece on screen or paper, I like to hear it aloud. I’m very interested in how my writing sounds, the flow of it. If I’m typing the thing, I’m saying it aloud and if I’m recording it, then it’s only a matter of time before I’m typing it anyway, so I don’t see a real change in the nature of the writing, not really. But it’s terrible at Starbucks. People probably think I’m whispering to myself. Although it’s probably worse when I’m at the grocery store talking into my phone about life on an upside-down roller coaster. And it’s not like I voice it aloud because it has to sound beautiful or anything. It’s more of it sounding right, to fit what I’m trying to capture for the particular piece. I don’t know. It’s weird. It’s my voice. I know how I sound or the narrator should sound, and if it’s not right, then I want to fix it. For me, dictating into my phone or reading it aloud as I write helps ensure that I’m writing it as it should be. I guess that kind of answers the second part of your question in a way, but not completely, so here goes…I think my style and my process are reciprocal in nature. My style is as much a product of my process as my process is a part of my style. And I’m overflowing with ideas, so I say into my phone, “New story idea” or “Continuation of…” and then I start listing the details, and then I’m like, the hell with this, because the details start taking form and then I just can’t help myself and I start telling the story, which is me writing. I think that makes sense because that’s the kind of the voice I have, some sort of weird casual storyteller. Isn’t that what writing fiction is anyway? Storytelling? I mean, the same way a singer or musician might emphasize a certain note, holding it out or cutting it nice and tight, that’s what the fiction writer does. He or she decides where to cut a word or splice in a phrase, where to emphasize a detail no one cares about until the storyteller decides it’s important, and in doing so the writer produces something of his/her own creation… and what the hell am I talking about, so yeah, being a father/husband/teacher reinforces my approach to writing. It’s old-fashioned storytelling, parenting and teaching—I’m always telling them a story—and if I tell it well enough they’ll listen.
Where does your (presumably irrepressible) urge to write come from?
Urge? It’s more like an anxiety. I have this need to write, and when I do, I feel good. At least, most of the time. It’s a part of me. And the more I know about it, the more writing becomes interesting to me—it becomes something I have to do because I love it. It’s really a narcotic thing, my urge to write. It comes from this intense appreciation of writing as an art, and a sort of obsession over style and experimentation. Those things complete me in a very corny way—who wouldn’t have the urge to feel completed?
Do you ever get writer’s block? If so, how do you deal with it?
Yes, but I never call it that. I’m not sure why. I know what it is. It’s when I write and hate every word I think of. I get so down on myself that everything seems wrong and I wonder why I write at all. To get over it, I read my favorite stories and they remind me of how good writing is, then I read something I’ve written that I know is good or at least has a good part to it, and when I come to that word or line or paragraph that sounds like it should and I’m proud of it and feel good, then my faith has been restored in me, not just in the written word. Then I can write again.
But other things have been changing–for the good.
I’m not afraid of clowns anymore, for one thing.