We asked the fiction writers from our latest issue what questions they would want to ask their fellow Volume 9 contributors. A few then answered those questions, delving into their craft, their inspirations, and their approach to creating. Read on to learn more about Darlene Eliot, author of "Maybe It Looks Better With the Other Eye," Katie Mora, author of "God Comes to Tres Piedras," Jennifer Ellen Murphy, author of "Quitting for Beginners," Sean Ennis, author of "This Is What We Trained For, People," Bill Rector, author of "It Was Here All Along," Ceri Eagling, author of "Grading Marvell," and Dia Van Gunten, author of "Strings & Attractors." And make sure to check out their work in Vol 9: AGENCY!
Katie Mora: Who/what are your greatest non-writer influences?
Darlene Eliot: Film directors, film editors, composers, and artists. Film editors have a special place in my heart. You cannot do that job if you have a big ego. You’re joining a project already in progress and collaborating and polishing someone else’s vision. You do your job well and the work is invisible. I love Thelma Schoonmaker’s work. Sometimes I mute the movies to see how she cuts the scenes. My favorite directors are Billy Wilder, The Coen Brothers, Jordan Peele, Jane Campion, and Martin Scorsese. I’ve already gone long on this answer, so I won’t name my favorites in the other categories, but film scores and paintings inspire me, too. I’m also fascinated by the collision of art and commerce. Especially when it goes well.
KM: What is your preferred writing environment?
DE: Early morning before my inner critic gets in the way. I write at my desk or on the couch with a cup of coffee. If I have a piece of music I associate with a character, I listen to it before I start writing.
KM: Throughout your body of work, are there any recurring elements that stand out to you? Are they intentional or unintentional?
DE: I have a dark sense of humor and it sneaks into my stories, whether I like it or not. Even when a story is somber, there’s usually a silly or absurd moment. Most of my characters feel trapped by dilemmas or unpleasant situations. Life is strange that way. Strange and sweet and sad all at the same time. You never know what’s going to happen next.
KM: Where and when do your best ideas come to you?
DE: The hour before breakfast is good. Driving in the car, listening to music, or hearing music from another car window is good, too. Sometimes I see cringe-worthy moments and can’t shake the second-hand embarrassment until I write about it. Sometimes I’m the one making a fool of myself and it’s cathartic to catapult that feeling into a fictional world.
KM: What is your favorite kind of bird?
DE: The Atlantic Puffin. They’re beautiful and funny and do deep dives and swim fast. How can you not love a bird whose nickname is Clown of the Sea or The Sea Parrot?
Dia VanGunten: As a fiction writer, do you adhere to the "write what you know" rule?
Katie Mora: I interpret "write what you know" as more of an adage than a hard rule. It's important to be aware of the limitations of one's own perspective and to write with respect for others at all times. But all too often, strict adherence to this rule produces dull, narrow, navel-gazing autofiction that I don't enjoy reading and thus don't want to produce. With that said, I typically use little bits of what I know—places, images, atmospheres, conversations, overheard remarks, sensory experiences—as starting points, then let them guide me down tangents to craft something original. My story in this issue of Fatal Flaw, "God Comes to Tres Piedras," began with a memory of briefly living off-grid in northern New Mexico eleven years ago. But from there, it diverged and allowed me to explore lives, viewpoints, mindsets, and events other than those I'm expressly familiar with. The idea is always to transport myself somewhere new, bringing anyone reading the story along with me—we're all on a ride together through the vast expanse of the material and unconscious worlds, and that by necessity means leaving what we know behind.
DVG: Do you believe in killing your darlings?
KM: For the sake of avoiding the navel-gazing I mentioned before, yes — usually, the reason I get so attached to my "darlings" is that they come from a deeply, intensely personal place. But my relationship to them is a selfish one, and selfishness doesn't suit my fiction or my process of writing it. What typically ends up happening is, if I'm in love with a scene or sentence or moment that doesn't serve the story, I'll think about why I'm so reluctant to let it go, then repurpose it into something that suits its purpose better. These sorts of things often work well as poems, where they can be sublimated into more abstract forms or images, but some end up in different stories months or years down the line. So it's not so much killing as relocating; if something's truly good, I'll find a place for it.
DVG: Tell us about your favorite character that you've ever read...
KM: It's a tie between Janina from Drive Your Plow Over the Bones of the Dead by Olga Tokarczuk and Gus from Lonesome Dove by Larry McMurtry. It is so difficult to write characters with such intimate depth without neglecting the breadth of the world they live in, but Tokarczuk and McMurtry consistently pull it off. Janina and Gus are equal parts hilarious and tragic, with rich thoughts and observations that feel like they couldn't have come from anyone else. Thanks to those characters, I came away from each book invigorated with new ways of conceptualizing myself and the world around me.
DVG: Tell us about your favorite character that you've written…
KM: I always like the characters that challenge me to really think about how I perceive things, that make me whittle down the thought processes I take for granted and consider A) how I've come to possess them, and B) how different they might look if they belonged to someone else. I have an unfinished novel about an ornithologist who gets tangled up in a radical environmentalism movement while studying an endangered bird, and he's become my favorite in many ways. For the purposes of getting the story rolling, I initially conceptualized him as holding similar beliefs to my own, but the events of the novel have forced him—and me—to question and restructure them. Now he and I are both different from how we started, but we've diverged in separate directions from one another as well. It's been a fascinating, enriching evolution, and for that I hold the character very fondly.
DVG: Why write fiction?
KM: I read fiction to explore new perspectives and gain a deeper understanding of the sheer breadth and depth of the subjective realm, and I write it to provide that experience to others. That's not to say I aim to write "relatable" stories or characters; frankly, the modern reader's obsession with straightforward "relatability" as a cornerstone of good writing is depressing to me. I don't expect many people to relate offhand to the narrator of "God Comes to Tres Piedras." What I do hope is that the story makes you think about how she ended up there, why she notices certain details, how the maxims she lives by propel her through life. Maybe those answers will resonate deeply with you in some surprising way. Maybe you'll just find them strange. But either way, I hope you come out of the story a little different than how you entered it. Fiction at its best is transformative for all involved. That's what I seek from both my stories and others'.
Sean Ennis: Did you become a better writer during the Covid-19 pandemic?
Jennifer Ellen Murphy: This is a difficult question for me. Short answer, I did, and I didn’t. In truth, being creative during the pandemic was difficult for me. I was revising my dissertation during most of it. Reseeing those stories was challenging because, after March 2020, I was a different person. What I was writing about didn’t seem as urgent anymore. Even though I wasn’t as productive, I did learn about myself as a writer. I’m an observer and need stimuli from the outside world. Isolation was difficult for me. I had to learn to be alone, to live with myself, something I’ve never been good at. I learned I needed to prioritize my writing, which I thought I was already doing but wasn’t. I also learned how to leave a story to rest and move on if it wasn’t speaking to me anymore. So, long answer, while my productivity slowed and stopped at times, I learned more about myself as a writer, which is always good.
SE: What is it most people understand about the moon?
JEM: It’s true. Most people don’t understand the moon. They don’t understand that it’s our phantom limb. Our reflection. A stranger smiling at us. But what people most often don’t understand about the moon is that it doesn’t have a dark side. And, in fact, because it is tidally locked to our planet, it has two separate day/night cycles: one we witness and one we don’t. The side we cannot see is not dark. Nor is it shadow. It’s true. The moon isn’t easily understood. But poets, they get it. We should ask a poet.
SE: Which font is holy to you?
JEM: I’m not religious, but Garamond, of course.
SE: If it’s true that we live in a simulation, how might one account for the feeling of new love?
JEM: This whole conversation about living in a simulation is a dodge. I mean, I get it. Our lives have become artificial. Excusing ourselves and our misery is more accessible when the consequences are removed. But we don’t live in a simulation, and there are ways to remind ourselves of that. I try to reconnect with the natural world. Stand barefoot in the grass. Be spontaneous. Read something you wouldn’t usually. Surprise your wife every chance you get. But to answer your question, if this were a simulation, new love would be the drug administered when one comes close to figuring it all out.
Bill Rector: Russell Edson said that words are the enemy of poetry. Can this maxim be applied to flash fiction?
Sean Ennis: I think it’s a funny way to see the writing process, regardless of genre. “Enemy” is a strong and loaded word and I don’t like metaphors of war. I mean, I get the irony, but I’m suspicious of writers who want to mystify things. If the point is just that finding the right word, etc. can be difficult, then, yes, I agree. That’s the whole thing. What else would it be?
BR: How does your flash usually come into being? With a word, a line, an image? Or is it more planned, e.g., a story?
SE: I usually collect language, ideas, and data from other things I’ve been reading for a week or two, then start to imagine what the appropriate voice would sound like to cover the material. I wouldn’t call it a plan and I’ve gotten less interested in plot (context, backstory, motivation, psychology, etc.). For instance, I recently read that the tyrannosaurus was as smart as a chimpanzee and probably had culture. Not sure exactly why, but I know I can use that.
BR: Is the time you require for revision measured in days, months, or years?
SE: Usually a few weeks. If it’s not coming together by then, I’ll just move on. This is a feature of writing flash that I like a lot. Nothing is too precious, and no piece causes over-investment.
BR: How are images developed in flash fiction versus poetry?
SE: I would guess there’s not a huge difference. Describe only what readers couldn’t imagine themselves. Don’t bother with the imagery that readers can intuit themselves. Focus instead on what readers wouldn’t come up with on their own (i.e., that character has a hook for hand) or hadn’t considered in a specific way (the hook for a hand is sexy).
Darlene Eliot: What surprised you most when you wrote this story?
Bill Rector: The first paragraph was a surprise. The identical initials of Artificial Intelligence and Absence of Inspiration simply appeared as I wrote. It was a happy surprise. I knew fortune had favored me.
DE: How does your story incorporate the theme ‘Agency?’
BR: The most powerful agency in creation is a lack of agency. (What is the agency in the practice of Zen?) The title, “It Was Here All Along,” expresses this.
DE: If you had to meet a real-life counterpart of one of your characters, who would you choose for a coffee chat? And why?
BR: The only two characters in the piece are the woman with torticollis and me. I’ve had enough coffee with me. The woman is real. She lived in the apartment across the hall when I was in medical school. She was indeed a librarian. And deeply shy and embarrassed by her affliction. I doubt she would have agreed to chat with me. However, I never asked.
DE: Besides writing, what are some of your favorite activities?
BR: I have in retirement become a golfer. Golf lies on a spectrum between indifference and severe mental illness. I tend toward the latter.
DE: How do writer friends inspire you as you work on projects and plan future ones?
BR: I have no writer friends. I am a solitary creature so far as my writing goes. I suffer from a lack of input but in some ways benefit from it as well.
Jennifer Ellen Murphy: Who are the writers you draw the most inspiration from that you find are frequently unknown by most writers?
Ceri Eagling: Nineteenth century authors like Trollope, Dickens and Edith Wharton are hardly unknown, but perhaps not widely read outside literature courses. I find them insightful about the enduring qualities, both admirable and unsavory, of the human condition, and in the case of Wharton, in particular, her polished sentences feel like something to aspire to.
JEM: What are your favorite techniques to present and represent gender neutrality in your work?
CE: This is not an issue that has come up in my work so far, but if it does, the characters’ individual standpoints will dictate that decision. I imagine each character would use the designation(s) of his/her/their choice, and the tension between those who refuse to respect each other's self-identification might be what drives the plot.
JEM: What genre, outside of the one you work in most, do you engage with for pleasure?
CE: In recent years, I have gained a lot of satisfaction from writing poetry. Trying to express my thoughts with both precision and concision is hard work, but worth the effort.
JEM: When approaching race and othering in your own work, how do you grapple with drawing empathy from readers for unlikeable characters while remaining true to authentic renderings of characters with prejudices?
CE: Whether a character acts from unexamined, learned prejudice or from conscious and unrepentant hostility probably affects the way a narrative unfolds, but in either case, a backstory, told directly or merely hinted at, lets a reader speculate about cause and effect without necessarily excusing the behavior.
JEM: How do you incorporate creative techniques from other genres or mediums into your work?
CE: My efforts with poetry have made me more focused on cutting waste words and honing a sentence with a better choice of verb. I find this much easier to do if I put a piece aside for a while and later review it with fresh eyes.
Ceri Eagling: Are you disciplined about a consistent writing schedule, or do you work more successfully when you feel particularly focused and motivated?
Dia Van Gunten: Due to prolonged blocks, I’m terrified of “falling off’ so I stay on the horse. I’m at it everyday, 7 days a week, and I keep a relentless routine. I’ve always been like that but I used to do it for 2-3 months and then take a month to travel or clean the kitchen or be a human. That worked well and I’d like to fall into that pattern again, but I lived during blocks so don’t really feel like I have that time to “waste” anymore.
CE: How large a role does revision play in your writing process?
DVG: In PZR classic, told in third person, I might work on a story for weeks or even months, revising and rearranging, while an undead-comic might come out in an afternoon and resist revision. I let them be. I try not to spook them. I don’t believe in killing darlings. I let my darlings lead the way.
CE: Are you influenced by contemporary literary trends to experiment with genres and styles that are outside your usual territory?
DVG: I’ve always considered myself to be a writer of western magical realism, but there was a time when I was staunchly lit-fic and snooty about genre. This was the late 90s and that was the general consensus. But then, I fell hard for PK Dick, and began to see the potential of sci-fi. Then GRRM came along and took our heads off with Game of Thrones. We saw we’d underestimated fantasy. Game of Thrones was hailed as the thinking man’s fantasy series. I started thinking of my most detested trend / genre – zombies – and how it might be redeemed to my satisfaction. What would the thinking woman’s zombie series be like? I’ve spent the past decade on an undead virus, which would horrify younger me, but I’d urge her to read Schopenhauer and research George Romero. A good writer should be able to find their way into any story. My next project involves professional wrestling, and my last was a psychedelic comic book series about Alexander the Great. My younger self would be appalled by all of that, until she read it. These experiments are potent territory. The challenge is bringing my style to each project.
CE: Through experience, what have you learned to help you navigate the submission process?
DVG: Editors aren’t gatekeepers or faceless monolithes. They have day jobs, broken hearts and literary ambitions of their own. We build them up to be almost untouchable, more obstacle than ally, but that’s not why they’re in it. They’re in it because they love it. I found the ones who love what I do and the whole game broke open and revealed its parts. Inside, nerds. Beautiful nerds.
CE: What is your philosophy for handling rejections?
DVG: If a letter rubs me wrong, maybe that’s not my circus, those aren’t my nerds, but usually, I will submit to them again. Some of my biggest supporters and / or opportunities are with mags that initially rejected me.
Darlene Eliot lives in California. She enjoys peanut M&Ms, but doesn’t toss them in the air or have a beleaguered personal assistant. Her stories have appeared or are forthcoming in Cleaver, New Flash Fiction Review, Puerto del Sol Journal, Your Impossible Voice, Heavy Feather, Lost Balloon and elsewhere. She recently joined IG (@deliotwriter) and would love to see you there.
Katie Mora is a writer whose work has previously been published in Gone Lawn and is forthcoming in Progenitor Art & Literary Journal. Originally from Hawaii, she currently lives in the Capital Region of New York.
Dia VanGunten is the writer behind the Pink Zombie Rose series, the story of an undead apocalypse that's "all in the head."
Jennifer Ellen Murphy is a lesbian writer living in Atlanta, Georgia. She received her Ph.D. in Fiction from Georgia State University. You can find her work in The Superstition Review, Breakwater Review, and The Kenyon Review. She is working on a collection of multi-length stories examining heteronormative influences on lesbian cultures and a novel about D. B. Cooper. She teaches writing at Georgia State University and Agnes Scott College and lives and writes from her Atlanta apartment.
Sean Ennis is the author of CUNNING, BAFFLING, POWERFUL (Thirty West). He lives in Mississippi and more of his work can be found at seanennis.net
Bill Rector’s first book, bill, was published by Proem Press. Chapbooks have appeared in Epiphany Magazine (Chapbook Prize Winner), Unsolicited Press, Finishing Line Press, Prolific Press, and White Knuckle Press. His work has been nominated for a Pushcart Prize and Best of the Net. He is a retired physician.
Ceri Eagling grew up in Wales, lived six years in France and is a long-time resident of the United States. Her writing is influenced by each of these experiences. Her fiction and nonfiction have been accepted by LIT magazine, The Writing Disorder, Bandit Fiction, WayWords Literary Journal, The Writer, The Write Place at the Write Time and Medium via The Billfold. Her poetry has appeared elsewhere.
We asked the visual artists from our latest issue what questions they would want to ask their fellow Volume 9 contributors. A few then answered those questions, delving into their craft, their inspirations, and their approach to creating. Read on to learn more about Chris Richford, Beppi, Sapira Cheuk, and Alexandra N Sherman. And make sure to check out their work in Vol 9: AGENCY!