September 23, 2021 by The Citron Review
The Predatory Animal Ball
(Okay Donkey, 2021)
Jennifer Fliss’s new short story collection The Predatory Animal Ball in pre-order now, will be released by Okay Donkey Books in December. Our Creative Nonfiction Editor, Ronit Plank talked with the author about the worlds that were created in the book.
Ronit Plank: Jen, you and I met in a fiction program at the University of Washington and back then we were both learning about and writing short stories. When did you first begin writing flash fiction and micro fiction and what interested you in the form?
Jennifer Fliss: Short form is the length that comes naturally to me. Folks in our class and in workshops I’ve attended (like Tin House), everyone was submitting traditional length short stories and mine were like, three pages. Part of me felt like I was doing it wrong. It took a while to learn that these shorties had value too. There are not many workshops and classes specifically for flash. I didn’t even really realize it was different until fairly recently. They run at a different pace and feel different than a regular short story. They often feel more conceptual, like a little sculpture you can pick up, turn around to look at all the angles.
Though, to be completely honest, I wish I was better at writing longer stories!
Ronit: What do you feel people not yet familiar with flash and micro fiction might misunderstand about it?
Jennifer: That it’s worth your time. Writers often read flash, but the outside world doesn’t often. I think they’d get pleasure out of it. You’d think with our shortened attention spans, that flash would be the perfect literary venue. They’re nuggets that are easily accessible and give you an emotional jolt; It’s literary caffeine!
Ronit: You have hundreds of published stories and you are a mother to a young child. How do you make the time and what is your writing life like—are you an every-day writer, a binge writer, do you sit down no matter what or do you write when the spirit moves you?
Jennifer: I really started writing more once I had a child. While having a baby takes a lot of a certain kind of time, it left me with bits of time periods during naps or nursing jags. I also had way bigger, seemingly more complex emotions, and writing was the way I accessed and processed them. There’s nothing like having a kid to get slapped in the face with your own childhood traumas and experiences that you’d tucked away.
Writing helped to get my anxieties out of my head and somewhere else. It was like an exorcism, ha!
I don’t write every day; I write when inspired. That means I can go months without writing. I know some people say you’re only a real writer if you sit down to write every day. I say that’s a hard no. Every single person does things differently.
You’re an accountant every day, even if you don’t do someone’s taxes every day. You’re a plumber every day even if you’re not plumbing the depths of someone’s pipes every day. People have opinions about what being a real artist is. You must do X for X hours a day. You must get paid at least X dollars. Way to impose the capitalistic approach on it.
Ronit: How do you know when a story is “done”?
Jennifer: The thing about flash is that for me, it usually comes out in one go. I don’t believe in this kind of thing in reality, but it’s almost like the spirit is moving me. I start and then the figurative pen stops when it’s complete. This isn’t to say I don’t go back to revise, but it comes out pretty fully formed. I know when I feel good about it and I know when there is something amiss – even if I’m not sure right away what that thing is. Truthfully though, I should give more time and space to my work, because when I do and come back to it a while later, I always improve it.
Ronit: Fabulism abounds in The Predatory Animal Ball. Have you always leaned toward magic realism and can you talk about what it enables you to do as a writer?
Jennifer: Franz Kafka is my muse. Kind of. I didn’t love “The Metamorphosis” when I read it in school, but it stuck with me. Here we are getting Austen and Hemingway and Faulkner assigned to us and here’s this Eastern European Jew who is writing about becoming a literal cockroach. It was the first time I saw that “literature” could be many things.
Our world is so absurd. And absurdity is when we can see our hypocrisies and realities more clearly. So, when I use a fabulist approach, say, a gargoyle narrating a city in ruins, or a carton of eggs that have tiny human baby accessories in the yolks; I think it makes the issues so much clearer.
PLUS IT IS FUN BECAUSE THERE ARE NO BOUNDARIES! You aren’t tethered to reality. And isn’t that what being a fiction writer is about? Let your imagination go wild.
Ronit: In “The Last Time They Came. The First Time I Understood” your narrator says, “where I was from was no longer there anyway. Can you be from somewhere that disappeared?” There’s a sense of disturbed space and an unsettledness that runs through this collection. Your protagonists may be unmoored, losing power, but they seem aware of that and watchful, almost like they have a sense of agency even when they are losing power. Is this conscious on your part?
Jennifer: I’m Jewish and being a part of a diasporic community, I often think about place and how I and people like me occupy that space, internally and externally, and how people do or do not welcome me in that space. My family history is riddled with displacement. Many of these aspects of history were just wiped away. Town names changed, synagogues turned into churches, histories rewritten, people themselves exterminated. I never feel totally secure in the place I am in. It’s something I am not alone in. Many Jews feel this way, as do many others who come from communities that experienced such instability and displacement.
Ronit: The stories in your collection also deal with grief and violence, sexual assault, and the vulnerability of children and women. Is there anything especially important that you want to convey when you’re writing about abuse and loss?
Jennifer: I began writing as a way of processing my own childhood trauma. That writing was only intended for my notebooks and not public consumption. I was sexually, emotionally, and physically abused by my father for nearly a decade. That sentence alone I wouldn’t have been able to say outright even last year. Writing became the way for me to “talk about it.” At first it was thinly veiled fiction; then I was able to write my story as nonfiction, but kind of danced around the subject; then I was able to write it more clearly. Now I feel like I can say it – out loud – even though it’s still incredibly difficult.
Trauma like I experienced is astonishingly prevalent. The internet was barely a thing when I was young. I had no way to know I wasn’t alone in my experiences. While my writing is my own processing, I also desperately want to reach anyone feeling alone or feeling like no one can relate, because that loneliness can be deadly.
Ronit: Some of the stories in this collection are poignant and heartbreaking like the sense of being misunderstood and family alienation the protagonist experiences in “The Great Bear”. Some of your stories also have this wry quality, almost an omniscient wink to the reader like in “Broken Keys”, “The Gargoyles Survey Their City” and in the titular story “The Predatory Animal Ball”. Though they aren’t mutually exclusive, as a writer, do you have a preference for either approach and do you know before you sit down to write which direction you are heading or do you discover that on the way?
Jennifer: I’ve realized I often dance around in style. I write nonfiction too. It feels like a gift to get to enjoy all these styles of writing. I really like language. I can’t poem, but oh, when you read a good poem, it’s perfection. The word choices poets use – the cadence, the way it sounds. That’s pure art. When I need inspiration, I turn to reading poetry. I may not understand it all, but I can access incredible imagery and thoughtful word choice, and that in turn inspires me. So, the stories I write with that piece of it, which I think is in The Great Bear, those feel really good to me.
The others feel more gimmicky. Not in a bad way, because it’s fun to be in on something with the reader. There’s so much fun you can have in writing. The reader and writer are engaging together in play. I love when I read work like that, so I hope readers enjoy it when I do it too.
Ronit: What authors have inspired you, are there any stories you love that you go back to again and again?
Jennifer: Kendra Fortmeyer’s fiction is what made me feel confident to keep going in the direction that I tend to in my writing. I’ve reread her work. There really are so many. To name a few: Kelly Link, Aimee Bender, and Yoko Ogawa. I return to authors often; specific stories less so. And then there are a lot of my peers who may not have books published (yet) and are so good too. I’ll reread their stories way more than the “big” names.
Like I said, Kafka. I dig his short work most of all and I mentally return to Ramona Ausubel’s “No One is Here Except All of Us” often.
Ronit: What are you working on now?
Jennifer: I have to get back to a novel called Stones that is written and I’ve sent it out. People like the premise, but the book itself needs to connect better with the reader. So it’s almost revision time for that one. Time is truly the best editor. And then I have a second novel idea called Fall Out and that’s about a third of the way written. It is these longer works that are harder for me and also require a good chunk of undisturbed time. Given the pandemic and my daughter being home all day, every day, I haven’t been able to access these stories. But I love them and want to spend time with them!
Jennifer Fliss (she/her) is a Seattle-based writer whose writing has appeared in F(r)iction, The Rumpus, The Washington Post, and elsewhere, including the 2019 Best Short Fiction anthology. Her flash collection, The Predatory Animal Ball will be out in late 2021. She can be found on Twitter at @writesforlife or via her website, www.jenniferflisscreative.com.