Interviewed by Sommer Schafer
Read Jan Stinchcomb’s fiction piece, I Have to Ask
Sommer: In “I Have to Ask,” it is not clear where we are or when. Initially, it feels very contemporary (waiting in line at the post office), and then it moves into what feels like more of a futuristic, dystopian world (public discourse is now unsafe). On the other hand, it also feels uncomfortably all too present-day. What was your intention with keeping certain aspects vague in this story?
Jan: First of all, I have been disoriented since November 8, 2016. I don’t expect things to feel clear again, not for a long while. We Americans don’t really have a good roadmap for what is happening to us now. Maybe it would be helpful to remember the McCarthy era, or Japanese internment. My question is: how do we know when we have arrived in a fascist state? It doesn’t happen overnight.
Back during the presidency of George W. Bush, I was living in Texas. Post-9/11 conditions were pretty awful, even in liberal Austin. People were afraid of stating publicly that they were Democrats — we even joked about “coming out” as Democrats when things began to shift. We were told that if we were against the Bush administration we were un-American. And during that time I began to wonder what it felt like to live in Europe in the 1930s. At what point, if ever, did people realize they needed to pack their suitcases and leave?
I am trying to demonstrate that the heroine of “I Have to Ask” is living with the curse of this vagueness, this dangerous uncertainty, in the space of the story. She won’t know how bad things are until she acts. Then she’ll have her answer, but it might be too late.
One aspect that I love about this story is its subtle espousing of a call to action: to break the rules, to speak out, to attempt to connect to other people. Yes, let’s wish each other luck as we ALL speak out! And speaking out we should be doing a lot of these days as Donald Trump and his cabinet take office. Do you believe fiction can and should be used as an agent of social change? Do you have any examples?
Fiction is about the world around us. As Chekhov said, “The role of the artist is to ask questions, not answer them.” I feel a huge debt to all the authors who wrote the books that make us uncomfortable: Golding (Lord of the Flies), Huxley (Brave New World), Orwell (Nineteen Eighty-Four), Bradbury (Fahrenheit 451).
Lately I’ve been thinking about a book I read a long time ago, Sofia Petrovna by Lydia Chukovskaya. Sofia is an ordinary person, a typist who works for a publishing house. When her son is arrested during Stalin’s purges, she is forced to come to terms with the reality of her world. In other words, Stalin is not the benevolent father figure she has placed all her faith in. She needs to wake up and protect herself before she becomes a casualty of this system.
“I Have to Ask” is a piece of flash fiction. Is there a difference for you in your process between writing flash fiction and longer fiction? What do YOU think are the main differences? How do you know when your piece of flash fiction is done? Personally, I struggle the most with this.
Flash fiction is like nothing else. It is urgency turned prose. Word choice is a matter of life or death, and writing flash tends to make one a better editor. Longer fiction, for me, is about dwelling for a while with a character and a set of problems. I’ve been writing so much flash for the past year that it can be hard for me to return to short stories of a more conventional length. Currently I am working on a piece of about 3,000 words, and I have to admit that I am finding it challenging.
Flash is not done until you write the perfect last line. You have to stick the landing, as Kathy Fish says, and then you have to find the perfect title.
What else are you working on these days? What keeps you going?
I always seem to have several pieces of flash going. I am also trying to find a home for a novel of urban fantasy/literary horror. It’s in between the worlds of genre and literary fiction and disturbing enough to offend people, especially where the “female monster” comes in.
My husband and children keep me going. I’ve dragged them along with me for so many years that it would be unfair to quit now.
What’s your advice to writers on handling rejection?
You have to submit so much and so often that rejection stops hurting. Still, I think it’s good to get your hopes up and even to get crushed once in a while. It shows you’re still reaching and taking risks. I also like to tell myself, “I’m going to be really surprised if they reject this piece. And if they take it, I’ll be even more surprised.”
Who are your main influences? Do you have a favorite quote?
Influences! I always say Gogol and Kafka for the weird stuff, especially the stories in Gogol’s Mirgorod. I love too many short story writers to mention them all. Dorothy Parker, of course, who said, “I hate writing. I love having written.” And I love Doris Lessing’s assertion: “There are no laws for the novel.”
It is such an honor to publish “I Have to Ask” in The Forge Literary Magazine, especially at this time in our country. Thank you so much for doing this interview with me!
Thank you for reading and understanding.
Sommer Schafer is an editor of the Forge Literary Magazine.