Interview with Flash Fiction Runner Up, Erica Settino
In May of 2015, she and her husband welcomed their son, Sebastian Bodhi, whom immediately became Erica’s greatest teacher, inspiration and best friend. She and her family live on Long Island with their three four-legged and furry companions.
You can read more about Erica’s activism, her yoga and her writing at Karuna for Animals and her web site.
Be sure to read her story, The Things We Leave Behind, before you read the interview.
WOW: There’s so much emotion packed into this story that it didn’t feel like a short form at all. It was so “filling.” Can you share with our readers what inspired it?
Erica: My husband and I are vegans. We’ve worked with animals and around animals for years. And we’re raising our son as a vegan. This stems from watching animals in their natural habitat with humans interfering as little as possible. We’re co-existing.
We are lucky enough to live in an area where osprey live every year. They show up around St. Patrick’s Day. I didn’t know if I had ever seen an osprey before I moved to this hamlet on the North Fork of Long Island. They build their nests on area property and I became enthralled by them.
It was part of my evolution -- single woman, moving in with my husband here, getting married, having a child. It was all part of a process and as I changed I saw that the osprey say good bye to their children. It is very bittersweet. When I became pregnant I started writing about the osprey and thinking how challenging that would be to let go of a child, but it is all part of the process. The ospreys inspire me to fly and to allow my son to fly.
WOW: How did this piece evolve and grow from idea to finished story?
Erica: Initially it was not flash fiction. It was thousands and thousands of words. I wrote it and rewrote it several times before submitting it to an animal anthology that was about human-animal interaction and interdependence. My story wasn’t chosen but I’m friendly with the publisher and she gave me a little bit of feedback about the dialogue. After that I was able to see the piece through her lens. I stripped a lot of the dialogue away. That let the interaction with the bird and the interaction between the mother and the daughter stand on its own.
I did this final rewrite quickly. I saw that WOW was doing the contest, I had the story, and I believed in it. There is so much of my life in this story. My grandmother had breast cancer. My becoming a new mother. Hurricane Sandy is the storm I speak to in the story and so much of the wildlife was lost. We saw that. We lived that. When I cut the dialogue out and let the rest speak for itself it shone much brighter.
When you write something short like this, you give your reader the benefit of the doubt that painting the picture is enough. You don’t need to hold their hand and lead them through the story. One of the things that I stripped out is that a young couple and their children tried to escape in the darkness. This really happened where we live. They had the children in the car and a tree collapsed on the parents and the father died. Eventually the mother freed herself and got in the car and saved the children. It happened only 2 blocks from me. It was so hard to fathom and I tried to work through it in the original story. I had to let that horror go and trust that what was still there would speak to people -- that a storm like this was such a difficult thing to survive.
WOW: That would have made for a very different story. It must have been hard to take that part out. What advice can you give writers who are new to writing flash fiction but want to give this form a try?
Erica: It can be difficult not to give it all in the moment, and write it all out for the reader and say make the connections that I’ve made. Rewriting this taught me that the connection is even better when you leave it to the reader to make.
It can also be rewarding when other people take something else from the piece. The osprey can be so metaphorical to some readers when to me it is very literal. I like allowing for that too.
When I was stripping down the original piece, I said to my husband that writing flash fiction is so challenging because the finished piece still needs to be a story. There has to be a beginning, a middle, and an end. People mistake flash fiction for a form where things can be left out. In reality you are bringing those things into a smaller container. For me it was about limiting my language and letting the story be the action instead of trailing people along with dialogue and filling everything in.
WOW: How do your passions as an activist shape your flash fiction?
Erica: They shape just about everything. The writing gives me a container, a safe space to offer some perspective that some people may not already have. I can offer them some perspective into the lives of these other beings that I work so hard to advocate for. Showing an animal as an individual is useful to an activist.
My point here is that the osprey is no different from us. What they are doing is mirroring what I’m going through, what Ella and her mother are going through. My activism informs everything that I do because its kindness and compassion for all beings. The best I can do is to try to bring that to light in different ways.
What’s going on with Ella and her mother is as much as part of the natural world as what’s going on with the osprey. I want to say that we aren’t superior or inferior. We’re just doing the best we can. The natural world reminds me of that on a regular basis.
WOW: You lead a very full life in addition to being a writer. How do you work it all in? What advice do you have for our readers who may find it difficult to find time to write?
Erica: You make the time. Nobody has the time.
I used to have the time before I was a mother and now I realize how indulgent that was. I’m lucky to have the husband that I have and the support that I get from him in everything I do. He is an active father and we literally schedule time for me to do what I do.
Otherwise I’m at home giving my all to my son which is what I want to do. But I also want to write. I do my best writing before my husband leaves for work when I’m drinking a smoothie for breakfast.
Ask yourself, when do you feel most awake? Alert? Creative? Give yourself that time even if it is only 20 minutes. Sometimes my best writing comes on a Facebook post or in a newsletter. When that happens, I save that so that I can work with it again later. Any kind of writing is valuable to the craft and might become something more.
In yoga I was reminded by my teacher how important journaling is. When I journal it is just free form and it isn’t usually prompted. I just write whatever is there at the surface, and then the stuff that’s deeper starts to come up. I may jot something down when my son is sleeping and work on it more later.
I still have to schedule the time. Make a conscious decision to say this is important to me and I am going to do it. Sometimes it’s because I had a query accepted and I have to get that done. I do have specific things that I know I want to write about and then specific places where I want to get them published. Sometimes it’s just whatever I’m working on. I think it is more important to just write, see what comes up, and then work on it. Take that time each day.
If you’re having a hard time writing, you might not feel encouraged to take the time to work through that difficulty. But you need to take that time even if you just sit with a pen and a piece of paper. It is part of the process.
It benefits me to be in that space even if nothing of note comes of it. Give yourself time to write.
Interviewed by Sue Bradford Edwards.